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23 January 2009, Workshop "Explanation, Indispensability of Mathematics, and Scientific Realism", Leeds, U.K.

Date: 23 January 2009
Location: Leeds, U.K.

One-day workshop on

Explanation, Indispensability of Mathematics, and Scientific Realism

Department of Philosophy,
University of Leeds

23. January 2009 (Friday)

This is a workshop on current perspectives on the indispensability argument for mathematical platonism. Many scientic realists are willing to commit to various esoteric unobservable features of the world, but at the same time they treat mathematical platonism with great suspicion. According to the indispensability argument such preference for concrete theoretical posits is unjustified, because mathematics plays an indispensable role in scientific theorising.

The present state of debate turns on an attempt at a more precise characterisation of mathematics's role in our best science. In particular, it has been argued that the explanatory function of mathematics is decisive here, given the realist's reliance on inference to the best explanation in defending realism about unobservable concreta. If mathematical entities can play a bona fide explanatory role in science, then arguably commitment to those entities follows by inference to the best explanation. This line of thought raises a number of issues that form the focal point of this workshop:

  • Can an abstract posit really play an explanatory role that is relevantly similar to the role played by some concrete posit?
  • What notion of scientific explanation best captures this?
  • How convincing are the extant case-studies that arguably exhibit a piece of mathematics being genuinely explanatory of a physical phenomenon?
  • If mathematics is thus explanatory in some sense, should a scientific realist really be ontologically committed to mathematical abstracta? Or can one appeal to inference to the best explanation in a discriminative way that makes realism congruent with nominalism?
  • Is scientific practice mathematics-driven in some other way that pushes the scientific realist towards platonism?
  • Can the realist account for the indispensable role of mathematics in science by adhering to fictionalism about mathematics, say?


10.30Alan Baker (Swarthmore College): 'Angles and Insects: Geometrical Explanation in Science'
12.00Sorin Bangu (Cambridge): 'What Piraha can't do: An average story'
13.10Buffet Lunch
14.00Jacob Busch (St. Andrews): 'Indispensability, Explanation, and Conrmation'
15.10Joseph Melia (Leeds): 'Quine, Indispensability and Explanation'
16.40Juha Saatsi (Leeds): 'What's wrong with the new indispensability argument'
18.30Workshop Dinner


Registration fee: £10 (covers lunch, coffee, biscuits)
A limited number of £5 bursaries available to students.
Register by sending email to Juha Saatsi:
He can also provide further information.

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