“More or less plain English,” she said!
(For weekend wonksters only)

SATURDAY, MAY 10, 2014

A masterwork of sustained bad explanation: On Sunday, April 20, Professor Gottlieb reviewed Professor Goldstein’s book, Plato at the Googleplex.

His 1200-word piece appeared in the New York Times Book Review section. On balance, we’d say his review was positive. This was his early nugget:
PROFESSOR GOTTLIEB (4/20/14): It's diverting to speculate on which aspects of the Internet would be embraced by time-traveling ancient thinkers. The epigrammatic Heraclitus would surely have appreciated the enforced brevity of Twitter. Diogenes the Cynic, who made a spectacle of himself in order to heap scorn on conventional values (to which end he allegedly masturbated in public), would presumably have relished Facebook—until his selfie-strewn account was deleted. Diogenes Laertius, an infamously undiscerning historian, would have gleefully reposted every hoax and rumor to be found in cyberspace. It's harder to swallow the idea that Plato would be such a Googler, given his insistence on the chasm between mere information and genuine wisdom. Aristotle, a keen collector of biological oddities, is the more plausible hoarder of facts.

But this is not a criticism. Quite the reverse: Goldstein's resurrection of Plato actually works, which is no mean achievement. His avid Googling is slightly puzzling precisely because her character is recognizably the real thing—or rather, a plausible reconstruction of his mouthpiece, Socrates. When the rejuvenated Plato gently probes the loud certainties of Roy McCoy, Goldstein's invented cable-news pundit, on the subjects of happiness, virtue, success and religion, we hear authentic Platonic arguments brought nicely up to date.
Two Sundays later, the Book Review published two letters complaining about the tone of the review. (No other letters appeared.)

Each letter cited a turn of phrase Professor Gottlieb might well have avoided. That said, the letter from retired advice columnist Margo Howard also revealed a revealing fact.

Howard wrote from Cambridge, Mass. We were struck by the highlighted point:
HOWARD (5/4/14): Anthony Gottlieb, not quite reviewing “Plato at the Googleplex,” throws Rebecca Newberger Goldstein a few complimentary bones, but the spotlight is on Gottlieb's own intellectual gifts.

We learn of his familiarity with the history of quantum mechanics as well as with the overreaching of neuroscientists. Gottlieb says Goldstein has written two “love letters'' (first to Spinoza, now to Plato) when those books are deeply researched and have been well reviewed. Who writes love letters? Why, smitten women, of course. (Men write admiring tomes.) In the same vein, it is contemptuous to identify Goldstein as a ''teacher of philosophy.” She is a not only a professor of philosophy but a philosopher who has been recognized by the MacArthur Foundation (the ''genius'' grant), and she has been named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the Guggenheim Foundation, among other honors...
We were struck by the highlighted fact. Here’s why:

In recent weeks, we’ve delighted each day, by the morning’s first light, to Professor Goldstein’s 2005 book, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel.

We don’t exactly mean that as a compliment. As we admitted last weekend, we’ve conducted a decades-long love affair with certain types of bad explanation. In the past two weeks, a realization has finally dawned:

We don’t think we’ve ever seen an exercise in sustained incoherence to compare with the one performed in this book. For that reason, we were struck by the fact that its author once received the MacArthur “genius” award.

Struck, but not quite surprised. For last Sunday’s post, click here.

In her book about Godel and his theorem, Professor Goldstein’s capacity for incoherence seems to know no limits. For a lifelong student of the form, virtually every page in the book contains a delightful surprise.

Examples and greatest hits:

We’ve been amazed to see the way the professor deals with such concepts as “objective reality,” “objectivity” and “subjectivity.” Godel and Einstein were “staunch believers in objectivity,” she even says at one point.

In our view, Professor Goldstein never offers a way to understand such claims. This particular species of incoherence appears in an endless array of forms.

“Objective reality” is just the start of the garden of delights. Just this morning, we reread the professor’s passages about the way Godel “fell in love with Platonism.”

For our money, Professor Goldstein never quite explains what “Platonism” actually consists in. And uh-oh! This type of writing may help explain the choice of words for which her reviewer was criticized:
PROFESSOR GOLDSTEIN (page 59): It is no easy task to penetrate the inner life of Kurt Godel…

I think it is fair to say, however, that like so many of us, Godel fell in love while an undergraduate. He underwent love’s ecstatic transfiguration, its radical reordering or priorities, giving life a new focus and meaning. One is never quite the same person as before.

Kurt Godel fell in love with Platonism, and he was not quite the same person as he was before.
At some length, Professor Goldstein attempts to describe what belief in “Platonism” might constitute, require or entail. In our view, this involves reams of bad explanation, mingled with the kind of writing at which her reviewer snarked:
PROFESSOR GOLDSTEIN (page 63): First exposure to Platonism can be an extremely heady experience for those with a passion for abstraction. (I remember my own.) It can amount to a sort of ecstasy.
“Abstraction!” So that’s what we’re going to call it!

As the ecstasy and the abstraction spread, Professor Goldstein continues to discuss “the set all of sets not members of themselves.” She goes on about the so-called “liar’s paradox,” and about other nonsensical wastes of time devised by Lord Russell so long ago.

Like a stone-ager confronting a flash cube, Professor Goldstein continues to gape at Lord Russell’s “self-referential sentence: ‘The very sentence is false.’ ” As Lord Russell wasted everyone’s time with these remarkable species of twaddle, someone should have stood up and told him to stop.

Eventually, Wittgenstein pretty much did. Plainly, it did little good.

Enough with this listing of hits! (We’re omitting as many as we’re including.) Professor Goldstein’s remarkable book is mainly concerned with Godel’s incompleteness theorem, which she describes as one of the revolutionary intellectual breakthroughs of the past century.

That’s a standard assessment. That said, can Professor Goldstein explain this theorem in a way we people can understand?

Tomorrow, we’ll return to that basic question.

Professor Goldstein’s book was intended for non-specialists. On the back of its dust jacket, three well-known professors take turns saying how “remarkably accessible,” “lucid” and “artfully written” it is.


Early on, Professor Goldstein takes her first crack at describing Godel’s theorem. She quotes the way the theorem is summarized in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, saying it has been “rendered in more or less plain English” there.

In our view, this first pass at Godel’s theorem constitutes a masterwork in upper-end incoherence. Tomorrow, we’ll show you what “more or less plain English” looked like in 2005.

Alas! Our culture runs on bad explanation, from the professors on down.

Tomorrow: An intriguing type of bad explanation


  1. I am enjoying TDH's series on this theme. Thanks.

    1. Me too! Though I'm not a wonk (weekends or otherwise ).

    2. More excellent work. Also expose of Don Lemon long overdue. More Tuscaloosa, too.

  2. I haven't read Goldstein's book. It may be just as bad as Bob asserts. However, I can't agree with Bob's view, when he wrote:

    Professor Goldstein continues to discuss “the set all of sets not members of themselves.” She goes on about the so-called “liar’s paradox,” and about other nonsensical wastes of time devised by Lord Russell so long ago.

    Like a stone-ager confronting a flash cube, Professor Goldstein continues to gape at Lord Russell’s “self-referential sentence: ‘The very sentence is false.’ ” As Lord Russell wasted everyone’s time with these remarkable species of twaddle, someone should have stood up and told him to stop.

    Are these paradoxes twaddle and nonsensical wastes of time? Admittedly, my education was in math, while Bob's was in philosophy, but I spent quite of bit of time studying these paradoxes. Some of the smartest people on earth have spent time on these paradoxes.

    Granted, these paradoxes are not about the physical world. They're about the structure of logic and of mathematics. Within these fields, Russell's paradox and how to design a mathematical logic that deals with it are quite important.

  3. All these paradoxes prove is that some combinations of words can be meaningless.
    They tell us nothing about the physical world.
    The map is not the terrain.

    1. gravymeister -- I agree that these paradoxes tell us nothing about the physical world. Ditto many important results in math. E.g., the Axiom of Choice is independent of the other axioms of arithmetic. A map can be colored with four colors only such that two adjacent areas have different colors. Where a, b, c and n are positive integers, there is no solution with n>2 to the equation a^n + b^n = c^n, There is no set whose cardinality is strictly between that of the integers and the real numbers (continuum hypothesis). Even countable additivity, a fundamental assumption of probability theory, doesn't correspond to the real world, because the real world is finite.

      Anyhow, Russell's paradox forces mathematicians to clarify their thinking and the logic that underlies the structureof mathematics. IMHO that is great value

    2. What Dave said. Except, how does he know the real world is finite?

    3. well now the only thing we really have proof of is that David in Cal is as much a phony about his knowledge as deadrat. Two peas in a pod.

  4. Forgive Steven Pinker for praising his old lady's work, and read his instead.

  5. It has been a very long time since the MacArthur Foundation awards actually recognized someone for creative genius instead of a kind of trendy productivity. To win such an award you must be on someone's radar. People who are more creative are either not sufficiently mainstream to be recognized or not sufficiently entrepreneurial to lobby for awards. That has diluted the value of the award as a vehicle for launching obscure genius -- most of the people receiving it these days are already succeeding nicely without it.

  6. Yesterday I was reorganizing the files and folders on my Mac. I came upon an alias folder that was inside the folder it was an alias of, along with other files and folders. I entered that alias folder and found another set of files and folders identical to those up on the previous level, including yet another alias folder.

    I opened that folder and found the same contents. I opened the alias folder in that sub-folder and again found the same contents. I continued on down a half a dozen levels until I was convinced there was no reason why the repeated levels shouldn't go on infinitely save for the finite space on my hard drive. I checked the hard drive and found my content took up only a small percentage of available space.

    Nevertheless, I was scared about triggering something bizarre and cosmic, the results of which no one could possible anticipate (akin to the speculated effects of falling into a black hole), so I clicked to the uppermost of the folders and deleted it and with all its seemingly infinite aliases. Whew!

    Consider if you will: An infinite number alias folders (not wholly unlike the infinite images reflected in two mirrors facing each other) and yet occupying no great about of disk space.

    I'm sure some geek could offer a very mundane technicial explanation for this, but to me it is a paradox that outdoes the liar's paradox (kid's stuff, like comparing atomic structure to solar systems), or even "the set of all sets not members of themselves" -- a mere trick exploiting the limits of language. If such a concept never made it into a Lewis Carroll poem, then it's hardly worthy of our latter-day consideration.

    Leave it to a woman, even a philosopher, to liken intellectual fascination with falling in love. Real Hallmark Channel stuff. Imagine the billing and cooing that went on between her and curly-haired Pinker during their courtship. I'm sure it was most enriching.

    1. I dealt with Ms. Goldstein as the piano teacher of her daughter. The first thing she told me was that she was a genius

    2. If you find yourself in Manhattan traveling west on 59th St past Broadway, you'll notice these black-and-white arrow signs pointing in your direction of travel. Eventually you'll come to Palisade Ave, and if you turn left to follow the arrow sign, a block south you'll come to 58th St. If you keep following the arrow sign by turning left on 58th, you'll come to Hudson Ave a block later, where you'll have the chance to turn left again to follow that arrow sign north. And you know what? In one block you'll hit another 59th St. If you repeat your turns, you'll find another Palisade Ave and then another 58th St, and another Hudson Ave, and then yet another 59th St. It's scary to trigger something so bizarre and cosmic, resulting in something no one could possibly anticipate -- a repeated number of byways with no reason not to go on infinitely save for the finite space of an island of less than 25 square miles.

    3. I guess i don't understand philosophy, as i think you're describing Union City NJ, not Manhattan.

  7. I read Plato as an undergrad, so long ago that I remember next to nothing of it. However, Plato is credited with being the classical foundation of nature (not nurture) as explanation for differences between people and his justification for slavery strikes me as a bad influence on subsequent thinkers. I am repelled by that and I couldn't love anyone who held such views. Pinker, on the other hand, is among those so enamored of sociobiology that he might consider Plato a soulmate. You'd think someone who is the husband of a genius would understand that just because someone is born of a baser metal doesn't justify exploiting them. If you don't start reasoning from the baseline of human decency and empathy, the rest is just sophistry (or mental masturbation as we used to call it in the 60s).

  8. Have I hit on something? Somerby can only imagine explanation as "already" and "done" rather than as "join in" and "have fun," for who knows what is yet to come? Explanation isn't just about what is settled, it is also about what might come next.

    I have zero investment in this Goldstein Pinker stuff. Neither happens to capture my imagination. But I like that they both capture others'.

    1. If Goldstein and Pinker leave you cold, you might try Michelle and Barack.

  9. A nice blog display thanks for sharing the blog.


  10. How To Get Your husband Back & Avoid Divorce,Love Spells That Really Work Fast

    My Name is Vicky Lorimer, I am From United Kingdom.i am hear to give testimony of how i got back my husband, we got married for more than 9 years and have gotten two kids. thing were going well with us and we are always happy. until one day my husband started to behave in a way i could not understand, i was very confused by the way he treat me and the kids. later that month he did not come home again and he called me that he want a divorce, i asked him what have i done wrong to deserve this from him, all he was saying is that he want a divorce that he hate me and do not want to see me again in his life, i was mad and also frustrated do not know what to do,i was sick for more than 2 weeks because of the divorce. i love him so much he was everything to me without him my life is incomplete. i told my sister and she told me to contact a spell caster, i never believe in all this spell casting of a thing. i just want to try if something will come out of it. i contacted Dr Brave for the return of my husband to me, they told me that my husband have been taken by another woman, that she cast a spell on him that is why he hate me and also want us to divorce. then they told me that they have to cast a spell on him that will make him return to me and the kids, they casted the spell and after a week my husband called me and he told me that i should forgive him, he started to apologize on phone and said that he still love me that he did not know what happen to him that he left me. it was the spell that Dr Brave casted on him that make him to come back to me today,me and my family are now happy again today. thank you Dr Brave for what you have done for me i would have been nothing today if not for your great spell. i want you my friends who are passing through all this kind of love problem of getting back their husband, wife , or ex boyfriend and girlfriend to contact bravespellcaster@gmail.com. and you will see that your problem will be solved without any delay.