SOPhiA 2017

Salzburgiense Concilium Omnibus Philosophis Analyticis

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Programme - Talk

The "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics" in Biology and the Fallacy from Complexity
(Philosophy of Science, English)

The applicability of mathematics in the natural sciences has been subject to opposing views. Eugene P. Wigner famously discussed the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences" (Wigner 1960). On the other hand, Israel M. Gelfand pessimistically spoke of "the unreasonable ineffectiveness of mathematics in biology".

I defend the view that arguments against the usefulness of mathematics in the biological sciences are based on

(i) ignorance of success stories from the history of useful applications of mathematical models in biology,

(ii) the misconception that the ideals of how mathematics has been applied to physics in the past would be transferable to biology, and

(iii) a mistaken argument with reference to the complexity of biological systems.

While (i) and (ii) are of historical nature, the argument from complexity (iii) will be analyzed systematically and in more detail. This argument can be reconstructed as follows:

1. Mathematics can only be useful in simple settings.

2. Biology is not simple.

3. Thus, mathematics is not useful in biology.

Contrary to premise 1, I argue with recent examples from systems biology that it is exactly in complex settings where mathematics provides the tools needed for biological reasoning.

Chair: Birgit Benzing
Time: 15:05-15:35, 14 September 2017 (Thursday)
Location: SR 1.006

Gregor Greslehner 
(University of Salzburg, Austria)

Gregor Greslehner is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Salzburg, working in philosophy of biology. He also holds a master's degree in molecular biology. Currently, he is a visiting scholar at the University of California, Irvine.

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