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.
Lee attended Harvard University for graduate school receiving a Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1979. He held postdoctoral positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, The Institute for Theoretical Physics (now KITP) in Santa Barbara and the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago. This was followed by faculty positions at Yale, Syracuse and Penn State Universities, where he helped to found the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry. In September of 2001 he moved to Canada to be a founding member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, where he has been ever since.
Lee's main contributions to research are so far to the field of quantum gravity. He was, with Abhay Ashtekar and Carlo Rovelli, a founder of the approach known as loop quantum gravity, but he has contributed to other approaches including string theory and causal dynamical triangulations. He is also known for proposing the notion of the landscape of theories, based on his application of Darwinian methods to Cosmology. He has contributed also to the foundations of quantum mechanics, elementary particle physics and theoretical biology. He also has a strong interest in philosophy and his three books, Life of the Cosmos, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity and The Trouble with Physics are in part philosophical explorations of issues raised by contemporary physics.
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.
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