Greatest since Aristotle: An interesting statement appears at the start of a new book by a best-selling author.
The best-selling author is Jim Holt. His previous book, Why Does The Universe Exist?, was selected by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year.
The year was 2013. We wouldn't have rated Holt's book that way, but Holt has long been one of the go-to guys for popularized explanations of difficult science and math.
The critics agree about Holt. The New York Times review of Holt's new book says it's his "conviviality, and a crispness of style, that distinguish him as a popularizer of some very redoubtable mathematics and science."
The Christian Science Monitor agrees, as is required by Hard Pundit Law. According to the headline on its review, Holt's new book "is science writing at its best."
The interesting statement we're about to quote appears right at the start of Holt's new book, a book which bears this title: "When Einstein Walked with Godel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought."
As it happens, the new book is a collection of Holt's essays from down through the years. The essay from which the book's title is drawn first appeared in The New Yorker in 2005, under the title Time Bandits.
That said, the revised title of the first essay in Holt's new book—indeed, the title of Holt's new book itself—will perhaps be perplexing for some.
"When Einstein Walked with Godel?" Everyone has heard of Einstein; Albert Einstein is very famous. But all in all, no one has ever heard of Kurt Godel, the man with whom Einstein walked.
No one has heard of Godel! That's part of what makes the early statement in Holt's new book so intriguing. On the second page of the book, in paragraph 3 of the book's first essay, that statement reads as shown below, just as it did in The New Yorker back in 2005:
"Gödel, who has often been called the greatest logician since Aristotle, was a strange and ultimately tragic man."Say what? Kurt Godel "has often been called the greatest logician since Aristotle?" The statement appears right at the start of paragraph 3 in Jim Holt's new book.
But as with Einstein, so too here! Everyone has heard of Aristotle, but no one has ever heard of Godel, who Holt seems to be identifying as the second greatest logician in the history of the (presumably western) world.
No one has heard of Kurt Godel! This may say something about the role logic plays in our floundering culture. On the other hand, it may say something about what counts as "logic" in the world within which Godel lived and worked, and now famously walked, with Albert Einstein no less.
Who the heck is Godel? The leading authority on his litle-known life answers your question thusly:
Kurt Friedrich Gödel (1906-1978) was an Austrian, and later American, logician, mathematician, and philosopher. Considered along with Aristotle, Alfred Tarski and Gottlob Frege to be one of the most significant logicians in history, Gödel made an immense impact upon scientific and philosophical thinking in the 20th century, a time when others such as Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and David Hilbert were analyzing the use of logic and set theory to understand the foundations of mathematics pioneered by Georg Cantor.Was Godel really the western world's second greatest logician? If so, he made his mark upon the world when he was just 25!
Gödel published his two incompleteness theorems in 1931 when he was 25 years old...
According to that capsule report, Godel is known for his "incompleteness theorems," which he published in 1931. According to this leading authority, he is considered, "along with" Tarski and Frege, to be one of perhaps the four most significant logicians in history—along with Aristotle, of course.
It wasn't just Godel—it was also Tarski and Frege! And no one heard of them either!
Aristotle once famously served as tutor to Alexander the Great. He lived and died almost 2500 years ago. Since that time, the greatest logicians, experts say, have been Tarski, Frege and Godel.
So the experts tell us. But what does it say about our world that no one has ever heard of these people, or of the giant breakthroughs in logic they apparently engineered? If Godel "made an immense impact upon scientific and philosophical thinking in the 20th century," why does no one you know know his name?
(Imagining that question a different way: What does it say about our logicians, including our apparent handful of giants, that, 2500 years after Aristotle got the ball rolling, our public discourse is so spectacularly lacking in the most elementary tools of logic, with no logicians from the academy attempting to come to our aid?)
With such award-winning questions as these, we're starting down a new road at this site. There will be grumbling and some complaints; that is only natural. But after twenty years of trying to reason with Aristotle's "rational animals," might a fellow perhaps be allowed to bump things to the next level?
We'll start to outline our new goals as the week proceeds. In the meantime, who the heck was Godel? And if we might borrow from the better-known Robert Zimmerman:
But oh, what kind of logic is this, which goes from bad to worse?
Tomorrow: As stated by Holt, an "ultimately tragic man"