In an exceptionally elegant essay, science writer Ashutosh Jogalekar (no stranger to controversy) talks about the huge difference Kurt Gödel (1906–1978) made by eliminating the idea that some single, simple explanation would put an end to all questioning about the nature of the universe in favor of some simple materialism.
In September 1930, a big conference was going to be organized in Königsberg. German mathematics had been harmed because of Germany’s instigation of the Great War, and Hilbert’s decency and reputation played a big role in resurrecting it. Just before the conference Gödel met with his friend Rudolf Carnap, a founding member of the Vienna Circle in the Cafe Reichsrat. There, perhaps scribbling a bit on the marble table, he told Carnap that he had just showed that Hilbert and Russell’s program to prove the completeness and consistency of mathematics was was fatally flawed. A few days later Gödel delivered his talk at the conference. As often happens with great scientific discoveries, few people understood the significance of what had just happened. The one exception was John von Neumann, a child prodigy and polymath who was known for jumping ten steps ahead of people’s arguments and extending them in ways that their creators could not imagine. Von Neumann buttonholed Gödel, fully understood his result, and then a week later extended it to a startling new domain, only to find through a polite note from Gödel that the former had already done it.
So what had Gödel done? Budiansky’s treatment of Gödel’s proof is light, and I would recommend the 1950s classic “Gödel’s Proof” by Ernest Nagel and James Newman for a semi-popular treatment. Even today Gödel’s seminal paper is comprehensible in its entirety only to specialists in the field. But in a nutshell, what Gödel had found using an ingenious bit of self-referential mapping between numbers and mathematical statements was that any consistent mathematical system that could support the basic axioms of arithmetic as described in Russell and Whitehead’s work would always contain statements that were unprovable. This ingenious scheme included a way of encoding mathematical statements as numbers, allowing numbers to “talk about themselves”. What was worse and even more fascinating was that the axiomatic system of arithmetic would contain statements that were true, but whose truth could not be proven using the axioms of the system – Gödel thus showed that there would always be a statement G in this system which would, like the old Liar’s Paradox, say, “G is unprovable”. If G is true it then becomes unprovable by definition, but if G is false, then it would be provable, thus contradicting itself. Thus, the system would always contain ‘truths’ that are undecidable within the framework of the system. And lest one thought that you could then just expand the system and prove those truths within that new system, Gödel infuriatingly showed that the new system would contain its own unprovable truths, and ad infinitum. This is called the First Incompleteness Theorem.Ashutosh Jogalekar, “Kurt Gödel’s Open World” at 3QuarksDaily (July 12, 2021)
The big materialist project was then formally over. Many people did not realize that fact and, in any event, it would take a long time to mop up. We are still mopping.
You may also wish to read:
Gregory Chaitin’s “almost” meeting with Kurt Gödel: This hard-to-find anecdote gives some sense of the encouraging but eccentric math genius.