Denial in Demented Thinking

I completed Karl Sigmund – “Exact Thinking in Demented Times – The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science” over the weekend. I’ve mentioned the read a few times already, here for example:

The final line of the Afterword – a lesson attributed by Sigmund to  Hofstadter – is “Now I feel that I understand a wee bit better what Ludwig Wittgenstein meant by the phrase “the inexpressible“. In many ways my read of Sigmund is the latest in my own quest to understand not so much the Vienna Circle itself but the confusion of science with philosophy which the 21stC has inherited from the early 20thC.

This has more to do with thinkers associated (positively & negatively) with the activities of the Circle than those that were actually members. Russell,  James, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Gödel, Ramsay and Popper. Not to mention the actual physicists of course, who were busy undermining the foundations of science as fast as the more misguided philosophers were trying codify life according to its received wisdom. In fact a lot of my reading of modern historians of science & philosophy in the last decade has been part of this: Ray Monk, Dave Edmonds, Graham Farmelo, Cheryl Misak and Rebecca Goldstein for example. Karl Sigmund is an extension to this – a tremendously sympathetic human story of these imperfect – even occasionally demented -humans living through two world wars. From Mach and Boltzmann in the late 1800’s to Viktor Kraft the last chair of the Circle in the late-1940’s & early-50’s and the last of them – Einstein, Gödel & Popper – passing in the later 20thC.

With Hofstadter’s acknowledged help, Sigmund’s is the most comprehensive and readable history of the whole, with each of the other modern authors choosing to hang their stories around one or other of the star players. Highly recommended.

That closing line is key. What the quest of the Circle and its legacy miss is that it denies that part of the natural world which is beyond science is not supernatural even though it is intuitively mystical, spiritual, metaphysical, sacred or divine, but never definitively expressible, let alone objectively provable either way. The quest of getting close to this balanced – pragmatic – understanding, in a world more generally in denial, has driven many close to actual madness, some fatally so.

Denial kills.


[Post Note – I mentioned once or twice before that it was theologian “Sam” – a practicing minister in the Anglican church – first suggested that this atheist take Wittgenstein’s “mysticism” seriously whilst we were both readers of Robert Pirsig. Coincidentally this Twitter thread arose this morning:

Several branches in that thread too, mentioning James as well as Misak / Ramsay and more. Small world.]

5 thoughts on “Denial in Demented Thinking”

  1. Interesting idea, with madness and death resulting from blocking the world of the RH. (Btw. Dante famously opens his poem with calling this “dark forest” for a “bitter place. Death could scarce be bitterer.”)

    Maybe this denial applies to the cultural level as much as to the individual. Though a culture can rebirth itself in a way that a person cannot – if it goes too far.

    There’s a really good bbc 4 documentary about Gödel, Boltzmann, Cantor & Turing related to some of the themes about the limits of science here: (“Dangerous Knowledge”)

    Some of it might be seen as the LH never loosing its grip, and never accepting – that there might be limitations to its capacity.

  2. Yes, intuitively the mind knows (or discovers) the RH view is really there, and valuable, but is blocked by the social acceptance of the LH pattern – individually and collectively, learned socially. (Pure memetics.)

    The LH “not accepting” its limits is the “denial”.

    (Not seen that documentary before. ///)

  3. There might be some essential keys for solutions in that language – addressing it as clinical “denial”. Confronting the LH with the scientific facts of McGilchrist, and also point to the countless paths to rationally balanced views, like the “beyond science but still natural” you’ve wonderfully phrased before.

  4. That phrase is in the last para of this post in fact …

    [Watching all parts of that film …

    Ha, although now watching it, I see it’s David Malone … seen him talk before, at Hay on Wye, with Iain McG (and referred to his work here.) And contributor Louis Sass is a big source for Iain. And one of the contributors speaking an uncaptioned very briefly near the beginning of EP1 is – I think – Karl Sigmund … watching Ep2 now – on DailyMotion … and yes it is Karl Sigmund the Author of Exact Thinking in Demented Times … “the slippage” that’s Hofstadter. Ha “Russell’s Principia is like 10,000 tonnes of intellectual concrete poured over the cracks in mathematics and logic.” brilliant! now Godel and the Vienna Circle … and more Sigmund … and now Konigsberg – where so many things ALMOST happened … more denial “Nobody wants to face up to the consequences of Godel” … In fact all of this documentary is in Sigmund’s book (inc Turing). And that Catch-22 from Godel – that humans have intuition beyond logical rules, but you cannot prove that to the satisfaction of LH rules. It’s not “a problem” in need of a solution – it’s a capability we humans can use, and do use if the LH will allow us – are we grown-up enough or will we fall back on the (appatrent) certainties of scientific logic?. Funny David Malone has disappointed me before, was never quite sure he got all this – seemed to fall back on “theistic religion” … I’ll turn all these notes into a post.]

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