Math is Not a Mirror of Nature

Lee Smolin: I used to think that my job as a physicist was this kind of mystical transcendent undertaking to transcend the daily reality and experience of the world and discover this timeless representation of the world where the truth really was.

math is a tool.  There are different parts of mathematics that are useful as tools.  Mathematical deduction is outside of time.  If you deduce a prediction mathematically what you’re doing is representing a set of causal processes and causal relations carried out in time with a set of logical implications which are timeless.  But that’s fine to do if you understand what you’re doing. 


You’re making a representation of a bit of reality and using math as a tool to represent a process and the consequences of that process and the future evolution of that process.

What I don’t believe is true is that there is some mathematical object out there, some equation of mathematics or a solution of an equation of mathematics which just is one-to-one in correspondence with reality, what the philosopher Richard Rorty called the mirror of nature. 

I don’t believe that there is a mirror of the history of the world in some timeless mathematical equation or solution to an equation - which is what I used to think.  I used to think that my job as a physicist was this kind of mystical transcendent undertaking to transcend the daily reality and experience of the world and discover this timeless representation of the world where the truth really was.

I don’t think that anymore but mathematics still is a tool.  I’m very open minded as to what tools we would use to represent and analyze ideas.  For me science and physics is not about finding a mathematical representation of reality and then going and working the mathematics.  Science is about hypotheses and their consequences and we use math as a tool and logarithms as a tool, simulation as a tool to work out the consequences of those hypotheses. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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