Mathematical Representation and Explanation: structuralism, the similarity account, and the hotchpotch picture

Dissertation, University of Leeds (2020)
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This thesis starts with three challenges to the structuralist accounts of applied mathematics. Structuralism views applied mathematics as a matter of building mapping functions between mathematical and target-ended structures. The first challenge concerns how it is possible for a non-mathematical target to be represented mathematically when the mapping functions per se are mathematical objects. The second challenge arises out of inconsistent early calculus, which suggests that mathematical representation does not require rigorous mathematical structures. The third challenge comes from renormalisation group (RG) explanations of universality. It is argued that the structural mapping between the world and a highly abstract minimal model adds little value to our understanding of how RG obtains its explanatory force. I will address the first and second challenges from the similarity perspective. The similarity account captures representations as similarity relations, providing a more flexible and broader conception of representation than structuralism. It is the specification of the respect and degree of similarity that forges mathematics into a context of representation and directs it to represent a specific system in reality. Structuralism is treatable as a tool for explicating similarity rela-tions set-theoretically. The similarity account, combined with other approaches (e.g., Nguyen and Frigg’s extensional abstraction account and van Fraassen’s pragmatic equivalence), can dissolve the first challenge. Additionally, I will make a structuralist response to the second challenge, and suggestions regarding the role of infinitesimals from the similarity perspective. In light of the similarity account, I will propose the “hotchpotch picture” as a method-ological reflection of our study of representation and explanation. Its central insight is to dissect a representation or an explanation into several aspects and use different theories (that are usually thought of competing) to appropriate each of them. Based on the hotchpotch picture, RG explanations can be dissected to the “indexing” and “inferential” conceptions of explanation, which are captured or characterised by structural mappings. Therefore, structuralism accommodates RG explanations, and the third challenge is resolved.

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Ziren Yang
University of Miami


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