Review of Space, Time, and Number in the Brain [Book Review]

Mathematical Intelligencer 37 (2):93-98 (2015)
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Albert Einstein once made the following remark about "the world of our sense experiences": "the fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle." (1936, p. 351) A few decades later, another physicist, Eugene Wigner, wondered about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences, concluding his classic article thus: "the miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve" (1960, p. 14). At least three factors are involved in Einstein's and Wigner's miracles: the physical world, mathematics, and human cognition. One way to relate these factors is to ask how the universe could possibly be structured in such a way that mathematics would be applicable to it, and we would be able to understand that application. This is roughly Wigner's question. Alternatively, the way of the mathematical naturalist is to argue that we abstract certain properties from the world, perhaps using our bodies and physical tools, thereby articulating basic mathematical concepts, which we continue building into the complex formal structures of mathematics. John Stuart Mill, Penelope Maddy, and Rafael Nuñez teach this strategy of cognitive abstraction, in very different manners. But what if the very concepts and basic principles of mathematics were built into our cognitive structure itself? Given such a cognitive a priori mathematical endowment, would the miracles of the link between world and cognition (Einstein) and mathematics and world (Wigner) not vanish, or at least significantly diminish? This is the stance of Stanislas Deheane and Elizabeth Brannon's 2011 anthology, following a venerable rationalist tradition including Plato and Immanuel Kant.
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