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39. Mathematics, Role in Science

JAMES ROBERT BROWN


Subject Philosophy

Key-Topics mathematics, science

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631230205.2001.00042.x


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We count apples and divide a cake so that each guest gets an equal piece; we weigh galaxies and use Hilbert spaces to make amazingly accurate predictions about spectral lines. It would seem that we have no difficulty in applying mathematics to the world; yet the role of mathematics in its various applications is surprisingly elusive. Eugene Wigner has gone so far as to say that “the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it” (1960, p. 223). The issue is not much discussed under the heading “applied mathematics,” yet it is pivotal to several philosophical debates. In recent years three rather general questions have been central: (1) Just how does mathematics “hook onto” the world? This is the main concern of a rather technical branch of philosophy of science known as measurement theory (see measurement ). (2) Are some of the objects referred to in various theories merely mathematical objects, or do they have some other status? This problem often comes up in the philosophy of the special sciences. For example, do space-time and the quantum state exist in their own right, separate from their mathematical representations; or are they nothing but mathematical entities? (3) Is mathematics essential for science? Following Hartry Field's work, this has become a focal point in the ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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