Is math ingrained or did we dream it up?
ASHLAND — Is mathematics hard-wired in our minds? Or is it something humans invented?
Professors of math, philosophy and environmental studies will try to answer that question today as part of Southern Oregon University's year-long, thought-provoking series called "On Being Human."
The panel discussion will begin at 3 p.m. in the Meese Room of the Hannon Library on campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd. It's free and open to the public.
Math teacher Kemble Yates is among those who believe math exists independently of human minds and is being discovered, not invented.
"Mathematics is so embedded in science," Yates says, "and it's my belief that humans can understand the world with math. It's the best tool for it."
Many mathematical formulas, equations and proofs have been reckoned as inherent and their truth will be discovered identically, no matter who or where you are or what you believe, says Yates. He points to the ancient Pythagorean Theorem, Einstein's E=mc² or Newton's late medieval game-changer, that force equals mass times acceleration.
Philosophy teacher Prakash Chenjeri notes that Socrates thought mathematics so critical to human wisdom that it was needed for a sound grasp of ethics. Chenjeri adds that Plato wrote that geometry draws the soul toward truth and the spirit of philosophy, while Galileo said "mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe."
Pythagoras, he notes, felt that numbers were "spiritual entities." The ancient Greek's famous theorem, that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse, was discovered independently in many cultures.
In his own writings, Chenjeri says he feels "mathematics doesn't tell us anything about the world, but without it we have no way of dealing with the world."
Still, he adds, he doesn't know whether the human mind is "hard-wired" for math — if it were, we would all have the same ability for it.
Mathematics teacher Steve Jessup says he believes the skill is inherent in the human mind but the question remains, "Did we turn our brains to it through a set of symbols and then describe the universe, or does it arise from the neuroconnectivity of our brains?"
The SOU discussion is inspired, he says, by the book "Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being," by George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez.
Jessup says the panel will explore the question raised by the book: "Is mathematics something we discover, external to the brain, or is it a product of the brain?"
"To me, it seems to be a feature of the external universe," he says. "Some cognitive scientists say it's about the way humans developed thought — so mathematics isn't in the world but is a recent development of our brains."
The purpose of the On Being Human gatherings, says Jessup, "is to bring on- and off-campus people together to examine questions that aren't easily resolved and are near the boundaries of what science can tell us."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.