Quantum field theory is a broad subject and has the reputation of using methods which are mathematically desiring. For example working with and subtracting infinities or the use of path integrals, which in general have no mathematical meaning (at least not yet) ect. My question is a little vague, but i am interested in hearing what is the status of rigor in QFT. What is known to be mathematically rigorous and consistent, what is known to be not rigorous? Any examples and references are welcome.

Added: Just to clarify by rigorous I meant anything that a mathematician would find satisfactory. Also my question wasn't for books with rigorous (in some sense) approach, although that was welcomed. It was about specific examples of what is considered mathematically satisfactory and what not. For example the quantization of free fields satisfying the Klein-Gordon equation can be done rigorously. There is no mathematical definition in general of the Feynman path integral and so on.

  • $\begingroup$ the discussion here is about what is rigorous. I was asking another question why , QFT maths often being just heuristics like the old laws, even if it is more elaborated, QFT and associates claim that they provide THE ultimate ( theoretical ) solution. Anyway, nice question and nice answers $\endgroup$
    – user46925
    Commented Aug 18, 2016 at 2:06

7 Answers 7


Your statement

working with and subtracting infinities ... which in general have no mathematical meaning

is not really correct, and seems to have a common misunderstanding in it. The technical difficulties from QFT do not come from infinities. In fact, ideas basically equivalent to renormalization and regularization have been used since the beginning of math--see, e.g., many papers by Cauchy, Euler, Riemann, etc. In fact, G.H. Hardy has a book published on the topic of divergent series:


There is even a whole branch of math called "integration theory" (of which things like Lebesgue integration is a subset) that generalizes these types of issues. So having infinities show up is not an issue at all, in a sense, they show up out of convenience.

So the idea that infinities have anything to do with making QFT axiomatic is not correct.

The real issue, from a more formal point of view, is that you "want" to construct QFTs via some kind of path integral. But the path integral, formally (i.e., to mathematicians) is an integral (in the general sense that appears in topics like "integration theory") over a pretty pathological looking infinite dimensional LCSC function space.

Trying to define a reasonable measure on an infinite dimensional function space is problematic (and the general properties of these spaces doesn't seem to be particularly well understood). You run into problems like having all reasonable sets being "too small" to have a measure, worrying about measures of pathological sets, and worrying about what properties your measure should have, worrying if the "$\mathcal{D}\phi$" term is even a measure at all, etc...

At best, trying to fix this problem, you'd run into an issue like you have in the Lebesgue integral's definition, where it defines the integral and you construct some mathematically interesting properties, but most of its utility is in letting you abuse the Riemann integral in the way you wanted to. Actually calculating integrals from the definition of the Lebesgue integral is not generally easy. This isn't really enough to attract the attention of too many physicists, since we already have a definition that works, and knowing all of its formal properties would be nice, and would certainly tell us some surprising things, but it's not clear that it would be all that useful generally.

From an algebraic point of view, I believe you run into trouble with trying to define divergent products of operators that depend on renormalization scheme, so you need to have some family of $C^*$-algebras that respects renormalization group flow in the right way, but it doesn't seem like people have tried to do this in a reasonable way.

From a physics point of view, we don't care about any of this, because we can talk about renormalization, and demand that our answers have "physically reasonable" properties. You can do this mathematically, too, but the mathematicians are not interested in getting a reasonable answer; what they want is a set of "reasonable axioms" that the reasonable answers follow from, so they're doomed to run into technical difficulties like I mentioned above.

Formally, though, one can define non-interacting QFTs, and quantum mechanical path integrals. It's probably the case that formally defining a QFT is within the reach of what we could do if we really wanted, but it's just not a compelling topic to the people who understand how renormalization fixes the solutions to physically reasonable ones (physicists), and the formal aspects aren't well-understood enough that it's something one could get the formalism for "for free."

So my impression is that neither physicists or mathematicians generally care enough to work together to solve this problem, and it won't be solved until it can be done "for free" as a consequence of understanding other stuff.


I should also add briefly that CFTs and SCFTs are mathematically much more carefully defined, and so a reasonable alternative to the classic ideas I mentioned above might be to start with a SCFT, and define a general field theory as some kind of "small" modification of it, done in such a way to keep just the right things well-defined.

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    $\begingroup$ I've got Hardy's book and quote it against what you've said. (I just don't have it with me). Hardy was a good mathematician and knew that how you choose to "regularize" a divergent series drastically effects the resulting sum. The reason QFT gets away with it is that there's an underlying assumption that the functions involved are complex and analytic. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 1:16
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that's part of what I meant by saying we want to fix our answers against "physically reasonable" solutions. Although complex analytic is actually too strong an analyticity property in general for us, and you do need some extra technical assumptions to make sure things are "physically reasonable." But worrying about properties in terms of analyticity is problematic from the infinite dimensional POV (think about the topological and measure theoretic properties of analytic subsets of these infinite dimensional LCSC spaces). $\endgroup$
    – Mr X
    Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 1:21
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    $\begingroup$ Also, the space of paths you integrate over are the Brownian motion like ones, which aren't differentiable anywhere. But you still run into problems because other spaces than the obvious one are pathological ;). I believe you can approach ODEs and PDEs from this point of view (I don't know if much has been done with this because it's a pretty perverse thing to do), but thinking about them brings up a whole host of problems that are only worse in this case from an analytic POV. $\endgroup$
    – Mr X
    Commented Mar 9, 2011 at 1:24
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    $\begingroup$ very good summary; although i have to say that i find extremely sad and discouraging when i hear bright physicists say stuff like "From a physics point of view, we don't care about any of this, because we can talk about renormalization, and demand that our answers have physically reasonable properties...but the mathematicians are not interested in getting a reasonable answer". This might be right from a numerical (maybe numerological?) perspective, but its the completely wrong mindset to begin with. Mathematical consistency (or a clear pathway to it) is never a luxury. Avoiding it is $\endgroup$
    – lurscher
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ Although, speaking as a mathematician, I feel I must correct you: the proper phrase is measure theory not "integration theory". $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 28, 2012 at 17:39

First: There is no rigorous construction of the standard model, rigorous in the sense of mathematics (and no, there is not much ambivalence about the meaning of rigor in mathematics).

That's a lot of references that Daniel cited, I'll try to classify them a little bit :-)

Axiomatic (synonymous: local or algebraic) QFT tries to formulate axioms for the Heisenberg viewpoint (states are static, observables are dynamic). There are three sets of axioms known:

Roughly, the Wightman axioms describe how fields relate to observables, the Osterwalder-Schrader axioms are the Wightman axioms for Euclidean field theory, and the Haag-Kastler axioms dodge fields entirely and describe the observables per se. All three sets of axioms are roughly equivalent, meaning that the equivalence has been proven, sometimes with additional assumptions that physicists deem to be irrelevant.

"PCT, Spin and Statistics, and All That" was the first introduction to the Wightman axioms.

"Local Quantum Physics: Fields, Particles, Algebras" is an introduction to the Haag-Kastler axioms, as is "Mathematical Theory of Quantum Fields".

"Perturbative Quantum Electrodynamics and Axiomatic Field Theory" is a description of QED from the viewpoint of the Haag-Kastler axioms.

"Introduction to Algebraic and Constructive Quantum Field Theory" is about the quantization of given classical equations in the spirit of Haag-Kastler.

"Quantum Physics: A Functional Integral Point of View" uses the Osterwalder-Schrader axioms.

2D conformal field theory can be axiomatized using the Osterwalder-Schrader axioms, for example.

Functorial quantum field theory axiomatizes the Schrödinger viewpoint, see e.g. hnLab on FQFT.

This includes for example topological quantum field theories, these describe essentially theories with finite degrees of freedom. This branch has had a lot of impact in mathematics, especially with regard to differential geometry, and here to the theory of 3D and 4D smooth manifolds. I'd put

Daniel S. Freed (Author), Karen K. Uhlenbeck: "Geometry and Quantum Field Theory"

in this category.

"Geometry and Quantum Field Theory"

Quantization of classical field theories: Note that the axiomatic approaches don't depend on classical field theories that need to be quantized, they open the doors for a direct construction of quantum systems without classical mirror. The Lagrangian approach to QFT is an example of an ansatz that starts with a classical field theory that needs to be quantized, for which different means can be used.

Ticciati: "Quantum Field Theory for Mathematicians" is actually a quite canonical introduction to Lagrangian QFT, without much ado.

There is a lot of material about the geometry of classical field theories and variants to quantize them, like "geometric quantization".

The book Welington de Melo, Edson de Faria: "Mathematical Aspects of Quantum Field Theory" is an example of this.

Much more advanced is "Quantum Fields and Strings: A Course for Mathematicians (2 vols)"

For the path integral there are two points of view:

  • The path integral - along with the Feynman rules - is a book keeping device for a game called renormalization, that lets you calculate numbers according to arcane rules,

  • the path integral is a mathematical construct like a "measure" - but not a measure in the sense of measure theory known today - that needs to be discovered and defined appropriately.

AFAIK there has not been much progress with the second viewpoint, but there are people working on it, for example the authors of the book "Mathematical Theory of Feynman Path Integrals: An Introduction". You can find a lot more material about the mathematical theory of path integrals on the nLab here.

  • $\begingroup$ I thought the Osterwalder-Schrader axioms were describing the Euclidean path integral approach...not the Heisenberg picture. Also, there are some ambiguities with quantizing a classical field (even in quantum mechanics, there is ambiguities in the quantization procedure; see, e.g., the Groenewald-van Hove "no-go" theorem). $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 28, 2012 at 17:42

Here is my answer from a condensed matter physics point of view:

Quantum field theory is a theory that describes the critical point and the neighbor of the critical point of a lattice model. (Lattice models do have a rigorous definition).

So to rigorously define quantum field theories is to find their UV completion.

To classify quantum field theories is to classify all the possible critical points of lattice models, which is a very important and very hard project.

(One may replace "lattice model" in the above by "non-perturbatively regulated model")

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, can you point out a general exposition/overview article about lattice models and QFT. Or any sourse that can give me an idea. $\endgroup$
    – MBN
    Commented May 31, 2012 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ This is the same answer as physics.stackexchange.com/questions/4068/… $\endgroup$
    – user68
    Commented Jun 1, 2012 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ Why a QFT should necessarily deal with critical point? I don't understand that neither mathematically nor physically. The QFT of a band insulator should be sufficiently well defined $\endgroup$
    – lcv
    Commented Nov 29, 2019 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ Quantum field theory is a theory that describes the critical point and the neighbor of the critical point. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 5:21
  • $\begingroup$ The QFT of a band insulator is well defined since it has a UV completion. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 5:22

There are several books that approach QFT (and/or Gauge Theory) from different levels of 'mathematical rigor' (for some definition of "mathematical rigor" — that Moshe would approve ;-).

So, let me give you some sort of 'preliminary list'… it's by no means complete, and it's in no particular order either, but i think it may pave the way to further work.

  1. Local Quantum Physics: Fields, Particles, Algebras;
  2. PCT, Spin and Statistics, and All That;
  3. Finite Quantum Electrodynamics: The Causal Approach;
  4. Perturbative Quantum Electrodynamics and Axiomatic Field Theory;
  5. Quantum Field Theory for Mathematicians;
  6. Quantum Field Theory;
  7. Mathematical Aspects of Quantum Field Theory;
  8. Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Field Theory: A Mathematical Primer;
  9. Quantum Field Theory I: Basics in Mathematics and Physics: A Bridge between Mathematicians and Physicists (v. 1) and Quantum Field Theory II: Quantum Electrodynamics: A Bridge between Mathematicians and Physicists;
  10. Mathematical Theory of Feynman Path Integrals: An Introduction;
  11. Introduction to Algebraic and Constructive Quantum Field Theory;
  12. Quantum Physics: A Functional Integral Point of View;
  13. Quantum Fields and Strings: A Course for Mathematicians (2 vols);
  14. Geometry and Quantum Field Theory;
  15. Mathematical Theory of Quantum Fields.

In any case… there's much more out there, not only in terms of topics (renormalization, etc) but also in terms of articles, books and so on.

So, there's plenty of "mathematical rigor" in QFT (and String Theory, for that matter), including different 'levels' of it, that should please and suit varied tastes.

PS: There are other topics here that deal with this topic in a form or another, e.g., Haag's Theorem and Practical QFT Computations. So, don't be shy and take a look around. :-)

  • $\begingroup$ @RonMaimon Nowaday, how is the progress? $\endgroup$
    – ChoMedit
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 0:05

QFT's reputation for using methods which are mathematically unsound isn't really deserved these days. Certainly, not everything is under perfect analytic control, but the situation isn't really much worse than it is in fluid dynamics.

In particular, the 'subtraction of infinities' thing isn't really considered to be an issue anymore. The mathematicians who've looked at it recently (like Borcherds & Costello) have basically come to the conclusion that Wilsonian effective field theory resolves these difficulty. You can make all computations solely in terms of long-distance 'effective' quantities, which are the things left behind when physicists subtract infinities. Short distance infinities therefore don't present a problem for defining correlation functions; there's nothing inconsistent about the basic path integral formalism.

This is really the same conclusion the constructive field theorists came to, studying lower dimensional examples in the 70s & 80s.

The challenge in rigorous QFT is dealing with infrared divergences. If your spacetime has infinite volume, then your field system can have degrees of freedom of arbitrarily large size. Coupling to these degrees of freedom can give you infinities. There are real mathematical problems here, but they're more like describing the solutions of an equation than describing the equation itself. (Really non-trivial things can happen. In QCD, for example, there is confinement: many of the observables you'd naively expect to be integrable with respect to the path integral measure -- like the observable representing a free quark or a free gluon -- aren't. Instead, the integrable observables are complicated mixtures of quarks and gluon, like protons, neutrons, and glueballs.) Most of the heavy lifting in Glimm & Jaffe, for example, comes not from constructing the 2d $\phi^4$ path integral measure, but from proving that its $n$-point correlation functions actually exist.

Naturally, this means that most computations of observable expectation values -- like in lattice gauge theory -- are not under tight analytic control. Convergence in simulation is mostly a matter of good judgement, for now.

Saying anything rigorously about this stuff almost certainly will require mathematicians to get a better grip on renormalization in non-perturbative settings (i.e., on the lattice). There are a good number of mathematicians actively working on this stuff. Geometers and topologists are getting more sophisticated about topological field theory, while the analysts have taken up statistical field theory.


I think everything is sufficiently rigorous when you do it according to the math rules.

Cheating starts when they say: "The integral of the delta-function squared, although looks as infinity, must be determined from the experimental data". It is just funny.

Once I encountered a similar infinity in a simpler but exactly solvable problem. First, I wanted to do renormalizations (determining the integral value from experimental data) but fortunately I managed to choose a better initial approximation and decrease the perturbative corrections. So the problem is in the initial approximation. If it is good, then the perturbative corrections are small. Otherwise they are large.

I also found an explanation why subtractions (discarding corrections) work sometimes. From my current point of view, the QFT needs reformulating since it is badly constructed. Reformulated QFT does not need repairing its solutions on the go.


I would like to point out that there are several different problems coming from different points of view on the subject. It would be very complicated to comment on all of them, so let me restrict to a particular one.

As a first remark, I have to state that nobody that works in mathematics may have a doubt about what "rigorous" means. I will not comment on this since it seems that it was already explained in a clear manner.

Concerning your question, I would like to state that QFT is not a "unique" theory, but a bunch of several different ones which are more less related to each other due to some intrinsic descriptions. For instance, the "behavior" and construction of the (real or complex) scalar field theory and of the gauge theory is rather different. This is a kind of natural consequence of the fact that Classical Field Theory (ClFT) (which is completely rigorous up to some extent, even though it still contains several nontrivial problems) is also a collection of several different theories, which share a general geometrical description, but which have their own particular difficulties: as a particular setting of ClFT we may obtain classical mechanics, electromagnetism or even nonabelian gauge theory, etc. Let me also add that the general philosophy underlying ClFT appears, in some sense, as the only manner to construct relativistic extensions of the free situation, as a major difference with classical mechanics, in which you may add any constraint to a free particle without breaking any fundamental principle of the theory. I'm only rephrasing what P. Deligne and D. Freed state in the first volume of "QFT and Strings for Mathematicians", which was already mentioned.

Concerning now the problem of the quantization of each of the particular settings you may consider in ClFT, there are several problems to deal with. Let me consider two different aspects of the problem: perturbative and nonperturbative QFT. We may say that the former is (morally) a shadow of the latter. Moreover, the perturbative QFT (pQFT) can be developed in a mathematically rigorous manner in lots of situations. You may see the article by R. Borcherds in the arXiv "Renormalization and quantum field theory" (even though some of the ideas were already present in other texts in the literature, and, in my opinion, they are lurking behind some of the constructions and proofs by the author, see for instance the articles by O. Steinmann, which were also considered by R. Brunetti, K. Fredenhagen, etc). In this situation he defines in a rigorous manner an object which behaves like the Feynmann measure ("via the Riesz theorem"), and he gives a very complete account of how the pQFT should be described in several situations. The problem stays however in giving a correct formulation of nonperturbative QFT. This is a major problem, and only a few rigorous constructions up to dimension 2 (also dimension 3, but really few as far as I know. It would nice to hear the experts in this point) were performed. You may see the book by J. Glimm and A. Jaffe "Quantum physics – a functional integral point of view". In fact the major problem comes when trying to quantize the gauge theory, as a sub collection of situations of QFT. The lack of such a general picture means in fact that we actually do not know what a Quantum Field Gauge Theory really looks like (or just is, if you want). In particular (I state this because some people argue that the following is a consequence of having only a perturbative description), two major claims of physicists about the standard model (which are in some sense related), the mass gap and the quark confinement, are not proved (the former in fact constitutes one of the Millennium Prize Problems). Needless is to say that none of the physical heuristic arguments are clearly sufficient.

  • $\begingroup$ Mathematicians are very silly when it comes to "rigorous" regarding measure theory and this is why they are stuck. The problem starts when you have to axiomatize measure theory to define random picks. There should be no hard work involved in defining a constructive measure (a picking you can do on a computer, or a limit thereof), but there is. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Jun 28, 2012 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ The use of disqualifying adjectives is completely unnecessary and misleading, since the people involved here is in some sense irrelevant, meaning that what is important is the subject of discussion (i.e. the rigor in QFT). On the other hand, the axioms of measure theory are completely clear and well-known even to a 2nd/3rd year undergraduate student of mathematics. This is not the problem we are taking about. What is being mentioned here is the (apparent) incapability of (some of) the present mathematical tools to provide a complete and correct formulation of nonperturbative QFT in general. $\endgroup$
    – Estanislao
    Commented Jun 29, 2012 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ The language is necessary to shame people to motivate change. The "measure theory axioms" are not the problem, the problem is that measure theory involved needs axioms at all! You need a sigma algebra on the space and there is no simple sigma algebra on the unknown space of field distributions a-priori. This means that people define the measure in a stupid roundabout way, while there is a simple logic result (Solovay's theorem) that guarantees that this is no problem at all. Other problems remain, but the issue becomes one of probability analysis, the measure theory is trivial. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 2:15
  • $\begingroup$ What I mean by that is the following: "A free quantum field theory: consider picking every fourier transform value f(k) of a random function to be a Gaussian with a (specific) variance $\sigma(k)$. This is the (imaginary time) quantum field." Did I just define free quantum fields? Not for mathematicians, because a random picking algorithm, no matter how convergent, does not define a measure. You need a sigma algebra to define a measure. You can't say "the measure of a set is the probability that this random function lands in the set" because this only makes sense in a Solovay universe. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 2:18
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    $\begingroup$ Once you know probability is consistent, so that you can choose things at random without contradiction, you can do probability on any set, even a set of distributions, just by defining an algorithm which picks distributions at random. Physicists use this implicitly all the time, for constructing the Ising model on infinite lattices (for example) something which is not obvious in mathematics, because you need a ridiculous sigma algebra construction the moment the lattice is infinite. The baggage of measure theory is onerous, it blocks you from making intuitive arguments about field theory. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 1:39

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