Monday, June 22, 2015

Logic - comic (graphic novel with Bertrand Russell)

A few weeks back, my Wesley Seminary colleague Brannon Hancock mentioned a couple of graphic novels to me, one largely focused on Bertrand Russell and the second on Richard Feynman. I finished the one on Russell yesterday and wanted to report.

1. The one on Russell is called Logicomix. It's a whopping 352 pages. It gives you a taste of Russell, along with an important collection of others working on logic in the late 1800s and first part of the twentieth century: Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, Kurt Gödel, Ludwig Wittgenstein, etc. One theme that runs throughout the novel is the frequent connection between the obsession of some of these for logic and a certain madness many of them skirted with.

Russell's family itself had a fair amount of schizophrenia in it. Georg Cantor and Kurt Gödel both had serious mental health issues. Frege turned out to have horrible Nazi sympathies. Wittgenstein himself, like Russell, had seriously obsessive tendencies.

The setting of the graphic novel is the writers of the novel writing the novel, in Greece, nonetheless. This allows the narrators to step into the story at various points to explain things and to reflect on the overall themes. An interesting backdrop is that one of them is also in a play being performed from Greek tragedy, the Oresteia. This is a series of blood obligations started when one Greek king killed the children of another.

Then ensues a series of revenge obligations that ends with Orestes on trial before Athens with Athena arguing that the blood debt needs to stop and the Furies insisting that he must die for killing his mother. This backdrop fits with the madness theme.

2. The setting of the story itself is Russell giving a lecture in America in 1939 while America is on the brink of war. He had taken a pacifist stance on WW1 and the group to which he was speaking was hoping he would do so again with WW2. In response, he presents his life story.

The story is largely one of his obsession and the obsession of others to ground mathematics on a firm basis. He and Alfred North Whitehead spend 10 years writing volumes meant to ground mathematics firmly on logic. Russell considered the work a failure. But as an example, they spend some 250 pages proving that 1 + 1 = 2.

Wittgenstein enters the scene as someone who undermines Russell's whole enterprise. "Whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent," and Wittgenstein would include the ultimate foundations of logic and math in that category. The climax of the novel, it seems to me, is Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem, which demonstrated that you could not ultimately prove anything as a self-contained system. Nothing can be completely grounded in itself.

(This is a major qualification to sola scriptura--the meaning of the Bible as a whole cannot hold together without some axioms which are ultimately outside of the Bible itself.)

3. The tortured point of the novel seems to be that extreme positions and obsessions--on logic, on war, on communism or capitalism--all seem to invite madness and insanity. Russell wrestles with how Frege could be so brilliant and yet froth at the mouth at the murder of Jews or how Hilbert could completely disown his schizophrenic son. Not long after Gödel's breakthrough, Moritz Schlick was gunned down by a Nazi in Vienna (1936).

In the graphic novel, Russell tells the pacifist crowd that they would have to make up their own minds about World War 2. In the novel he says, "The thought of Hitler and Stalin taking over Europe is too hard to bear" (296), despite his distaste for war. This doesn't seem to be a completely accurate picture of Russell, since he supported Chamberlain's appeasement policy.

4. I would say that as a graphic novel on such heady topics, it held my attention. It shows that there is a market for such things. This collection of eccentrics were, more or less, the founders of analytic philosophy. I have some admiration for them, whose goals were clarity and certainty. Gödel took the latter away from them, but I am nonetheless thankful for these accountants of philosophy.

I believe that the thinking of the world right now, including America, could use some serious house cleaning. I would love to break down our thinking into "atoms of principle" and try to help us find clarity on the most important issues of the day.

It remains as hard as ever to do that, though, because of the politics of knowledge and the persistence of our individual intuitions. The "preaching" I hear in person, page, and social media often seems oh so irrelevant, destined to continue the marginalization of Christianity within society. The rich and powerful play jacks with each other while the world burns. Their resources have nothing to do with truth, only perpetuating self-interest. But they have the power to make it happen. The public runs rampant with madness, convinced that its ignorance is true insight.

Who will free us from this body of death?

1 comment:

Brannon Hancock said...

Glad you found value in the comic novel! Would love to talk to you about it, particular the role of the medium for telling that particular kind of story - and may hit you up to borrow it sometime! :-)