Foundations of Physics

, Volume 36, Issue 6, pp 765-794

First online:

On Math, Matter and Mind

  • Piet HutAffiliated withInstitute for Advanced Study Email author 
  • , Mark AlfordAffiliated withDepartment of Physics, Washington University
  • , Max TegmarkAffiliated withDepartment of Physics & Kavli Inst. for Astrophysics and Space Research, MIT

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We discuss the nature of reality in the ontological context of Penrose’s math-matter-mind triangle. The triangle suggests the circularity of the widespread view that math arises from the mind, the mind arises out of matter, and that matter can be explained in terms of math. Non-physicists should be wary of any claim that modern physics leads us to any particular resolution of this circularity, since even the sample of three theoretical physicists writing this paper hold three divergent views. Some physicists believe that current physics has already found the basic framework for a complete description of reality, and only has to fill in the details. Others suspect that no single framework, from physics or other sources, will ever capture reality. Yet others guess that reality might be approached arbitrarily closely by some form of future physics, but probably based on completely different frameworks. We will designate these three approaches as the fundamentalist, secular and mystic views of the world, as seen by practicing physicists. We present and contrast each of these views, which arguably form broad categories capturing most if not all interpretations of physics. We argue that this diversity in the physics community is more useful than an ontological monoculture, since it motivates physicists to tackle unsolved problems with a wide variety of approaches.


ontology mathematics physics consciousness