The Irrational Humanist (2015Jan17)

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Saturday, January 17, 2015                              5:39 PM

Lately, I’ve been trying to slog my way through “Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel” by Rebecca Goldstein; I’ve watched “Predestination” on VOD (based on Robert Heinlein’s classic short story, “All You Zombies”—a delirious exploration of the inherent paradox of human time-travel; on Kindle, I’m deep into “Echopraxia” by Peter Watts; and I just this morning discovered online the delightful “Cartoon History of Humanism”’s first sixteen episodes—and I can’t wait for more. Wonderful historical insights, philosophical history datapoints, and a great reading list, making Dale DeBakcsy my new favorite author.

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But then it started to happen again. I’m sure it happens to you, too. You’re reading Melville’s “Moby Dick”, absorbing a fire-hose’s output of historical data about whale biology, the terminology of seamanship, details of 19th –century whaling, aboriginal tattoos, and more. You feel very cozy about communing with this great but long-dead author about out-of-the-way factoids that are completely outside of your everyday thoughts—or anyone else’s. You feel as much a part of 19th century coastal New England culture and society as you do your own present day neighborhood—you feel a little bit special.

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Suddenly, whales come up in every conversation; there’s a PBS special on TV about whales and whaling; a Facebook friend who’s taken a recent coastal tour posts photos of their boating party amidst a pod of spouting, tail-slapping cetaceans; a new biography of Hermann Melville is reviewed in the New York Times’ Book section—whales are everywhere!

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That’s bad enough, but when it comes to something philosophical, like Gödel’s 2nd Incompleteness Theorem, its universal ‘karmic’ backwash can be a little overwhelming. In the course of reading cartoons (no less) I learn that the hidden humanist influences of early first-millennium Christianity not only disproved the existence of the soul, but laid the groundwork for future meditations on the conflict between the rational and the intuitive, the scientific and the ‘true’. Words I had to look up (like ‘apriority’ and ‘formalism’) when I began to read the Gödel book, start popping up in every context. Worse still, these ideas and concepts are applicable—meaning that as I take my daily walk down the block, I’m considering my own perceptions and my own sense of reality—it’s really all too unsettling.

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But history is so broad—it can never cover one subject without touching upon its influences, far and near, past and future. In a sense, any history is a piece of all history, and can lead to further consideration in infinite directions.

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While I’m floundering amidst the flood of reflections which the universe bounces back at me, due to my focus on the question of the incompleteness of consistent systems, and the suggested corollaries that make us question our ability to ‘know’ anything—I am struck by another fact that pops up with even more frequency—misunderstanding.

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Central to Ms. Goldstein’s premise in her partial biography of Kurt Gödel is her insight into the lack of understanding Gödel received from his peers. Almost unanimously, Gödel peers (and scientists and thinkers up to and including the present) saw his proof of the incompleteness of consistent systems as proof that humans are the final arbiters of reality. In point of fact, Gödel had proved the opposite—that the universe is what it is, regardless of human perception (or misperception). Ms. Goldstein points to this as the great tragedy of Gödel’s life and career—that a famously demure genius found a way to say what he wanted to say in irrefutable and unambiguous language—and was, nevertheless, completely misunderstood, both then and now.

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At first, upon reading the beginning of the book, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s the way of the world—when someone is smarter than everyone around him or her, no one will understand what that person tries to say.” And that is certainly true in most cases. But in the course of the last few days, it has occurred to me that human history, all of it, is a collection of the many times, the many ways, and the many reasons why people misunderstand each other. In this context, it is no great surprise that we also habitually misunderstand the universe, reality, perception, science, and reason.

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In the course of the last forty-eight hours, I’ve read and seen multiple examples of great thinkers producing original, important thoughts—and not one of them added to human understanding—on the contrary, misunderstandings about them only increased the chaos. And many times in history, in many places, there have been created brief oases of rational, or at least more-rational, communities—all of which ended, not just in their own erasure from popular history, but in an increase of irrational views left in their wake.


To me, this is cause for no little amount of despair. Here I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand my existence, and to understand the world and the people around me. But now I understand that, even if I miraculously became ‘enlightened’ as to ‘the meaning of life, the universe, and everything’—I still wouldn’t be able to share my thoughts with other people. I mean, I would—but they would most assuredly misunderstand me completely. They wouldn’t understand me, but they would disagree with me and argue with me. My absolute knowledge of perfect truth would be useless—and would most likely get me in a lot of trouble—think Jesus.

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Facebook has a lot of ‘quotes’ on its walls—and many of them are spurious, or mis-sourced. Recently I saw a quote purportedly said by Einstein (Facebook’s accreditation of quotations always leans towards the more-household names) but then saw the same quote during my reading, but tagged ‘apocryphal’, ascribed to Gödel (a close friend of Einstein’s) by Ms. Goldstein: “The more I think about language, the more it amazes me that people ever understand each other.” I would reply, “Don’t be amazed, Kurt. Look at the history of civilization, of science, of philosophy—look at your own life story. People don’t ever understand each other.”

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