Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gödel and the Constitution IV: Redisovery

In this post I tell how the Lost Morgenstern Document became lost, and finish the story of its rediscovery.  The Lost Morgenstern Document is the sole first-hand account of Kurt Gödel's citizenship hearing on 5 Dec 1947, at which Gödel, Albert Einstein, and Oskar Morgenstern went before Judge Phillip Forman.  On that occasion Gödel felt compelled to share with the judge his account of a proof he'd discovered -- that the U.S. could, quite legally, be converted into a dictatorship because of a logical contradiction in our Constitution.  Fortunately, Judge Forman was a friend of Einstein's.  Forman stopped Gödel short and forced the hearing to a successful conclusion.

After 1947, this story became a favorite.  It has been told and retold in many variations.  It's one of the better known Einstein stories, and probably the best-known story about Kurt Gödel.  In a draft dated 1971, Morgenstern wrote an authentic account up for publication.  This eventually became the Lost Morgenstern Document.

Judge Forman died in August 1978.  Judge Forman had bent some rules at the hearing, which may have made the others reticent.  But Forman outlived the other three.  Einstein had died back in 1955, Morgenstern the previous year, and Gödel a few months earlier, in January.

At some point, Dorothy Morgenstern, Oskar's widow, sent a copy of the Morgenstern Document to the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS), where Morgenstern, Einstein and Gödel had all worked.  Presumably this was after Oskar's death, but even that is not totally certain.  Dorothy's cover note is dated "August 30".  She gives no year.

Dorothy Morgenstern probably sent the Morgenstern Document to the IAS before 1983, because on 17 October of that year, John Dawson interviewed her as part of his research for his biography of Gödel.  At that point, Dorothy no longer remembered where the Morgenstern Document was. The very thorough Dawson tried to locate it in Morgenstern's papers at Duke University and among Gödel's papers in Princeton's Firestone Library, but without success.  Dawson came to doubt that the Lost Morgenstern Document had ever actually existed.

Second-hand accounts of Gödel's hearing started to appear as early as 1978.  A 1986 account is especially striking, because it appears in Gödel's Collected WorksCollected Works is for almost all purposes a source so reliable that it can used with confidence to check the others.  It is quite willing to be dryasdust if that's what it takes to be absolutely meticulous.

All the more surprising, then, to find in Collected Works a version of the hearing with lively dialogue.  Only if the reader delves into the footnotes does he learn that this dialogue comes from a source which mislocated the hearing from Trenton to Washington.  The footnote goes on to admit that, since the source was in German, the dialogue must have been through a double translation, from English to German and back again.

In fact there was probably only one translation.  Because thanks to the Lost Morgenstern Document, we now know that the dialogue that appears in Collected Works was invented.

In 1997 Dawson published Logical Dilemmas.  Confronted with the problem of trafficking in hearsay, Collected Works had chosen to dive in face first.  Dawson was more prudent.  He restricted himself to what Dorothy Morgenstern had told him.  Her knowledge was second-hand, and we now know that on this matter her memory was not good, but of all the possible second-hand sources she could be thought to be the least bad -- she certainly must have heard Oskar tell the story many times.  Until 2008 Dawson remained the only careful source for Gödel's citizenship hearing, and Logical Dilemmas remains the most reliable source for Gödel biography.

In Spring 2006, the IAS Letter published an account of Gödel's citizenship hearing with this unpromising beginning:  "On September 13, 1971, Oskar Morgenstern recorded the following memory of Kurt Gödel’s 1948 Trenton interview with an official of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)."  Whoever wrote that sentence knew little about the hearing. While Gödel took the oath of citizenship in 1948, his hearing was in 1947.  And the hearing took place before a District Court Judge, not an INS official.  But we now know that the first part of this sentence was correct, and that the sentence indeed introduced an edited version of the Lost Morgenstern Document.

John Dawson saw this account in the IAS Letter and passed it over as yet another second-hand account of the hearing masquerading as the real thing.  The Letter appeared on the Web, and a version of its account of the hearing made its way onto another IAS web page.

In November 2008, I edited the account of the hearing on Wikipedia's Gödel page.  I changed it to follow what was then by far the most reliable version of the story -- the one in Dawson's biography.  Following up, I used Google to search for Web links on the hearing, and found an IAS Web page with the Morgenstern account.  For my Wikipedia edit, I'd reread Dawson.  I had seen his mention of a supposed Lost Morgenstern Document, a document which Dawson was not convinced had ever existed.  On careful reading, I realized that, despite its erroneous first sentence, the account on the IAS web page was probably what it claimed to be.  Morgenstern's Lost Document not only existed, I was reading it.

To confirm my idea, on November 23, 2008, I emailed John Dawson, who I'd never previously contacted.  I drew his attention back to the IAS account, pointing out that if it was not authentic, then it was an improbably expert and painstaking forgery.  The next day, Dawson replied.  He'd contacted the IAS, and confirmed that the account on the IAS website was in fact based on the Lost Morgenstern Document, which they still had in their possession. Dawson sent me the PDF that I have put on the Web.

Alas, the no longer Lost Morgenstern Document gives no definite answer as to what Gödel's proof was.  In my concluding post, I'll discuss what it does say.


Goran Zec said...

A most interesting blog, looking forward to more and I'll download the book.

Javier Rosa said...

Thank you for sharing this very interesting story.

anomdebus said...

I am looking for the lost conclusion to the story of the previously lost Morgenstern document. Has anyone seen it?

Jeffrey Kegler said...

@anomdebus: Thanks for your interest. Actually the story itself is complete with this post. I was going to (and will eventually) do a follow-up post, but all that will contain are my conjectures -- no additional documentation or facts.

Klangen Farben said...

OK, you promised conjecture and not established facts of Godel's thinking regarding the constitution. That promise is long overdue, my friend.

- Holland Mills, http://TheSoftwareMills.com

Anonymous said...

@Klangen: I've just put online a "final" post for this series. To the extent that it is disappointing, perhaps you will take that as an excuse for the delay, instead of as a second lapse on my part.