Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Professor Christopher J Smeenk


In this dissertation, I consider from a philosophical perspective three related questions concerning the contribution of mathematics to scientific representation. In answering these questions, I propose and defend Carnapian frameworks for examination into the nature and role of mathematics in science.

The first research question concerns the varied ways in which mathematics contributes to scientific representation. In response, I consider in Chapter 2 two recent philosophical proposals claiming to account for the explanatory role of mathematics in science, by Philip Kitcher, and Otavio Bueno and Mark Colyvan. My novel and detailed critique of these accounts shows that they are too limited to encompass the diverse roles of mathematics in science in historical and contemporary scenarios. The conclusion is that any such philosophical account should aim to faithfully capture the structure of our theories and their use in applied contexts.

This insight prompts the second question guiding this dissertation that I consider in Chapter 3, regarding a viable philosophical account of the role of mathematics in scientific theories. I respond by proposing a modified form of the reconstructive frameworks for philosophical analysis developed by Rudolf Carnap for theoretical entities. I propose three amendments to Carnap’s account: i) a semantic view for the representation of theories, ii) a careful consideration of instances of the use of theory in representing target systems, and iii) consideration of the practical complexity of relating theory to experimental data.

The final research question for this dissertation asks what, if anything, we can legitimately conclude about the nature of theoretical entities invoked by a theory in light of its success in representing phenomena. In the backdrop of the Carnapian frameworks proposed in Chapter 3, I argue that contemporary ontological debates in the philosophy of science are largely premised on an acceptance of Willard Quine’s epistemological outlook on the world and a dismissal of Carnap’s approach, which can be used to offer a satisfactory deflationary resolution. This is in the service of my contention that a Carnapian attitude to central issues in the philosophy of science is decidedly preferable to the route championed by Quine.