Synthese 199 (3-4):10415-10440 (2021)

Mary Leng
University of York
Are there genuine mathematical explanations of physical phenomena, and if so, how can mathematical theories, which are typically thought to concern abstract mathematical objects, explain contingent empirical matters? The answer, I argue, is in seeing an important range of mathematical explanations as structural explanations, where structural explanations explain a phenomenon by showing it to have been an inevitable consequence of the structural features instantiated in the physical system under consideration. Such explanations are best cast as deductive arguments which, by virtue of their form, establish that, given the mathematical structure instantiated in the physical system under consideration, the explanandum had to occur. Against the claims of platonists such as Alan Baker and Mark Colyvan, I argue that formulating mathematical explanations as structural explanations in this way shows that we can accept that mathematics can play an indispensable explanatory role in empirical science without committing to the existence of any abstract mathematical objects.
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DOI 10.1007/s11229-021-03253-x
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How the Laws of Physics Lie.Nancy Cartwright - 1983 - Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Science Without Numbers: A Defence of Nominalism.Hartry H. Field - 1980 - Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.
Realism, Mathematics, and Modality.Hartry Field - 1988 - Philosophical Topics 16 (1):57-107.

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