Monday, March 21, 2005

Godel’s lost proof – authoritarian government in America?

A wonderful essay, “Time Bandits” by Jim Holt in a recent New Yorker, describes the friendship of Albert Einstein and Kurt Godel. Both men had fled Nazi Germany and in the 1940s had taken positions in Princeton University’s Center for Advanced Study. Godel was a logician and mathematician famous for his “incompleteness theorem.” His mind was especially good at ferreting out the deeper structural implications of abstract symbol systems. An amusing use of of this talent came when he decided to become an American citizen and turned his logical gaze to the U.S. Constitution. As Holt tells the story....

"So naïve and otherworldly was the great logician that Einstein felt obliged to help look after the practical aspects of his life. One much retailed story concerns Gödel’s decision after the war to become an American citizen. The character witnesses at his hearing were to be Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern, one of the founders of game theory. Gödel took the matter of citizenship with great solemnity, preparing for the exam by making a close study of the United States Constitution. On the eve of the hearing, he called Morgenstern 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 Gödel was serious and urged him not to mention it to the judge, fearing that it would jeopardize Gödel’s citizenship bid. On the short drive to Trenton the next day, with Morgenstern serving as chauffeur, Einstein tried to distract Gödel with jokes. When they arrived at the courthouse, the judge was impressed by Gödel’s eminent witnesses, and he invited the trio into his chambers. After some small talk, he said to Gödel, “Up to now you have held German citizenship.”

No, Gödel corrected, Austrian.

“In any case, it was under an evil dictatorship,” the judge continued. “Fortunately that’s not possible in America.”

“On the contrary, I can prove it is possible!” Gödel exclaimed, and he began describing the constitutional loophole he had descried. But the judge told the examinee that “he needn’t go into that,” and Einstein and Morgenstern succeeded in quieting him down. A few months later, Gödel took his oath of citizenship."

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What was the "loophole" that Godel detected? I do not know and Holt's article does not say. One can surmise that Godel noticed what we are now living through, the consequences that befall the republic when all three branches of government are controlled by one political party. If Godel expected that this flaw in the Constitution might foster an authoritarian government with features similar to those of Nazi Germany, his insight was prophetic.

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