Postulates or principles?

Sometimes an idea runs away from us. It may start in a certain direction, perhaps to achieve a certain goal, but then at some point down the line it becomes something else. It may be an undesirable situation, or it may be a new opportunity. Often, only time will tell.

Quantum mechanics is such an idea. It is ostensibly a subfield of physics, but when we take a hard look at quantum mechanics, it looks more and more like mathematics. It has taken on a life of its own, which often seems to have very little to do with physics.

To be sure, physics would not get far without mathematics. However, mathematics has a very specific role to play in physics. We use mathematics to model the physical world. It allows us to calculate what we expect to see when we make observations of the phenomena associated with that model.

Quantum mechanics is different from other physical theories. While other physical theories tend to describe very specific sets of phenomena associated with a specific physical context, quantum mechanics is more general in that is describes a large variety of phenomena in different contexts. For example, all electric and magnetic phenomena provide the context for Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism. On the other hand, the context of quantum mechanics is any phenomenon that can be found in the micro world. As such quantum mechanics is much more abstract.

We can say that quantum mechanics is not a theory, but instead a formalism in terms of which theories about the micro world can be formulated. It is therefore not strange that quantum mechanics looks more like mathematics. It even has a set of postulates from which the formalism of quantum mechanics can be derived.

But quantum mechanics still needs to be associated with the physical world. Even if it exits as a mathematical formalism, it must make some connection to the physical world. Otherwise, how would we know that it is doing a good job? Comparisons between predictions of theories formulated in terms quantum mechanics and experimental results of the physical phenomena associated with those theories show that quantum mechanics is very successful. However, in the pursuit of understanding the overlap between quantum physics and gravity in fundamental physics, the role of quantum mechanics needs to be understood not as a mere mathematical formalism, but as a fundamental mechanism in the physical world.

It is therefore not sufficient to provide mathematical postulates for the derivation of quantum mechanics as a mathematical formalism. What we need are the physical principles of nature at the fundamental level that leads to quantum mechanics as seen in quantum physics.

Principles differ from postulates. They are not expressed in terms of mathematical concepts, but rather in terms of physical concepts. In other words, instead of talking about non-commuting operators and Hilbert spaces, we would instead be talking about interactions, particle or fields, velocities, trajectories and things like that.

Another important difference is the notion of what is more fundamental than what. In mathematics, the postulates can be combined into sets of axioms from which theorems are derived. It would mean that the postulates are more fundamental. However, they may not be unique in the sense that different sets of axioms could be shown to be equivalent. In physics on the other hand, the principles are considered to be more fundamental than the theories in terms of which physical scenarios are modeled. There may be a cascade of different theories formulated in terms of more fundamental theories. Since, these theories are formulated in terms of mathematics, it can now happen that the axioms for the mathematics in terms of which some of these theories are formulated, are not fundamental from a physics point of view, but a consequence of more fundamental physical aspects.

An example is the non-commutation of operators in quantum mechanics. It is often considered as a fundamental aspect of quantum mechanics. However, it is only fundamental from a purely mathematical point of view. From a physical point of view, the non-commutation follows as a consequence of more fundamental aspects of quantum physics. Ultimately, the fundamental property of nature that leads to this non-commutation is the Planck relationship between energy (or momentum) and frequency (or the propagation vector).