How Math Works

The Mathematical Universe
Can math explain it all?
Can math explain it all?
 Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Kennicutt/SINGS

The history of mathematics is a history of humanity seeking to understand the universe. Therefore, many consider the holy grail of mathematics to be the same as that of physics: a theory of everything, a unified theory that explains all physical reality.

Math generally plays a vital role in any theory of everything, but contemporary cosmologist Max Tegmark even goes so far as to theorize that the universe itself is made of math. In his mathematical universe hypothesis, he proposes that math is indeed a human discovery and that the universe is essentially one gigantic mathematical object. In other words, mathematics no more describes the universe than atoms describe the objects they compose; rather math is the universe. Tegmark even goes so far as to predict that a mathematical proof for a theory of everything could eventually fit on a T-shirt.

More than 60 years earlier, however, Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel put forth a theory that argues quite the opposite. Gödel's first incompleteness theorem concerns axioms, logical mathematical statements that we assume to be true but can't be proven with a mathematical proof. A simple example of this would be the axiom of equality (X = X). We assume this to be a true statement, but we can't actually back it up with a mathematical proof. Gödel's theorem states that any adequate axiomatizable theory is incomplete or inconsistent.

The implication, according to theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, is that mathematics is inexhaustible. No matter how many problems we solve, we'll inevitably encounter more unsolvable problems within the existing rules [source: Feferman]. This would also seem to rule out the potential for a theory of everything, but it still doesn't relegate the world of numbers to either human invention or human discovery.

Regardless, mathematics could stand as humanity's greatest invention. It composes a vital part of our neural architecture and continues to empower us beyond the mental limits we were born with, even as we struggle to fathom its limits.

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