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The Indispensability Argument

The “Indispensability Argument” is an attempt to justify the Platonist belief that mathematical entities are actually real things that exist independently of any human concepts. It was Willard Quine who started the indispensability argument ball rolling. Since then various people, such as Hilary Putnam, Michael Resnik, Alan Baker and Mark Colyvan have continued to keep the ball rolling. The details of their arguments are given below. Although the argument comes in a number of different guises, essentially each one is some sort of variation on this:

  1. Mathematics is indispensable (is essential) for scientific theories,
  2. The mathematical entities (such as numbers) referred to by the mathematical language must ‘exist’ in the same way that other things (such as electrons) referred to by the theory must ‘exist’.

Book: The Indispensability of MathematicsOn the face of it, this is ridiculous - there actually is no logical inference from assertion (1) to assertion (2). For example, while mathematics includes the notion of infinite quantities, scientific theories generally don’t claim the existence of infinite quantities, and for a theory to be considered scientific, it should be testable. (Footnote: See Karl Popper on testability and scientific theories.) And there aren’t any testable theories that postulate an infinite quantity that can be physically tested.


But, although there is no real substance to the argument, you will find different arguments versions of the argument try to dress it up in ways that give a superficial veneer of acceptability. But it is easy to show that the basic argument is absurd. Every scientific theory is written/spoken/digitized in some language, and so we can consider a similar argument:

  1. A language (besides a purely mathematical language) is necessary for all scientific theories,
  2. The non-physical entities referred to by that language must ‘exist’, in the same way that other things (such as electrons) referred to by the theory must ‘exist’.

Yes, an equally absurd argument, with no logical inference from (1) to (2). A purely mathematical language is not sufficient by itself to formulate a scientific theory; the theory must use a different language to refer to real physical things, and the theory must correlate these physical things to the mathematics of the theory. But here’s the key point. Scientific theories rely on various idealizations which refer to imaginary ideal things. Physics may refer to infinitely long wires, perfectly uniform wires and ideal magnetic, electrical and gravitational fields that are infinitely smooth, infinitely divisible (regardless of any actual sizes) and perfectly uniform, and so on. Chemistry may refer to reactions taking place at an ideal precise fixed temperature. They may use an idealization of a gas as consisting of all molecules having precisely the same temperature. Biology may use idealizations such as perfectly uniform populations. Economics may use idealizations such as perfectly rational consumers. Sociology may use idealizations such as perfectly average families.


Nobody believes that these idealizations actually ‘exist’. But if mathematical entities must ‘exist’ because a mathematical language is indispensable for a scientific theory, then it follows that such non-existing entities such as mentioned above must also ‘exist’, since they are referred to by a language that is indispensable for the scientific theory. (Footnote: Of course, there can be more than one language in which the theory can be expressed - but at least one such language is essential.) This, of course, is absurd. And the notion that ideal mathematical entities also ‘exist’ is equally absurd.


Problems with Beliefs About Mathematical Objects

Some philosophers talk about things that are referred to by mathematical statements as “mathematical objects”, but why call them “objects” at all? This is a sneaky way of implicitly asserting that mathematical entities are similar to relatively large physical things - we normally reserve the word “object” for a relatively large physical thing. We wouldn’t even call an electron an “object”, so why refer to mathematical concepts as “objects”?


Of course, there are mathematical statements that appear to correspond - approximately - to real physical situations, such as an ideal sphere approximating the earth. Or we can see that there is a common emergent property shared by five apples and five cats, and we call that common emergent property the number “five”. But that does not imply that there is some independent real thing that is “five”, any more than there is an independent real thing that is “living”, even though we can identify that certain collections of molecules (such as humans) can have the emergent property of “living”.


The web-page The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - The Indispensability Argument claims that:

Mathematical objects are not the kinds of things that we can see or touch, or smell, taste or hear. If we can not learn about mathematical objects by using our senses, a serious worry arises about how we can justify our mathematical beliefs. The question of how we can justify our beliefs about mathematical objects has long puzzled philosophers.


This is nonsense. Why should there be any such concern? Mathematics arose because people observed that in the real physical world, the emergent numerical properties of collections of physical objects obeyed certain rules (that is, they observed inductively that the numerical properties obeyed certain rules), such as observing that if you have two sheep and you add five sheep, then you get seven sheep, and if you have five stones, and you add two stones, then you have seven stones. And so on. The fact is that the origin of mathematics came directly from observation of the real physical world.


The problems only arose when certain mathematicians decided to ignore any connection between mathematics and the real physical world, and decided to create theories that they called mathematics but which had no derivation from the real world. Much of the blame for this can be seen to have arisen from various notions attached to set theories. The web-page The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - The Indispensability Argument goes on to say:

For simplicity, to consider our question of how we can justify our beliefs about mathematical objects, we will only consider sets. Set theory is generally considered the most fundamental mathematical theory. All statements of number theory, including those concerning real numbers, can be written in the language of set theory…


This again is nonsense. All of the mathematics that deals with the real world can be done, and in fact is almost always done, without reference to set theories at all. In terms of the history of mathematics, set theories are latecomers. The fundamental foundations for all of the mathematics that is used in today’s engineering and science was developed without any use of set theories at all. What the above conveniently omits is that each set theory (and there are several competing theories) introduces many notions that are not used at all by today’s engineers or scientists. (Footnote: ‘The necessary use of higher set theory in mathematics of the finite has yet to be established. Furthermore, a case can be made that higher set theory is dispensable in scientifically applicable mathematics …’,
Solomon Feferman: ‘Infinity in Mathematics: Is Cantor Necessary?’ Philosophical Topics 17.2 (1989): 23-45, also in the book “In the light of logic”, Oxford University Press (1998).)
This means that the idea that you must begin by considering set theories if you want to examine the relationship between mathematics and science is inherently ridiculous. It is a perfect example of self-serving nonsense - it is saying that set-theoretical entities must exist because, if we force a scientific theory to use set-theoretical mathematics, then we can claim that the set-theoretical entities must exist in the same way as other entities referred to by the theory.


To add to the absurdity of using set theory in an attempt to examine the relationship between mathematics and science, the web-page The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - The Indispensability Argument goes on to say:

…given that we lack sense experience of sets, … how we can justify our beliefs about sets and set theory?

Well, of course, since set theory prides itself on being a theory that has no need of any foundation that is based on the real world, that is bound to be a problem…


For more on Platonism see Platonism, The Myths of Platonism and Platonism’s Logical Blunder.


Quine’s Indispensability Argument

Although it was Quine who initiated the indispensability argument, he didn’t write a specific article on it, but referred to it in various articles. (Footnote: Quine, W.V,
Designation and Existence  In Feigl and Sellars, “Readings in Philosophical Analysis”, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., New York (1940).
“Posits and Reality”  In The Ways of Paradox, Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1976).
“Ontological Relativity and Other Essays”, New York: Columbia University Press (1969).
“From a Logical Point of View”, Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1980).
“Theories and Things”, Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1981).
“Philosophy of Logic”, Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1986).
“Reply to Charles Parsons” In Hahn and Schilpp, eds., “The Philosophy of W.V. Quine”, La Salle: Open Court (1986).
“From Stimulus to Science”, Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1995).)
A typical presentation of what his argument amounts to is this:

  1. We should accept the theory which best accounts for our sense experience.
  2. If we accept a theory, then we must believe that the things it refers to “exist”.
  3. The scientific theories which best describe our sense experiences use mathematics which refers to mathematical things.
  4. Therefore we should believe that mathematical things “exist”.

Yes, it is a ridiculous argument. But for some reason, Quine is considered by many philosophers to have been a philosopher of some substance. I don’t know why, I find that he is often quite illogical, see for example Quine’s Paradox.


Quine’s argument fails in its second premise; Quine argues that if you believe that a theory is correct, then you must believe in every object it posits. But this is simply playing games with the concept of belief. For example, I can accept Einstein’s theory of general relativity as being currently the best theory that accounts for various real world physical phenomena, but that does not infer that I consider that it is a complete description of the physical world. It isn’t. It’s a good approximation to certain physical situations, but it is not, by any standard, an exact description of reality. We can accept that scientific theory is useful, without presuming that any scientific theory is precisely “true”. That being the case, then why should I, or anyone else for that matter, want to consider that every conceptual entity utilized by the theory is in some sense a real thing, existing independently of any human theory? That’s absurd.


In science, idealizations are made simply to facilitate the construction of a theory. And so we can use the theory to generate useful results, while recognizing that some of the things that it refers to are idealizations. This is called being instrumentalist about some things that the theory refers to - they are tools used to produce a result. In the same way we can consider that mathematical entities such as numbers are simply tools that we use to produce a result. It could be argued that, while there may be better theories in the future, it is unlikely that the fundamental mathematics used by scientific theories is unlikely to change. But that tells us nothing, other than certain tools are particularly useful for certain tasks.


Putnam’s Success Argument

Hilary Putnam gives a slightly different argument: (Footnote: Putnam, Hilary,
“Mathematics and the Existence of Abstract Entities”  Philosophical Studies 7 (1956): 81-88.
“Mathematics, Matter, and Method: Philosophical Papers”, Vol. I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1975).
“Philosophy of Mathematics: Why Nothing Works” In Putnam, Words and Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1994).)

  1. Mathematics is successful in its use in scientific theories
  2. There must be a reason for the success of mathematics in scientific theories
  3. No positions other than realism in mathematics provide a reason.
  4. Therefore, realism in mathematics must be correct.

The flaw in the argument is obvious, since the reason for the success of mathematics in science is obvious - because, as noted above, mathematics originated directly from observation of emergent properties of the real physical world. So it’s no surprise that it is successful as a tool to describe the physical world, and we don’t need the additional baggage that Putnam postulates.


Resnik’s Pragmatic Argument

Michael Resnik’s argument is essentially: (Footnote: Resnik, Michael D,
“A Naturalized Epistemology for a Platonist Mathematical Ontology.”  In Sal Restivo, et. al., eds., Math Worlds: Philosophical and Social Studies of Mathematics and Mathematics Education, Albany: SUNY Press (1993).
“Scientific vs. Mathematical Realism: The Indispensability Argument”, Philosophia Mathematica (3) 3: 166-174 (1995).
“Mathematics as a Science of Patterns”, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1997).)

  1. In stating its laws and conducting its derivations, science assumes the existence of many mathematical objects and the truth of much mathematics.
  2. These assumptions are indispensable to the pursuit of science; moreover, many of the important conclusions drawn from and within science could not be drawn without taking mathematical claims to be true.
  3. So, we are justified in drawing conclusions from and within science only if we are justified in taking the mathematics used in science to be true.
  4. We are justified in using science to explain and predict.
  5. The only way we know of using science thus involves drawing conclusions from and within it.

So we are justified in taking mathematics to be true.


Resnik’s claims are flawed from the outset. The initial claim is simply wrong. Science uses hypothetical mathematical entities, there is no necessity to assume any real independent existence of those entities. As for assuming the “truth” of much mathematics, what this is actually saying is that there is an assumption that the various mathematical statements are provable from an initial set of mathematical axioms and rules - there is no need for any notion of mathematical “truth”, only mathematical provability. Since the rest of the argument relies on this first premise, the remainder can be summarily dismissed.


Baker & Colyvan’s Explanatory Argument

Alan Baker (Footnote: Baker, Alan,
“Mathematics, indispensability and scientific progress” Erkenntnis 55.1 (2001): 85-116.
“The Indispensability Argument and Multiple Foundations for Mathematics” The Philosophical Quarterly 53.210 (2003): 49-67.
“Are there Genuine Mathematical Explanations of Physical Phenomena?” Mind 114 (2005): 223-238.
“Experimental mathematics” Erkenntnis 68.3 (2008): 331-344.
Mathematical explanation in science” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 60.3 (2009): 611-633.
“Science-driven mathematical explanation” Mind 121.482 (2012): 243-267 )
and Mark Colyvan (Footnote: Colyvan, Mark,
“The Indispensability of Mathematics”, Oxford University Press (2001).
Mathematics and Aesthetic Considerations in Science  Mind 11 (2002): 69-78.
Mathematical Recreation versus Mathematical Knowledge  In Leng, Paseau and Potter, eds, “Mathematical Knowledge”, Oxford University Press (2007): 109-122. )
have defended an explanatory argument, where the key point supposedly revolves around the fact that mathematics helps to explain physical phenomena, rather than talking about a scientific theory:

  1. There are genuinely mathematical explanations of empirical phenomena.
  2. We ought to be committed to the theoretical posits in such explanations.
  3. We ought to be committed to the entities postulated by the mathematics in question.

This, of course, is simply wishful hogwash, and is simply word-play on words such as “explanation”. A scientific theory can be a predictive theory, and predict outcomes of physical situations but if it does not help to explain things that is incidental. For example, there are many disputes over what quantum mechanics “explains”, even though its predictive power is immense. Baker and Colyvan adds nothing to already mentioned vacuous indispensability arguments.

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The Lighter Side


Paper on the diagonal proof

There is now a paper that deals with the matter of language and the diagonal proof, see On Considerations of Language in the Diagonal Proof.

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Other recently added pages

The Myths of Platonism


Goodman’s Paradox


The Platonist Rod paradox


The Balls in the Urn Paradox


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Lebesgue Measure

There is now a new page on a contradiction in Lebesgue measure theory.

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Easy Footnotes

I found that making, adding or deleting footnotes in the traditional manner proved to be a major pain. So I developed a different system for footnotes which makes inserting or changing footnotes a doddle. You can check it out at Easy Footnotes for Web Pages (Accessibility friendly).

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O’Connor’s “computer checked” proof

I have now added a new section to my paper on Russell O’Connor’s claim of a computer verified incompleteness proof. This shows that the flaw in the proof arises from a reliance on definitions that include unacceptable assumptions - assumptions that are not actually checked by the computer code. See also the new page Representability.

Previous Blog Posts

Moderate Platonism

Descartes’ Platonism

The duplicity of Mark Chu-Carroll

A John Searle Inanity

Man versus Machine

Fake News and Fake Mathematics

Ned Block’s Blockhead

Are we alone in the Universe?

Good Math, Bad Math?

Bishops Dancing with Pixies?

Artificial Intelligence

Cranks and Crackpots

The Chinese Room


For convenience, there are now two pages on this site with links to various material relating to Gödel and the Incompleteness Theorem


– a page with general links:

Gödel Links


– and a page relating specifically to the Gödel mind-machine debate:

Gödel, Minds, and Machines

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