Asymmetry, Abstraction, and Autonomy: Justifying Coarse-Graining in Statistical Mechanics

Katie Robertson Robertson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
225 Downloads (Pure)


While the fundamental laws of physics are time-reversal invariant, most macroscopic processes are irreversible. Given that the fundamental laws are taken to underpin all other processes, how can the fundamental time-symmetry be reconciled with the asym- metry manifest elsewhere? In statistical mechanics (SM), progress can be made with this question. What I dub the ‘Zwanzig–Zeh–Wallace framework’ can be used to construct the irreversible equations of SM from the underlying microdynamics. Yet this framework uses coarse-graining, a procedure that has faced much criticism. I focus on two objections in the literature: claims that coarse-graining makes time-asymmetry (i) ‘illusory’ and (ii) ‘anthropocentric’. I argue that these objections arise from an unsatisfactory justification of coarse-graining prevalent in the literature, rather than from coarse-graining itself. This justification relies on the idea of measurement imprecision. By considering the role that abstraction and autonomy play, I provide an alternative justification and offer replies to the illusory and anthropocentric objections. Finally, I consider the broader consequences of this alternative justification: the connection to debates about inter-theoretic reduction and the implication that the time-asymmetry in SM is weakly emergent.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)547-579
JournalThe British Journal for the Philosophy of Science
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020


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