The Applicability of Mathematics

  • Jane McDonnell


Since its publication in 1960, Wigner’s paper ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences’ has attracted comment from scientists, applied mathematicians and philosophers keen to give their take on what Wigner calls “the miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics” (Wigner 1960: 14). There is much disagreement concerning both the nature of the miracle and, more fundamentally, whether there is a miracle, or, indeed, anything mysterious at all. Theoretical physicists such as David Gross tend to agree that it is “something of a miracle that we are able to devise theories that allow us to make incredibly precise predictions regarding physical phenomena” (Gross 1988: 8372). On the other hand, applied mathematicians such as Jack Schwartz speak of “the pernicious influence of mathematics on science” (Schwartz 2006: 231) and emphasise how tough it can be to find mathematical solutions for real-world problems. Biologists, economists and social scientists are of a similar mind to Schwartz and tend to see mathematics as a sometimes useful tool. Needless to say, philosophers are divided in their opinion. Ernst Nagel thinks that:


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jane McDonnell
    • 1
  1. 1.Philosophy Department ClaytonVictoriaAustralia

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