Dividing the world into subsystems is an important component of the scientific method. The choice of subsystems, however, is not defined a priori
. Typically, it is dictated by experimental capabilities, which may be different for different agents. Here, we propose a way to define subsystems in general physical theories, including theories beyond quantum and classical mechanics. Our construction associates every agent A
with a subsystem
, equipped with its set of states and its set of transformations. In quantum theory, this construction accommodates the notion of subsystems as factors of a tensor product, as well as the notion of subsystems associated with a subalgebra of operators. Classical systems can be interpreted as subsystems of quantum systems in different ways, by applying our construction to agents who have access to different sets of operations, including multiphase covariant channels and certain sets of free operations arising in the resource theory of quantum coherence. After illustrating the basic definitions, we restrict our attention to closed systems, that is, systems where all physical transformations act invertibly and where all states can be generated from a fixed initial state. For closed systems, we show that all the states of all subsystems admit a canonical purification. This result extends the purification principle to a broader setting, in which coherent superpositions can be interpreted as purifications of incoherent mixtures.
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