Once again, Joe Average won't know: Friend, are you a general reader? That is to say, are you a non-specialist in the fields of mathematics, mathematical logic, theoretical physics and the like?
Friend, if you're a general reader, let's consider the title essay of Jim Holt's new book.
The new book is called When Einstein Walked with Godel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought. The title essay is called When Einstein Walked with Godel—and friend, we're telling you this:
Ignore the various things you read about how "readable" Holt's essays are! Friend, if you're a general reader, there is exactly zero chance that you'll emerge from that title essay with even the slightest idea what Kurt Godel's "incompleteness theorems" are alleged to be all about.
As we showed you yesterday, there's zero chance you'll have any idea! Ignore what reviewers have said!
Alas! Several layers of academia, journalism and the publishing world are involved in the creation of this strange state of affairs. Before we look at Rebecca Goldstein's first attempt at explaining Godel's theorems—it's Goldstein's "Godel made easy" book which Holt reviewed in his title essay—let's take a minute to consider, once again, who these high-ranking players are.
We'll start with Godel himself, the man "who has often been called the greatest logician since Aristotle."
Who the Sam Hill was Kurt Godel? As it turns out, he seems to have been mentally ill throughout the whole course of life. (At age 72, he died of self-starvation.)
During his adult years in Princeton, he was famous for believing all sorts of crazy ideas. Among them, perhaps, was his foundational belief in "Platonism"—his ardent belief, in Holt's formulation, that "numbers and circles have a perfect, timeless existence" somewhere. (We're able to access this perfect world through some form of ESP.)
Should it seem strange that our greatest logician can be described in this way? We'll examine that question in more detail next week.
For now, let's continue assembling our list of players. Let's consider the circle of thinkers among whom Godel was moving when he devised his iconic theorems, when he was just 23.
According to the profiles offered by Holt and Goldstein, Godel was moving among the Vienna Circle, a group which is said to have included some of the western world's greatest thinkers. As Europe suffered between two wars, these thinkers were puzzling over how we can know that 2 + 2 = 4. They were also puzzling over how we can know that 4 is an even number.
Later, one of their descendants was puzzling over the question of how we can know that 317 (or 17, or 7) is a prime. Godel, our second greatest logician, was apparently puzzling out these crucial topics too.
Friend, do you find it odd to think that our greatest thinkers were puzzling over such questions? We find that odd (and unimpressive) too, just the way you do!
We find that unimpressive, a point we'll discuss next week. But at this point, we must consider the role in this story which gets played by the publishing industry. We must also consider the work of our own modern-day professors and upper-end journalists.
Our publishing business is awash in "Einstein made easy" books (and the like). None of these books has ever managed to make Einstein easy, including the 1916 "Einstein made easy" book written by Einstein himself.
(Einstein, our greatest theoretical physicist, was not a skilled popular writer.)
No one can understand these books, but professors keep turning them out. They take turns blurbing each other's books, telling us rubes how "lucid" these "accessible" books really are. In response, major reviewers stand in line to say beautifully readable these amazingly easy books are!
As any lover of humor would, we've found this fandango fascinating for a great many years. Next week, we'll consider the real-world problems our savants ignore as they produce unreadable books about 2 + 2 equaling 4 and about how we can know such facts.
Quick question! When our ranking professors behave in these ways, should we really be surprised by the intellectual chaos which characterizes our journalism? When our greatest thinkers behaved (and behave) in these ways, should we really be surprised by the low-IQ mugging and clowning which gets presented on corporate cable each night, as our nation slides into the sea?
(And each morning, on Morning Joe, whose entire panel flipped today concerning the need for an FBI probe of what the accuser has said. The panel moved from yesterday's "no" to today's full-throated "yes." We'd use the accuser's name, except the Times is calling her "Blasey" and the Post is still calling her "Ford.")
When the title essay to his new book first appeared, Holt was reviewing Professor Goldstein's 2005 "Godel made easy" book. Because Goldstein is a highly regarded novelist as well as a ranking philosophy prof, it may have seemed like a great idea to have her write a book about the life and the work of this puzzling, disordered man.
As we noted yesterday, Holt's treatment of the "incompleteness theorems" will be totally incoherent for the general reader. For our money, the general reader won't likely be able to make hide nor hair of Goldstein's treatment either.
Holt wrote a book review for The New Yorker; by way of contrast, Goldstein had written a complete book. In our view, the general reader will have little chance of understanding Godel's theorems from reading that book, but for obvious reasons, we can't reproduce Goldstein's full presentation in the way we could do with Holt.
(We also think the professor went places which we found astounding. "This very sentence is false?" It's stunning to think that ranking professors can still find meaning in places like that. More on that starting tomorrow.)
Where Holt wrote an incoherent essay, Goldstein wrote a hard-to-read book. For our money, the general reader will almost surely emerge from that book with no idea what those "incompleteness theorems" are actually all about.
For today, we'll only show you the way Goldstein introduced the theorems. A person might claim that this is unfair, although we aren't sure it is.
On page 23 of Goldstein's book, she stops discussing Albert Einstein and turns to the young Kurt Godel. As she introduces Godel, she marvels at how young he was when he devised his iconic theorems. She almost seems to say that the theorems are easy to state:
GOLDSTEIN (page 23): He is Kurt Godel, and in 1930, when he was 23, he had produced an extraordinary proof in mathematical logic for something called the incompleteness theorem—actually two logically related incompleteness theorems.Tell the truth! Reading that passage, it sounds like it won't be hard to make Godel easy!
Unlike most mathematical results, Godel’s incompleteness theorems are expressed using no numbers or other symbolic formalisms. Though the nitty-gritty details of the proof are formidably technical, the proof’s overall strategy, delightfully, is not. The two conclusions that emerge at the end of all the formal pyrotechnics are rendered in more or less plain English. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article “Godel’s Theorem” opens with a crisp statement of the two theorems:
The two conclusions Godel reached "are rendered in more or less plain English," Goldstein writes. "Delightfully," the overall strategy of his proof isn't formidably technical!
Goldstein makes it sound like Godel and his theorems won't be all that hard! Then, she quotes the Encyclopedia of Philosophy's "crisp statement of the two theorems." The passage she quotes goes like this:
GOLDSTEIN (continuing directly): "By Godel's theorem, the following statement is generally meant:That quoted passage is attributed the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. We'll suggest you consider this:
"In any formal system adequate for number theory there exists an undecidable formula—that is, a formula that is not provable and whose negation is not provable. (This statement is occasionally referred to as Godel’s first theorem.)
"A corollary to the theorem is that the consistency of a formal system adequate for number theory cannot be proved within the system. (Sometimes it is this corollary that is referred to as Godel’s theorem; it is also referred to as Godel’s second theorem.)"
According to Goldstein, this account of Godel's theorems has been "rendered in more or less plain English." We trust and believe that you, a general reader, can see that this just isn't so.
How does the Encyclopedia define or describe the first theorem? In plain English, it goes like this:
In any formal system adequate for number theory there exists an undecidable formula—that is, a formula that is not provable and whose negation is not provable.Friend, that passage simply isn't written in plain English. We hope you could already see that.
Citizens, can we talk? The general reader will have no idea what a "formal system" is! Beyond that, this general reader will have little idea what "number theory" is.
In part for these reasons, this general reader won't be able to imagine what a formal system "adequate for" number theory is. The general reader will have no idea what that passage is talking about.
However "crisp" this statement may be, this statement will be clear as mud to the general reader. It contains the kind of technical language which may not look like technical language. But this language is guaranteed to leave the general reader on the outside, haplessly looking in.
Briefly, let's be fair. This passage represents Goldstein's first attempt at describing these iconic theorems. This strikes us as a strange first attempt but, at least in theory, Goldstein could have continued on from there to unpack these theorems in a way the average Joe could actually understand.
For our money, that doesn't happen in Goldstein's book. Along came Holt, to offer the crazily incoherent summary we perused in full in yesterday's report.
On page 26, Goldstein reassures the general reader. She does so in this passage, in which she once again plays the "plain English" card:
GOLDSTEIN (page 26): [Godel’s theorems] are the most prolix theorems in the history of mathematics. Though there is disagreement about precisely how much, and precisely what, they say, there is no doubt that they say an awful lot and that what they say extends beyond mathematics, certainly into metamathematics and perhaps even beyond. In fact, the mathematical nature of the theorems is intimately linked with the fact that the Encyclopedia of Philosophy stated them in (more or less) plain English. The concepts of “formal system,” “undecidable,” and “consistency” might be semi-technical and require explication (which is why the reader should not worry if the succinct statement of the theorems yielded little understanding); but they are metamathematical concepts whose explication (which will eventually come) is not rendered in the language of mathematics.Finally! Three pages later, Goldstein notes that the general reader has no idea what a "formal system" is. For the record, she offers her first definition of the term on page 129 [sic].
In our view, things don't get a whole lot better for the general reader in what follows from there. Things seem technical all the way down. It seems to us that the general reader will likely be forced to quit.
Citizens, let's review:
Our greatest logician was mentally ill and possessed of crazy ideas. At the heart of his prolix theorems was his apparently crazy belief that numbers and circles live a perfect existence somewhere.
In turn, our philosophy professors seem to have no idea how to explain these prolix theorems (which "say an awful lot") to the general reader. But they produce books which claim to have done that anyway. When they do, journalists rush to say that they understood every word. And it all began with our greatest thinkers pondering 2 + 2.
When we see this cultural pattern unfold, are we surprised by the utter incoherence displayed by lesser thinkers on corporate cable? Are we surprised that our broken, pre-rational public discourse has now helped to place a Donald J. Trump in the White House?
Seeing ourselves from afar, we humans still tend to believe, say and suggest that we're the rational animal. In our view, this profoundly iconic notion qualifies as "Aristotle's [gigantic large howling] error."
Tomorrow, we'll debase Godel a tiny bit more, prepping a bit for next week. We'll also see Professor Goldstein do something amazingly rare.
Tomorrow: A (near) perfect statement by Goldstein