Towards a Fictionalist Philosophy of Mathematics

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Robert Knowles


In this thesis, I aim to motivate a particular philosophy of mathematics characterised by the following three claims. First, mathematical sentences are generally speaking false because mathematical objects do not exist. Second, people typically use mathematical sentences to communicate content the truth of which does not require mathematical objects to exist. Finally, in using mathematical language in this way, speakers are not doing anything out of the ordinary: they are performing straightforward assertions. In Part I, I argue that the role played by mathematics in our scientific explanations is a purely expressive one, merely allowing us to say more than we otherwise would be able to about, or yielding a greater understanding of, the physical world. Mathematical objects to not need to exist for mathematical language to play this role. This proposal puts a normative constraint on our use of mathematical language: we ought to use mathematically presented theories to express belief only in the consequences they have for non-mathematical things. In Part II, I will argue that what the normative proposal recommends is in fact what people generally do in both pure and applied mathematical contexts. I motivate this claim by showing that it is predicted by our best general means of analysing natural language. I provide a semantic theory of applied arithmetical sentences and show that they do not purport to refer to numbers, as well as a pragmatic theory for pure mathematical language use which shows that pure mathematical utterances do not typically communicate content that implies the existence of mathematical objects. In conclusion, I show the hermeneutic fictionalist position that emerges is preferable to any alternative which interprets mathematical discourse as aimed at describing a domain of independently existing abstract mathematical objects.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date31 Dec 2015