Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Gödel and the Constitution III: Psych-out

On 5 December 1947, Albert Einstein set himself the task of psyching out the world's greatest mathematician. His partner and wheel-man in this venture was Oskar Morgenstern, the co-inventor of game theory.

Their motive was not frivolous. The target was Kurt Godel, whose citizenship hearing was scheduled in Trenton, New Jersey for that day. In studying for the questions he would be asked at the hearing, Gödel decided that he had discovered a contradiction in the U.S. Constitution. Gödel believed this contradiction would allow the U.S. to be turned, quite legally, into a dictatorship. Gödel was sure that this discovery needed to be shared.

Einstein and Morgenstern were sure that Gödel's citizenship hearing would turn into a world-class fiasco if he were to start proving logico-philosopical contradictions in Constitutional Law before the wrong judge. And more was at stake than bureaucratic delay. Gödel was an Austrian citizen, the Cold War was starting up, and there were Russian occupation troops in Austria. Gödel might talk his way into a real bind.

On the newsreels, Einstein looks like a genial, harmless eccentric. That's one side of him, and it's the side he liked the public to see. But Einstein was shrewd about people and politics, and he could be ruthless if he thought the situation justified it.

"Are you really well prepared for this examination?" Einstein said to Gödel once they were on the way to Trenton. Gödel has sat in the back, and Einstein turned around as he said it. From behind the steering wheel, Morgenstern noticed the effect.  Gödel was very worried, which was just what Einstein intended. Einstein's next task was to keep Gödel just as upset all the way to Trenton.

Einstein abruptly changed the subject away from the upcoming hearing, to a book he had just read -- a very detailed study on the history of the Russian Church. Gödel wanted to talk about his upcoming hearing, but a sardonic Einstein always turned the conversation back to the religious history of the Russias. As they neared Trenton, Morgenstern threaded them through the increasingly dense traffic, while Einstein wove more detail into his tapestry of theology and statecraft.

Listening to Einstein's tale of a Russian Church steering its way between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Gödel grew more and more worried about whether he'd pass the examination. He became less and less interested in proving theorems about the U.S. Constitution.  By the time the three came before the judge, Einstein and Morgenstern had Gödel where they wanted him.

But things unraveled with Judge Philip Forman's very first question. "What kind of government did you have in Austria?", he asked.

Gödel told Forman that it had been a republic but had been turned into a dictatorship.  Einstein and Morgenstern squirmed.

"Oh! This is very bad," said Judge Forman. "This could not happen in this country."

"Oh, yes," Gödel answered, "I can prove it."

That they had come before Judge Forman was a stroke of luck. Forman was a friend of Einstein's.  After a brief discussion, Forman told Gödel that he need not go into more detail on the dictatorship issue and force-marched the hearing to a successful end.

This account of the hearing comes from a first hand account by Oskar Morgenstern. This account was lost for many decades, but in November 2008 I rediscovered it. In my next post, I'll finish the story of how the Lost Morgenstern Document came back to light.


Unknown said...

What is the contradiction in the constitution he found.

Jeffrey Kegler said...

@Karl: Bottom line: the new document just does not say. Everybody is still free to speculate.

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