Kurt Godel: a great Genius, a weird Personality

Great men and their life can show us many things about human history and human life. Kurt Godel (1906- 1978), who has often been called the greatest logician of all times, was a great Mathematician/ logician, but he was a great man with a weird personality in a weird era (two world wars and the cold war). Godel, whose incompleteness theorems were hailed as the most important mathematical discovery of all times, or of the previous hundred years, died of starvation. In fact, the greatest logician of all times, had a weird life, a weird death, and many illusions about himself and his world. When some read about life of the great men, including Godel and Newton, they ask: “a great genius is equal to a great lunatic and paranoiac, isn’t it?”, but they often forget that all people, including great men, suffer from their own illusions and their own problems. Great men are unique, like other people. They can be emotional at times but that’s just part of their personality. The theories of personality type can show us some good things about people’s personality. For instance, they tell us that some are extrovert and some are introvert, but these theories are so incomplete, and often forget that each person is really unique. The experts say: “The theory of personality types, as it stand today, based on the research of Carl Jung, Katharine C. Briggs, and Isabel Briggs Myers contends that: Personality has 4 dimensions 1- Extraverted (E) or Introverted (I) 2- Sensing (S) or iNtuitive (N) 3- Thinking (T) or Feeling (F) 4- Judging (J) or Perceiving (P). And the possible combinations of these 4 dimensions form 16 different Personality Types, like INTJ, INTP, ESFP, ENTJ, etc. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a test that can show your personality type”. Some say: “Godel was a weird INTP. INTPs seek clarity in everything. They are the ‘absent-minded professors’, who value knowledge above all else. Their minds are constantly working to generate new theories, or to prove or disprove existing theories. They approach problems and theories with enthusiasm and skepticism, ignoring existing rules and opinions and defining their own approach to the resolution. The INTP is usually very independent, unconventional, and original. The INTP is at his best when he can work on his theories alone and independently. When given an environment which supports his creative genius and possible eccentricity, the INTP can accomplish truly remarkable things. These are the pioneers of new thoughts in our society “. (for more information about personality types and MBTI you can check here ). Of course, the theories of personality type are so incomplete and can’t show us many things. Maybe there are some incompleteness theorems about humans and the human life. Godel and his life is a good example of ‘Incompleteness’ in humans and human life. Godel’s incompleteness theorems in logic and mathematics were great works, while Godel and his life can be like “incompleteness theorems” about the human life. Godel can show us that all people, including great men, are unique, and have their own special talents and their own problems and illusions. Let’s take a look at Godel’s life, including his special personality and his weird death [1]:


In 1931, Godel proved fundamental results about axiomatic systems, showing in any axiomatic mathematical system there are propositions that cannot be proved or disproved within the axioms of the system. In particular the consistency of the axioms cannot be proved. This ended a hundred years of attempts to establish axioms which would put the whole of mathematics on an axiomatic basis. Godel, who was master at logic and finding inconsistency, became a U.S. citizen in 1948, but the story of his citizenship was funny. Godel believed he had found an inconsistency in the US Constitution [!] His friends, including Einstein, urged him to become a US citizen, and Godel took the matter of citizenship with great solemnity, preparing for the exam by making a close study of the US Constitution. On the eve of the hearing, he called Morgenstern, one of the founders of game theory, in an agitated state, saying he had found an ‘inconsistency’ in the Constitution, one that could allow a dictatorship to arise [!]. Morgenstern was amused, but he realized that Godel was serious and urged him not to mention it to the judge, fearing that it would jeopardize Godels citizenship bid [!]. On the short drive to Trenton the next day, with Morgenstern serving as chauffeur, Einstein tried to distract Godel with jokes. When they arrived at the courthouse, the judge was impressed by Godels eminent witnesses, and he invited the trio into his chambers. After some small talk, he said to Godel, ‘Up to now you have held German citizenship’. No, Godel corrected, Austrian. ‘In any case, it was under an evil dictatorship,’ the judge continued. ‘Fortunately thats not possible in America’. ‘On the contrary, I can prove it is possible!’ Godel exclaimed, and he began describing the constitutional loophole he had descried. But the judge told the examinee that ‘he neednt go into that,’ and Einstein and Morgenstern succeeded in quieting him down. A few months later, Godel took his oath of citizenship. Godel was born in 1906 in Brno, Austria-Hungary (now the Czech Republic). His father was manager of a textile factory. Godel had quite a happy childhood. He was very devoted to his mother but seemed rather timid and troubled when his mother was not in the home. He had rheumatic fever when he was six years old, but after he recovered, when he was eight years old he began to read medical books about the illness he had suffered from, and learnt that a weak heart was a possible complication. Although there is no evidence that he did have a weak heart, Kurt became convinced that he did, and concern for his health became an everyday worry for him. Kurt was a inquisitive child -his parents and brother gave him the nickname ‘Mr. Why?’. He became a Czechoslovak citizen at age 12 when the Austro-Hungarian empire was broken up, and an Austrian citizen at age 23. Godel entered the University of Vienna in 1923, and joined his brother Rudolf. He participated in the Vienna Circle, and when he took part in a seminar run by Moritz Schlick which studied Bertrand Russell’s book ‘Introduction to mathematical philosophy’ he became interested in mathematical logic. Godel’s father died in 1929, but he had a successful business and his family were left financially secure. After the death of her husband, Godel’s mother purchased a large flat in Vienna and both her sons lived in it with her. Godel published his most important work in 1931 at age of 25, when he worked at Vienna University. The 1933 was the year that Hitler came to power. At first this had no effect on Godel’s life in Vienna; he had little interest in politics. In 1934, Godel gave a series of lectures at Princeton. However, Godel suffered a nervous breakdown as he arrived back in Europe and telephoned his brother Rudolf from Paris to say he was ill. He was treated by a psychiatrist and spent several months in a sanatorium recovering from depression. Despite the health problems, Godel’s research was progressing well and he proved important results on the consistency of the axiom of choice with the other axioms of set theory in 1935. Godel’s friend, Schlick, whose seminar had aroused Godel’s interest in logic, was murdered by a Nazi student in 1936, and Godel was much affected and had another breakdown. He visited Göttingen in the summer of 1938, lecturing there on his set theory research. He finally married Adele Porkert in the autumn of 1938. She was six years older than Godel and had been married before and both his parents, but particularly his father, objected to the idea that they marry. She was not the first girl that Godel’s parents had objected to, the first he had met around the time he went to university was 10 years older than him


“In 1938, Austria had became part of Germany but Godel was not much interested and carried on his life much as normal. He visited Princeton for the second time, spending the first term of session 1938-39 at the Institute for Advanced Study. But he was forced to return to Austria. He had to become paid lecturers after Austria country became part of Germany, but Godel did not and his application made in 1939 was given an unenthusiastic response. It seems that he was thought to be Jewish, but in fact this was entirely wrong, although he did have many Jewish friends. Others also mistook him for a Jew, and he was once attacked by a gang of youths, believing him to be a Jew, while out walking with his wife in Vienna. When the war started Godel feared that he might be conscripted into the German army. Of course he was also convinced that he was in far too poor health to serve in the army, but if he could be mistaken for a Jew he might be mistaken for a healthy man. He was not prepared to risk this, and after lengthy negotiation to obtain a U.S. visa he was fortunate to be able to return to the US, although he had to travel via Russia and Japan to do so. His wife accompanied him. In 1940, Godel arrived in the US. One of Godel’s closest friends at Princeton was Einstein. Albert Einstein came to America in 1933. He spent the last 22 years of his life in Princeton, New Jersey, where he had been recruited as the star member of the Institute for Advanced Study. His daily routine began with a leisurely walk from his house, at 115 Mercer Street, to his office at the institute. He was by then one of the most famous and, with his distinctive/ lunatic appearance -the whirl of pillow-combed hair, the baggy pants held up by suspenders -most recognizable people in the world. A decade after arriving in Princeton, Einstein acquired a walking companion, a much younger man who, next to the rumpled Einstein, cut a dapper figure in a white linen suit and matching fedora. The two would talk animatedly in German on their morning amble to the institute and again, later in the day, on their way homeward. The man in the suit may not have been recognized by many townspeople, but Einstein addressed him as a peer, someone who had single-handedly launched a conceptual revolution. Godel was solemn, solitary, and pessimistic. Einstein, a passionate amateur violinist, loved Beethoven and Mozart. Godels taste ran in another direction: his favorite movie was Walt Disneys ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Although Einsteins private life was very complicated, outwardly he was jolly and at home in the world (Einstein’s two marriages had been failures; a daughter born out of wedlock seems to have disappeared from history; of his two sons one was schizophrenic, the other estranged. Some saw Einstein as a irresponsible, selfish, or indifferent person in his family life). Godel, by contrast, had a calm private life and a special social life. Although other members of the institute found the gloomy logician baffling and unapproachable, Einstein told people that he went to his office ‘just to have the privilege of walking home with Godel’‘. A friend said: ‘Godel was the only one of our colleagues who walked and talked on equal terms with Einstein’. United by a shared sense of intellectual isolation, they found solace in their companionship. ‘They didnt want to speak to anybody else,’ another member of the institute said. ‘They only wanted to speak to each other’. People wondered what they spoke about. Politics was presumably one theme. Physics was no doubt another. Godel was an ordinary member of the Institute for Advanced Study from 1940 to 1946, then he was a permanent member until 1953. He held a chair at Princeton from 1953 until his death, holding a contract which explicitly stated that he had no lecturing duties. Goldstein says: ‘At that time, Princeton was great [, not like today, that the Mullah terrorists work there). The bright orange Princeton community phonebook had many great names, including Godel and Einstein [not like today that you can find the name of Mullah terrorists and Mullah Mafia there]. It was like opening up the local phonebook and finding Spinoza or Newton‘. Goldstein adds: ‘I once found the philosopher Richard Rorty standing in a bit of a daze in Davidsons food market [, and I was shocked. But] he told me in hushed tones that hed just seen Godel in the frozen food aisle [and he was shocked, too]’. [And now, you can find the Mullah terrorists there, and that’s why you will be shocked]. For the rest of his life he rarely left Princeton, which he came to find ‘ten times more congenial’ than his once beloved Vienna”.


“Godel believed in ghosts; he refused to go out when certain distinguished mathematicians were in town, apparently out of concern that they might try to kill him. ‘Every chaos is a wrong appearance,’ he insisted, his lifes first axiom. The great mathematician would wear warm, winter clothing in the middle of summer. In the middle of winter, Godel would leave all of the windows open in his home because he believed that conspirators were trying to assassinate him with poison gas. He was a somewhat sickly man and was prescribed specific diets and medical regimens by doctors, but Godel would often ignore his doctors’ advice or even do the opposite of what his prescription indicated. Amongst his delusions was the belief that unknown villains were trying to kill him by poisoning his food, and it would turn out to be fatal for the great logician. Godel said that he found Princeton ‘ten times more congenial’ than his once beloved Vienna, and it says much about his feelings towards Austria that he refused membership of the Academy of Sciences in Vienna, then later when he was elected to honorary membership he again refused the honor. He also refused to accept the highest National Medal for scientific and artistic achievement that Austria offered him. He certainly felt bitter at his own treatment but equally so about that of his family. Godel’s mother and brother Rudolf had remained in Vienna. After the war between the Austrians and the Czechs, his mother received one tenth of the value for her villa in Brno. It was an injustice which infuriated Godel. After Einsteins death in 1955, at the age of 76, Godel became ever more withdrawn. He preferred to conduct all conversations by telephone, even if his interlocutor was a few feet distant. When he especially wanted to avoid someone, he would schedule a rendezvous at a precise time and place, and then make sure he was somewhere far away. In 1975, he refused to go to Washington to meet Gerald Ford at the White House, despite the offer of a chauffeur for him and his wife. Concerns with his health became increasingly worrying to Godel as the years went by. Godel’s brother, who was a medical doctor, said: ‘My brother had a very individual and fixed opinion about everything and could hardly be convinced otherwise. Unfortunately he believed all his life that he was always right not only in mathematics but also in medicine, so he was a very difficult patient for doctors. After severe bleeding from a duodenal ulcer, for the rest of his life he kept to an extremely strict diet which caused him slowly to lose weight ‘. Godel was generally worried about his health and did not travel or lecture widely in later years. But Godel’s works in logic were great, and ended a hundred years of attempts to establish axioms which would put the whole of mathematics on an axiomatic basis. Godel’s results were a landmark in 20th-century mathematics, showing that mathematics is not a finished object, as had been believed. It also implies that a computer can never be programmed to answer all mathematical questions. Godel invented an ingenious scheme that allowed the formulas in it to engage in a sort of double speak. A formula that said something about numbers could also, in this scheme, be interpreted as saying something about other formulas and how they were logically related to one another. In fact, as Godel showed, a numerical formula could even be made to say something about itself. Godel produced a formula that, while ostensibly saying something about numbers, also says, ‘I am not provable’. In fact, it says that inside the logical system, it is neither provable nor disprovable. The system, then, is incomplete. The conclusion -that no logical system can capture all the truths of mathematics- is known as the first incompleteness theorem. Godel also proved that no logical system for mathematics could, by its own devices, be shown to be free from inconsistency, a result known as the second incompleteness theorem. Godel believed that mathematical abstractions were every bit as real as tables and chairs, a view that others had come to regard as laughably naive. Both Godel and Einstein insisted that the world is independent of our minds, yet rationally organized and open to human understanding. But Godel suffered from his own personal illusions and paranoia. Adele, Godel’s wife, was a great support to him and she did much to ease the tensions which troubled him. However she herself began to suffer health problems, having two strokes and a major operation. In fact, shortly before Godel’s death, his wife had become extremely ill and was consequently incapacitated in a hospital bed. Not only was this a cause of deep sorrow for Godel, it also meant that his wife could no longer cook for him. Due to his paranoia this meant that Godel refused to eat any food at all. Some say that he loved his wife a lot, and he was dependent on her, and he didn’t want to be alive after her. ‘To those of us who believe in physics,’ he wrote to the widow of a friend who had recently died, ‘the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, if a stubborn one’. Finally, looking like (in the words of a friend) ‘a living corpse,’ he was taken to the Princeton Hospital. There, two weeks later, on January 14, 1978, he succumbed to self-starvation. According to his death certificate, the cause of death was ‘malnutrition and inanition’ brought on by ‘personality disturbance’. Godel died sitting in a chair in his hospital room at Princeton. He had no children.

[1] You can find many articles and books about Godel and his life in the internet. “Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel”, by Rebecca Goldstein is one the good books about Godel and his life.

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