Saturday, December 26, 2009


Every so often I read a book and think, "I wish my dad were around to read this."  The most recent is "Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth" by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou—a graphic novel centered around the life of Bertrand Russell and detailing the "Quest for the Foundations of Mathematics" through the development of the discipline of mathematical logic.

I found it on one or two "ten-best" lists and gave it to my son Ben for Christmas.  On the way to wrapping it I picked it up and started to read it (being as careful as I could not to break the spine).  I enjoyed what I read and kept going.  To my surprise, I wound up loving this book.

I was thinking that it was the first graphic novel I'd ever read, but I realized that actually I'd read quite a few—because of all the Tintin books my sisters and I had read as kids.  And in fact, the drawing style is quite Tintinesque; the artists, Annie Di Donna and Alecos Papadatos, studied in France and worked on Tintin-related projects.

So of course there is a lot of intellectual history of mathematical logic—Russell, Whitehead, Cantor, Frege, Hilbert, and Gödel.  The "Vienna Circle" of logical positivists gets quite a bit of screen time, and there's more Wittgenstein than I had expected from the relatively narrow history that a mathematician gains by osmosis.  There isn't a lot of technical detail—which Ben found somewhat disappointing—but that's probably best for the general audience.

There is a complicated narrative structure—a first level of "narration" in which we intermittently see the authors, the illustrators, and the researcher discussing the book and how it should be written (I put "narration" in quotes because we see the characters interacting in these discussions, they aren't simply voice-overs).  The "actual" material is framed as a lecture given by Russell at an American university in 1939, with some interaction with pacifists/isolationists in the audience.  The lecture is structured as Russell's personal reminiscences, so that most of the action takes place as extended flashbacks.  It sounds complicated, but it works quite seamlessly—much more seamlessly than it would in a novel, because you have the pictures which clearly indicate which narrative stream you're in at any given point.

Beyond the history of logic, there is a quite a bit of cultural/social context, especially of World War I and Russell's pacifist activism; the 1939 lecture device takes us through the rise of Nazism (including the assassination of a Vienna Circle leader) and the audience interaction takes us to Russell's attitude toward the Second World War.

All of this was well done, but it wasn't what made me love the book.

Much of the present-day narrative is taken up with the relationship of logic to "madness," noting a high prevalence of mental illness among logicians and what we psychiatrists call their "first-degree relatives."  There is quite a bit of back-and-forth about whether logic leads to madness or vice-versa, which I didn't find all that engaging.  But the final conclusion seems to be that the obsessional, exacting traits that drive one to be a logician are not conducive to a balanced life, and we see a great deal of evidence for this in the logicians' domestic lives, which is a third important strand in the book.

As portrayed in the book, Russell's fascination with logic and rationality starts as an escape from his overbearing and religiously domineering grandmother.  Russell and his fellow travelers believe in the liberation of humanity from religion and superstition (or, as they put it repeatedly in the book, "instinct, emotion, and habit") through science and rationality, and they pursue this liberation with at least as much fervor and dogmatism as Russell's grandmother pursued her religious subjugation.  In their world view, rationality should encompass not just mathematics, but international affairs, education,  child-rearing, and presumably every other aspect of human life.  Russell's career may represent the high-water mark of this viewpoint, and Gödel's incompleteness theorem is perhaps its most significant internally-generated challenge.  The Russell portrayed in the 1939 lecture is a man who has evolved beyond simple skepticism of the irrational to skepticism of absolutism and certitude of all sorts.  This shift is apparently based not just on the failure of mathematical logic to live up to his ambitions for it, but also on his own experiences as an educator and father.

The "Finale" of the book is a performance of Aeschylus's The Eumenides.  The connection is made through the contemporary narrative in a way that is somewhat tenuous, and I expect that some readers will find it out of place or excessive.  For me, though, it somehow brought the whole story together in a way that I found unexpectedly moving.  When Athena doesn't banish the furies but rather tries to engage them as a positive force in Athenian civic life, we learn that there is a strand of Greek thought that stands not simply for the rationalism of Euclid, but that strives to balance and integrate logic and rationality with the "ancient wisdom"—wisdom which almost certainly would have been disparaged as "instinct, emotion, and habit" by Russell's rationalist colleagues.  But in this book, it's Aeschylus who gets the last word.

My father's work was very different from Gödel's, but in his own way he drove some nails into the coffin of the rationalist/positivist world-view.  In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he maintained that science is a fundamentally human endeavor rather than an inevitable march to a fixed, absolute truth.  I have to say, though, that he was very much cut from the same cloth as the historical figures in this book.  He didn't set out to attack the rationalist world-view any more than Gödel did; both of them arrived where they did by following the rationalist program—for Gödel through the study of mathematical logic, and for my father through empirical observation of the history of science.  My father was by no means a relativist who believed that science was some arbitrary sort of social convention.  And when things got down to the mat, I promise you that "objective" was something positive and "irrational" was something negative.  By and large, as far as he was concerned, there was a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things, and if you want to know what the right way is, you should ask the smartest guy in the room.  There wasn't a lot of room for integration with Aeschylus's "ancient wisdom" or respect for "instinct, emotion, and habit."

There are undoubtedly many things in this book he'd quibble with, but I'm sure he would get a big kick out of it, and I'm sorry he isn't around to share it with.

1 comment:

  1. I'm gonna run right out and get this book, since I love both graphic novels and philosophy.