Numbers without Science

Dissertation, The Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York (2007)
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Numbers without Science opposes the Quine-Putnam indispensability argument, seeking to undermine the argument and reduce its profound influence. Philosophers rely on indispensability to justify mathematical knowledge using only empiricist epistemology. I argue that we need an independent account of our knowledge of mathematics. The indispensability argument, in broad form, consists of two premises. The major premise alleges that we are committed to mathematical objects if science requires them. The minor premise alleges that science in fact requires mathematical objects. The most common rejection of the argument denies its minor premise by introducing scientific theories which do not refer to mathematical objects. Hartry Field has shown how we can reformulate some physical theories without mathematical commitments. I argue that Field’s preference for intrinsic explanation, which underlies his reformulation, is ill-motivated, and that his resultant fictionalism suffers unacceptable consequences. I attack the major premise instead. I argue that Quine provides a mistaken criterion for ontic commitment. Our uses of mathematics in scientific theory are instrumental and do not commit us to mathematical objects. Furthermore, even if we accept Quine’s criterion for ontic commitment, the indispensability argument justifies only an anemic version of mathematics, and does not yield traditional mathematical objects. The first two chapters of the dissertation develop these results for Quine’s indispensability argument. In the third chapter, I apply my findings to other contemporary indispensabilists, specifically the structuralists Michael Resnik and Stewart Shapiro. In the fourth chapter, I show that indispensability arguments which do not rely on Quine’s holism, like that of Putnam, are even less successful. Also in Chapter 4, I show how Putnam’s work in the philosophy of mathematics is unified around the indispensability argument. In the last chapter of the dissertation, I conclude that we need an account of mathematical knowledge which does not appeal to empirical science and which does not succumb to mysticism and speculation. Briefly, my strategy is to argue that any defensible solution to the demarcation problem of separating good scientific theories from bad ones will find mathematics to be good, if not empirical, science.
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