Gödel, Einstein, Smith part 2: Troubles with the Constitution

Gödel about 10 years before this story I think.

Eight years ago I wrote a post here about the mathematician, physicist, logician, philosopher, Kurt Gödel (1906-1978). I can’t remember exactly why I did this except that it had some relationship to Gödel’s belief in ghosts/evil spirits and that’s tangentially Mormon I suppose. This time, there is also a tangential reason to blog about the man again because it’s about the Constitution of the United States, a topic of interest in Mormonism since its founding days. Anyway, I noticed recently that the long-rumored story of Gödel’s application for US citizenship found more historical support. One of the participants in the episode, Oskar Morgenstern, left a memo on the incident and this was made public a few years ago. I’ve collected a number of stories about Gödel over the years but this one never had a solid basis in fact as far as I could tell. Now it does.

I think I must set the stage a bit so that you have some structure attached to the people involved in the incident.

Einstein, about the time he came to the IAS.

Albert Einstein. Einstein (1879-1955) was born in Ulm, German Empire. After high school, he moved to Switzerland and through family contacts got work in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. Einstein had worked on a PhD in physics but became discouraged when his first dissertation was rejected. He told a friend “the whole comedy has become boring.” Then he read a book by the great French polymath, Henri Poincaré. Poincaré pointed out several unsolved problems that inspired Einstein. In 1905 he published five papers in the months of March, April, May, June, and September. One of these, on the size and nature of atoms and their role in Brownian motion, was accepted as his dissertation–after he added a sentence to satisfy the length requirement. One was on the photo-electric effect (how can light knock electrons around in solar cells? an important foundation for quantum mechanics). One was on Relativity. The last one elaborated the most famous equation of all time [mass–energy equivalence]: E=Mc2. Einstein won the Nobel prize in 1921 for the photoelectric paper but the prize committee warned him not to mention Relativity in his acceptance speech–it was still reverberating in the physics world. While Einstein, a non-practicing Jew, was visiting the US in 1933, Hitler came to power and he decided to accept an offer to come to the newly established Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, NJ (it’s not part of Princeton University though they tend to have close ties). The IAS didn’t have classes or students. It had permanent and visiting members who worked with each other or alone on unassigned research of their own choice. There were no deadlines or evaluations.

Home of the IAS, Fuld Hall, named for financial founder Caroline Fuld.

Gödel himself was born the year following Einstein’s earthshaking papers in what is now Brno, Czech Republic. As a child his brother and parents nicknamed him “Mr. Why” for reasons you may guess. When Gödel finished the equivalent of high school, he went to university in Vienna. There he fell under the influence of the work of Whitehead and Russell, Carnap, and Hilbert on questions of mathematical logic. He saw it as prior to all other science and thought in general. It was Hilbert who was the influence that directed Gödel in his choice of topics. In the summer of 1929, Gödel completed his PhD by solving the “completeness” question for first-order abstract logic (was everything that was true in logic, actually provable within the system of logic? The answer was yes–seems reasonable, but more was ahead). While Gödel was in Vienna, he became part of the “Vienna Circle” a group of philosophers and other thinkers who wanted to rid philosophy of metaphysics and recast it in the image of science. Gödel was skeptical about the project but kept it to himself. He hated confrontation unless he had complete certainty of his position. Gödel was old school. He believed in something like Platonic metaphysics (recent data suggests that Americans in particular are Gödelian in this–I find this fascinating[3]). Ideas had a reality just as substantive as desks and chairs and were found, not invented. He decided to make his point by showing that mathematics was richer than logic. Proof could not invent the world of thought. The discovery of ideas required, in Gödel’s mind, something beyond logic, a kind of intuition, that could never be mechanized. [I find something attractive here to my own conceptions of Mormonism, or at least I find it coherent with much of Mormon intellectual thought of the early twentieth century.] His argument to establish this metaphysics of discovery shook the whole world of abstract thought.[1] Gödel’s methodology was to use the old Liar’s Paradox solution against Logic itself [the paradox goes like this: if I say “I am lying” am I telling the truth, or not?). He showed in 1931 that unlike logic, ordinary arithmetic contained certain sentences that were true which could not be proved by the rules of logic from arithmetic’s foundational principles. His colleagues in the Circle saw this as an utter disaster. The hope to place all mathematics, philosophy, and science on a systematic formal foundation of logic alone was blasted. For Gödel it was a triumph but for many modern philosophers of the period who had abandoned metaphysics, it created a dark hole which seemed to swallow their hope, at least for a time. Gödel loved his Vienna but with the coming of the Nazis he felt threatened by their swagger and violence. Not a Jew, his association with Jewish colleagues marked him as suspect and barred him from university work. He decided to accept an invitation to join the IAS, something he never regretted. Always of delicate mental status, he suffered from depression and episodes of severe anxiety from childhood and this may have contributed to his desire to never be “caught out.”[2] It is difficult to convey how disruptive both Einstein and Gödel were in the thought of the twentieth century.

Morgenstern ca. 1948.

Morgenstern. Oskar Morgenstern was another Vienna scholar who received a PhD in 1925 and three years later became a professor there. While Morgenstern was visiting in Princeton, Hitler annexed Austria and he decided to remain in the US becoming part of the faculty of Princeton University. One of the principal founders of Game Theory with IAS member John Von Neumann, Morgenstern was more applied in his work than the typical IAS faculty. When J. Robert Oppenheimer became the director of IAS after World War II, he took IAS in a more experimental/real world direction, something that many of the members of IAS disliked–they were a chalkboard and notepad crowd. Morgenstern saw this as a positive move.

Einstein and Judge Phillip Forman who examined Gödel for citizenship as he had done with Einstein.

Phillip Forman. Forman (1895-1978) was appointed a federal district judge in 1932 for the district of New Jersey. Forman presided over Gödel’s citizenship exam.

————-the story————
Following World War II, Gödel decided he should become an American citizen. Gödel was a very precise man who liked to leave nothing to chance. Indeed, he hated the idea of chaos and distrusted quantum mechanics for that reason. When he was to receive the examination in 1946, he began to prepare very carefully beginning all the way from North America in prehistoric times. As he began to study the United States Constitution, Gödel apparently saw something that disturbed him. Here is Morgenstern’s account:

[Gödel] asked me to be his witness and as the other witness, he proposed Albert Einstein who also gladly consented. Einstein and I occasionally met and were full of anticipation as to what would happen during this time prior to the naturalization proceedings . . . . Gödel, whom I [had] seen of course time and again in the months
before this event began to go in a thorough manner to prepare himself properly. Since he is a very thorough man, he started informing himself about the history of the settlement of North America by human beings. That led gradually to the study of the History of American Indians, their various tribes, etc. He called me many times on the phone to get literature which he diligently perused. There were many questions raised gradually and of course many doubts brought forth as to whether these histories really were correct and what peculiar circumstances were revealed in them. From that, Gödel gradually over the next weeks proceeded to study American history, concentrating in particular on matters of constitutional law. That also led him into the study of Princeton, and he wanted to know from me in particular where the borderline was between the borough and the township. I tried to explain that all this was totally unnecessary, of course, but with no avail. He persisted in finding out all the facts he wanted to know about and so I provided him with the proper information, also about Princeton. Then he wanted to know how the Borough Council was elected, the Township Council, and who the Mayor was, and how the Township Council functioned. He thought he might be asked about such matters. If he were to show that he did not know the town in which he lived, it would make a bad impression.

I tried to convince him that such questions never were asked, that most questions were truly formal and that he would easily answer them; that at most they might ask what sort of government we have in this country or what the highest court is called, and questions of this kind. At any rate, he continued with the study of the Constitution.

Now came an interesting development. He rather excitedly told me that in looking at the Constitution, to his distress, he had found some inner contradictions and that he could show how, in a perfectly legal manner, it would be possible for somebody to become a dictator and set up a Fascist regime, never intended by those who drew up the Constitution. I told him that it was most unlikely that such events would ever occur, even assuming that he was right, which of course I doubted. But he was persistent and so we had many talks about this particular point. I tried to persuade him that he should avoid bringing up such matters at the examination before the court in Trenton, and I also told Einstein about it: he was horrified that such an idea had occurred to Godel, and he also told him he should not worry about these things nor discuss that matter.

Many months went by and finally the date for the examination in Trenton came. On that particular day, I picked up Gödel in my car. He sat in the back and then we went to pick up Einstein at his house on Mercer Street, and from there we drove to Trenton. While we were driving, Einstein turned around a little and said, “Now, Gödel, are you really well prepared for this examination?” Of course, this remark upset Gödel tremendously, which was exactly what Einstein intended and he was greatly amused when he saw the worry on Gödel’s face.

When we came to Trenton, we were ushered into a big room, and while normally the witnesses are questioned separately from the candidate, because of Einstein’s appearance, an exception was made and all three of us were invited to sit down together, Gödel, in the center. The examiner first asked Einstein and then me whether we thought Gödel would make a good citizen. We assured him that this would certainly be the case, that he was a distinguished man, etc. And then he turned to Gödel and said,
“Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?”
Godel: “Where I come from? Austria.”
The Examiner: “What kind of government did you have in Austria?”
Gödel: “It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally
was changed into a dictatorship.”
The Examiner: “Oh! This is very bad. This could not happen in this country.”
Gödel: “Oh, yes [it can], I can prove it!”

So of all the possible questions, just that critical one was asked by the Examiner. Einstein and I were horrified during this exchange; the Examiner was intelligent enough to quickly quieten Gödel and say, “Oh God, let’s not go into this” and broke off the examination at this point, greatly to our relief. We finally left and as we were walking out towards the elevators, a man came running after us with a piece of paper and a pen and approached Einstein and asked him for his autograph. Einstein obliged. When we went down in the elevator, I turned to Einstein and said, “It must be dreadful to be persecuted in this fashion by so many people.” Einstein said to me, “You know, this is just the last remnant of cannibalism.” I was puzzled and said, “How is that?” He said: “Yes, formerly they wanted your blood, now they want your ink.”

Then we left, drove back to Princeton, and as we came to the corner of Mercer Street, I asked Einstein whether he wanted to go to the Institute or home. He said, “Take me home, my work is not worth anything anyway anymore.” . . . . Then off to Einstein’s home again, and then he turned back once more toward Gödel, and said, “Now, Gödel, this was your one but last examination.”
Gödel: “Goodness, is there still another one to come?” and he was already worried. And then Einstein said, “Gödel, the next examination is when you step into your grave.”
Gödel: “But Einstein, I don’t step into my grave.” and then Einstein said, “Gödel, that’s just the joke of it!” and with that he departed. I drove Gödel home. Everybody was relieved that this formidable affair was over; Gödel had his head free again to go about problems of philosophy and logic.

The Constitution. Got an antinomy there?

Is there a logical problem in here? The greatest logician of all time thought so.

[1] Unlike Einstein, Gödel was a theist. He came up with a new ontological proof. He read the Bible every Sunday. He believed in a personal preexistence and afterlife. Though he thought religions were generally “bad,” he did not believe that had to be the case. On Gödel and the Circle, see Fefferman, In the Light of Logic, 131.

[2] Gödel developed fears of fellow mathematicians, freon (refrigeration gas), a rheumatic heart, that others were trying to poison him–eventually his diet consisted of only that prepared by his wife. When she was hospitalized for a stroke he refused to eat and died of starvation. He and Einstein were fast friends and when the latter died, Gödel became even more of a recluse at IAS. His legendary status only grew with his isolation. Once when renowned philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007) spotted Gödel in a Princeton grocery store he became almost catatonic. It was like he’d seen God. Many members of the IAS rarely spoke to Gödel. Feynman observed that Einstein and Gödel only wanted to talk to each other. One of the few exceptions to this was Princeton economics professor Oskar Morgenstern. There is another Mormon connection here. Rorty’s bioethicist second wife Mary Varney was a practicing Latter-day Saint (I’m digging deep).

[3] For example, Tanya Luhrmann, “Knowing God,” The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 35, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 125-142. Luhrmann’s paper has relevance to the way many Latter-day Saints speak of their interaction with God. Take a read if you can get to it.


  1. Kristin Brown says:

    Fascinating. Thank you.

  2. I love this. But I wouldn’t like to try to explain why.

    It makes me want to say something smart, but the bar is so high I’ll wait until the feeling passes.
    I’m not at all surprised if there is a logical flaw. I don’t know what Gödel had in mind (apparently nobody does). But Google helps me remember old thoughts, that it had to do with term limits (the 22d Amendment was submitted for ratification in 1947) or the amendment provision, including the possibility of amending the amendment provision.

  3. I loved this. Thanks for sharing.

  4. There are many flaws in the Constitution. You don’t need to be a genius logician to find them.

    A legal scholar, Sanford Levinson, has made a career of pointing them out. But just about any legal scholar or political scientist could rattle off at least a few flaws without too much effort.

    I like Elder Oaks’ approach to the Constitution. Yes, there are some inspired principles at it’s core, but they are mingled in with a lot of either stuff that ranges from trivial to flawed.

  5. For more on the relationship between Godel and Einstein, read the first essay of a recent book, “When Einstein Walked With Godel: Excursions To The End Of Thought, Jim Holt, FSG, 2018. Originally came out in the New Yorker about 13 years ago. Every bit as good now, as it was then.

  6. Terry H. A friend recently mentioned Holt’s book to me. I bought it a couple of days ago. Looking forward to reading.

  7. You failed to present Godel’s argument on the flaws in the Constitution. What exactly did he see as contradictory and how could it lead to dictatorship?

  8. Ted, no one knows.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Loved this, thanks.

    With the rise of Trumpism, perhaps we could hazard a guess or two as to how fascism could arise under the Constitution…

  10. Ted, Trump is showing us how.

  11. Amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  12. You’re welcome, Jason K.

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