Kurt Gödel — exacter of uncertainty

Subscribe to my mailings

Either mathematics is too big for the human mind or the human mind is more than a machine.”

 

Science without epistemology is – insofar as it is thinkable at all – primitive and muddled.”

 

Consciousness is connected with one unity. A machine is composed of parts. The brain is a computing machine connected with a spirit.”

 

Materialism is false.”

 

Kurt Gödel

 

 

At the end of the nineteenth century, scientists gathered at the Royal Academy in London and agreed that almost everything had been discovered, and that the era of scientific enquiry would soon end.

Five years later, Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity, throwing every notion of space and time into question. One of the few remaining areas of certainty was mathematics.

In 1931, Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) demonstrated that no logical system can capture all the truths of mathematics; nor can any logical system for mathematics, from its own axioms, be shown to be free from inconsistency.

Later, in America, Gödel and Einstein became close friends. With their respective theories of relativity and incompleteness, the two had helped subvert scientific certainty. They also become estranged from the scientific mainstream, for Einstein never accepted the quantum theory of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and Gödel believed that mathematical abstractions were every bit as real as tables and chairs. Both also commented on metaphysics – including God, consciousness and eternity – though Gödel was more private about them than Einstein. The quotes on the left were published posthumously.

In the decades that followed, notions of relativity and uncertainty – both scientific and popular – transformed modern consciousness, facilitating the widespread abandonment of organized religion and changing the way people saw the universe, space, time and life.

By the nineteen sixties, Western post-secondary education was shifting its focus from the pursuit of knowledge to specialized job training. In search of existential answers to a soulless world, thousands of students ‘dropped out’ and trekked to Asia to explore ancient ways of wisdom. They brought back a good deal.

Of all the Eastern thought that was to take root in the West, Buddhism was most prominent. Its central tenets of sunyata (emptiness), and Buddhism’s juxtaposition of relative and conventional truth proved both amenable and soothing to young Westerners raised on notions of relativity and undecidability. Asian teachers, who warned them of the great difficulty of these ideas, were as surprised by the facility with which they grasped them as they were troubled by their unruly minds and intense appetites.

Such was the inner predicament faced by Stephen Schettini as he set out on his quest to find meaning. Read his story in The Novice: Why I Became a Buddhist Monk, Why I Quit and What I Learned.

 

× alert