Haunted by the spectre of virtual particles: A philosophical reconsideration [Book Review]

A virtual particle is an elementary particle in a quantum field theory that serves to symbolise the interaction of its counterparts, the so called real particles. In the last 20 years, philosophers of physics have put forth several arguments for and against an interpretation of virtual particles as being like ordinary objects in space and time. In this article, I will attempt to systematise the major arguments and argue that no pro-argument is ultimately satisfactory, and that only one contra-argument—that of superposition—is sufficient to deny the realistic interpretation of virtual particles. The secondary aim of this paper is to argue that even the philosophical considerations of virtual particles overestimate their role in that these entities are merely pictorial descriptions of a mathematical approximation method. This description, while helpful, is not necessary to understand particle interactions. In the end, quantum field theory is not the place to explain what actually happens in the very centre of an individual particle interaction.
Keywords Quantum field theory  Virtual particles  Realism  Superposition  Feynman diagrams
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