Is Mathematics Invented or Discovered?

Mathematics is the language of science and has enabled mankind to make extraordinary technological advances. There is no question that the logic and order that underpins mathematics, has served us in describing the patterns and structure we find in nature.

The successes that have been achieved, from the mathematics of the cosmos down to electronic devices at the microscale, are significant. Einstein remarked, “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?”

Amongst mathematicians and scientists there is no consensus on this fascinating question. The various types of responses to Einstein’s conundrum include:

1) Maths is innate. The reason mathematics is the natural language of science, is that the universe is underpinned by the same order. The structures of mathematics are intrinsic to nature. Moreover, if the universe disappeared tomorrow, our eternal mathematical truths would still exist. It is up to us to discover mathematics and its workings–this will then assist us in building models that will give us predictive power and understanding of the physical phenomena we seek to control.

2) Maths is a human construct. The only reason mathematics is admirably suited describing the physical world is that we invented it to do just that. It is a product of the human mind and we make mathematics up as we go along to suit our purposes. If the universe disappeared, there would be no mathematics in the same way that there would be no football, tennis, chess or any other set of rules with relational structures that we contrived. Mathematics is not discovered, it is invented. This is the non-Platonist position.

3) Maths is not so successful. Those that marvel at the ubiquity of mathematical applications have perhaps been seduced by an overstatement of their successes. Analytical mathematical equations only approximately describe the real world, and even then only describe a limited subset of all the phenomena around us. We tend to focus on those physical problems for which we find a way to apply mathematics, so overemphasis on these successes is a form of “cherry picking.” This is the realist position.

4) Keep calm and carry on. What matters is that mathematics produces results. Save the hot air for philosophers. This is called the “shut up and calculate” position.

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