No, Math Is Not the Language of the Universe

Poor analogies cause pop-scientific and philosophical casualties.

Illustration of an astronaut floating above the earth.

A quick philosophical rant. I have to get it out. Math is most certainly not the language of the universe any more than English or German, or Mandarin.

Math is a language humans created to communicate logical information to each other. Languages are constructs of animals—and potentially plants or other organisms, depending on how you want to define "language"—and the only place language exists is within the mind.

For a comprehensive overview of language from one of the greatest philosophers of the modern world, dig into some Wittgenstein.

The universe does not have a language, you see. The claim that math is the language of the universe is a classic case of anthropomorphizing physical reality. In some ways, it has a similar feel to religious anthropomorphism, but instead of attributing human characteristics to a god, it attempts to apply it to the universe—is this a symptom of growing scientism in the modern human mind?

The thing being described when people say that math is the language of the universe is merely that math can often describe physical reality. But what math is describing is not a language. Math doesn't even describe universal laws—we cannot positively state that universal "laws" even exist. We have not existed long enough, don't have the data, and can't even see far enough into the universe to firmly claim that every spot found within it has the same characteristics.

The only thing the universe obeys is its nature. It only obeys itself. Physical reality is itself reality. Physical reality isn't informed in any way by mathematics. Mathematics is informed by physical reality and everything contained within it (including logic, another invention of the human mind that maps well to much of physical reality... but which is a tautology, since the universe could never be anything but logical.)

Math is merely a highly structured language humans have invented to describe their experience within the universe and their theoretical understanding of aspects of the universe that they cannot experience.