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Gdelian Mysteries

by aldus Posted on October 25, 2011


Perhaps the greatest logician of all time, Kurt Gdel uncovered the existence of a world-wide
conspiracy to make men less intelligent. For years Gdel had been very interested in the work of
Gottfried Leibniz, whose characteristica universalis influenced Gdels use of symbolism in his famous
incompleteness proofs, and went so far as to request copies of the voluminous Leibniz manuscripts to
be brought to the United States during the second World War. Gdel initially claimed to have
discovered evidence of a conspiracy suppressing Leibnizs workthat Leibniz had in fact completed
the famously unfinished (and unfinishable) universal language of thought, but had been prevented from
publishing it. In conversation, Gdel suggested that the Viennese Academy of Science, officially
inaugurated in the mid-19th century, had in fact been founded by Leibniz in secret some centuries
before; its record books, which contained references to the complete characteristica universalis, had
been systematically destroyed.
On one occasion, Gdel called his friend Morgenstern, the economist, to the Firestone Library at
Princeton, and showed him two piles of books: one stack of works published in Leibnizs time, citing
him, and another pile of the exact Leibniz editions which were being cited. He proceeded to
demonstrate that in a suspicious number of cases, the cited passages do not exist; either the citations
refer to a non-existent chapter, to a missing paragraph, or to a page on which the supposed text does not
appear, as if the books had been altered after the citations were made.
Gdel came to believe not only that this conspiracy against Leibniz still existed, but that it was
currently preventing the public from understanding the significance of his own (Gdels) work (which,
for the curious, proved that any complex formal system cannot be both consistent and complete: that
there will always exists truths that are true, but unprovable in the system, and that one of these truths is
the very consistency of that system. Gdel evidently understood this result as proving mans ability to
intuit mathematics in a Platonic sense, since no formal procedure can produce all truths).
Gdel, in terror of the conspiracy, rarely published, and eventually wasted away after the death of his
wife. Without her care, he starved himself to death in the late 70s. The accepted explanation is that his
death was a result of the over-zealous application of the principle of sufficient reason: that everything
happens for a reasonthe guiding principle of both philosophers and paranoiacs.
Gdels writings on Leibniz (which surely document his investigation into the conspiracy) are housed
today in the Firestone Library at Princeton (http://diglib.princeton.edu/ead/getEad?
id=ark:/88435/v979v310g). They are written in an archaic 19th century German short-hand, with
generous helpings of mathematical symbolism and Latin.
For those interested in learning more, there is almost nothing available. All references to his conspiracy
theory refer to the same handful of accounts in various memoirs of his contemporaries and no serious
attempt has been made to evaluate his theory, let alone translate his writings on the subject.

A friend of mine, Jeremy Silver, at Princeton had the opportunity to glance at the papers. He writes:
So I checked out some of the manuscripts in the library today. I dont think even a fluent German
reader could make much sense of them at all. Even his math was not in conventional notation, so I
could barely understand any of that. Sadly, I wasnt allowed to photocopy anything (it requires express
permission from the Institute of Advanced Study), but I jotted down some brief impressions of what I
saw, and I also tried to transcribe some of his shorthand so you can behold how hieroglyphic they are.
I only looked at Box 10a which had lots of references and citations to Leibnizs works (Gdel was
quite a bibliographer!), but almost all of it was illegible to me. There was a good bit of Latin, though
probably quoting Leibniz and I tried to copy down what I could read out of like one sentence.

Now this is a project for a translation master!