Friday, December 3, 2010

The Universal Language

Mark Vernon writes an interesting piece at Big Questions Online that addresses why many thinkers have concluded that the beauty and power of mathematics points to the existence of an incomprehensibly brilliant architect of the universe. Here's part of his essay:
It’s not just the universal nature of mathematics that’s striking; it’s that mathematics works at all. The natural world is a complex place. It’s packed with variations and permutations, random events and patterns so complex they are far from obvious to the eye.

And yet, mathematics can capture so much of that intricacy. What kind of alchemy transforms the lead of messy reality into the gold of a simple equation? It’s a question that was famously asked by the physicist Eugene Wigner, in 1960. He wrote an essay with a title that says it all: “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.”

Wigner notes the sense that many physicists have: mathematics seems to be discovered, not created. The reason to think this is that discoveries made about the physical world are often, first, discoveries made about mathematics....So, physics is about discovering the laws of nature, and those laws appear to be written in the language of math. Pi really is in the sky.

Wigner continues: “It is...a miracle that in spite of the baffling complexity of the world, certain regularities in the events could be discovered....It is hard to believe that our reasoning power was brought, by Darwin’s process of natural selection, to the perfection which it seems to possess.”

Mathematics looks miraculous....And yet, is the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences really evidence for the existence of a deity? Is the language of math divine? There are good reasons to doubt it.
Vernon adduces two rather lame (at least to my untutored mind) reasons to doubt that mathematics is a compass needle pointing to God, but you can read what he says for yourself at the link. Meanwhile, if you'd like an example of the sort of mathematical order that pervades the cosmos and which fills mathematicians and ordinary laymen alike with a sense of wonder check out this discussion of something called the Fibonacci series.