The Most Irrational Thing the World’s Most Logical Thinker Ever Did
There are geniuses, and then there are geniuses. There are plenty of clever people out there, but every so often someone comes along that changes everything and redefines the limits of just what humanity is capable of.
One such person was Kurt Gödel, a genius many times over, who reshaped the world of mathematics as we know it, coming up with ideas and theorems that forever shaped computing and machine learning. Born in Austro-Hungary in 1906, he earned the nickname Herr Warum (“Mr. Why”) as a child due to his insatiable curiosity about how the world worked. As a young man, he applied his fearsome intelligence to mathematical philosophy and the idea that the universe adheres to certain underlying mathematical principles independent of our knowledge of them.
In 1930, he delivered what became known as Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, a slightly snappier title than his original, “On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems.”
Something that can be tricky reading about mathematical genius is that often, even a vague description of what they did can seem entirely baffling to a non-genius. It can be hard to wrap your head around someone reinventing the rules when the rules themselves are impenetrably complicated. But allow me to try to help, with some assistance from Stephen Budiansky, the author of the 2021 book Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel. “At a time when one of the great goals of mathematicians was to establish once and for all that mathematics rests on a secure logical footing — that every true proposition can be proved (mathematics is ‘complete’) and no untrue proposition can be proved (mathematics is ‘consistent’) — Gödel astonishingly proved the opposite,” Budiansky says. “He was 24 years old when he did his great work, basically showing it’s always possible within any system of mathematics that includes arithmetic to prove the existence of a statement that says in effect, ‘This statement is unprovable.’”
A statement that stated itself was unprovable — an extremely intellectual mathematical version of “this statement is a lie” — is a savagely frustrating thing. If you prove it is correct, you’ve proved it isn’t; so you haven’t, so you have. It’s like that scene in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me when he tries to explain time travel and goes cross-eyed, just vastly more so and dealing with the fundamental nature of the universe rather than a secret agent trying to get his mojo back. “If that makes your head hurt, it also made a lot of mathematicians’ heads hurt,” Budiansky adds. “A century later Gödel’s proof still is causing trouble in logic, philosophy and computer science.”
Meanwhile, in 1936, a friend of Gödel’s was murdered. Moritz Schlick was another extremely impressive thinker, a philosopher who was equally comfortable analyzing the then-new theory of relativity as he was delving into the true roots of happiness. In 1922, he founded the Vienna Circle, a group of academics and advanced thinkers — which Gödel became a part of — who met up on Thursday nights to try to figure out, well, everything. Then one day a former student of his, Johann Nelböck, shot him four times in the chest on a university staircase, killing him instantly. Nelböck justified his actions by saying that Schlick’s philosophy had led him to it by making him question his morals. In Europe in 1936, unabashed intellectualism like Schlick’s was increasingly seen as dangerous, and the “intelligentsia” were lumped in with Jews. So when the Nazis took over Austria, Nelböck was pardoned and praised for “the elimination of a Jewish teacher who propagated doctrines alien and detrimental to the nation.” Schlick was a Protestant, but that didn’t matter.
Schlick’s death rattled Gödel. He had had health problems as a child, and was convinced he had a weak heart as a result. He had taken breaks from work due to bouts with depression, and Schlick’s death led to another such bout, coupled with paranoia that he would also be murdered.
But, recovering, he got married in 1938 and moved to the U.S. with his wife Adele in 1942, becoming close friends with Albert Einstein at Princeton. In a moment of a fiercely intelligent man doing a very dumb thing, his citizenship test in 1947 nearly went off the rails when he was asked whether the U.S. could ever become a dictatorship like Nazi Germany. Instead of giving the correct, expected answer — “No, of course not” — he began explaining his theory, based on incredibly close reading, that a logical contradiction within the text of the U.S. Constitution meant such an event could in fact happen. The presiding judge swiftly changed the subject so as not to let Gödel sabotage his own citizenship. (The “Gödel Loophole,” as it became known, has never been entirely explained, but a 2012 paper in the journal Capital University Law Review theorizes it might have to do with Article V, and every change made to it making subsequent changes easier.)
Either way, Gödel continued to do absurdly intelligent things, just operating at a level vastly beyond most people’s understanding. He came up with math that made Einstein doubt his own work, as well as what he considered logical proof of the existence of a non-specific God. But again, throughout all this time, he was wracked with paranoia, convinced people intended to murder him by poisoning. His solution to this was to only eat food prepared or tested by his wife. Recently, academics have analyzed various episodes through Gödel’s life and posthumously suggested he may have had some form of autism spectrum disorder, which may in fact have been key to his genius. However, it potentially also meant his dangerous paranoia got bundled in with other unusual behaviors, seen as an eccentricity or feature of his particular genius rather than something he could be helped with.
Because when Adele was hospitalized in late 1977, Gödel was unable to eat. The most logic-obsessed man in the world had somehow created himself an inescapable trap, operating at a level so much more complex, sophisticated and profound than a layperson’s “if I don’t eat, I’ll die.” The criteria by which he operated required Adele to be involved for him to eat anything, and in her absence, he couldn’t do it. He was in a cage of his own making, ruled by logic that defied all sense.
Gödel died on January 14, 1978, at the age of 71, weighing just 65 pounds. The doctor who wrote up his death ascribed it to “more apathy and resignation than an active volitional suicidal effort.” Killed, arguably, by an unfortunate byproduct of his genius, Gödel was proof that even the most intelligent people imaginable can have moments of outrageous, self-destructive stupidity. There’s possibly something positive to be taken from that, but it would take someone incredibly smart to work out what.