Mathematical Spandrels

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Australasian Journal Of Philosophy


The aim of this paper is to open a new front in the debate between platonism and nominalism by arguing that the degree of explanatory entanglement of mathematics in science is much more extensive than has been hitherto acknowledged. Even standard examples, such as the prime life cycles of periodical cicadas, involve a penumbra of mathematical features whose presence can only be explained using relatively sophisticated mathematics. I introduce the term ‘mathematical spandrel’ to describe these penumbral properties, and focus on the property that cicada period lengths are expressible as the sum of two perfect squares. I argue that mathematical spandrels pose a particular problem for nominalism because of the way in which they are entangled with scientific explanations.


platonism, indispensability, mathematical explanation

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