Mathematical Analogies in Physics: the Curious Case of Gauge Symmetries

Guy Hetzroni, Noah Stemeroff

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Gauge symmetries provide one of the most puzzling examples of the applicability of mathematics in physics. The presented work focuses on the role of analogical reasoning in the gauge argument, motivated by Mark Steiner's claim that the application of the gauge principle relies on a Pythagorean analogy whose success undermines naturalist philosophy. In this paper, we present two different views concerning the analogy between gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear interactions, each providing a different philosophical response to the problem of the applicability of mathematics in the natural sciences. The first is based on an account of Weyl's original work, which first gave rise to the gauge principle. Drawing on his later philosophical writings, we develop an idelaist reading of the mathematical analogies in the gauge argument. On this view, mathematical analogies serve to ensure a conceptual harmony in our scientific account of nature. We further discuss the construction of Yang and Mills's gauge theory in light of this idealist reading. The second account presents a naturalist alternative, formulated in terms of John Norton's account of a material analogy, according to which the analogy succeeds in virtue of a physical similarity between the different interactions. This account is based on the methodological equivalence principle, a simple conceptual extension of the gauge principle that allows us to understand the relation between coordinate transformations and gravity as a manifestation of the same method. The physical similarity between the different cases is based on attributing the success of this method to the dependence of the coupling on relational physical quantities. We conclude by reflecting on the advantages and limits of the idealist, naturalist, and anthropocentric Pythagorean views, as three alternative ways to understand the puzzling relation between mathematics and physics.
Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationMathematical Knowledge, Objects and Applications
EditorsC. Posy , Y. Ben-Menahem
StateE-pub ahead of print - 2022


  • Applicability of Mathematics Mathematical Analogies Gauge Symmetries Naturalism Neo-Kantianism


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