January 27, 2023
The Nathan and Beatrice Keyfitz Lectures in Mathematics and the Social Sciences

March 14, 2011 -- 6:00 p.m.
Linguistics Dept., University of California Berkeley

Location: Health Sciences Building,
155 College Street (map)

The Cognitive and Neural Basis of Mathematics

Mathematics is a human creation. A few extremely simple mathematical ideas are there in infants. The rest has been created by human mathematicians, using basic (and largely unconscious) cognitive mechanisms discovered in the cognitive and brain sciences, such as frames, conceptual metaphors, image-schemas, and neural bindings. The idea of infinite things (infinite numbers, points at infinity, infinite sets, infinite decimals, etc.) arises from a single conceptual metaphor used in many branches of mathematics. Concepts like imaginary numbers, logarithms, trigonometric functions, etc. also arise via frames, metaphorical concepts, and neural bindings. Mathematical ideas are like other ideas, but there is a set of constraints that make them mathematical ideas and not just ideas.

This understanding of mathematics is scientific in nature, coming from the brain and cognitive sciences. It utterly undermines the romantic idea that mathematics is just out there in the world, or in some Platonic universe. It also undermines the usual accounts of the “foundations of mathematics” — Platonism, formalism, intuitionism, and logicism. All of these conflicting “foundations” are also remarkable inventions of human mathematicians with human brains.

The implications for the teaching of mathematics at all levels are revolutionary. From this perspective, mathematics becomes understandable to ordinary human beings.

George P. Lakoff is an American cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972. Although some of his research involves questions traditionally pursued by linguists, such as the conditions under which a certain linguistic construction is grammatically viable, he is most famous for his ideas about the centrality of metaphor to human thinking, political behavior and society.

Professor Lakoff is particularly famous for his concept of the "embodied mind", which he has written about in relation to mathematics. In recent years he has applied his work to the realm of politics, exploring this in his books.

Audio and Slides of the talk will be available on line after March 14

The Keyfitz Lectures are meant to be of interest to the university community as well as to individuals involved in public administration, economics, health policy, social and political science. The purpose of the series is both to inform the public of some of the ways quantitative methods are being used to design solutions to societal problems, and to encourage dialogue between mathematical and social scientists. All lectures are open to the public and everyone is welcome.

Back to top