The Paideia Archive: Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 37, 1998

Philosophy of Science

Jagdish Hattiangadi
Pages 106-111

Algebra As Thought Experiment

This paper addresses the problem of understanding what mathematics contributes to the exceptional success of modern mathematical physics. I urge that we give up the Kantian construal of the division between mathematics (synthetic a priori) and physics (experimental), and that we ask instead how algebra helps synthetic a posteriori mathematics improve our ability to study the world. The theses suggested are: 1) Mathematical theories are about the empirical world, and are true or false just like other theories of empirical science. 2) The air of artificiality in mathematics lies exclusively in the use of algebraic method. 3) This method is constructive much like all fiction is, but this construction is for the purpose of experimental investigation of the physical world to the extent that anything in the world has objects like those in the fictional world of a particular algebra. 4) This is why algebraic techniques are successful even when the assumptions of the system are false: they may still be applicable to some things considered from some perspective. 5) The success of mathematical physics is also due to Descartes' discovery of a remarkable truth: we live in space and time which can be described as a whole. 6) Therefore, what distinguishes modern science from earlier and later philosophy is not a general method of science, but the fact that it happened to find a truth, and a particular way of studying reality which bore fruit.