THE GODEL FILE: But who was Godel?


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.

Gödel published his two incompleteness theorems in 1931 when he was 25 years old...
Was Godel really the western world's second greatest logician? If so, he made his mark upon the world when he was just 25!

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"


  1. Bob, dear. If you never heard of someone, it doesn't mean no one else has.

  2. I took a course from Alfred Tarski at Berkeley. Godel's name is certainly well-known among math nerds. I found that this book gave a lucid description of Godel's proof.

    Godel's work had nothing at all to do with Einstein's. Einstein was describing the real world. Godel's work was purely abstract.

    Popular reactions to Godel's proof are somewhat like reactions to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, but to a lesser degree. Both results are sometimes used as analogies to real world situations where they don't really apply.

  3. The book "Godel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter was widely read among those interested in computer science and cognitive science in the 1980s. That made Godel familiar to a lot of people. Godel was taught in my graduate level computational modeling course.

    Saying that no one has heard of him is silly. Of course we heard about Tarski too. Frege less so, but I had still heard about him in grad school. I read Tarski and stories were circulated by my professors about his high standards as a Ph.D. mentor.

    Why does Somerby not know that computer scientists study logic? Cognitive science is the intersection between human and machine thinking, intelligence, and is foundational to AI, a field that is now coming back into its own. Why doesn't Somerby know that?

    More troubling, why doesn't Somerby, at his age, understand that these kinds of blanket statements are almost always incorrect: "No one has heard of Kurt Godel!" or "It wasn't just Godel—it was also Tarski and Frege! And no one heard of them either!"

    And I really have to take issue with Somerby's idea that the purpose of logic is to guide everyday discourse. If Somerby is going to consider these kinds of questions, he needs to read some cognitive psychology, understand psycholinguistics and how people process meaning and communicate with each other. Prescriptive logic is as dead and buried as prescriptive linguistics, because neither describes what people actually do, much less what they should do when talking to each other.

    1. "Why does Somerby...?" You regularly, persistently cherry-pick specific statements Bob makes and make the most hare-brained exaggerations and misinterpretations that make your attempts and pretensions of intelligence laughable. You stupidly believe that when Bob says "nobody heard of..." you take it to mean literally "nobody."
      The trouble with fools and assholes is that they don't realize their true nature or behavior.

    2. For better or for worse, Donald Trump has taught us to accept exaggerated statements that are not meant to be taken literally.

    3. @11:39

      Even if you change "nobody" to "very few" or "hardly anyone," Somerby is wrong. If he means "quite a few" instead of "nobody," he just isn't communicating well.

      Why do you think calling people names is any defense of Somerby or any point he has made?

    4. 11:52,
      But this is still a media blog, and i'm not willing to accept the media making out the GOP to be some kind of political party, and not a criminal enterprise.

    5. I'm with you, @12:58. In fact, i think your description applies pretty well to both parties. That's why I prefer that government generally have less power.

    6. "That's why I prefer that government generally have less power."

      Fake news!

  4. Gödel found an exotic solution of Einstein's field equations in 1949. It admits closed timelike curves.

    But we Howlers ain't math nerds. We're music nerds. Here's a concerto for the Kaiser:

    1. Some of us aren't music nerds either.

  5. From Wikipedia:

    "Holt attracted controversy during his chairing of the "Pondering the Imponderable: The Biggest Questions of Cosmology" panel at the 2017 World Science Festival. He repeatedly spoke over the only female member of the panel, Veronika Hubeny, even when she was attempting to answer his questions. The incident led to Holt being accused of mansplaining."

    1. Who is Hubeny? From Wikipedia:

      "Veronika E. Hubeny is a physicist and academic who specializes in string theory and quantum gravity. Since 2015, she has been a professor in the Department of Physics of University of California, Davis. Previously, she was Professor of Physics at Durham University, where she had worked from 2005 to 2015.[1][2] From January to April 2014, she was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey."

      She appears to be a working physicist rather than a popularizer like Holt.

      Someday Somerby should discuss the difference between those who do actual technical work and those who translate that work into terms the layman (e.g., people like Somerby) can understand. Somerby has been decrying the inadequacy of such translations but doesn't have the depth of training to appreciate the work itself without the mansplaining.

      In academia, those who focus a great deal on communicating via the trade press to the general public are considered to be wash outs or burn outs by their colleagues. There is an irony to this because those with the greatest acclaim among the public are those with the least acclaim in technical circles because they have neglected their real work to gain fame, which tends to be simultaneously despised and envied.

      Has anyone heard of Hubeny? Who else has no one heard of? If we've heard of them, can they be any good as physicists?

      Why does physics seem to attract these science groupies among the general public, guys like Somerby?

  6. AnonymousSeptember 4, 2018 at 11:07 AM - The book "Godel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter own the Pulizer Prize.

    Logic may not always be the best way to understand people, but it is essential to understand things in the real world. Without sound logic, computer programs would fail, bridges would collapse, and airplanes would crash. Even if human fields, grossly fallacious reasoning is often promoted by politicians and pundits. I think students should be taught proper reasoning as part of their curriculum.

    1. Students are taught critical thinking. Formal logic is not helpful to understanding people.

    2. Formal logic can sometimes be used to see that certain "reasoning" is grossly flawed. E.g.

      -- "Racism explains why many swing voters voted against Hillary after voting for Obama" (No comment)

      -- "Blacks are disproportionately targeted by police." (Assumes each ethnic group should be targeted equally, even though their crimes vary enormously.)

    3. Crime is not an attribute of any racial group (or "ethnic" group). It is disingenuous to say ethnic when you mean race. You aren't talking about nationality here or cultural background and neither are those complaining about racial profiling.

      You have failed to demonstrate why there is a flaw in logic here and not a simple factual inaccuracy.

    4. Crime is not an attribute of any racial or ethnic group

      I strong agree. It's wrong and bigoted to assume that all blacks, Jews, Hispanics, etc. share some attribute just because some number of them have that attribute. E.g., the fact that on average blacks commit murder at 40 times the rate of Asians says nothing about any particular black person or Asian person. However, it's a fact that needs to be taken into account if one is comparing how often members of these two groups are involved with police.

    5. What does this have to do with anything being discussed here?

    6. 1:26,
      Nothing. It's just David concern-trolling black communities, while punching down again.

    7. I provided a couple of examples to illustrate Bob's complaint that "Our public discourse is so spectacularly lacking in the most elementary tools of logic"

    8. No, you made some ridiculous political statements. There was no logic illustrated.

    9. 2:32,
      I don't think it's lost on anyone that those who spout the idiocy of supply-side economics are still in vogue in the media.

    10. Reagan's supply side economics produced prosperity and a 15-year long economic expansion. OTOH, following the demand side approach, GW Bush and Obama had stimulus packages that produced nothing.

    11. 7:20,
      Thanks for the proof that giving those supply-side economic morons a platform to spread lies, leads to the mentally-challenged to believe their nonsense.

  7. Has Somerby read Gödel's actual works, or is he content to just read *about* Gödel, including the lame non-effort of copying and pasting from Wikipedia, of all places?

    1. Somerby cannot even trouble himself to correctly spell “Gödel” — with either the umlaut or the “e” (“Goedel”); does this suggest an answer to your question?