Saturday, June 16, 2012

Gödel's magical mind

Kurt Gödel is one of the key figures in the intellectual history of the 20th century, but, like many people who are highly gifted in domains like logic and mathematics, he struggled to cope with mundane reality. He also had paranoid tendencies in his later years and suspected that people were trying to poison him. In the end he just stopped eating.

I was reminded of Gödel when I recently came across this paragraph in an article by Matthew Hutson about our deep-rooted tendency to think in terms of magical rather than scientific logic:

Another law of magic is “everything happens for a reason” — there is no such thing as randomness or happenstance. This is so-called teleological reasoning, which assumes intentions and goals behind even evidently purposeless entities like hurricanes. As social creatures, we may be biologically tuned to seek evidence of intentionality in the world, so that we can combat or collaborate with whoever did what’s been done. When lacking a visible author, we end up crediting an invisible one — God, karma, destiny, whatever.

Interestingly, Gödel took his teleological convictions as being simply and comprehensively true. His belief that everything happened for a reason led to some very odd conclusions and was a source of some amusement and no little concern to his friends.*

Gödel was a deeply religious man who believed in a spiritual realm and life after death. Hutson's article mentions our inability to accept - or even to conceive of in a deep sense - our own mortality as another example of magical thinking. (Gödel himself, as I recall, justified his own belief in an afterlife on teleological grounds.)

The paradox of this pioneer of mathematical logic being, in ordinary life, completely under the sway of magical thinking calls for some kind of explanation or comment. Was it that he sought to impose the strict and clear logic of his professional work onto a world which works in more complex (and random) ways? Was it that he put too much faith in the ability of his mind to intuit reality, seeing the mind as a spiritual thing rather than something arising from a bodily organ carrying the marks of a long evolutionary history?

Hutson's main point is that magical thinking is natural to us and can enhance our lives. On the other hand, he sees it (quite rightly I believe) as misrepresenting objective reality and as potentially dangerous. Gödel's case illustrates some of the dangers, but clearly he had specific psychiatric problems in his later years, and it would be simplistic to attempt some kind of comprehensive explanation of his fate as being occasioned by extreme teleological thinking or whatever.

Gödel remains a great thinker and was a man with many appealing qualities, not the least of which were gentleness and reticence. His later years, after the death of his best friend, Albert Einstein, were sad and ultimately tragic.

His religious - or magical - convictions were an integral part of the man and no doubt contributed to his greatness. And, one hopes, provided some comfort in the darkness of his final years.

* I recommend Rebecca Goldstein's concise and accessible account of his life and thought, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (Norton, 2005).