The Mysterious Timelessness of Math

Sunday, October 10, 2021

What Is It

Math is a really useful subject—at least, that's what your parents and teachers told you. But math also leads to scenarios, like Zeno's paradoxes, that seem to inspire skepticism. So why do we believe in math and rely on it to build bridges and spaceships? How can anyone discover the secrets of the universe by simply scribbling numbers on a piece of paper? Is math some kind of magic, or does it have a more ordinary explanation? And could math be culturally relative, or are its concepts timeless and universal? Josh and Ray add things up with Arezoo Islami from SF State University.

Comments (2)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, August 11, 2021 -- 8:22 AM

I think I sorta get the idea

I think I sorta get the idea that math is thought of as timeless. Still, that idea seems metaphysical in some sense. I mean, if we accept that even life itself is not timeless---geological science and the fossil record suggest this---how might we square such a notion with the origins of man? I like my brother's characterization of metaphysics as a 'wild-ass guess'..But then, is metaphysics also timeless? It would not seem so.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, August 27, 2021 -- 10:18 AM

Plato tied the concept of

Plato tied the concept of forms to western thought like a gordian knot. That Einstein revisited Bernard Reiman's topology to mathematize gravity counterfactually reinforced the idea that math is an a priori act of discovery. It is not.

Mathematics and logic seem to suggest a priori knowledge without the need for experience. But that knowledge was never preexisting to the human act of investigation. The timelessness that imaginary numbers undermine is the product of these investigations.

That some math precedes its application is only a reflection of the gurgling intellectual history of its creation. Bernard Rieman pushed the Zeta function into the complex plane and thought of the curvature of space due to mathematical tools taken from space and motion. Rieman defined the integral, not Leibniz or Newton. Hilbert corrected Rieman's Dirichlet principle. Einstein took a decade to work out the math to explain general relativity.

Math attaches itself to the brain that creates it. It is enduring in the culture that teaches it. It is deceptive in the view that confuses truth with beauty. Repeatability is the only measure of progress worth rigor. The empirical law of epistemology makes sense. Arezoo Islami seems poised to sever this knot.

Viewing information algorithmically is a new mathematical tool. Islami's philosophy promises the tools to come with the proper philosophical foundation from which to make those investigations. If her work is understood, I would think much money and time could be saved thinking of the problems we face and not false visions of preexisting depth and meaning – like space travel and plastic islands floating in the middle of our oceans.

Godel proved some true theorems cannot be proven. Turing showed that some functions cannot be computed. Dr. Islami is suggesting math offers tools that can be, and necessarily are, constructed.

Islami's view is deep, and not widely accepted by practitioners of technology and science. I look forward to corrections if this is not her tack.

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