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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: August 2010

3 - Dirac's open theories and the reciprocal correspondence principle


… in apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world …

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2

Open theories

When it comes to the issues of reductionism, scientific methodology, and theory change, the views of Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac diverge in fundamental and interesting ways. They revisited their disagreements over these philosophical issues many times throughout their careers, and their disagreements can be most succinctly described as a debate over whether physical theories are “open” or “closed.” As we saw in the last chapter, Heisenberg's belief that classical and quantum mechanics are closed leads him to view these theories as perfectly accurate within their domains, inalterable, and correct for all time. Although Dirac never uses the term, his own views on classical and quantum mechanics can be fruitfully understood as a rival account of “open theories.” Dirac argues that even the most well-established parts of quantum theory are open to future revision; indeed he takes no part of physics to be a permanent achievement, correct for all time. Instead of viewing classical mechanics as a theory that had been replaced, he sees it as a theory that should continue to be developed, modified, and extended.

Unlike Heisenberg, who views physics as a set of consistent axiomatic systems, Dirac sees physics as a discipline much closer to engineering.