The question is inspired from the Lubos Motl post: http://motls.blogspot.com/2015/05/inconsequential-irrational-incorrect.html which says:

In this approach, quantum mechanics is primary because a Hilbert space pre-exists and the field operators have to "adapt" to it. This is very different from the approach in which a Hilbert space is produced out of local fields, e.g. as the Fock space. In such an approach, the spacetime would be primary and fundamental. Such an approach is probably inapplicable in quantum gravity.

But we do know that unlike in quantum mechanics where the position operator and thinking about one particle are possible, in QFT, these are not possible. So the two frameworks seem not reconcilable, unless we can somehow embed QFT into quantum mechanics and allow talking about one particle, not just fields.

What exactly is the current state of physics for this matter? Is quantum mechanics more primary/fundamental, or is quantum field theory fundamental?

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    $\begingroup$ Take things from his blog with a pinch of salt... Maybe a bucket of salt. $\endgroup$
    – JamalS
    Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ Mathematically, the difference between the two is just in the "base space" in which you define the canonical (anti)commutation relations (or the Heisenberg group, if you want to be more mathematical). If the base space is finite dimensional, you are doing QM, if it is infinite dimensional you are doing QFT. The physical interpretation of such "base space" as the space of "classical" fundamental objects of the theory (particles in QM, fields in QFT) is also shared between the two. With respect to this, it seems hard to me to distinguish the "level of fundamentality" between the two theories. $\endgroup$
    – yuggib
    Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ Quantum field theory is quantum mechanics. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 12:12

1 Answer 1


The question is akin to asking whether a wooden object or a wooden chair is better for sitting - the chair is a wooden object, and the question nonsensical because wooden chairs are a subset of wooden objects. Likewise, quantum field theory is a quantum mechanical theory. It is simply a quantum mechanical theory with infinitely many degrees of freedom. From the viewpoint of quantization, we are always quantizing a classical Hamiltonian formalism - the quantum field theoretical one happens to be a classical field theory where phase space is therefore infinite-dimensional.

There is nothing in QFT that is fundamentally different from "ordinary" finite-dimensional QM, except that many of the mathematical objects have a problem where they are, strictly speaking, not defined. Some of these problems we know how to repair, some we don't (like the issue of a well-defined path integral for a general QFT).

Also, "QFT" inherently does not need to be relativistic - some of the issues you mention, like the non-existence of a position operator, are relativistic rather than field theoretic in nature, but in condensed matter applications it is perfectly common to have a Galilean QFT.

  • $\begingroup$ "The question is akin to asking whether a wooden object or a wooden chair is better for sitting - the chair is a wooden object." Do you have copyright on this? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero Well, I think so, that hokey simile sprang from my own mind ;) $\endgroup$
    – ACuriousMind
    Commented Jan 24, 2017 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ @ ACuriousMind: in connection to your comment on position operator: arxiv.org/abs/0711.0112 $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 3:29

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