THE GODEL FILE: In what ways was Godel "strange?"


Let's start with the self-starvation:
According to science writer Jim Holt, Kurt Godel "has often been called the greatest logician since Aristotle."

Chronologically, any such assessment covers a lot of ground.

(For our previous report in the Godel File, click here.)

Aristotle, whose name is well known, lived and died in Classical Greece, roughly 2400 years ago. Godel, who no one has heard of, was a man of our own twentieth century.

According to Holt, the "incompleteness theorems" which account for his status within the world of logic were formally presented in 1930, when he was just 24. Also according to Holt, Godel "has often been called the greatest logician since Aristotle" because of these theorems.

One person who has referred to Godel in this way is Rebecca Goldstein, an upper-end philosophy professor who wrote a general interest book about Godel in 2005.

Goldstein earned her Ph.D. from Princeton in the 1970s. She has taught at an array of universities, including Columbia, Rutgers and Trinity.

She won a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1996. The led to the writing of one of her well-received philosophical novels.

(How well-received are they? According to the leading authority on her work, her most recent novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, was chosen by National Public Radio as one of the "five favorite books of 2010" and by The Christian Science Monitor as the best book of fiction of 2010.)

In early 2005, Goldstein published her aforementioned book, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel. This very year, some thirteen years later, Holt has published his own latest book, When Einstein Walked with Godel.

When Einstein Walked with Godel? If we were Goldstein, we might be slightly peeved with Holt, given the way her book has been used in the opening essay of his new book. Quickly, a bit of background:

As we noted yesterday, the opening essay of Holt's new book first appeared in The New Yorker in February 2005. In essence, it was a review of Goldstein's book about Godel.

That said, we aren't entirely sure that a reader of the The New Yorker would have realized that Holt was reviewing Goldstein's book, given the way his essay was laid out. Today, that New Yorker piece, slightly edited and with a new title, has reappeared as the first essay—indeed, as the title essay—in Holt's new book.

Holt's essay is built around a human interest story. He describes the way Einstein and Godel would walk to and from work together when each man was a resident scholar at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, starting with Godel's arrival in the 1940s.

These walks continued into the 1950s. Holt's story is entirely based on Goldstein's book, a fact which is almost entirely lost in the way his retitled essay appears in his book, with The New Yorker's insufficient attributions to Goldstein cut substantially further.

A reader of Holt's new book has no real way to understand that she is reading a simplified version of Goldstein's work. If we were Goldstein, we might feel that Holt and/or his publisher played a bit fast and loose with attribution, given the way his New Yorker piece now appears in his book.

At any rate, Goldstein is one of the people who has referred to Godel as "the greatest logician since Aristotle." Whether in her own voice or quoting others, she refers to Godel that way, or as "Aristotle's successor," at six different points in her 2005 book.

(At one point, she even quotes a scholar giving Godel an upgrade. "If you called him the greatest logician since Aristotle you'd be downgrading him," she says this scholar told her. At the time, she was a graduate student at Princeton with fleeting exposure to Godel, who could sometimes be spotted in area grocery stores.)

At any rate, Holt's title essay is drawn from Goldstein's work, though his essay, as it now appears, provides little sense of this fact. It was Goldstein who told the story of the way Einstein sought the company of Godel when each man worked and lived in Princeton.

Something else is true about Goldstein's book. It explains part of the intriguing statement by Holt which we quoted yesterday. Right at the start of his title essay, Holt's statement goes like this:

"Gödel, who has often been called the greatest logician since Aristotle, was a strange and ultimately tragic man."

Holt goes on to explain that statement—and it's a vast understatement. In our view, the "strangeness" of Godel's life shouldn't be ignored by people who want to explain the intellectual history, such as it is, of our error-prone human race.

What made Godel's life so strange? Let's start with the way it ended, in an act of self-starvation. Holt describes this event near the end of his book's title essay.

Einstein, Godel's only friend, died in 1955. For Godel, things went downhill from there, though not without a lifetime of foreshadowing:
HOLT (2/28/05): After Einstein’s death, Gödel became ever more withdrawn. He preferred to conduct all conversations by telephone, even if his interlocutor was a few feet distant. When he especially wanted to avoid someone, he would schedule a rendezvous at a precise time and place, and then make sure he was somewhere far away. The honors the world wished to bestow upon him made him chary...He had hallucinatory episodes and talked darkly of certain forces at work in the world “directly submerging the good.” Fearing that there was a plot to poison him, he persistently refused to eat. Finally, looking like (in the words of a friend) “a living corpse,” he was taken to the Princeton Hospital. There, two weeks later, on January 14, 1978, he succumbed to self-starvation. According to his death certificate, the cause of death was “malnutrition and inanition” brought on by “personality disturbance.”
Stating the obvious, this seems to have been an instance of the most intense type of mental illness. In her book, Goldstein traces Godel's psychological difficulties all the way back to incidents at the ages of 5 and 8.

What was Godel like as an adult? Goldstein describes his years in Princeton like this:
GOLDSTEIN (page 31): Though Princeton's population is well accustomed to eccentricity, trained not to look askance at rumpled specimens staring vacantly (or seemingly vacantly) off into space-time, Kurt Godel struck almost everyone as seriously strange, presenting a formidable challenge to conversational exchange. A reticent person, Godel, when he did speak, was more than likely to say something to which no possible response seemed forthcoming.
Goldstein offers three examples of puzzling exchanges Godel had with major scholars. In one of these exchanges, he said he didn't believe in evolution, citing Joseph Stalin for support.

"You know Stalin didn't believe in evolution either, and he was a very intelligent man," Godel is said to have said. Thus allegedly spake our world's second greatest logician.

Late in her book, Goldstein refers to Godel's "paranoic fantasy of imperiled rationality." She refers to "the paranoid tendencies from which Godel had suffered even in his youth," apparently from the age of 8.

It's fairly clear that Godel was mentally ill at the time of his death. Goldstein says this unfortunate tendency extended through the full extent of his life.


Should it seem strange that our greatest logician seems to have been mentally ill? We tend to think of logic as a companion to clear thinking. Should it seem strange that "Aristotle's successor" suffered throughout his life in the ways described?

Within our culture, we tend to be drawn to the idea of the suffering artist. We also tend to be drawn to the notion that madness and genius are cousins.

No evidence of mental illness could undo true academic achievement—in the physical sciences, let's say. But Godel is said to have been our greatest logician:

Is it possible that our greatest logician also had some incoherent "philosophical" ideas? Is it possible that he wasn't alone?

Tomorrow: A Platonist in hiding! But what the heck is that?


  1. Also, if Godel was so smart, how come he wasn't rich? Isn't that what Somerby's argument boils down to?

    1. Smart people often value things other than money.

  2. "Godel is said to have been our greatest logician"

    Does Somerby have any insight into Gödel's eminence? Is this claim valid? He's quoting others saying this. Has he read Gödel?

    Does Somerby have anything to tell us about Aristotle, and why someone might say "If you called him[Gödel] the greatest logician since Aristotle you'd be downgrading him?"

    "Should it seem strange that our greatest logician seems to have been mentally ill?"

    It needn't seem either strange or not strange. Was he always mentally ill, or did the illness develop later in life? This question of Somerby's indicates some ulterior motive. He is likely not interested in Gödel's actual achievements.

    1. You might try reading the part of Bob's post where he mentions that Goldstein "traces Godel's psychological difficulties all the way back to incidents at the ages of 5 and 8."

    2. Johnny, that's pure conjecture on Goldstein's part. It also doesn't show that he was mentally ill when he did his important work in logic.

  3. Gödel was our greatest logician.

    No one has heard of him.

    He was mentally ill.

    Should that seem strange?

  4. "Let's start with the self-starvation:"

    This incident happened when Gödel was 71, and his wife was away from home in hospital for 6 months. Could this be evidence of grief, loneliness, or even dementia, rather than "mental illness?"

    This type of armchair diagnosis of "mental illness", a vague term at best, is distasteful. First Trump, now Gödel. Especially when Somerby presumably intends to appropriate a specific case to make some broader point about discourse/the press/liberals or what have you.

  5. ""You know Stalin didn't believe in evolution either, and he was a very intelligent man," Godel is said to have said. Thus allegedly spake our world's second greatest logician."

    Formal logic involves the manipulation of symbols in constrained ways. It has nothing to do with how people interact or how people think in every day life. Godel's statement quoted above illustrates this.

    You wouldn't think it strange that someone could be incompetent in human interaction but a genius-level mathematician, but logic is no different than that.

    Somerby repeatedly confuses the idea of being competent in human interaction and daily life with formal logic, which has nothing to do with such things. You can use logic to prove untrue things if your premises are false to begin with. Logic impedes human discussion and especially communication. What Somerby means by logic in human interaction boils down to other ideas captured by psycholinguistics, such as internal consistency, responsive to each other's statements, turn-taking, and so on.

    This strikes me as similar to the situation of John Nash, who was schizophrenic but also a Nobel prize winning mathematician who developed game theory. The person's mental competence doesn't impede their ability to think about these highly constrained technical formalisms in a compartmentalized part of their life. It is not unusual for paranoid people to have highly developed systems of thought centered on their delusions, divorced from reality. In the case of formal logic, there is no need for it to have any connection with reality whatsoever. Consider also autistic savants who can and do develop sophisticated abilities independent of their daily lives.

    The systematic studies done of genius, such as the Terman longitudinal study still ongoing at Stanford University, show no relationship between high intelligence and madness or mental illness. There are plenty of genius-level people achieving important advances (Tarski, for example) who are not mentally ill or "mad". This is a long-standing myth that perhaps exists to help people who are not geniuses feel better about being normal.

    Somerby seems to be using Godel and others to suggest that logic and reason are not human traits. He needs, instead, to consider that the kind of logic humans use to guide their thinking is very different than the formal logic of philosophy and mathematics. He could find out more about how humans actually think -- it would resolve this difficulty for him. But I think his motive to denigrate people is behind all of these essays and I doubt that would change just because he finds out this is an unfair attack on them.

  6. "We tend to think of logic as a companion to clear thinking."

    Somerby tends to think this. Others, not so much.

    When I was a student, I gave the Wason selection task (a logic test) to computer programmers and systems analysts at the computer company I worked at. They are people trained in logic as part of their education and they use logic in their work. They did no better than the subjects in the psychology studies of human use of logic. In other words, they failed it. (Only 10% do this task properly.)

    Human beings do not apply formal logic in their every day thinking. They use probabilistic thinking and they rely on contextual information. They have ways of combining facts that formal logic doesn't capture, and formal symbolic logical operators don't map cleanly onto language. This has been studied in the years since Somerby left Harvard, but he apparently hasn't followed those developments. He is still thinking, like researchers back in the 60s, that human reasoning should follow formal logic, we should be like Aristotle (why is he stuck there?) and the Enlightenment philosophers who extolled reason as man's defining characteristic, his gift from God.

    Somerby needs to catch up with some fields besides physics and philosophy. It might change his jaundiced view of humanity.

    1. 1:45, thanks for your mention of the Wason task, that was pretty cool. Of course I can’t say how I might have done, since I looked it up. Most likely thumbs down, but who knows? I might have glommed onto the word “if,” which is of course the word which the test hinges upon.

      Admittedly, I don’t comment on Bob’s postings directly so much as I used to. But in this post, he opens up a discussion, and commenters like you add to the discussion, rather that subtract. However…

      “Human beings… have ways of combining facts that formal logic doesn't capture…”

      That’s precisely, I think, why Bob has his focus on the media that feeds us with “facts,” and why his application of formal reasoning – which is not taught at the formative level in American education – has weight in terms of criticizing the things we view on TV and newspapers and the internet.

      “Human beings do not apply formal logic in their everyday thinking.” Do you think they should? If not, why not?

      “Somerby needs to catch up with some fields besides physics and philosophy. It might change his jaundiced view of humanity.”

      Perhaps. Some suggestions on your part re the direction Bob should take might be helpful. But if humanity is un-allowed, through various mechanisms, to think logically about most of the msm infotainment bullshit they’re exposed to every day which has got us to this point in time, how is it possible not to have a jaundiced view? Why is he stuck on Aristotle? Perhaps because he wishes more of our youth had been exposed to his ideas.

      Maybe he has lost his marbles, as a famous commenter has alledged. Looking forward to his turning the page, though I enjoy his page as it is. And if it results in more comments like yours, I’m all for it.


  7. Sometimes Gödel nerds have to take a break. How about Joshua Bell, the National Youth Orchestra, and Petr Chaikovsky?

    1. Didn't Tchaikovsky have depression and committed suicide?

    2. You may read about Chaikovsky here:

    3. I am pleased that in the US today homosexuality is finally accepted. This is not the case everywhere. A couple of years ago I attended a performance by the remarkable Hershey Felder. His play was a biography of Tchaikovsky, written by Felder, in which he played the role of the composer and played music played by him. Felder has done this for a number of composers. If you get a chance to see him, I recommend it.

      Anyhow, in the Q and A Felder was asked about performing his Tchaikovsky show in Russia. He said he wouldn't do so. He said that because of the homosexuality theme, he feared that he'd be punished somehow by the Russian government. The government does not want it known that a great Russian hero was gay.

  8. As others have mentioned, Bob misunderstands what was meant by the moniker, "the greatest logician". Although, I don't know whether Goldstein used the term loosely herself. Goedel's work was in the area of mathematical, or formal, logic, which has nothing to do with the everyday use of the word logic. I would say that Goedel's incompleteness theorem has, perhaps, philosophical implications; however, it's not a work of philosophy. Goedel's work was a follow-up on Bertrand Russell's Principles of Mathematics. In any case, mental illness, personality disorders, eating disorders, etc., do no preclude one being a genius in one very specialized area. To put it another way: Goedel work on formal logic is correct.
    PS: William Shockley had very strange views on race, but we still use computers.

  9. I'm often sympathetic to Bob's frustration with popular books devoted to some of our species' more challenging cultural achievements. The "explanations" they provide are often only place-holders that recite the names of the ideas that emerge from great work ("the curvature of the very fabric of space and time," is frequently a place-holder for an explanation of General Relativity, as if it actually explained anything to someone who is not a differential geometer).

    However, this time I think Bob is just being cantankerous. "No-one has heard of him"? Well, I was a bit mathy, but I read a semi-popular account of his incompleteness theorem loaned to me by my favorite math teacher in high school, and my fellow math and physics unergraduates would often refer to him. (Could Goldbach's conjecture be an example of an undecidable proposition? That sort of reference...a bit sophomoric if you think about it, but, well, we were sophomores). I can understand why a student with interests other than in the mathematical sciences might not have heard of him, but the rest of us are not "nobody".

    As other commenters have observed, Gödel's work was more than a little abstruse and was entirely focused on the foundations of mathematics, in particular an attempt to put the field on a secure foundation of explicitly specified axioms and pure deduction. That has about as much to do with the "logic" of everyday conversations as philosophy has to do with being "philosophical" about some event in life.

    So...if you were a mathy kind of person, the notion that he was "the greatest logician since Aristotle" does not seem shocking, and if you aren't...well, you missed out on some pretty cool stuff, in the same way that I haven't read as many great novels as you have.

  10. Bob Somerby, purportedly an experienced writer, just once quotes the correct spelling of Kurt Gödel’s surname... and otherwise consistently misspells it, using neither the umlaut nor the alternative “e” (“Goedel”).

    This is the traditional way a reporter shows contempt for the subject of a story.

    Notice that, after quoting a science writer that this subject “has often been called the greatest logician since Aristotle,” Somerby himself describes this same subject as someone “who [sic] no one has heard of”.

    (I presume Somerby also never heard of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s 1979 bestselling and awards-winning* book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. * Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, National Book Award for Science.)

    Strange that alleged news-media critic Somerby bothered to write not only this but further, plural, columns whose sole topic was even further ‘dissing’ of this supposedly “unheard-of” and non-news-media person.