Great, if not greatest, thinker: Gödel


Loyal readers of The Hannibal Blog are by now familiar with the wit of one Mr Crotchety who has already made cameos as a poet of Haikus, Senryus and Limericks. As soon as I began my series of posts in search of the world’s greatest thinker ever, Mr Crotchety began lobbying fiercely for Kurt Gödel as a candidate. Since we are now in the sub-series of posts on “honorable mentions”, I have invited Mr Crotchety himself to make the case for Gödel. Here it is, in Mr Crotchety’s words:

I am adding some additional criteria to the Great Thinker debate:

  • Do his/her great thoughts presently frame the basis of all other thoughts?
  • Do his/her great thoughts have anything to do with the meaning of life?
  • Did he/she go bonkers?

One of Gödel’s great thoughts is The Incompleteness Theorem. With respect to The Hannibal Blog‘s foremost criterion, the conclusion is simple (though not simply derived)… the First Incompleteness Theorem says that something can be true and unprovable. This is a very important conclusion for all of mathematics (hence, a great thought).

There is a conflict with the finite and infinite. No wonder Gödel went bonkers.* People who believe in the Bible and the Koran and the like must love this idea. Mathematicians must love this idea, too. Philosophers stay in business. Everyone is happy! Not only is it a great thought, but it inspires others to think great thoughts…

I’m tempted to go the route of some mystics and say that Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, like quantum mechanics**, is a paradox and really difficult to understand. Therefore it must have greater applicability (i.e., with respect to the meaning of life). I’m not prepared to go that direction, but it is good for the debate…

Notes and comment:

*Mr Crotchety refers to Gödel going “bonkers”. Apparently, he had an “obsessive fear of being poisoned” and “wouldn’t eat unless his wife, Adele, tasted his food for him.” In her absence, he refused to eat, “eventually starving himself to death.”

**Mr Crotchety likens the incompleteness theorem to quantum mechanics. Instinctively, this feels right. I am thinking of Werner Heisenberg and his famous Uncertainty Principle. It says that, in the context of observing sub-atomic particles such as electrons, it is impossible to observe with certainty both the position and the momentum of a particle. One suspects that what is true of the world at that little scale is also true of the world on our scale. So if Gödel reminds us that much of our “knowledge” will always remain “incomplete”, Heisenberg reminds us that much of our world is fundamentally “uncertain”. Simple and non-obvious: Great thoughts by great thinkers!

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7 thoughts on “Great, if not greatest, thinker: Gödel

  1. This is such a monumental day in Blogging history, I have to comment. That Mr. Crotchety is something else. I just saw a paper today referencing Einstein from 1939. Apparently, quantum mechanics is not complete either. If I knew what that meant, I’d share. (I can give you the reference.)

  2. I am very proud of you Mr. Crotchety.

    I must admit that I am out of my element with all this talk about quantum this, electron that, relativity theory this, string theory that.

    I feel like the stupid kid in physics.

  3. Cheri. I don’t want to scare anyone away from Mr. Kluth’s perfectly nice Blog. I’m suddenly reminded, and even more in awe, of Eric Idle’s Philosophers’ song. I only remember the first couple lines, but the rest was easy to find.

    (sung playfully (or drunk))
    Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
    Who was very rarely stable.

    Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
    Who could think you under the table.

    David Hume could out-consume
    Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,

    And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
    Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

    There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya
    ‘Bout the raising of the wrist.
    Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.

    John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
    On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

    Plato, they say, could stick it away–
    Half a crate of whisky every day.

    Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
    Hobbes was fond of his dram,

    And René Descartes was a drunken fart.
    ‘I drink, therefore I am.’

    Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed,
    A lovely little thinker,
    But a bugger when he’s pissed.

  4. I’m so pleased to see this discussion. Godel’s reputation will grow as the generations pass.
    What was the other thing Godel proved? Was it something like “No logical system capable of arithmetic can be proved”.
    I just wonder whether the world is completely consistent or not.
    Maybe the problem’s self-reference. After all we can only judge with our own minds, which are part of the world.

  5. No, I regret I am not.
    Was Godel really addressing the mystery which connects logical processes to the World?
    He was a Platonist, so maybe.
    Yet just where do the axioms which underpin logic and science come from? And why are some axioms purely abstract and others part of the sensed world? (Here I assume the brain is not the sense organ of ideas!)

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