I am much interested in discussions such as Wigner's "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences". It's quite amazing that mathematics so well applies to our universe, and this raises many interesting questions which have been discussed here already, but I am interested in the converse as well: "There is no branch of mathematics, however abstract, which may not some day be applied to phenomena of the real world." (Lobachevsky)

So, then, my question is thus: what is known of the limits to the relationship between mathematics and physics. It seems that no matter the subject, it finds its way into a description of our reality. Is this so because we, as denizens of this universe, cannot imagine anything due to our mental structure being at some level composed of the very physical laws we wish to comprehend? Might alternative constructions of mathematics be more applicable in other universes, and we merely neglect their study, not seeing their worth? Or is there so deep, arcane tie-in between mathematics and nature, such that nature must effect each mathematically formalizable notion in some form or another. The last point is to say, how accurate was the second quote I posted? Is there a 'use' so-to-speak, a physical or social or cognitive implementation of any given arbitrary mathematical system? And what might I read on other's thoughts of why mathematics seems to hold such power on our minds and our world?

There's the idea that mathematics merely exists because it's a useful tool, though there is a certain grand structure in many areas of mathematics which start with merely few axioms, and the complexity just falls out of it naturally. Does our reality play catch-up with mathematics, or vice versa?


5 Answers 5


I had asked a similar question and the insight I got is this:

Our hardwired perception is root of our logic. And anything built upon such logic will be natural for us.

The grandness/beauty/natural-feel that falls out of our mathematical endeavors is nothing but a revelation, that its that same perception.

Colors for example:

we can see colors , so every thing visible to us in universe will have a color.

Did one simple ability of perception just forced a universal rule that all visible objects must have color ? Did we just painted the whole universe colorful, with a single mind trick ?

How wonderful is that, to us.

Now, You can have an abstract painting, but not an abstract color. Also, no perfect color, no universal color.

Is color a property of everything visible in universe ?

should 'Red+Blue+Green=White' be considered a Mathematical theorem ?

Mathematics faces similar questions here, when one assumes that it can define any phenomenon in universe.

  • "anything built upon such logic will be natural for us" - Try finding someone for whom quantum theory is "natural".
    – Xodarap
    Oct 9, 2012 at 17:44
  • But are all abstract mathematical entities realizable in some non-abstract form?
    – Alex Nye
    Oct 10, 2012 at 7:49
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    @AlexNye The notion of abstract depends on you. Again by the example of Colors: You might see an elephant like shape in an abstract painting, while some other person disagrees with you. Though you both will agree about the colors of the painting more that that about the shapes. Hence, you can always translate an abstract entity using a physical analogy, which follows similar rules/logic (if you ever find one), but no guarantee others will perceive it the same as you do.
    – user2411
    Oct 11, 2012 at 6:24
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    @AlexNye An explanation of imaginary numbers , using a physical analogy, a pie.
    – user2411
    Oct 11, 2012 at 6:27
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    @wingman. If you think that "you both will agree about the colors of the painting more that that about the shapes," I would suggest checking out the essay, “Colour Categories and Category Acquisition In Himba and English,” in Progress in Colour Studies: Volume II. Psychological Aspects. Although I realize that you used a comparative in your construction, the idea that there are not objective color-perception should, perhaps, minimize the importance of "abstraction" in this discussion.
    – Jon
    Oct 12, 2012 at 18:53

Alex, excellent question, here.

I think Wigner's paper gives little defense to the Platonist case. It seems to me that he's merely saying "applying mathematics to physics is useful to us," but this doesn't quite lead us to believe that "mathematical entities are real," which is what the Platonists would want to say. This is why I think that: consider the possibility of stripping the theories of science of their mathematics. If we were able to do this, would we have any reason to think of numbers as still being real? I'm not sure that we would.

Note that I'm not saying our theory would be better, or anything. It'd probably be much worse! You could definitely argue that keeping the numbers in the theory has value, that it's good; perhaps it's easier for humans to solve, or better yet, computers. Or maybe the theories are more compact with numbers. But if the theories don't actually depend on the mathematics, who cares, right?

It's useful for me to think that I'm on just on a bus when I'm 35,000 feet in an airplane, because that helps me get through the flight without freaking out. But of course I have no reason to think that this useful thought has any bearing on what's real.

This idea that I've introduced is called the indispensability argument, or the Quine-Putnam thesis. It basically says that we absolutely rely on mathematical entities to explain scientific entities, so we have just as much reason to believe in those mathematical entities as our scientific entities. A good thing about this theory that you don't even need to think that scientific entities are real to accept it. It just says that we should have the same confidence in mathematical entities as we have in scientific ones, whatever that amount of confidence might be (even if it's none).

There are a vast number of criticisms about the original Quine-Putnam thesis, some of which you can read in that article or on the Wikipedia. One criticism was that some philosophers doubted that any scientific theory depended on math at all!

However, just a few years ago, a paper was published where a brilliant philosopher, Alan Baker, found such a theory. You can read it in his paper here.

So where do we go from here? If Baker is right, then we do rely on a mathematical property for a scientific explanation. Should we only place confidence in those mathematical entities (prime numbers?) Or all mathematical entities? Is that one example enough?

Anyway, I just thought these sorts of thoughts and questions were relevant, so I decided to share them. I hope you find it interesting!

  • Oh, nice, you mention the Quine-Duhem thesis in your indispensability argument paper. Duhem's thesis of the underdetermination of theory by fact seems important there, too, because mathematics can be applied to physics in various ways, whereas an Aristotelian, who thinks one does mathematics by doing physics (viz., mathematics uniquely results from doing physics), would seem to think that mathematics only applies to reality in one way.
    – Geremia
    Sep 21, 2014 at 2:59
  • cf. this by Duhem: To Save the Phenomena: Essay on the Concept of Physical Theory from Plato to Galileo. Referring to how mathematics can be applied to physics in multiple ways, Plato invented the phrase "to save the phenomena" or "Σώζειν τὰ Φαινόμενα" (cf. scientific formalism).
    – Geremia
    Nov 27, 2016 at 3:17
  • The "indispensability argument" is bogus, and I have written about it in some detail here. Unfortunately, many people on Phil SE downvote what they do not understand, which is why my answer (currently) has a negative score.
    – user21820
    Oct 5, 2021 at 18:31

Your question presupposes in some ways that it is possible to perceive (in the broadest sense possible, not just through our senses, but also through our senses + tools) a universe that is not compliant (in some way) with our logic or mathematics. Not all philosophers would grant you this premise. In fact, most have a very difficult time in showing that there is an 'external' world that we are modeling. For a very clear example of this see Hume's radical empirical skepticism which reduced Locke and Berkley's empiricism to a completely subjective (and rather solipsistic) philosophy. If you want this taken even further, consider Kripke's presentation of Wittgenstein.

As an example of a noted philosopher (unfortunately one that was not very knowledgeable of the math of his day) who would not grant you this premise is Kant. For Kant, the world in itself is not organized in any particular spatial or temporal manner. Geometry and time-sense are synthetic a priori to our mind, and thus all perceptions and sensations we could ever have are inherently forced to comply to this structure of our mind. In that setting, the applicability of math is no surprise since we can only perceive things that comply or can be expressed in our a priori math-sense.

Of course, this aspect of Kant is easy to argue with (because he had pretty big misconceptions about the math of his day, and would definitely be behind in our day), but it has been refined by contemporary thinkers among the same line. The basic premise is that if it doesn't comply with logic/something-math-like then we cannot possible perceive it. For these philosophers, the effectiveness of mathematics would not be surprising.

For Plato in particular, the effectiveness of mathematics would be absolutely no surprise. Math for Plato is in the world of perfect forms, and the sensible world is just shadows and imperfect copies of these forms. Thus, the fact that we remember the mathematical forms necessary to describe idealizations of the world is to be expected.


Our own existence is evidence that the Universe is predictable. Evolution could not occur in an unpredictable universe. In fact all life depends on predictability - from bacteria, to mammals, to humans, to nervous systems and brains. The main goal a brain has is to predict what actions it can perform to achieve it's goals. During human evolution, human brains have created language as an enhanced way to model the universe and to achieve better predictions about the universe. Science and mathematics are simply extended versions of language that we find to be useful when it comes to predicting the universe. So as we have tried to develop laws of physics we have found that we can get better predictions by using mathematics to state the laws of physics. However, the real meaning of physical laws is simply that they enhance our ability to predict the universe - I don't believe they have any reality beyond allowing enhanced predictability.

As to whether all sub-fields of mathematics will find some applicability in the laws of physics is something that I think cannot be known. What is known is that many fields of mathematics that at one time were thought to have no applicability to physics have been found to be applicable and to be useful in developing physical laws. A recent example is that advanced mathematical topology seemed to only be a mathematical field with no applicability to physics, but from what I hear some very deep topological theorems are allowing some breakthroughs in the area of string theories and quantum theories in general.

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    I like the implicit notion that we cannot predict whether our predictive models will be useful. It makes sense to think of it this way.
    – Alex Nye
    Oct 12, 2012 at 21:08

Is it equally unreasonable to assume language should apply to physics?

After all, didn't we evolve language exactly to apply to our perceived word? From the point of view of symbolic logic, Mathematics is just a very deep, systematic probing of language. And from a point of view of many philosophers of science, physics is just a very deep, systematic probing of our perceptions.

So, of course we would expect extremely refined language to fit extremely refined perception as well (and perhaps only as well, note quantum indeterminacy) as ordinary language fits ordinary perception.

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