Symmetry and Reformulation: On Intellectual Progress in Science and Mathematics

Dissertation, University of Michigan (2022)
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Science and mathematics continually change in their tools, methods, and concepts. Many of these changes are not just modifications but progress---steps to be admired. But what constitutes progress? This dissertation addresses one central source of intellectual advancement in both disciplines: reformulating a problem-solving plan into a new, logically compatible one. For short, I call these cases of compatible problem-solving plans "reformulations." Two aspects of reformulations are puzzling. First, reformulating is often unnecessary. Given that we could already solve a problem using an older formulation, what do we gain by reformulating? Second, some reformulations are genuinely trivial or insignificant. Merely replacing one symbol with another does not lead to intellectual progress. What distinguishes significant reformulations from trivial ones? According to what I call "conceptualism" (or "conceptual empiricism"), reformulations are intellectually significant when they provide a different plan for solving problems. Significant reformulations provide inferentially different routes to the same solution. In contrast, trivial reformulations provide exactly the same problem-solving plans, and hence they do not change our understanding. This answers the second question about what distinguishes trivial from significant reformulations. However, the first question remains: what makes a new way of solving an old problem valuable? Here, a bevy of practical considerations come to mind: one formulation might be faster, less complicated, or use more familiar concepts. According to "instrumentalism," these practical benefits are all there is to reformulating. Some reformulations are simply more instrumentally valuable for meeting the aims of science than others. At another extreme, "fundamentalism" contends that a reformulation is valuable when it provides a more fundamental description of reality. According to this view, some reformulations directly contribute to the metaphysical aim of carving reality at its joints. Conceptualism develops a middle ground between instrumentalism and fundamentalism, preserving their benefits without their costs. I argue that the epistemic value of significant reformulations does not reduce to either practical or metaphysical value. Reformulations are valuable because they are a constitutive part of problem-solving. Both science and mathematics aim at solving all possible problems within their respective domains. Meeting this aim requires being able to plan for any possible problem-solving context, and this requires reformulating. By reformulating, we clarify what we need to know to solve problems. Still, one might wonder whether the value of reformulations requires underlying differences in explanatory power. According to "explanationism," a reformulation is valuable only when it provides a better explanation. Explanationism stands as a rival middle ground position to my own. However, it faces numerous counterexamples. In many cases, two reformulations provide the same explanation while nonetheless providing different ways of understanding a phenomenon. Hence, reformulating can be valuable even when neither formulation is more explanatory. Methodologically, I draw on a variety of case studies to support my account of reformulation. These range from classical mechanics to quantum chemistry, along with examples from mathematics. Symmetry arguments provide a paradigmatic example: the mathematics of symmetry groups radically recasts quantum mechanics and quantum chemistry. Nevertheless, elementary approaches exist that eschew this additional mathematical apparatus, solving problems in a more tedious but less mathematically-demanding manner. Further examples include reformulations of quantum field theory, Arabic vs. Roman numerals, and Fermat's little theorem in number theory. In each case, my account identifies how reformulations change and improve our understanding of science and mathematics.

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Josh Hunt
Syracuse University


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