Spotlight Live: The Origins of Math

by Bruce Lieberman

Where does math come from, the brain or the universe?

The Author

Bruce Lieberman

The Researchers

Brian Butterworth
Rafael Núñez
Max Tegmark

Math: Does it explain existence, or is it really just a tool of the brain? This isn't a curiosity; it's a deep and powerful question. According to many astrophysics, math is at the heart of understanding our universe — and may even one day be the key to explaining our existence. But now neuroscientists are finding evidence that math may actually be a concept developed by the brain — a way for us to make sense of what we can. So which is the truth? Or is there a middle ground?

Three leading scientists—two neuroscientists and one astrophysicist—answered your questions about this great debate. Watch this special Google Hangout with neuroscientists Brian Butterworth (University College London) and Rafael Núñez (Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at the University of California San Diego), and astrophysicist Max Tegmark (Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research at MIT in Cambridge).

What are the origins of math? Is math an inherent part of our reality, or merely something the brain uses to cope with, and explain, our environment? Four scientists discuss (and debate) the merits of both viewpoints.

About the Participants

  • BRIAN BUTTERWORTH — Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London;
  • RAFAEL NÚÑEZ — Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego and member of UCSD’s Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind;
  • MAX TEGMARK—Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and member of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.
  • BRUCE LIEBERMAN is a freelance journalist with more than 20 years of experience in the news business. He worked as a reporter at daily newspapers for many years before becoming an independent writer and editor in 2010. For The Kavli Foundation, Bruce has interviewed researchers about galaxy clusters, dark matter and dark energy, string theory, the emergence of the first stars and galaxies, exoplanets and other subjects. He has also written for Scientific American, Smithsonian Air & Space magazine, and Nature about a variety of science topics.

Your Questions

  • What are the primary reasons that we think the universe is inherently mathematical? (3:15)
  • If the universe is inherently mathematical how does that affect neuroscience? (5:15)
  • If the universe is not inherently mathematical how does that affect astrophysics? (8:00)
  • If the universe is inherently mathematical, for something to exist does it need to belong to a set/group? (14:05)
  • Are there aspects of the natural world that elude to their innate mathematical properties? (16:50)
  • Does a mathematical universe suggest there was a starting point or first cause of all the seen or unseen universe? (24:05)
  • Does the universe have an innate mathematical proportionality? (29:15)
  • Does existing math have fundamental limitations when trying to describe the brain? (31:55)
  • Are there collaborative opportunities for neuroscientists and astrophysicists? (How do the fields influence each oher?) (36:20)

Read More

  • A Roundtable Discussion with Brian Butterworth, Rafael Núñez, Max Tegmark and Simeon Hellerman
Written by Bruce Lieberman

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