Article

Mathematical Explanation

Paolo Mancosu and Christopher Pincock

in Philosophy

ISBN: 9780195396577
Published online August 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0029
Mathematical Explanation

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Mathematical explanations are explanations in which mathematics plays a crucial role. There is a rich historical tradition of debates about mathematical explanation, dating back to Aristotle. One central strand of this tradition considers the significance of explanatory goals for pure mathematics. It is common for mathematicians to prefer one proof of a theorem over another because one proof shows why a theorem is true, even though both proofs show that that theorem is true. There have been several attempts to make sense of explanations in pure mathematics. While broadly causal approaches to scientific explanation seem to have little hope of clarifying explanation in pure mathematics, Mark Steiner has proposed an account in terms of characterizing properties of mathematical entities that is a kind of generalization of a causal approach. An alternative strategy, pursued by Philip Kitcher, is to say that an explanatory proof in pure mathematics is, roughly, one that unifies disparate mathematical claims. This unification approach seems more likely to succeed for pure mathematics, but it also faces challenges tied to the particular way that Kitcher measures unifying power. The second central strand of discussions of mathematical explanation considers the contributions that mathematics makes to scientific explanations. Carl Hempel’s influential deductive-nomological account of scientific explanation left room for mathematical claims in scientific explanations, but this approach to scientific explanation faces serious challenges. Causal and unification approaches to scientific explanation reach different verdicts on the question of mathematics and scientific explanation. Causal accounts may allow mathematics in scientific explanations, but invariably maintain that the mathematics is valuable only because it reflects the genuine causes of what is being explained. Unification accounts can assign the mathematics some explanatory power in its own right, independently of any corresponding causes, because unification may be facilitated by mathematical concepts and theorems. The problem of understanding what mathematics brings to scientific explanation has recently received new impetus from debates about explanatory indispensability arguments for mathematical platonism. These new indispensability arguments build on the traditional indispensability arguments found in W. V. Quine and Hilary Putnam. However, advocates of an explanatory indispensability argument insist that explanatory benefits from pure mathematics are significant enough by themselves to warrant our belief in mathematical entities. Critics of these new arguments either complain that the account of explanation at work here remains unclear, or else they offer their own proposals for how to make sense of mathematical explanation in science. (Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank Hein van der Berg and an anonymous referee for their valuable suggestions.)

Article.  9918 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art ; Epistemology ; Feminist Philosophy ; History of Western Philosophy ; Metaphysics ; Moral Philosophy ; Non-Western Philosophy ; Philosophy of Language ; Philosophy of Law ; Philosophy of Mathematics and Logic ; Philosophy of Mind ; Philosophy of Religion ; Philosophy of Science ; Social and Political Philosophy

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