Is Math Created or Invented?

by Matt Life is full of enduring questions: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a noise?” Right up there with “Why did the chicken cross the road?” is a question at least as old as Pythagoras: “Is math discovered or invented?” It’s a fascinating question, and the answer we come to has ramifications for what we come to believe about the nature of the universe we inhabit and our place in it. A recent TED-ed video does a great job of both recounting this question’s history and its implications:

Galileo believed “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” Einstein wouldn’t go that far, but he did wonder how we can account for the astonishing degree to which our abstract thought in math later proves to unlock secrets of the physical universe:

How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?

Is that unreasonable effectiveness proof, as Galileo would have it, that there is an intelligence that orders the universe? Does it point to God? Or is it merely cause to wonder, an occasion to experience awe and beauty? Perhaps it’s just evidence of the way our thoughts work and our tendency to identify order where none exists. Is our sense that math is unreasonably effective at explaining the world but an illusion? Whatever your conclusion, these are questions you can’t evade and still pretend to be living the examined life. The nature of our thoughts, their relationship with the universe we inhabit, and the very nature of that universe are questions for all thinking people. For me, “this unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in explaining the universe supports (though does not prove) my prior belief that the universe is intelligent, ordered by an intelligent creator. I won’t pretend to be a neutral observer. I want to believe that beauty and truth and goodness and bliss aren’t just concepts we invented which bear an occasional and accidental relation to the universe, but rather are expressions of a Being woven into the very fabric of the universe which we’re privileged to seek and worship. But that’s me. What about you?

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