Is the Universe Made of Numbers?

Posted on 2016 September 4


%22is the universe made of numbers?%22 Prismatic-Random-Numbers-Cloud

We are not to tell nature what she’s gotta be . . . She’s always got better imagination than we have. — Richard Feynman

Ever since the Ancients developed the first principles of mathematics, there’s been a notion that the universe itself is made of numbers. Today it’s an idea more tempting than ever, since all the great discoveries of modern physics have mathematical underpinnings.

But what if we’re simply seeing the marks made by the tools we use to dig into reality? What if nature itself isn’t numerical at all, and instead human science — with its endless propensity to translate physical laws into equations — implants all that arithmetic into the universe?

This is the sort of question that, aided by alcohol, can fuel late-night bull sessions. In one such recent meeting, otherwise respectable professionals (computer programmer, sales exec, teacher, construction manager) tried to think up a tabletop dilithium crystal generator. That didn’t go anywhere. But the meeting spun off an interesting email from one of the participants. He cited a friend who wondered at how a kitchen item could demonstrate the unfathomable nature of reality:

“I occasionally rinse a bowl of grapes or cherries and am amazed how easily they all together achieve an optimum compaction, despite each having its own size and shape. Could a computer solve this general problem, or does it point to an inherent mathematical superpower of the real world? . . . might it not require an infinite number of computers to match a real-life bowl of cherries?”

I missed out on the dilithium crystal debate, so I took this chance to chime in with my own odd ideas. I replied:

My dad used to argue that birds flocked as a single consciousness, else how could they change direction all at once? Computer simulations showed later that birds signal to each other and the signals pass through the flock very quickly. And so it also may be with cherries in a bowl (except the cherries aren’t “communicating” — they’re just reacting physically). In the same vein, Stephen Wolfram argues controversially that tremendous complexity can emanate from very simple rules.

When we observe strands of math within the fabric of the universe, it’s tempting to conclude that it was woven in from the beginning and we just came along to take note of the warp and woof. However, our minds seem designed to “make sense” of things, including mathematically, so it becomes difficult — if not impossible — to tease apart those things that are truly mathematical from those that simply accord with our numerical minds. 

In fact, sometimes the elegant patterns we “discover” in science — Classical Newtonian mechanics, for example — later get replaced by quite different equations. We’re by no means done figuring it all out; for all we know, the ultimate underpinnings of the cosmos may not be mathematical at all. Just because we’re good at math doesn’t mean the world is made up of numbers. Perhaps when we gaze out at the stars in wonder, we’re really looking at our own minds. Thus, when we pat the universe on the back for being “a math genius”, we do so prematurely.

(To Evangelicals who argue that our complex universe cannot have evolved without an intelligent creator, I reply, “Just because you can’t figure it out doesn’t mean it was built by a much smarter version of you.” I’m also tempted to add, “If you don’t know the ground rules, you can’t make them up for your own convenience.”)

We have no choice but to see the world through the filter of our own minds. And so we consider “real” many things that only apply to our consciousness. One wise man said, “It is obvious that the eyes see light because of the sun; not so obvious is that the sun is light because of the eyes.”