I hear people speak of “mathematical laws of the universe”. This might be a very awkward formulation but the idea behind it has been prevalent for quite a while, especially in physics. The backbone of this idea is one or another kind of scientific realism: a belief that there is the world out there, independently of what you or I might happen to think it of it. The world has its own laws, waiting to be “discovered”, and the most potent tool one thinks of is mathematics. Hence the “mathematical laws” and hence the doomed quest for the “formula of everything”. One does not have to be a physicist or a mathematician to see the intuitive appeal of such belief. But here is what I think is ultimately misguided about it.
The belief in the world out there, a world which is regardless of what we actually perceive, has a very long tradition which begins with Plato and probably much earlier. This is so because this is the most intuitive kind of worldview, something we might just be born with. Not surprisingly, and Latour makes note of it in his Laboratory Life, physical sciences are plagued with the adepts of this worldview. There is nothing inherently wrong with it – in fact, the belief in the objective world out there might be the healthiest of beliefs – but the scientific claim that comes out of it is not right. By placing the emphasis on the incorrigible objective world beyond our sensory experience physical sciences put the human out of the equation. And the problem is that equations had been invented by humans.
There is much speculation about the origins of mathematics, and there are even those that believe that numbers, like the objective world itself, too exist out there, independently of us mortals. This is as silly as insisting on the world which exists independently of human experience. Mathematics is a convention as much as language and no one has yet been able to produce convincing evidence to it being otherwise. My personal grudge with the physical sciences then is this. How can you take a human tool and proclaim its universal viability beyond human?
What is a hammer to a bee? What is mathematics to the works of the universe? Surely, I like to go further and say that there is no objective world out there, only our own constructed reality. But even if we accept for a minute a world governed by a certain set of laws, whether we know them or not, where is the guarantee that we have access to it. Furthermore, where is the guarantee that the access to it is gained through mathematics? Isn’t it a bit rash to accept our own reality to be the reality? This is what happens with physical sciences. They take a man-made tool and use it to “discover” an inhuman universe. At best, they will learn more about that which is human, but beyond that lies mere speculation.