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Ask Dr. Silverman 6 — Absolutes: Math as Science


Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Interviewees: Dr. Herb Silverman

Numbering: Issue 3: Mathematics, Counselling Psychology, and More

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: Question Time

Web Domain:

Individual Publication Date: June 27, 2019

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 732

Keywords: Herb Silverman, mathematics, science, Scott Douglas Jacobsen.

Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition of America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. Here we talk about math as a science.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What makes math a science? Does pure mathematics, in a way not seen in physics, biology, and chemistry, derive absolute statements about an abstract world of numbers? Even though, these systems of formal expression may be incomplete and consistent, or complete and inconsistent.

Professor Herb Silverman: Although the 19th-century mathematician Gauss crowned mathematics the “queen of the sciences” because mathematics is essential in the study of all scientific fields, an argument can be made that mathematics is not really a science. Science is empirical, meaning based on observations of nature, and it is potentially falsifiable by new observations of nature. In other words, new evidence can lead us to revise scientific theories, so scientific ideas can never be proved absolutely. Some mathematical ideas, on the other hand, can be absolutely proved.

For a mathematical statement to be accepted as a theorem, its conclusion must be known to always be true whenever its hypotheses are satisfied. Mathematicians accept that a conclusion must be true based on a proof rather than empirical evidence. The Pythagorean Theorem, for example, can be proved.

Since mathematics provides the language in which the natural sciences try to describe and analyze the universe, there is a natural link between mathematics and the natural sciences. The natural sciences investigate the physical universe but mathematics does not, so in that sense, too, mathematics is not a natural science. Science is testable because it usually deals with real world phenomena, while mathematics can be quite abstract, and its validity need not have anything to do with the real world. While mathematics may not be a science, mathematics is the language that science speaks in.

To complicate things, though, a case might be made that at least some mathematics can be called science. We roughly classify mathematics as either pure (or theoretical) and applied. Pure mathematics is studied primarily for its own sake, while applied mathematics is the application of mathematical methods to specific fields including science, engineering, business, computer science, and industry. Pure mathematicians prove theorems that have no apparent and clear application, though many such theorems proved by pure mathematicians have later become useful in the real world. The search for practical applications also motivates the development of mathematical theories, which then become the subject of study of abstract concepts in pure mathematics. So activity in applied mathematics may be intimately connected to research in pure mathematics. There is a lot of gray area between pure and applied mathematics.

Some mathematics might be viewed as a bridge between art and science. The famous mathematician G. H. Hardy said, “There is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” Mathematicians are often guided by aesthetics, and look for beauty in their proofs. Proofs and methods are routinely referred to as elegant.

Mathematics and science have had a long and close relationship. Mathematics is the universal language and indispensable source of intellectual tools for science. On the other hand, science has inspired and stimulated mathematics, posing new questions, and bringing new ways of thinking. Science and mathematics have certainly been good for one another.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Silverman.

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© Scott Douglas Jacobsen, and In-Sight Publishing and Question Time 2012-2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen, and In-Sight Publishing and Question Time with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  All interviewees co-copyright their interview material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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