Contact Us    
What Mathematical Certainty?

Fifth in a series on the search for meaning in a world that doesn't want to bother with it.

by Everett Wilson
February 2, 2005

Bookmark and Share

As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.
—Albert Einstein
I found Einstein's comment among the exercises in With Good Reason, a textbook on informal fallacies by S. Morris Engel. In the exercise, Engel directed the reader to analyze the language of the statement. Two questions came to my mind. Was Einstein kidding? Was he making a defensible assertion?
Without the context of the statement, I do not know. Even with the context, I probably wouldn't know, seeing it was Einstein who said it - but I would tend to believe it because it was Einstein. If I believe him when he says that energy equals mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light, though I have no idea what that means or why it should be so, I can easily believe him when he says that mathematics has an uncertain reference to reality.
My belief proves nothing. Neither would the opposite conclusion that Einstein was talking nonsense. We know from other instances that he was not above paradox — a fancy way to kid around — as when he said that God does not play dice with the universe. While it is unlikely he had the biblical God in mind, we are not sure what or who else he had in mind. This lack of definition doesn't keep it from being one of his more popular quotations. We assume he meant something, even if we don't get it ourselves.
In the statement about mathematical certainty, however, he used "reality" as a standard of comparison. While we may or not know who God is, the concept of reality is available to all. We all live in the real world, right? Reality, to be real, only has to be. It doesn't owe anything to anybody. Mathematical descriptions apply to realities, but mathematical certainties apply only to themselves. Whether he was kidding or not, Einstein still brought into question the phrase — to a mathematical certainty — as it applies to the world beyond mathematics.
Mathematics is one of many ways we have to describe reality, not to explain it. Description is not explanation. "Two plus two" is a description. So is "Energy equals mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light."
  • In the search for meaning, the absolute theist declares: "Mathematics will never be able to explain reality, only to describe it, because mathematics is not ultimate reality."
  • In the same search, the absolute secularist declares: "Mathematics hasn't yet explained reality. But it still might; and in collaboration with the hard sciences, I think it will."

Theist and secularist agree with each other that bigotry needs exposing and fact needs establishing, but the work of both proceeds on faith. Both the scientist and the metaphysician say at the beginning, "I will treat this statement as true and see if it leads anywhere but to a dead end." Neither should criticize the other for this commonsense approach to knowledge. 
If there are any who declare that faith is not a method of knowing, they can declare it only by faith! Faith is the road to certainty, but ultimate certainty is grounded in ultimate reality. Faith in less than ultimate reality leads to less than ultimate certainty.
If there are no mathematical certainties in the cosmos, only provisional descriptions of its varied phenomena, we must look beyond the cosmos for the ultimate and find it there, if it is to be found. 

All Installments of this Series:
1. The Possible Possibility, 10/2/2004
2. The Legitimately Weird, 10/16/2004
3. Nature and Supernature, 11/29/2004
4. Designer Jeans, Designer God, 1/6/2005
5. What Mathematical Certainty?, 2/2/2005
6. Credible, Not Verifiable, 2/28/2005
7. The God of Ultimate Meaning, 2/28/2005
8. Dialogue with a Postmodern Nephew, 5/11/2005 
9. Why the Bible?, 5/21/2005
10. Why Jesus?, 6/4/2005

Post a Comment

Send Us Your Opinion
(Comments are moderated.)
Your Name:*

Your E-Mail Address:*
(Confidential. Will not be published.)


Note: In order to control automated spam submissions, URLs are no longer permitted in this form.

Please type the letters you see above.


Bookmark and Share

Sponsored Link
If you or someone you know isn't quite up to snuff on their math skills and you want to give them some help consider referring them to online math worksheets. With the advent of the internet it's easier than ever to get math help. So don't get left behind look into kids activities that emphasize math and stay on top of your math skills!

Real Things
A novel.
Published January 2, 2008
Temporarily Unavailable

Real Things first appeared in serialized form on the Partial Observer in 2001. It is now available in print for the first time.

Over thirty years after a senseless crash redefined his life, Greg Thompson and his family finally learn why.

More Information
RSS Feed for Everett Wilson: RSS Feed for Everett Wilson
Sign up to receive an e-mail notice when new articles by this author are published. Your address remains confidential, and you may cancel at any time. A confirmation email will be sent.

Your e-mail address:
What Mathematical Certainty?
po Books
Now Available!

Teachings of a Three Year Old... Turned Tyke,
by Hal Evan Caplan.

A father learns from the wisdom of his toddler.

More Information.

More by Everett Wilson
Necessary Things, A Companion and Sequel to Real Things
Available from Amazon Books, Amazon Kindle, and Me!
by Everett Wilson, 2/16/15
Until Barrett is Free, Neither Are We
Freedom of the Press is not a whim of the state
by Everett Wilson, 2/26/14
Why the United States Will not Get Competent Universal Health Care in my Lifetime
Six Obvious Reasons
by Everett Wilson, 11/15/13
An Open Letter to Congressman Jeff Fortenberry
Clean Sweep Time
by Everett Wilson, 10/2/13
An Open Letter to Congressman Jeff Fortenberry
Clean Sweep Time
by Everett Wilson, 10/1/13
Excerpt from my new novel, Scoundrels and Fools
Chapter 5: Ellis Johnson
by Everett Wilson, 7/12/13
The Rev. Marjorie Drickey's Last Message to a Dying World
And all the trumpets sounded for her on the other side.
by Everett Wilson, 2/14/13
» Complete List (151)

RSS Feed for Everett Wilson: RSS Feed for Everett Wilson

Recently Published
View Article A Final Word
It’s been a good ride
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 10/20/21
The Last Post
The Partial Observer is no more
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 10/15/21
The Challenges and Chances of Change
Announcing a coming change
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 10/8/21
On Each Continent We Worship
A new hymn for World Communion Sunday
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 10/1/21
Tending the Family Tree
A grandparent's charge
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 9/24/21
The Cross is Our Ground Zero
Why the cross is the crux of our faith
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 9/17/21
A Score Recalled
Remembering September 11th twenty years later
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 9/10/21

Get the Partial Observer's
'recently published' headlines via RSS.

RSS Feed for Recently Published PO Articles    What is RSS?

Reproduction of original material from The Partial Observer without written permission is strictly prohibited.
The opinions expressed by site contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the editors.
Copyright ©2000-2021 partialobserver.com. All rights reserved.
Home · Site Map · Top