Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Robert W. Batterman and John L. Bell


One of the most unsettling problems in the history of philosophy examines how mathematics can be used to adequately represent the world. An influential thesis, stated by Eugene Wigner in his paper entitled "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences," claims that "the miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve." Contrary to this view, this thesis delineates and implements a strategy to show that the applicability of mathematics is very reasonable indeed.

I distinguish three forms of the problem of the applicability of mathematics, and focus on one I call the problem of uncanny accuracy: Given that the construction and manipulation of mathematical representations is pervaded by uncertainty, error, approximation, and idealization, how can their apparently uncanny accuracy be explained? I argue that this question has found no satisfactory answer because our rational reconstruction of scientific practice has not involved tools rich enough to capture the logic of mathematical modelling.

Thus, I characterize a general schema of mathematical analysis of real systems, focusing on the selection of modelling assumptions, on the construction of model equations, and on the extraction of information, in order to address contextually determinate questions on some behaviour of interest. A concept of selective accuracy is developed to explain the way in which qualitative and quantitative solutions should be utilized to understand systems. The qualitative methods rely on asymptotic methods and on sensitivity analysis, whereas the quantitative methods are best understood using backward error analysis. The basic underpinning of this perspective is readily understandable across scientific fields, and it thereby provides a view of mathematical tractability readily interpretable in the broader context of mathematical modelling. In addition, this perspective is used to discuss the nature of theories, the role of scaling, and the epistemological and semantic aspects of experimentation. In conclusion, we argue for a method of local and global conceptual analysis that goes beyond the reach of the tools standardly used to capture the logic of science; on their basis, the applicability of mathematics finds itself demystified.