RESPONDblogs: I Might Not Understand the Math – but WHY is it So Useful to Others?


How I managed to Graduate with an Upper Second Class Honours Degree in Computer Science…and then go on to work happily and successfully in that field for twenty five years…I will never know!

Math was never my favourite subject at school. It never came naturally to my brain AT ALL. Literature…art…music…stories? Yea – my brain latches on naturally. With mathematics, I really have to concentrate. And as I stumbled into my first year at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, I realized that I had four years of concentration ahead. The math looked like a sheer rock face in front of me.

What didn’t occur to me back then (because I was sweating over trying to understand it) is just how incredible it is that mathematics can be used to describe the behavior of physical processes at work in our universe. Do you want to know the amount of current flowing through a resistor? There’s an equation for that. Do you want to know what happens when you add multiple parallel input queues to your software algorithm? There’s a hideous statistical discipline called Queueing Theory that will do its best to melt your brain. But run the numbers…and predict the behavior of your code it will.

Of course – my point has been made by many minds much more talented by mine. It’s incredible that people can use mathematical principles to predict behavior in our universe.  Or as Eugene Wigner put it, “The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”[1]

I stumbled over a great TED video recently that summarises the history of this discovery in a really creative way! It asks the question – was mathematics discovered, or was it Invented? It explains the fascinating connection between mathematics, the physical world and the mathematical models that have been built.

TED Talk:

Is Math Discovered or Invented

I find it hilarious that someone would seek to write mathematical formulae for fun. Godfrey Hardy apparently did just that! Yet even mathematical formulae that Hardy boasted were completely abstract…have subsequently been discovered to explain and inform aspects of Genetics and Cryptography for us. Even when we aren’t looking for it…we can stumble into mathematical models of parts of our universe.

The uncomfortable (and so slightly obfuscated) conclusion of this video points away from mathematical and Physical realities…towards spiritual issues. Which of course…are nonsense anyway. Right?

Not to me.

To my mind, the real issue is not the mathematics itself. That’s just a convenient (tho not to my brain!) language people use to precisely explore and collaborate during the study of subjects like Physics, Engineering, etc. The real issue is that – our universe has laws. There are predictable mechanisms at work around us.

Now if you were to believe the prevailing worldview in the West today, then this would be an incredibly unlikely state of affairs. Our prevailing worldview suggests that our Universe is simply the result of chance combined with time. There is no creating intelligence behind everything. There is no truth out there waiting to be uncovered. There’s nothing but random, unguided process. And it has led to our Planet in 2015. And those same random, unguided process led to our brains. What a staggering assertion. Can you see the contradiction inherent in it? No – probably not because it is so ingrained in our culture that so many people assume it as an absolute (much like the laws we observe in the Universe). But incoherent it is.

Randomness does not lead to order in observable physics. Talent, creativity, intention and MIND leads to order.

Whether the order we are talking about is the latest atheist treaty on why God doesn’t exist…or that order is a software update for your smartphone. Both of these things come from mind. We can agree on that – right? So if that is true (and it is) why in the same breath do people then point to the much more incredible and apparently infinite complexity of our universe…and just shrug and say…”it came from chance combined with time. Let’s study it with science.”

As Professor John Lennox is fond of saying, “if…the human mind is nothing but the brain and the brain is nothing but a product of mindless unguided processes, it is hard to see that any kind of truth let alone scientific truth could be one of its products….’if the thoughts in my mind are just motions of atoms in my brain, why should I believe anything it tells me – including the fact that it is made of atoms?’”[2]

Why indeed.

Why are we able to stand on the scientific method itself at all? Science cannot prove that science works. It’s just a universal absolute that we accept and enjoy. Why are there universal laws that exist…and make our favourite scientific method useful?

A more rational approach  – certainly to my mind  – would be to look at the laws of nature that we are continuing to discover and mathematically explore and gasp and say, “Wow. This is an incredible mechanism that has been created. Let’s study it with science.” And while I’m at it…why don’t I also explore the spiritual and historical question of who this creator might be?

That’s not lazy. That’s just rational.

[1] Wigner, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,, accessed 29th August 2015.

[2] Lennox, John Lennox’s Lent Talk for Radio 4,, accessed 29th August 2015.