On mathematics as language

The following is something I wrote back in summer of 2010, directed toward a friend who had studied mathematics and said, “Math is the truth.”

If one says, “Math is the truth,” it begs me to ask: what is “truth” in this context?

I’m tempted to think of “Truth” as something that is always fact, no matter what.

Where is math, what is its location?  The human mind (that grasps math), it seems.  Numbers do not exist in the natural, physical world (one cannot see a three cowering in the corner, a two tip-toeing…); rather, numbers work as objective adjectives (as you nicely put it, “universal descriptors”): three dogs play in the yard, etc.  Numbers are, in themselves, concepts that have the potential to describe events in the world once units are partnered with them.  Numbers are, in themselves, independent of the physical world; yes, their location seems to be the mind.

(We can certainly derive mathematical principles from the physical world.  But, for example, a circle we encounter in the natural world would have to be composed of some substance—it is not purely a circle, but a substance in the shape of a circle.  Nature definitely expresses a form of mathematics, don’t get me wrong!  I just mean one cannot find pure mathematics in the physical world [of course, one could argue: certainly, because it is the physical world and everything is physical!], but anyway…)

The fact that numbers are independent of the physical world seems to provide a sort of eternal, beyond-the-organic-temporal quality to math [sorry if this seems worded a bit weird].  But, would math exist without the mind?  Does math’s dependence on the mind make it less of a “truth”?

Math is a form of language: it is a language of value, of value changing, of value expressed….  It is a language that is not dependent on culture, which gives it an advantage above words in global communication.  But still, it is language.

But it is a language capable of being much more self-contained, self-referential than word language—a part of why, above, I called numbers objective adjectives.  (Word adjectives are all qualitative by nature, as they are meant to describe qualities—and they are subjective.  Someone could disagree with me if I say, “What tasty yogurt,” but no one could rightly argue against, “I just ate 4 oz of yogurt” [provided it is true].)  Word adjectives, when said, conjure up emotion, sensation—things that reference the physical world.  But numbers/mathematics, when discussed, conjure value only; and wherever one goes in mathematics, one remains with conjuring value (yes, self-contained, self-referential).

So, despite being language, mathematics is independent of the physical world.  The sort of truth it can have seems to be, at least, being capable of an existence without physical constraint.

And we’re back to this question: could math exist without the mind?  I think I will have to answer “no” [but see what I say later!].  But mathematics would have the potential to exist; mathematics could exist, if only in beautifully-complex-possibility form.  (Really, in beginning to talk about math’s “existence,” one needs to distinguish between Mathematics as all of the theorems and principles of numbers there could ever be and mathematics as all that which the human mind knows about numbers….These are important distinctions…I have been talking here about mathematics, mainly…)  (And, what is at the heart of “could math exist without the mind” is, well, what does it mean to “exist”?  Are “possibilities” forms of existing?)  Could Mathematics “exist” without the mind?  {I dare not answer this now; more to be thought and discussed—and defined.}

I thought this was worth sharing because, if math is language, it falls into the realm of poetry, in my opinion.