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According to the doctrine of nominalism, abstract entities--such as numbers, functions, and sets--do not exist. The problem this normally poses for a description of the physical world is as follows: any such description must include a physical theory, physical theories are assumed to require mathematics, and mathematics is replete with references to abstract entities. How, then, can nominalism reasonably be maintained? In answer, Hartry Field shows how abstract entities ultimately are dispensable in describing the physical world and that, indeed, we can "do science without numbers."
The author also argues that despite the ultimate dispensability of mathematical entities, mathematics remains useful, and that its usefulness can be explained by the nominalist. The explanation of the utility of mathematics does not presuppose that mathematics is true, but only that it is consistent. The argument that the nominalist can freely use mathematics in certain contexts without assuming it to be true appears early on, and it first seems to license only a quite limited use of mathematics. But when combined with the later argument that abstract entities ultimately are dispensable in physical theories, the conclusion emerges that even the most sophisticated applications of mathematics depend only on the assumption that mathematics is consistent and not on the assumption that it is true.
Originally published in 1980.
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