If you’re faced with undeniable evidence that Shakespeare was a racist, would you change your opinion about the play Othello? I’m in the habit of asking myself such hypotheticals; it helps me clothe my opinions in reason. Here’s another one. If you learn that one of the greatest mathematicians in history was prone to conspiracy theories as idiotic as the most moronic twaddle slushing around the Internet today, would you change your opinion about this mathematician’s work?
My answer to both of these questions is a resounding no!
I agree with Flaubert, “The man is nothing, the work — all.” Othello remains a masterpiece even if we someday discover Shakespeare subsisted on a diet of roasted black babies. Similarly, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem will stand forever as a landmark of mathematics even though its creator, as brilliantly told in the new biography Journey to the Edge of Reason The Life of Kurt Gödel, was prone to inane conspiracy theories. My favorite was Gödel’s expressed belief that unknown works of Leibniz, that supposedly anticipated later discoveries, were being suppressed by nefarious agents of big philosophy.
In this Gödel, somebody that had a much higher IQ than you, (no matter who the Hell you are), and produced some of the greatest theorems ever, was a total nut job. Nobody is suppressing Leibniz, nor is it likely that any of Gödel’s doctors ever tried to poison him. Gödel was simultaneously a giant of logic and the mayor of Crazy Town. Even Shakespeare would have been impressed by the dichotomy. Clearly, this brain thing we all have in our heads is capable of some deeply weird shit.
Journey to the Edge of Reason is a fabulous and fascinating book. I enjoyed every word, but a few days after putting it aside, a niggling little thought, an epiphany of sorts, percolated up from the bowels of my brain. If a genius like Gödel could not lay off conspiracy theories what are the chances that your average Internet imbecile will?
A snowball’s chance in Hell comes to mind.