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Philosophical Issues in Thermal Physics  

Wayne C. Myrvold

Thermodynamics gives rise to a number of conceptual issues that have been explored by both physicists and philosophers. One source of contention is the nature of thermodynamics itself. Is it what physicists these days would call a resource theory, that is, a theory about how agents with limited means of manipulating a physical system can exploit its physical properties to achieve desired ends, or is it a theory of the basic properties of matter, independent of considerations of manipulation and control? Another source of contention is the relation between thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. It has been recognized since the 1870s that the laws of thermodynamics, as originally conceived, cannot be strictly correct. Because of fluctuations at the molecular level, processes forbidden by the original version second law of thermodynamics are continually occurring. The original version of the second law is to be replaced with a probabilistic version, according to which large-scale violations of the original second law are not impossible but merely highly improbable, and small-scale violations unpredictable, unable to be harnessed to systematically produce useful work. The introduction of probability talk raises the question of how we should conceive of probabilities in the context of deterministic physical laws.