“Mathematics is the language of the universe.”
It’s the refrain in Darren Aronofsky’s wonderful debut, Pi. Countless articles have been written using this sentence as a central thesis. Galileo said it around 1600. Everyone’s favourite astrophysicist and all-round mensch, Neil deGrasse Tyson, tweeted it five years ago.
But to most people, math is dense, intractable and about as useful at “describing the universe” as Linear A. There is the very real possibility that you could only believe that math is the language of the universe if you spent so much time doing math that you a) start seeing it everywhere and b) are thereby unfamiliar with the many other languages of the universe.
Plato is a giant of philosophy, and even he fell into this trap. He wrote an entire book, the conclusion to which was that the people best suited to run the country are — surprise, surprise — philosophers.
Here is what the human brain does: It changes “I see everything in terms of math” to “math is the language of the universe”. You are a philosopher, and therefore aware of the heuristics your brain applies to incoming information. Rise above it.
Kurt Gödel’s gift to philosophers, what John Von Neumann described as “a landmark which will remain visible far in space and time”, was to demonstrate beyond all doubt that math isn’t even the language of math.
So what is mathematics?
It’s fun to make STEM people question their life choices, but no one’s claiming math is useless or stupid. Engineers and scientists need it to help develop airplanes and computers. It’s undoubtedly one of the greatest inventions of humanity, but that’s all it is.
Humans developed math as a modelling system to make calculations easier, or to avoid the tedious repetition of calculations. It describes a specific model of the universe which we can manipulate to produce certain results.
Most of our maths is notional and arbitrary; let X = Y.
In fact, much of it has no bearing on reality whatsoever. For instance, “infinity” is an inescapable mathematical conclusion, but it can’t be found in reality at all. “Infinity” is not a reality-based concept.
If you want a broader view of the many ways the universe has of expressing itself (and therefore the many ways we might have to solve problems presented by the universe), what you need is philosophy.