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Inference to the best explanation and mathematical realism
Synthese 160 (1):1320 (2008)
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This paper provides a sorelyneeded evaluation of the view that mathematical explanations in science explain by unifying. Illustrating with some novel examples, I argue that the view is misguided. For believers in mathematical explanations in science, my discussion rules out one way of spelling out how they work, bringing us one step closer to the right way. For nonbelievers, it contributes to a divideandconquer strategy for showing that there are no such explanations in science. My discussion also undermines the appeal (...) 

Philosophy of mathematics for the last halfcentury has been dominated in one way or another by Quine’s indispensability argument. The argument alleges that our best scientific theory quantifies over, and thus commits us to, mathematical objects. In this paper, I present new considerations which undermine the most serious challenge to Quine’s argument, Hartry Field’s reformulation of Newtonian Gravitational Theory. 

This dissertation is a defence of metaphysical ethical naturalism according to which there is a moral reality which is part of the natural world. The implication of this view is that moral properties, such as moral goodness, justice, compassion and so forth are part of the natural world, and inquiries concerning these moral entities are conducted in similar empirical ways of reasoning to that in which scientific inquiries are conducted. I defend metaphysical ethical naturalism by a variety of explanationist argument (...) 

Easyroad mathematical fictionalists grant for the sake of argument that quantification over mathematical entities is indispensable to some of our best scientific theories and explanations. Even so they maintain we can accept those theories and explanations, without believing their mathematical components, provided we believe the concrete world is intrinsically as it needs to be for those components to be true. Those I refer to as “mathematical surrealists” by contrast appeal to facts about the intrinsic character of the concrete world, not (...) 

Within the context of the Quine–Putnam indispensability argument, one discussion about the status of mathematics is concerned with the ‘Enhanced Indispensability Argument’, which makes explicit in what way mathematics is supposed to be indispensable in science, namely explanatory. If there are genuine mathematical explanations of empirical phenomena, an argument for mathematical platonism could be extracted by using inference to the best explanation. The best explanation of the primeness of the life cycles of Periodical Cicadas is genuinely mathematical, according to Baker (...) 

Baker claims to provide an example of mathematical explanation of an empirical phenomenon which leads to ontological commitment to mathematical objects. This is meant to show that the positing of mathematical entities is necessary for satisfactory scientific explanations and thus that the application of mathematics to science can be used, at least in some cases, to support mathematical realism. In this paper I show that the example of explanation Baker considers can actually be given without postulating mathematical objects and thus (...) 

In this dissertation, I consider from a philosophical perspective three related questions concerning the contribution of mathematics to scientific representation. In answering these questions, I propose and defend Carnapian frameworks for examination into the nature and role of mathematics in science. The first research question concerns the varied ways in which mathematics contributes to scientific representation. In response, I consider in Chapter 2 two recent philosophical proposals claiming to account for the explanatory role of mathematics in science, by Philip Kitcher, (...) 

The indispensability argument seeks to establish the existence of mathematical objects. The success of the indispensability argument turns on finding cases of genuine extra mathematical explanation. In this paper, I identify a new case of extra mathematical explanation, involving the search patterns of fullyaquatic marine predators. I go on to use this case to predict the prevalence of extra mathematical explanation in science. 

An emphasis on explanatory contribution is central to a recent formulation of the indispensability argument for mathematical realism. Because scientific realism is argued for by means of inference to the best explanation, it has been further argued that being a scientific realist entails a commitment to IA and thus to mathematical realism. It has, however, gone largely unnoticed that the way that IBE is argued to be truth conducive involves citing successful applications of IBE and tracing this success over time. (...) 

Does mathematics ever play an explanatory role in science? If so then this opens the way for scientific realists to argue for the existence of mathematical entities using inference to the best explanation. Elsewhere I have argued, using a case study involving the primenumbered life cycles of periodical cicadas, that there are examples of indispensable mathematical explanations of purely physical phenomena. In this paper I respond to objections to this claim that have been made by various philosophers, and I discuss (...) 

Philosophy is unsolved. My forthcoming book sets forth the final resolution, with some exceptions, to this 2,500 year crisis. I am currently close to finishing page 983. 





This article elaborates the epistemic indispensability argument, which fully embraces the epistemic contribution of mathematics to science, but rejects the contention that such a contribution is a reason for granting reality to mathematicalia. Section 1 introduces the distinction between ontological and epistemic readings of the indispensability argument. Section 2 outlines some of the main flaws of the first premise of the ontological reading. Section 3 advances the epistemic indispensability argument in view of both applied and pure mathematics. And Sect. 4 (...) 

Proponents of the explanatory indispensability argument for mathematical platonism maintain that claims about mathematical entities play an essential explanatory role in some of our best scientific explanations. They infer that the existence of mathematical entities is supported by way of inference to the best explanation from empirical phenomena and therefore that there are the same sort of empirical grounds for believing in mathematical entities as there are for believing in concrete unobservables such as quarks. I object that this inference depends (...) 

Indispensability arguments occupy a prominent role in discussions of mathematical realism. While different versions of these arguments are discussed in the literature, their general structure remains the same. These arguments contend that insofar as reference to mathematical objects is indispensable to science, we are committed to the existence of these ‘objects’. Unsurprisingly, much of the debate concerning indispensability arguments focuses on the crucial contention that mathematical objects are indispensable to science. For these arguments to provide support for mathematical realism, what (...) 

Enhanced indispensability arguments seek to establish realism about mathematics based on the explanatory role that mathematics plays in science. Idealizations pose a problem for such arguments. Idealizations, in a similar way to mathematics, boost the explanatory credentials of our best scientific theories. And yet, idealizations are not the sorts of things that are supposed to attract a realist attitude. I argue that the explanatory symmetry between idealizations and mathematics can potentially be broken as follows: although idealizations contribute to the explanatory (...) 

The author of “Evidence, Explanation, Enhanced Indispensability” advances a criticism to the Enhanced Indispensability Argument and the use of Inference to the Best Explanation in order to draw ontological conclusions from mathematical explanations in science. His argument relies on the availability of equivalent though competing explanations, and a pluralist stance on explanation. I discuss whether pluralism emerges as a stable position, and focus here on two main points: whether cases of equivalent explanations have been actually offered, and which ontological consequences (...) 

An account of distinctively mathematical explanation (DME) should satisfy three desiderata: it should account for the modal import of some DMEs; it should distinguish uses of mathematics in explanation that are distinctively mathematical from those that are not (Baron [2016]); and it should also account for the directionality of DMEs (Craver and Povich [2017]). Baron’s (forthcoming) deductivemathematical account, because it is modelled on the deductivenomological account, is unlikely to satisfy these desiderata. I provide a counterfactual account of DME, the Narrow (...) 



The indispensability argument is a method for showing that abstract mathematical objects exist. Various versions of this argument have been proposed. Lately, commentators seem to have agreed that a holistic indispensability argument will not work, and that an explanatory indispensability argument is the best candidate. In this paper I argue that the dominant reasons for rejecting the holistic indispensability argument are mistaken. This is largely due to an overestimation of the consequences that follow from evidential holism. Nevertheless, the holistic indispensability (...) 

The question as to whether there are mathematical explanations of physical phenomena has recently received a great deal of attention in the literature. The answer is potentially relevant for the ontology of mathematics; if affirmative, it would support a new version of the indispensability argument for mathematical realism. In this article, I first review critically a few examples of such explanations and advance a general analysis of the desiderata to be satisfied by them. Second, in an attempt to strengthen the (...) 

Can mathematics contribute to our understanding of physical phenomena? One way to try to answer this question is by getting involved in the recent philosophical dispute about the existence of mathematical explanations of physical phenomena. If there is such a thing, given the relation between explanation and understanding, we can say that there is an affirmative answer to our question. But what if we do not agree that mathematics can play an explanatory role in science? Can we still consider that (...) 



Call an explanation in which a nonmathematical fact is explained—in part or in whole—by mathematical facts: an extramathematical explanation. Such explanations have attracted a great deal of interest recently in arguments over mathematical realism. In this article, a theory of extramathematical explanation is developed. The theory is modelled on a deductivenomological theory of scientific explanation. A basic DN account of extramathematical explanation is proposed and then redeveloped in the light of two difficulties that the basic theory faces. The final view (...) 

I argue that modal epistemology should pay more attention to questions about the structure and function of modal thought. We can treat these questions from synchronic and diachronic angles. From a synchronic perspective, I consider whether a general argument for the epistemic support of modal though can be made on the basis of modal thoughs’s indispensability for what Enoch and Schechter (2008) call rationally required epistemic projects. After formulating the argument, I defend it from various objections. I also examine the (...) 



The dominance of string theory in the research landscape of quantum gravity physics (despite any direct experimental evidence) can, I think, be justified in a variety of ways. Here I focus on an argument from mathematical fertility, broadly similar to Hilary Putnam’s ‘no miracles argument’ that, I argue, many string theorists in fact espouse in some form or other. String theory has generated many surprising, useful, and wellconfirmed mathematical ‘predictions’—here I focus on mirror symmetry and the mirror theorem. These predictions (...) 

Mathematics appears to play a genuine explanatory role in science. But how do mathematical explanations work? Recently, a counterfactual approach to mathematical explanation has been suggested. I argue that such a view fails to differentiate the explanatory uses of mathematics within science from the nonexplanatory uses. I go on to offer a solution to this problem by combining elements of the counterfactual theory of explanation with elements of a unification theory of explanation. The result is a theory according to which (...) 

The new explanatory or enhanced indispensability argument alleges that our mathematical beliefs are justified by their indispensable appearances in scientific explanations. This argument differs from the standard indispensability argument which focuses on the uses of mathematics in scientific theories. I argue that the new argument depends for its plausibility on an equivocation between two senses of explanation. On one sense the new argument is an oblique restatement of the standard argument. On the other sense, it is vulnerable to an instrumentalist (...) 

The contemporary Platonists in the philosophy of mathematics argue that mathematical objects exist. One of the arguments by which they support this standpoint is the socalled Enhanced Indispensability Argument (EIA). This paper aims at pointing out the difficulties inherent to the EIA. The first is contained in the vague formulation of the Argument, which is the reason why not even an approximate scope of the set objects whose existence is stated by the Argument can be established. The second problem is (...) 

Enhanced indispensability arguments claim that Scientific Realists are committed to the existence of mathematical entities due to their reliance on Inference to the best explanation. Our central question concerns this purported parity of reasoning: do people who defend the EIA make an appropriate use of the resources of Scientific Realism to achieve platonism? We argue that just because a variety of different inferential strategies can be employed by Scientific Realists does not mean that ontological conclusions concerning which things we should (...) 

Indispensablists contend that accepting scientific realism while rejecting mathematical realism involves a double standard. I refute this contention by developing an enhanced version of scientific realism, which I call interactive realism. It holds that interactively successful theories are typically approximately true, and that the interactive unobservable entities posited by them are likely to exist. It is immune to the pessimistic induction while mathematical realism is susceptible to it. 

A main thread of the debate over mathematical realism has come down to whether mathematics does explanatory work of its own in some of our best scientific explanations of empirical facts. Realists argue that it does; antirealists argue that it doesn't. Part of this debate depends on how mathematics might be able to do explanatory work in an explanation. Everyone agrees that it's not enough that there merely be some mathematics in the explanation. Antirealists claim there is nothing mathematics can (...) 

Alan Baker’s enhanced indispensability argument supports mathematical platonism through the explanatory role of mathematics in science. Busch and Morrison defend nominalism by denying that scientific realists use inference to the best explanation to directly establish ontological claims. In response to Busch and Morrison, I argue that nominalists can rebut the EIA while still accepting Baker’s form of IBE. Nominalists can plausibly require that defenders of the EIA establish the indispensability of a particular mathematical entity. Next, I argue that IBE cannot (...) 

Platonism is the view that there exist such things as abstract objects — where an abstract object is an object that does not exist in space or time and which is therefore entirely nonphysical and nonmental. Platonism in this sense is a contemporary view. It is obviously related to the views of Plato in important ways, but it is not entirely clear that Plato endorsed this view, as it is defined here. In order to remain neutral on this question, the (...) 

According to one popular nominalist picture, even when mathematics features indispensably in scientific explanations, this mathematics plays only a purely representational role: physical facts are represented, and these exclusively carry the explanatory load. I think that this view is mistaken, and that there are cases where mathematics itself plays an explanatory role. I distinguish two kinds of explanatory generality: scope generality and topic generality. Using the wellknown periodicalcicada example, and also a new case study involving bicycle gears, I argue that (...) 

In this paper I shall adopt a possible reading of the notions of ‘explanatory indispensability’ and ‘genuine mathematical explanation in science’ on which the Enhanced Indispensability Argument proposed by Alan Baker is based. Furthermore, I shall propose two examples of mathematical explanation in science and I shall show that, whether the EIApartisans accept the reading I suggest, they are easily caught in a dilemma. To escape this dilemma they need to adopt some account of explanation and offer a plausible answer (...) 

When the indispensability argument for mathematical entities (IA) is spelled out, it would appear confirmational holism is needed for the argument to work. It has been argued that confirmational holism is a dispensable premise in the argument if a construal of naturalism, according to which it is denied that we can take different epistemic attitudes towards different parts of our scientific theories, is adopted. I argue that the suggested variety of naturalism will only appeal to a limited number of philosophers. (...) 



The indispensability argument comes in many different versions that all reduce to a general valid schema. Providing a sound IA amounts to providing a full interpretation of the schema according to which all its premises are true. Hence, arguing whether IA is sound results in wondering whether the schema admits such an interpretation. We discuss in full details all the parameters on which the specification of the general schema may depend. In doing this, we consider how different versions of IA (...) 

One of the most intriguing features of mathematics is its applicability to empirical science. Every branch of science draws upon large and often diverse portions of mathematics, from the use of Hilbert spaces in quantum mechanics to the use of differential geometry in general relativity. It's not just the physical sciences that avail themselves of the services of mathematics either. Biology, for instance, makes extensive use of difference equations and statistics. The roles mathematics plays in these theories is also varied. (...) 

Mathematical fictionalism (or as I'll call it, fictionalism) is best thought of as a reaction to mathematical platonism. Platonism is the view that (a) there exist abstract mathematical objects (i.e., nonspatiotemporal mathematical objects), and (b) our mathematical sentences and theories provide true descriptions of such objects. So, for instance, on the platonist view, the sentence ‘3 is prime’ provides a straightforward description of a certain object—namely, the number 3—in much the same way that the sentence ‘Mars is red’ provides a (...) 

In this article I consider what it would take to combine a certain kind of mathematical Platonism with serious presentism. I argue that a Platonist moved to accept the existence of mathematical objects on the basis of an indispensability argument faces a significant challenge if she wishes to accept presentism. This is because, on the one hand, the indispensability argument can be reformulated as a new argument for the existence of past entities and, on the other hand, if one accepts (...) 