Quantum Mechanics: An Empiricist View

By Bas C. Van Fraassen | Go to book overview

12 Identical Particles: Individuation and Modality 1

If our question is directed simply to a yes or no, we are well advised to . . . consider what we would gain as the anwer is in the affirmative or in the negative. Should we then find that in both cases the outcome is sheer nonsense, there will be good reason . . . to determine whether the question does not itself rest on a groundless presupposition . . .

I. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, A485/B514

The most satisfying way to end a philosophical dispute is to find a false presupposition that underlies all the puzzles it involves. Contrary to my own, as well as others', previous writings on indistinguishability and quantum statistics, I shall argue that the 'loss of identity' dispute can be so dissolved. The questions rest on a mistake—or, more precisely, on a metaphysical position which has already been moribund for centuries.


1 Are There Individual Particles?

How shall we make intelligible the passing of the Maxwell-Boltzmann statistics' primacy, and the hegemony of the new quantum statistics? One response was: we must derive consequences for statistics from assertions of indistinguishability. 2 The other main response, which tended to point meaningfully to the quantum field formalism, was this: we must eliminate the idea of individual particles altogether. If we do so, quantum statistics will be derivable or made intelligible.

This thesis and antithesis have much in common. Both entail that we must turn to ontology; a new conception of substance must replace the old, and will provide a foundation for the new statistics. They share a common diagnosis of the problem: that

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