Mathematics and realism

I read in Liberation a rather surprising tribune (in French) by “Yann Moix, writer”. The starting point is a criticism of Stephen Hawking (and Leonard Mlodinow)’s recent book The Grand Design, With regards to its conclusion that a god is not necessary to explain the creation and the working of the Universe: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” I haven’t read Hawking’s book (although I briefly considered buying it in London last time I was there, here is a Guardian review), I had never heard before of this (controversial) writer, and I do not see the point in debating about supernatural beings (except when reviewing a fantasy book!). However, the arguments of Moix are rather limited from a philosophical viewpoint.

His main point is that physics is based upon a mathematical formalism that determines our vision of the Universe and does not necessarily corresponds to reality (“our mathematics are not the only possible ones“). This is a rather common argument against Platonic realism, following Nietzsche’s perspectivism that physics is an interpretation of the World, not an explanation (nor the truth). Moix argues that mathematics necessarily stem from the human mind and from human perceptions. (He paradoxically quotes Gödel to back his point, while Gödel actually was in agreement with Platonicism.)  He then diverges from this criticism of physics towards an anti-Hardy‘s diatribe about mathematicians being ashamed of the connection between mathematics and the real world (!).  The tribune ends up with a very shallow or even absurd rejection of cosmology (“what is not regulated by logic cannot be explained by science” (??), “the Universe does not care about theories: it knows they are wrong”, “the equation of the World cannot be written for linguistic reasons”,  “if the word `origin’ did not exist, we would not look for the origin of the Universe”), mostly borrowing from a more consequent coverage in Liberation, and with the conclusion that Hawking is unable to decide whether or not God exists (which does not seem to be the statement made in the book).  The whole matter is inconsequent and I have no opinion about Hawking’s book (although it seems to me more like marketing than science), however I think it is revealing that a rather liberal newpaper like Liberation echoes such skepticism.

Ps- In Anathem, the question raised by Moix is answered by a deep belief in realism: the Pythagorean theorem is common to all universes, even when their particle physics differ, to the point of being represented on spaceships! (Obviously, this is not a convincing argument since the Pythagorean theorem does not hold in non-Euclidean geometries…)

One Response to “Mathematics and realism”

  1. […] and I thought this issue would bring some interesting and deep arguments in connection with my math and realism post. The debate is very short, does not go in any depth. reproduces the Hawking’s quote that […]

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