A World Without Time by Palle Yourgrau

A World Without Time by Palle Yourgrau

Author:Palle Yourgrau [PALLE YOURGRAU]
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Basic Books
Published: 2011-11-30T16:00:00+00:00

An Offer That Couldn’t Be Refused

Before Princeton, Einstein’s and Gödel’s philosophical sentiments had proceeded on parallel but independent lines. At the institute, however, the lines began to converge. In thought as in life, Einstein found himself increasingly entwined with Gödel. In 1949 Gödel received from his friend an unexpected housewarming gift, “a wonderful flower vase.” At the time Einstein was celebrating his seventieth birthday, and “after long searches” Gödel finally settled on a birthday gift for his friend, an etching. (Adele had knit Einstein a sweater but decided against sending it.) There was another gift as well. Gödel had been invited by P.A.

There was another gift as well. Gödel had been invited by P.A. Schilpp to contribute to a new volume in his series, “The Library of Living Philosophers,” a volume in honor of Einstein’s seventieth birthday, to be entitled Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist. It is the only volume in the series to be devoted to a scientist. No doubt aware of Gödel’s friendship with Einstein, Schilpp must have assumed his invitation was an offer Gödel couldn’t refuse. He didn’t. Gödel’s essay would be his second exercise in this venue, following the 1944 essay on Russell. In time he would draft a third essay, this time on Rudolph Carnap, though he never submitted a final version, and he declined a fourth invitation to write on Popper.

Gödel wasted no time setting to work. Schilpp suggested a title, “The Realistic Standpoint in Physics and Mathematics,” but Gödel rejected it. He had in mind an ontological investigation—the grand philosophical quest for the reality of time—reinterpreted as an examination of what relativity theory has to teach us about this question, which has exercised the philosophical imagination from Parmenides and Plato to Kant. Gödel informed Schilpp that he would submit a brief essay, of three to five pages, on the topic, “The Theory of Relativity and Kant.” It is not known whether Schilpp appreciated the perversity of Gödel’s proposal, in which he would put forward the thesis that Kant had anticipated Einstein. For Einstein was (and is) widely viewed not as having confirmed Kant but rather as refuting him. Kant dedicated a large part of his Critique of Pure Reason to the attempt to establish a priori that Newton was the final truth about physics and Euclid the last word on geometry, whereas Einstein demonstrated empirically that both Euclid and Newton were wrong. (Kant also claimed that logic would never take a step beyond Aristotle, a view made nonsense by Frege and Gödel. The great philosopher, it seems, got it completely wrong about Newton, Euclid and Aristotle. No one’s perfect.)

What on earth was Gödel thinking? One thing is clear. It was not simply the long walks with Einstein that had aroused Gödel’s interest in the problem of time. On his first visit to the institute, he had been delighted to attend a seminar on quantum mechanics given by his friend Von Neumann. He had begun his studies at the University of Vienna in physics and had maintained an active interest ever since.


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