Itamar Pitowsky: Probability in Physics, Where does it Come From?

I came across a videotaped lecture by Itamar Pitowsky given at PITP some years ago on the question of probability in physics that we discussed in two earlier posts on randomness in nature (I, II). There are links below to the presentation slides, and to  a video of the lecture. 

A little over a week ago on Thursday, Itamar,  Oron Shagrir, and I sat at our little CS cafeteria and discussed this very same issue.  What does probability mean? Does it just represent human uncertainty? Is it just an emerging mathematical concept which is convenient for modeling? Do matters change when we move from classical to quantum mechanics? When we move to quantum physics the notion of probability itself changes for sure, but is there a change in the interpretation of what probability is?  A few people passed by and listened, and it felt like this was a direct continuation of conversations we had while we (Itamar and I; Oron is much younger) were students in the early 70s. This was our last meeting and Itamar’s deep voice and good smile are still with me.

In spite of his illness of many years Itamar looked in good shape. A day later, on Friday, he met with a graduate student working on connections between philosophy and computer science.  Yet another exciting new frontier. Last Wednesday Itamar passed away from sudden complications related to his illness.

Itamar was a great guy; he was great in science and great in the humanities, and he had an immense human wisdom and a modest, level-headed way of expressing it. I will greatly miss him.

Here is a link to a Condolence page for Itamar Pitowsky

Probability in physics:
where does it come from?
 

   

Itamar Pitowsky

Dept. of Philosophy, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The application of probability theory to physics began in the 19th century with Maxwell’s and Boltzmann’s explanation of the properties of gases in terms of the motion of their constituent molecules. Now the term probability is not a part of the (classical) theory of particle motion; so what does it mean, and where does it come from? Boltzmann thought to reduce the meaning of probability in physics to that of relative frequency. Thus, eg., we never find a container of gas in normal circumstances (equilibrium) with all of its molecules on the right hand side. Now, suppose we could prove this from the principles of mechanics- that a dynamical system with a huge number of particles almost never gets into a state with all its particles on one side. Then, to say that such an event has a vanishing probability would simply mean (and not only imply) that it is very rare.I shall explain Boltzmann’s program and assumptions in some detail, and why, in spite of its intuitive appeal, it ultimately fails. We shall also discuss why quantum mechanics with its “built in” concept of probability does not help much, and review some alternatives, as time permits.

For more information about Itamar Pitowsky, visit his web site. See his presentation slides.

Additional resources for this talk: video.

 

(Here is the original link to the PIPS lecture) My post entitled Amazing possibilities  about various fundamental limitations stated by many great minds that turned out to be wrong, was largely based on examples provided by Itamar.

Amazing Possibilities

possibilities

Happy new 2009, everybody! 

 

An understanding of our fundamental limitations is among the most important contributions of science and of mathematics. At the same time, various fundamental limitations stated by many great minds turned out to be wrong, sometimes rather quickly.

There are quite a few cases where things that were considered to be impossible turned out to be possible. Immanuel Kant claimed:  “No finite Reason can hope to understand the production of even a blade of grass by mere mechanical causes.” This quote is from the Critique of Judgment (1790). Elsewhere Kant wrote: “It is absurd to hope that another Newton will arise in the future who shall make comprehensible by us the production of a blade of grass according to natural laws which no design has ordered.”

 Auguste Comte claimed: “Of all objects, the planets are those which appear to us under the least varied aspect. We see how we may determine their forms, their distances, their bulk, and their motions, but we can never know anything of their chemical or mineralogical structure; and, much less, that of organized beings living on their surface …” (The Positive Philosophy, Book II, Chapter 1 (1842)).

Spectroscopy was developed by Gustav Kirchhoff in the 1840s, and the first spectroscopic analysis of the sun appeared about ten years later, less than 20 years after Comte’s statement.

A slightly different example relates to the philosopher Wittgenstein. Continue reading