Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mathematics pointing to the transcendent

Children learn from this that numbers are wonderful shortcuts. Instead of saying the word “fish” exactly as many times as there are penguins, Humphrey could use the more powerful concept of “six.”

As adults, however, we might notice a potential downside to numbers. Sure, they are great time savers, but at a serious cost in abstraction. Six is more ethereal than six fish, precisely because it’s more general. It applies to six of anything: six plates, six penguins, six utterances of the word “fish.” It’s the ineffable thing they all have in common.

Viewed in this light, numbers start to seem a bit mysterious. They apparently exist in some sort of Platonic realm, a level above reality. In that respect they are more like other lofty concepts (e.g., truth and justice), and less like the ordinary objects of daily life. Upon further reflection, their philosophical status becomes even murkier. Where exactly do numbers come from? Did humanity invent them? Or discover them?

A further subtlety is that numbers (and all mathematical ideas, for that matter) have lives of their own. We can’t control them. Even though they exist in our minds, once we decide what we mean by them we have no say in how they behave. They obey certain laws and have certain properties, personalities, and ways of combining with one another, and there’s nothing we can do about it except watch and try to understand. In that sense they are eerily reminiscent of atoms and stars, the things of this world, which are likewise subject to laws beyond our control … except that those things exist outside our heads.

This dual aspect of numbers — as part- heaven, and part- earth — is perhaps the most paradoxical thing about them, and the feature that makes them so useful. It is what the physicist Eugene Wigner had in mind when he wrote of “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences.”
--Steven Strogatz, NYT, on the order in God's Creation

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