Statistical mechanics is one of the pillars of modern physics. It is necessary for the fundamental study of any physical system that has a large number of degrees of freedom. The approach is based on statistical methods, probability theory and the microscopic physical laws.

Whereas ordinary mechanics only considers the behaviour of a single state, statistical mechanics introduces the statistical ensemble, which is a large collection of virtual, independent copies of the system in various states. The statistical ensemble is a probability distribution over all possible states of the system. In classical statistical mechanics, the ensemble is a probability distribution over phase points (as opposed to a single phase point in ordinary mechanics), usually represented as a distribution in a phase space with canonical coordinates. In quantum statistical mechanics, the ensemble is a probability distribution over pure states, and can be compactly summarized as a density matrix.

A sufficient (but not necessary) condition for statistical equilibrium with an isolated system is that the probability distribution is a function only of conserved properties (total energy, total particle numbers, etc.). There are many different equilibrium ensembles that can be considered, and only some of them correspond to thermodynamics. Additional postulates are necessary to motivate why the ensemble for a given system should have one form or another.

Once the characteristic state function for an ensemble has been calculated for a given system, that system is 'solved' (macroscopic observables can be extracted from the characteristic state function). Calculating the characteristic state function of a thermodynamic ensemble is not necessarily a simple task, however, since it involves considering every possible state of the system. While some hypothetical systems have been exactly solved, the most general (and realistic) case is too complex for an exact solution. Various approaches exist to approximate the true ensemble and allow calculation of average quantities.

In principle, non-equilibrium statistical mechanics could be mathematically exact: ensembles for an isolated system evolve over time according to deterministic equations such as Liouville's equation or its quantum equivalent, the von Neumann equation. These equations are the result of applying the mechanical equations of motion independently to each state in the ensemble. Unfortunately, these ensemble evolution equations inherit much of the complexity of the underlying mechanical motion, and so exact solutions are very difficult to obtain. Moreover, the ensemble evolution equations are fully reversible and do not destroy information (the ensemble's Gibbs entropy is preserved). In order to make headway in modelling irreversible processes, it is necessary to consider additional factors besides probability and reversible mechanics.