Probability, Existence, and Creation: A Footnote

Mario Livio writes:

[H]umans invent mathematical concepts by way of abstracting elements from the world around them—shapes, lines, sets, groups, and so forth—either for some specific purpose or simply for fun. They then go on to discover the connections among those concepts. Because this process of inventing and discovering is man-made—unlike the kind of discovery to which the Platonists subscribe—our mathematics is ultimately based on our perceptions and the mental pictures we can conjure….

[W]e adopt mathematical tools that apply to our world—a fact that has undoubtedly contributed to the perceived effectiveness of mathematics. Scientists do not choose analytical methods arbitrarily but rather on the basis of how well they predict the results of their experiments….

Not only do scientists cherry-pick solutions, they also tend to select problems that are amenable to mathematical treatment. There exists, however, a whole host of phenomena for which no accurate mathematical predictions are possible, sometimes not even in principle. In economics, for example, many variables—the detailed psychology of the masses, to name one—do not easily lend themselves to quantitative analysis. The predictive value of any theory relies on the constancy of the underlying relations among variables. Our analyses also fail to fully capture systems that develop chaos, in which the tiniest change in the initial conditions may produce entirely different end results, prohibiting any long-term predictions. Mathematicians have developed statistics and probability to deal with such shortcomings, but mathematics itself is limited, as Austrian logician Gödel famously proved….

This careful selection of problems and solutions only partially accounts for mathematics’s success in describing the laws of nature. Such laws must exist in the first place! Luckily for mathematicians and physicists alike, universal laws appear to govern our cosmos: an atom 12 billion light-years away behaves just like an atom on Earth; light in the distant past and light today share the same traits; and the same gravitational forces that shaped the universe’s initial structures hold sway over present-day galaxies. Mathematicians and physicists have invented the concept of symmetry to describe this kind of immunity to change….

I started with two basic, interrelated questions: Is mathematics invented or discovered? And what gives mathematics its explanatory and predictive powers? I believe that we know the answer to the first question. Mathematics is an intricate fusion of inventions and discoveries. Concepts are generally invented, and even though all the correct relations among them existed before their discovery, humans still chose which ones to study. The second question turns out to be even more complex. There is no doubt that the selection of topics we address mathematically has played an important role in math’s perceived effectiveness. But mathematics would not work at all were there no universal features to be discovered. You may now ask: Why are there universal laws of nature at all? Or equivalently: Why is our universe governed by certain symmetries and by locality? I truly do not know the answers, except to note that perhaps in a universe without these properties, complexity and life would have never emerged, and we would not be here to ask the question. (“Why Math Works,” Scientific American, August 2, 2011)

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