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lilikoi's avatar

Math: An invention or discovery?

Asked by lilikoi (10105points) February 22nd, 2010


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54 Answers

Val123's avatar

Math is fact, so it had to be a discovery.

evandad's avatar

Since it’s the reason we’re all here I’d call it a discovery.

ArtiqueFox's avatar

The universe follows mathematical principles. This fact makes math much older than us. How can we “invent” something that came before us? We simply recognized and named what was already in existence.

Val123's avatar

It’s sort of like asking, “Astronomy: Invention or discovery?”

JONESGH's avatar

Ehh, it’s really your opinion.
Since discovery means “the act of discovering something that already exists”, I;d have to say invention because we made up the numbers and the rules, although they do fit.

the100thmonkey's avatar


The universe runs on numbers – we only observe the phenomena derived from the numbers.

However, that answer makes me metaphysically… uncomfortable.

jackm's avatar

Its an invention. Math is always changing and we are seeing new ways it works with our world, but still it is a man made concept.

Blackberry's avatar

I agree with the answers that state it was already here, we just came about and labeled it for our purposes.

Rarebear's avatar

Actually, it’s a grand old philosophical question. Personally I come down in the “discovered” camp, but there has been a lot written about this.

Great Radio Lab episode that touches on this

noyesa's avatar

@JONESGH Nothing in Mathematics was our own creation. Theorems are conjectures made by observing natural order and proven using the rules and limitations imposed by nature. We didn’t bend the composition of the universe to come up with things like the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus or Set Theory. These are things that, while seemingly based on human construction, are just abstract ways of thinking about natural occurrences.

TheBot's avatar

“Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.”
– A. Lavoisier

I you agree with the father of modern chemistry, then you are probably on the “discovery” side.

I personally think mathematics as a field is the man-led transformation of data from the environment into a form more easily understood and manipulated by him.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

It’s far worse than those two choices ;)

Mikelbf2000's avatar

I think Math was and still is a work in progress. Always finding new ways to solve numerical problems. I would call it an invention that keeps advancing.

cheebdragon's avatar

I’ve always thought of it as a practical joke…

lilikoi's avatar

Here’s what I think:

Yes, the things that math seeks to explain are already there. If humans did not create math, this language, to explain those things, however, math would not exist. Math is a human creation, a human invention we use to explain natural phenomena that we discover.

Contrast this with the work of scientists. Like that radio show that @Rarebear posted pointed out, a discovery can be made by many people at the same time or by no one at all, but it exists regardless independent of humanity. Indeed, Darwin rushed to publish his Theory of Evolution because he was afraid someone else would beat him to it. *

What math seeks to explain exists regardless of humanity, but math is a tool created by man that would not have existed without man.

Then you get to the level of math, beyond what I am capable of fully comprehending, where you start to discover things that can exist within the man-made framework of the language itself that do not yet exist – to the knowledge of mankind – in reality.

Math is an iterative process, leading mankind beyond the cutting edge and yet owing its birth to man. It would seem math is both an invention and a discovery…kind of like Hal.

* As a side note, this logic is why I think genes should not be allowed to be patented as they are discoveries, not inventions. We cannot know with any certainty that the genes created in lab do not already exist in the world somewhere – where we have not yet thought to look. What they have “invented” may have already existed in the world but has yet to be discovered. After all, they have discovered that it is possible for that gene to exist in the world, which is kind of like the pathway to proof that their discovery is not an invention.

ragingloli's avatar

It is both. The underlying principles surely were a discovery, but math itself, the symbols, the structure and the rules on how to conduct it, like the rule that you do multiplication before addition, were all devised by humans, thus, invented.

liminal's avatar

It is an expression of partial understanding. Which probably falls in the discovery camp, but doesn’t eliminate the fact that while we can definitively label gravity we still don’t know why it happens.

Mikelbf2000's avatar

Numbers alone are probobly as old as man. I was just thinking about that. Math is as old as mankind.

lilikoi's avatar

Numbers were an invention of man. As far as anyone knows, nothing else on this planet assigned symbols to quantity before man.

Mikelbf2000's avatar

I sometimes wonder if dogs can count. I would have a hard time not assigning quantity.

lilikoi's avatar

Perhaps they can. We’ll never know in our lifetime. That you can count, I think is a discovery…that you assign symbols to account for quantities is a system you have invented.

If you look back over ancient civilizations, they had different symbols and different systems (base 2, 5, 6…) for counting. They all discovered they could count but had invented different methods for doing so.

JLeslie's avatar

I lean towards invention. The invention of math helped us prove, or discover, numerous other things.

josie's avatar

The question assumes that we have two choices. The premise is false. Math is a way of describing or defining natural phenomena, no different than words do. Without math, certain relationships in nature could not be integrated or described for analysis. With math, this scrutiny is possible. Math is not an invention, nor is it a discovery. It is a product of the human mind at that mind’s attempt to put in concrete form the abstract observations of reality.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

this question is at the heart of Anathem, one of my favorite books…and I hold the belief that it’s a discovery but the way to explain it in a way understandable to other humans is an invention

lilikoi's avatar

@josie And what did you think an invention is?

lilikoi's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir I am gonna have to read that book now. Thanks for the reference.

ChaoSS's avatar

Sort of both.

People have been working, studying, passing the idea of “Math” for a long time and it is still being worked with.

So its impossible to invent something when a number of different people at different times all contributed to “Math”. Nor is it a Discovery because someone didn’t wake up and say, “Hey, look, its “Math”!

Its a progressive ever changing idea.

filmfann's avatar

It’s a discovery.
they are still trying to figure out what the unifying theory is. If it was invention, they would just write it (and be wrong).

davidbetterman's avatar

Discovery, of course.

shadling21's avatar

I’d say that mathematicians discover patterns and equations that exist within the system of numbers and abstract concepts that they’ve created. So they participate in both acts.

I’ve never taken philosophy of science, though. I’d have to do some reading to fully flesh out my answer.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Yes, many things we observe about the universe are amenable to description using math. That may be the best way humans have to express what we observe.

The notion that these phenomena in any way suggest that math preexists human thought is not reasonable.

We use Base 10 numbers most frequently mainly because we have ten digits on our two hands and feet. Math is a tool that is a function of how the human brain has developed to function. Math as we know it has certain fundamental properties arising from how we defined it and its operations.

It is possible that other species on other planets may independently develop systems of numbers and numerical operations than have properties both similar and different in any number of ways.

We developed machines that use mathematical rules. Initially these machines could accept only Base 2 (Binary) numbers. Later we developed machines that could accept and use Base 16 ) Hexadecimal numbers.

We don’t use numbers with fractional Bases but we could. We use a system that can represent the notion of zero. Earlier number systems could not.

We invented the math we use and machines that can do it faster than we can. We chose components of those machines that could represent those numerical properties we could use and understand.

Math wasn’t just sitting somewhere waiting for humans to discover it and find a way to use it!

That is like saying modern English always existed, even millennia ago when people spoke entirely different languages.

JLeslie's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence It doesn’t seem like we use base 10 here in America. Remember we seemingly rejected metric. My world of measurement is full of 8’s and 12’s and 16’s. Annoying.

lilikoi's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence Yes, thank you. I was thinking along the exact same line, and then twisted my mind up at the end. Math is a human invention. What we discover by using math are discoveries. The phenomena that can be explained using math may have always existed unnoticed, and we may have discovered them by using math, but math itself is a creation of humankind and would not exist without man. I completely agree with you.

Qingu's avatar

It’s a filter for sifting the patterns in reality.

The filter was “invented” by our brains and our culture but the patterns are out there.

shadling21's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence Great examples. Thanks!

Qingu's avatar

@Dr_Lawrence, I think it depends on what you mean by “math.” As a purely semantic language, then obviously if that’s what you mean by “math” then we “invented” it.

But some people mean the signified, not the signifier. So it’s not comparable to English, so much as the things “out there” that words described. We invented the word “tree,” and the syntax to understand the word… but trees obviously pre-exist humans. The function of language is to filter and categorize what is “out there.”

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Math is a language tool. And all language tools are used for describing observable or theoretical phenomenon. The phenomenon was discovered through observation. The math was invented to help describe it better.

Math is an invention. It always describes something other than itself, just like every language tool does.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I can describe a sunset with Math or Poetry. The Math tool allows me to describe it with great accuracy and how it relates to other phenomenon. But Math can never tell me or anyone else how I actually feel about that sunset. Only Poetry will suffice for that.

Language is a description tool. And all descriptions are authored, not discovered. Only the phenomenon is discovered.

qashqai's avatar

Neither an invention nor a discovery.

Math is a conventional language used to explain things.

XOIIO's avatar

A curse

Cruiser's avatar

Neither….it’s an absolute! Absolute headache! Math is cool an all but math is my Kryptonite!

mattbrowne's avatar

Both. I think the abstract concept of a cube is a discovery. It’s out there with or without humans. The minimum polynomial extrapolation as a sequence transformation in numerical analysis requires a human invention.

Val123's avatar

Me thinks…you can’t “invent” something that was already there, whether you know about it, or it’s attributes, or not. When the first Indians crossed the Bering Land bridge, they discovered the North American continent. They didn’t “invent” it.

Val123's avatar

ǝuʍoɹqʇʇɐɯ@ ‘uıɐƃɐ ǝɥɔɐpɐǝɥ ɐ ǝɯ ƃuıʌıƃ ǝɹ,noʎ

noyesa's avatar

@mattbrowne Any any analysis that you can do requires rules that are natural, not a human fabrication. A disciplined approach to doing something is not an invention, it’s just a formalization of what was already there.

XOIIO's avatar

I recently had a realisation. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like math?

mattbrowne's avatar

?lıʌpɐ pǝǝu noʎ

mattbrowne's avatar

@noyesa – One way of looking at it, sure.

JLeslie's avatar

@XOIIO What do you mean? What you are saying is that math is sane. Who does math and expects a different result? I guess maybe with complex problems, when we are unsure how to solve something, we might try different calculations for the same variables, but then that still is trying something different so still sane.

ratboy's avatar

Mathematics is neither a human invention nor discovery; it is a divine revelation.

ragingloli's avatar

the only divine revelation in terms of math was that Pi=3. And that is wrong.

ratboy's avatar

@mattbrowne, are you claiming that concepts (and other abstracta) are independent of human minds? If so, how does one acquire conceptual knowledge?

mattbrowne's avatar

@ratboy – I was referring to Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis. The other day I was watching a video with an interview with him,

He claims that mathematical objects are independent of human minds. I just find it hard to believe that this applies to numerical analysis as well.

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