A regular theme here is that those investigating the limits to knowledge often get close to “madness”, even tip over into paranoia or worse and do so either temporarily or irrecoverably depending on the kind of support and understanding they get, or the others that become collateral damage. Such a recurring theme, that I have a euphemism to refer to it as:
“There, but for grace, go we all.”
There is also an element that it is necessary to at least get close to the edge and to witness the source of madness, to experience it as part of truly understanding. But that comes with obvious risks. And, let’s be clear, this is not some kind of new finding. It’s as old as mythology itself that our genius / heroes go on quests for the source of all knowledge, get more than the enlightenment their epiphany bargained for and often don’t get out sane or even alive. And it’s as real in the formal pursuit of would-be scientific knowledge as it is in the romantic humanities. In fact the Romantics often took / take themselves deliberately close to the edge by artificial means. (Simon Schama – The Romantics, currently showing. David Attenborough(!) reading “Tables Turned” from which I often quote “We murder to dissect”.)
In my own personal quest, hearing that the brilliant Ludwig Boltzmann committed suicide is as old as Jacob Bronowski’s (1972) Ascent of Man. (The Auschwitz meme too, though I digress, but only slightly.) How mad can we get?
Boltzmann is just one of the self-inflicted deaths investigated along with those of Cantor, Gödel and Turing by David Malone in his (2007 BBC4 / 2008 BBC2) “Dangerous Knowledge“. (Playlist of 5 parts on Daily Motion arranged here by Richard Emerson at Ancient World Org.)
By a double coincidence Richard had pointed to that film in a comment about my reading of Karl Sigmund “Exact Thinking in Demented Times” and lo and behold, we see Sigmund as a contributor to the film in the first two minutes, briefly anonymous initially but more explicitly later in the Gödel episode and more. (Interestingly, Louis Sass is also a major contributor and he’s someone Iain McGilchrist pays particular credit to in his “The Matter With Things”)
[More coincidences – for Richard:
The ticket strip for my daily commute last time I was working in Oslo, was the bookmark for my recent read of McGilchrist – on which I wrote “Add Sass to book list !*”.]
It’s the “denial” that creates the mental tension and crises – whether internally or externally (*) inflicted. And let’s not forget McGilchrist was / is a practicing psychiatrist. These are not “coincidences”.
Anyway, as I noted in my read of Sigmund, all these human stories – of suicides and murders, and of paranoias short of these – are pretty much the story of where “knowledge” went wrong in the 20thC. The denial of sacred nature beyond objective science. The whole of my 20 year blogging project. Approximately from Pirsig to McGilchrist via The Vienna Circle, calling all stations. Next stop Oxford.
(*) The tension or denial can arise internally dealing with the two (L+R) views in our own heads and/or externally when our own internal intuitive & integrated (L+R) conflicts with the established received wisdom of the dominant (L) social pattern.
Other / Meta / Content:
David Malone is someone referenced here before. A regular host/interviewer at “How The Light Gets In” Hay on Wye, previous interviewer of Iain McGilchrist, and maker of “Why Are We Here?”
He refers to “the slippage” of thinking between the explicit and the intuitive. For me that’s Hofstadter’s “conceptual slippage” in “Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies“. And Hofstadter is the preface to Sigmund’s book, and a big interpreter of Gödel.
Loved the characterisation of Russell’s Principia as “like 10,000 tonnes of intellectual concrete poured over the cracks in mathematics and logic”. Brilliant!
Mentioned often before how things might have been different now if several people had grabbed the opportunity of their paths crossing at the 1930 (2nd) Königsberg conference on the exact sciences. The denial “Nobody wants to face up to the consequences of Gödel”. And that Catch-22 from Gödel – that humans have (RH) intuition beyond logical (LH) rules, but you cannot prove that to the satisfaction of LH rules. Gödel & Wittgenstein ships in the night, and more. Thank Johnny von Neumann for noticing or we may never have known even now.
It’s not “a problem” in need of a solution – it’s a capability we humans can use, and would use if only the LH will stop denying us – are we grown-up enough to face this or will we fall back on the (apparent) certainties of scientific logic?