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The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, published by physicist Eugene Wigner in 1960, argues that the capacity of mathematics to successfully predict events in physics cannot be a coincidence, but must reflect some larger or deeper or simpler truth in both.

This was a work of both physics and of the philosophy of mathematics, specifically it speculated on the relationship between the philosophy of science and the foundations of mathematics:

"It is difficult to avoid the impression that a miracle confronts us here, quite comparable in its striking nature to the miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradictions, or to the two miracles of laws of nature and of the human mind's capacity to divine them."

Later, in What is Mathematical Truth?[?], Hilary Putnam would explain "the two miracles" as being both necessarily derived from a reality (but not Platonist) view of the philosophy of mathematics. However, Wigner went further in a passage he cautiously marked as 'not reliable', about cognitive bias:

"The writer is convinced that it is useful, in epistemological discussions, to abandon the idealization that the level of human intelligence has a singular position on an absolute scale. In some cases it may even be useful to consider the attainment which is possible at the level of the intelligence of some other species."

The question of whether humans checking the results of humans can be considered an objective basis for observation of the known (to humans) universe was interesting and has been followed up in both cosmology and the philosophy of mathematics.

Wigner also laid out the challenge of a cognitive approach to integrating the sciences:

"A much more difficult and confusing situation would arise if we could, some day, establish a theory of the phenomena of consciousness, or of biology, which would be as coherent and convincing as our present theories of the inanimate world."

Further he proposed that arguments could be found that might "put a heavy strain on our faith in our theories and on our belief in the reality of the concepts which we form. It would give us a deep sense of frustration in our search for what I called "the ultimate truth." The reason that such a situation is conceivable is that, fundamentally, we do not know why our theories work so well. Hence, their accuracy may not prove their truth and consistency. Indeed, it is this writer's belief that something rather akin to the situation which was described above exists if the present laws of heredity and of physics are confronted."

Some believe that this conflict exists in string theory, where very abstract models are impossible to test given the experimental apparatus at hand. While this remains the case, the 'string' must be thought either real but untestable, or simply an illusion or artifact of mathematics or cognition.

See also: Eugene Wigner, foundations of mathematics, quasi-empiricism in mathematics, philosophy of science, cosmology

External links

the paper (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner)



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