The possibility of introducing magnitudes in a certain domain of concrete material objects is by no means immediate, granted or elementary. First of all, it is necessary to find a property of such objects that permits to compare them, so that a quasi-serial ordering be introduced in their set, that is a total linear ordering not excluding that more than one object may occupy the same position in the series. Such an ordering must then undergo a metrization, which depends on finding a fundamental measuring procedure permitting the determination of a standard sample to which the unit of measure can be bound. This also depends on the existence of an operation of physical composition, which behaves additively with respect to the quantity which we intend to measure. Only if all these conditions are satisfied will it be possible to introduce a magnitude in a proper sense, that is a function which assigns to each object of the material domain a real number. This real number represents the measure of the object with respect to the intended magnitude. This condition, by introducing an homomorphism between the domain of the material objects and that of the positive real numbers, transforms the language of analysis (that is of the concrete theory of real numbers) into a language capable of speaking faithfully and truly about those physical objects to which it is said that such a magnitude belongs.
Does the success of applying mathematics in the study of the physical world mean that this world has a mathematical structure in an ontological sense, or does it simply mean that we find in mathematics nothing but a convenient practical tool for putting order in our representations of the world? Neither of the answers to this question is right, and this is because the question itself is not correctly raised. Indeed it tacitly presupposes that the endeavour of our scientific investigations consists in facing the reality of “things” as it is, so to speak, in itself. But we know that any science is uniquely concerned with a limited “cut” operated in reality by adopting a particular point of view, that is concretely manifested by adopting a restricted number of predicates in the discourse on reality. Several skilful operational manipulations are needed in order to bring about a homomorphism with the structure of the positive real numbers. It is therefore clear that the objects that are studied by an empirical theory are by no means the rough things of everyday experience, but bundles of “attributes” (that is of properties, relations and functions), introduced through suitable operational procedures having often the explicit and declared goal of determining a concrete structure as isomorphic, or at least homomorphic, to the structure of real numbers or to some other mathematical structure. But now, if the objects of an empirical theory are entities of this kind, we are fully entitled to maintain that they are actually endowed with a mathematical structure: this is simply that structure which we have introduced through our operational procedures. However, this structure is objective and real and, with respect to it, the mathematized discourse is far from having a purely conventional and pragmatic function, with the goal of keeping our ideas in order: it is a faithful description of this structure. Of course, we could never pretend that such a discourse determines the structure of reality in a full and exhaustive way, and this for two distinct reasons: In the first place, reality (both in the sense of the totality of existing things, and of the ”whole” of any single thing), is much richer than the particular “slide” that it is possible to cut out by means of our operational manipulations. In the second place, we must be aware that a scientific object, defined as a structured set of attributes, is an abstract object, is a conceptual construction that is perfectly defined just because it is totally determined by a finite list of predicates. But concrete objects are by no means so: they are endowed with a great deal of attributes of an indefinite variety, so that they can at best exemplify with an acceptable approximation certain abstract objects that are totally encoding a given set of attributes through their corresponding predicates. The reason why such an exemplification can only be partial is that the different attributes that are simultaneously present in a concrete object are, in a way, mutually limiting themselves, so that this object does never fully exemplify anyone of them. This explains the correct sense of such common and obvious remarks as: “a rigid body, a perfect gas, an adiabatic transformation, a perfect elastic recoil, etc, do not exist in reality (or in Nature)”. Sometimes this remark is intended to vehiculate the thesis that these are nothing but intellectual fictions devoid of any correspondence with reality, but instrumentally used by scientists in order to organize their ideas. This interpretation is totally wrong, and is simply due to a confusion between encoding and exemplifying: no concrete thing encodes any finite and explicit number of characteristics that, on the contrary, can be appropriately encoded in a concept. Things can exemplify several concepts, while concepts (or abstract objects) do not exemplify the attributes they encode. Going back to the distinction between sense on the one hand, and reference or denotation on the other hand, we could also say that abstract objects belong to the level of sense, while their exemplifications belong to the level of reference, and constitute what is denoted by them. It is obvious that in the case of empirical sciences we try to construct conceptual structures (abstract objects) having empirical denotations (exemplified by concrete objects). If one has well understood this elementary but important distinction, one is in the position of correctly seeing how mathematics can concern physical objects. These objects are abstract objects, are structured sets of predicates, and there is absolutely nothing surprising in the fact that they could receive a mathematical structure (for example, a structure isomorphic to that of the positive real numbers, or to that of a given group, or of an abstract mathematical space, etc.). If it happens that these abstract objects are exemplified by concrete objects within a certain degree of approximation, we are entitled to say that the corresponding mathematical structure also holds true (with the same degree of approximation) for this domain of concrete objects. Now, in the case of physics, the abstract objects are constructed by isolating certain ontological attributes of things by means of concrete operations, so that they actually refer to things, and are exemplified by the concrete objects singled out by means of such operations up to a given degree of approximation or accuracy. In conclusion, one can maintain that mathematics constitutes at the same time the most exact language for speaking of the objects of the domain under consideration, and faithfully mirrors the concrete structure (in an ontological sense) of this domain of objects. Of course, it is very reasonable to recognize that other aspects of these things (or other attributes of them) might not be treatable by means of the particular mathematical language adopted, and this may imply either that these attributes could perhaps be handled through a different available mathematical language, or even that no mathematical language found as yet could be used for handling them.