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?