Humor Magazine

My New God is Gödel

By Davidduff

No, no, Gödel's not some character from Star Wars or one of those interminable Norse-based operas that Wagner composed, no, he was, er, well, sort of . . . a thinker, I suppose.  To be more accurate, he was a thinker on the abstruse subjects of logic and mathematics.  These twins and all their problems and contradictions were thought to have been licked into shape by Bertrand Russell and A. N. Whitehead in their monumental three-volume book Principia Mathematica (PM).  In so far as I understand it - yeeeees quite! - the pair of them reckoned that they had reduced every possible statement into a logical mathematical code of such rigor that henceforth there could be no confusions in reasoning.  For example, the liar's paradox, 'this statement is false', was dealt with and, so to speak, the logic-tight doors of reasoning were slammed shut with no untidy bits left outside!

And then along came quiet, shy, nervous Kurt Gödel blinking behind his black-framed specs and, in effect, pointed at Russell and told him his flies were undone!  There was, he discovered, an untidy bit left outside of Russell's reasoning and no amount of logical jiggery-pokery would make it go away.  Gödel's work became known as 'the incompleteness theorem' and I find it deeply comforting. 

Personally, as I have grown older, I have become more and more suspicious of those people, particularly swots of various kinds, who claim to have the final and complete answer to everything, and Principia Mathematica was supposed to have been the Absolute and Forever Answer to Absolutely Everything!  I can't debate with these great thinkers - and Russell and Whitehead were certainly very great thinkers - on their terms because I'm not brainy enough so you could describe my scepticism concerning their theories as being based on hunch - or perhaps a better word is 'faith' - and perhaps a better image is of a caveman clinging to his totem pole!  I still remember the thrill I experienced some years ago when I learned that at the sub-atomic level of matter, 'titchy thingies', that is, all the 'titchy thingies' that make up the 'things' we see about us, behave in a totally different and bizarre way such that their actions cannot be predicted with complete certainty.

'SoD' (Son of Duff) has been banging on about Gödel for years but I never quite took it in.  I think I learn better from reading words rather than listening to them so thanks are due, again, to James Gleik and his marvelous book The Information.

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