Quite possibly in our afternoons...

MONDAY, MAY 24, 2021

...we'll be able to have nice things: Each morning this week, we'll be looking at the work from this weekend's New York Times—work concerning the anniversary of the death of George Floyd.

The work was very poor. Just maybe, in our afternoons, we'll be able to have nice things.

For today, we'll simply announce the publication of a new biography of Kurt Gödel. The publisher, W. W. Norton, describes it as "the first major biography written for a general audience of the logician and mathematician whose Incompleteness Theorems helped launch a modern scientific revolution."

It's important to note that the new biography has been written "for a general audience." Norton's thumbnail description of the book reads exactly as shown:

Nearly a hundred years after its publication, Kurt Gödel’s famous proof that every mathematical system must contain propositions that are true—yet never provable—continues to unsettle mathematics, philosophy, and computer science. Yet unlike Einstein, with whom he formed a warm and abiding friendship, Gödel has long escaped all but the most casual scrutiny of his life.

Stephen Budiansky’s Journey to the Edge of Reason is the first biography to fully draw upon Gödel’s voluminous letters and writings—including a never-before-transcribed shorthand diary of his most intimate thoughts—to explore Gödel’s profound intellectual friendships, his moving relationship with his mother, his troubled yet devoted marriage, and the debilitating bouts of paranoia that ultimately took his life. It also offers an intimate portrait of the scientific and intellectual circles in prewar Vienna, a haunting account of Gödel’s and Jewish intellectuals’ flight from Austria and Germany at the start of the Second World War, and a vivid re-creation of the early days of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where Gödel and Einstein both worked.

Eloquent and insightful, Journey to the Edge of Reason is a fully realized portrait of the odd, brilliant, and tormented man who has been called the greatest logician since Aristotle, and illuminates the far-reaching implications of Gödel’s revolutionary ideas for philosophy, mathematics, artificial intelligence, and man’s place in the cosmos.

According to that thumbnail sketch, the greatest logician since Aristotle was the author of a famous proof which continues to unsettle mathematics, philosophy, and computer science. Indeed, the work in question launched "a modern scientific revolution," the publisher has declared.

Stephen Budiansky's new biography of  Gödel is the first such book to fully draw upon his voluminous letters and writings. More significantly, the book has been written for general readers.

Starting tomorrow, we'll have nice things in our afternoons. We'll examine this key question:

To what extent are Budiansky, and / or his reviewers, actually able to explain Gödel’s famous proof? Can Budiansky really explain Gödel’s work in a way which is accessible to general readers?

At present, we can't answer that question; we've only scanned a few chapters. We start with this general perspective:

As the later Wittgenstein noted, much of our badly flawed human discourse proceeds in the face of incoherence and incomprehension. It's like the old joke about the Soviet Union, in which the Soviet worker said this:

We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.

In the realm of public discourse, something similar routinely occurs. The journalists and the professors pretend to explain important theories, and we pretend to understand them. In many cases, we may even believe that we understand, but in the end it's quite clear that we don't.

Has Budiansky been able to explain what Gödel is alleged to have shown? 

At this point, we don't have the slightest idea. But at least our work—our work in these afternoons, that is—won't be propagandistic, desperate, illogical, pure Storyline, harmful and dumb.


10 comments:

  1. "...famous proof that every mathematical system must contain propositions that are true—yet never provable..."

    Meh, this sounds wrong. Rather, any system of axioms will contain propositions that can neither be proved or disproved within that system. Something like that.

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  2. Somerby has performed a service by announcing the publication of this interesting new book. I have just purchased a copy and plan to read it for myself. I wouldn't trust Somerby's opinions about Godel. But Einstein's opinion of Godel was highly favorable, and that is a good enough recommendation for me.

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  3. That old joke about Russia is funny because it was about Russia, not because all workers pretend to work instead of doing their jobs. If this were true, our society would be much worse off than it is.

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