Saturday, March 16, 2013

Playing for truth

I have been reading and thinking about mathematical philosophy lately. There are many schools of thought that try to address the question of whether mathematics is a more accurate reflection of truth than the reflections arrived at through other sciences.

For historical reasons, in the West we are raised in the Rationalist tradition that tells us that math is King (masculine oligarchical noun selected on purpose here). If an observed or empirical piece of data defies a piece of information that has been proven mathematically, there is supposed to be a problem with the empirical data, not math. Interestingly, this is what is taught and is the water in which we swim, but it is not representative of how science/math actually works. 

What actually happens is that whenever possible, mathematicians are guided by intuition. Like most of us, they use their learned experiences (their sense perceptions) to inform their intuitions. In a world in which any three points (instead of two) defined a straight line but straight lines also had every other characteristic that they have in our world, the intuitions of mathematicians would be very different than they are here. 

To add insult to injury for those hoping that mathematics could help find truth, physicists compare their mathematical results with physical data whenever they can. If there is not a match between the math and the data, they start over on their equations. Chemists, biologists, and neuroscientists follow this same rule. When in doubt, the empirical data win.

What fascinates me is that the agreed-upon story, at least culturally, is that math wins. Yet in reality, experience wins. This situation is so human, it's touching. We realize that our senses are flawed, so we strive for truth elsewhere, and we think that math offers a place beyond our senses. But we have such faith in our senses and/or we are so trapped by them that we have difficulty believing any truth unless our senses support and defend it. I think this paradoxical position is nonetheless the correct one.

One way to leave this paradox in the dust is to admit that our work cannot really find truth. Instead, we can only play with truth using every game we can dream up. It seems to me that if there is any truth to be found by mathematicians and scientists, it is in play

We follow our curiosity and see where it goes. Sometimes it goes somewhere beautiful and elegant, and we are inspired. Sometimes it goes somewhere dark, clunky and awkward, and we are driven away. Sometimes the beautiful and the ugly conspire to produce elegant and damaging results, sometimes they conspire to produce awkward and healing results.

Regardless of the results, what drives most of us is that we delight in playing these games with the universe. The act of this play is where we find the closest thing to truth. Not in our results or our methods, but in the act of this relationship with the universe; the simultaneous and mutual, loving and awe-struck interaction with what is within and beyond us.

The feeling of communion and delight we get from this relationship is what keeps us playing. I wonder if that same feeling is what keeps the rest of the universe playing as well.

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