29 Mar 2018              home | knowledge


Last night on public television a program titled "The Great Math Mystery" was not as clear as it could have been.

Let's begin with the question, What are numbers? Numbers are imagined abstractions that we use to label or to count specific things, or to measure. Abstractions exist in our mind. I venture to say that abstractions do not exist outside the mind of humans or some clever animals. Abstractions are not attached to anything physical.

Consider the following. A few people walk by your house every workday morning. You count them: one, two, three, etcetera. The fourth person doesn't consider herself as embodying anything such as four-ness. That is something in your mind. It's your subjectivity, not hers.

The ancient philosopher Pythagoras was confused and associated numbers with real things outside the human head. Plato followed suit. (Both were discussed in last night's broadcast.) With theological certitude, Pythagoras held to the nonsense that the number 1 embodied reason, 2 was female, 3 was male, 5 (2+3) was marriage, and 6 (marriage plus 1) was creation.

We can imagine various kinds of numbers: odd numbers, even numbers. We can add numbers, divide them by other numbers (10 divided by 2 = 5), put them in different kinds of sequences, or put them into equations (dividing both sides of the equal sign by the same number simplifies the equation). Working with equations helps us measure relationships.

Mathematics has a vocabulary that one needs to learn in order to communicate with professional mathematicians. There are in nature, curves to be measured, accelerations and decelerations, randomness and other patterns to be considered. Scientists applying math to motion and matter outside the mind find amazing patterns. But it would be an assumption or metaphysics to claim that math exists not only in the heads of mathematicians but also in that which they are measuring.

One person interviewed in last night's broadcast said that mathematics is absolute and that engineers and scientists measuring nature are working with approximation. As we delve into greater complexity, our measurements become more difficult and out of reach. Our ability to measure, in other words, has limitations, hence the approximation.

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