Trick or Truth?

Part of the series The Frontiers Collection pp 5-20


Children of the Cosmos

Presenting a Toy Model of Science with a Supporting Cast of Infinitesimals
  • Sylvia WenmackersAffiliated withKU Leuven, Centre for Logic and Analytic Philosophy, Institute of PhilosophyUniversity of Groningen, Faculty of Philosophy Email author 

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Mathematics may seem unreasonably effective in the natural sciences, in particular in physics. In this essay, I argue that this judgment can be attributed, at least in part, to selection effects. In support of this central claim, I offer four elements. The first element is that we are creatures that evolved within this Universe, and that our pattern finding abilities are selected by this very environment. The second element is that our mathematics—although not fully constrained by the natural world—is strongly inspired by our perception of it. Related to this, the third element finds fault with the usual assessment of the efficiency of mathematics: our focus on the rare successes leaves us blind to the ubiquitous failures (selection bias). The fourth element is that the act of applying mathematics provides many more degrees of freedom than those internal to mathematics. This final element will be illustrated by the usage of ‘infinitesimals’ in the context of mathematics and that of physics. In 1960, Wigner wrote an article on this topic [4] and many (but not all) later authors have echoed his assessment that the success of mathematics in physics is a mystery. At the end of this essay, I will revisit Wigner and three earlier replies that harmonize with my own view. I will also explore some of Einstein’s ideas that are connected to this. But first, I briefly expose my views of science and mathematics, since these form the canvass of my central claim.