Scientific Realism and the Quantum Events

Workshop: Models, Explanations, and Realism about Quantum Physics

Date: January 17th, 2017 | Time: 9:30 — 18:00


  • Alisa Bokulich (Boston)
  • Dennis Dieks (Utrecht)
  • Soazig LeBihan (Montana)
  • Michela Massimi (Edinburgh)
  • Juha Saatsi (Leeds)


9.30 Arrivals

10.00-11.10        Juha Saatsi (Leeds), Scientific realism meets metaphysics of quantum mechanics

11.10-11.40        Coffee

11.40-12.50        Dennis Dieks (Utrecht), Realism and Explanation in Quantum Mechanics: a Bohrian Perspective

12.50-13.40        Lunch

13.40-14.50        Michela Massimi (Edinburgh), Perspectival modelling in contemporary high-energy physics

15.00-16.10        Soazig LeBihan (Montana), Understanding Quantum Foundations

16.10-16.35        Coffee

16.35-17.45        Alisa Bokulich (Boston),  Losing Sight of the Forest for the Ψ: A Call for a Successor to the Realism Question

18.00 Finish, then drinks / dinner

Venue: Botany house, University of Leeds

Registration is free, but places are limited. Please contact Juha Saatsi ( by Tuesday 10th January if you plan to attend or have any questions about the event.

The workshop is part of the ARHC Scientific Realism and the Quantum Project


Alisa Bokulich: Losing Sight of the Forest for the Ψ: A Call for a Successor to the Realism Question

The tendency to identify Ψ directly with the physical quantum state obscures the fact that Ψ is fundamentally a representation of the world (i.e., one that makes use of a particular set of conceptual and mathematical tools) and is not a literal, or direct, depiction. Representations, like depictions, are aimed at, and purport to tell us about, the world, but their connection is looser and involves pragmatic elements; hence, a greater caution is required in drawing ontological conclusions. In this talk I explore how thinking about interpretative issues in QM in terms of models and representations, rather than literal depictions, can transform the debate about realism in quantum theory. In order to help us regain sight of the proverbial ‘forest,’ I will briefly examine a handful of examples from across the physical sciences, where both “discrete” (particle) and “continuum” (field or hydrodynamic) representations of the same phenomenon are deployed. Such examples can be found across all scales: cosmological scales, everyday scales, and the quantum scale. In the context of quantum mechanics, the traditional realist project has led to a seemingly endless proliferation of interpretations and debates, which are largely at an impasse. Hence, I call for a successor to the realism question: Instead of asking, ‘Which of these interpretations is the correct depiction of the world?’ I argue we should instead ask, ‘What correct inferences and fertile new insights do each of these representations allow us to make about the world?’ I clarify this proposed project by drawing a distinction between what I call “depiction realism” and “inferential realism.”

Dennis Dieks: Realism and Explanation in Quantum Mechanics: a Bohrian Perspective

Bohr often referred to the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics as “merely symbolic”, and insisted on the importance of applying the theory to concrete experimental set-ups that are describable with the help of the language of classical physics.  This has frequently been interpreted as symptomatic of a superficial instrumentalism or, perhaps, of  an obscure and confused amateur-Kantianism .

We shall argue, however, that a relatively simple and coherent reading of Bohr’s statements about the interpretation of quantum mechanics is possible along realist lines; although containing pragmatic elements, it does not support instrumentalism. Moreover, as we shall argue, it is important to realize that Bohr’s pronouncements on the meaning of quantum mechanics were focused on the physical explanation of concrete problems occurring in experimental practice, and not as expressions of a preconceived philosophical doctrine.

Seen from a modern viewpoint, this interpretation of Bohr’s ideas (when elaborated) appears to lead to a structural realist position in which properties are perspectival.

Soazig LeBihan: Understanding Quantum Foundations

Important work in quantum foundations defies the realist view that scientific research is epistemically valuable because it provides accurate explanations for the phenomena. In this talk I will utilize the notion of modal understanding developed by Le Bihan (2017) to characterize the epistemic value of research in quantum foundations. The main idea is that quantum foundations allows us to know how to navigate the space of possible representations for quantum phenomena.

Reference: Le Bihan, Soazig. “Enlightening falsehoods: A modal view of scientific understanding.” Explaining understanding: New perspectives from epistemology and philosophy of science. London: Routledge (2017).

Michela Massimi: Perspectival modelling in contemporary high-energy physics

In recent times, perspectivism has come under attack for its ability to deliver on the promise of realism in science. Critics have argued that when it comes to modelling, either perspectivism is redundant; or, worse, it leads to incompatible or even inconsistent models about the same target system. In this paper, I evaluate these two objections against perspectivism in light of modelling practices in contemporary high-energy physics (in particular, in Beyond Standard Model searches at CERN). The rationale, goals, and main features of perspectival modelling in high-energy physics are explained, with an eye to answering the aforementioned objections of redundancy and inconsistency.

Juha Saatsi:  Scientific realism meets metaphysics of quantum mechanics

In this talk I will try to delineate a defensible realist attitude towards quantum mechanics in the context of the metaphysical issues that arise in philosophy of quantum mechanics. Realists struggle to make sense of their epistemic commitment regarding quantum mechanics due to the underdetermination of different metaphysical interpretations. I will begin by setting up this problem for scientific realism. Then I argue that the most popular ‘recipes’ for qualifying realist commitments – entity realism, structural realism, and semi-realism – fail to meet this challenge as they stand. By further developing some of the ideas behind ‘semi-realism’, however, we can provide a defensible minimal-realist perspective on quantum mechanics that capitalizes on the theory’s modal content.