• Posted by Konstantin 27.01.2013

    Most results that are published in mathematics and natural sciences are highly technical and obscure to anyone outside the particular area of research. Consequently, most scientific publications and discoveries do not get any media attention at all. This is a problem both for the public (which would benefit from knowing a bit more about our world), the science in general (which would benefit from wider dissemination) and the scientists themselves (which would certainly appreciate if their work reached more than a couple of other people). The issue is usually addressed by the researchers trying to popularize their findings — provide simple interpretations, which could be grasped by the layman without the need to understand the foundations. Unfortunately, if the researcher was lucky to grab enough media attention, chances are high the process of "popularization" will get completely out of hands, and the message received by the public will have nothing to do with the original finding.

    There are some theorems in pure mathematics, which happened to suffer especially seriously from this phenomenon. My two most favourite examples are the Heizenberg's uncertainty principle and Gödel's incompleteness theorems. Every once in a while I stumble on pieces, written by people who have zero knowledge of basic physics (not even mentioning quantum mechanics or Fourier theory), but claim to have clearly understood the meaning and the deep implications of the uncertainty principle upon our daily lives. Even more popular are Gödel's theorems. "Science proves that some things in this world can never be understood or predicted by us, mere humans!!!" is a typical take on Gödel by the press. Oh, and it is loved by religion enthusiasts!

    This post is my desperate attempt to bring some sanity back into this world by providing a (yet another, but maybe slightly different) popular explanation for Gödel's ideas.

    Gödel's theorems explained (with enough context)

    Kurt Gödel

    Kurt Gödel

    In our daily lives we primarily use symbols to communicate and describe the world. Those may be formulas in mathematics or simply sentences in the English language. Symbol-based systems can be used in different ways. From the perspective of arts and humanities, one is welcome to construct arbitrary sequences of words and sentences, as long as the result is "beautiful", "inspiring" or "seems smart and convincing". From a more technically-minded point of view, however, one is only welcome to operate with "true and logical" statements. However, it is not at all obvious which statements should be universally considered "true and logical". There are two ways the problem can be resolved.

    Firstly, we can determine the truth by consulting "reality". For example, the phrase "All people are mortal, hence Socrates is mortal" is true because, indeed (avoiding a lecture-worth of formalities or so), in all possible universes where there are people and they are mortal, Socrates will always also be mortal.

    Secondly, we can simply postulate a set of statements, which we shall universally regard as "the true ones". To distinguish those postulated truths from the "actual truths", mentioned in the paragraph above, let us call them "logically correct statements". That is, we can hypothetically write down an (infinite) list of all the "logically correct" sentences in some hypothetical "Book of All Logically Correct Statements". From that time on, every claim not in the book will be deemed "illogical" and hence "false" (the question of whether it is false in reality would, of course, depend on the goodness and relevance of the book we created).

    This is really convenient, because now in order to check the correctness of the claim about Socrates we do not have to actually visit all the possible universes. It suffices to look it up in our book! If the book is any good, it will provide good answers, so the concept of "logical correctness" may be close or even equivalent to "actual truth". And in principle, there must exist "The Actual Book of Truth", which would list precisely the "actually true" statements.

    Unfortunately, infinite books are somewhat inconvenient to print and carry around. Luckily, we can try to represent an infinite book in a finite way using algorithms. We have all seen how a short algorithm is capable of producing an infinite amount of nonsense, haven't we? Thus, instead of looking for an (infinitely-sized) "book of truth", we should look for a (finitely-sized) "algorithm of truth", which will be either capable of generating the whole book, or checking for any given statement, whether it belongs to the book.

    Frege's propositional calculus

    Frege's propositional calculus

    For clarity and historical reasons,  the algorithms for describing "books of truths" are usually developed and written down using a particular "programming language", which consists of "axioms" and "inference rules". Here is one of the simplest examples of how a "program" might look like.

    This is where a natural question arises: even if we assume that we have access to "the actual book of truth", will it really be possible to compress it down to a finite algorithm? Isn't it too much to ask? It turns out it is. There is really no way to create a compact representation for any but the most trivial "books of truths".

    Besides the "asking too much" intuition, there are at least two other simple reasons why this is impossible. Firstly, most of the readers here know that there exist problems, that are in principle uncomputable. Those are usually about statements, the correctness of which cannot be checked in finite time by a finite algorithm, with the most famous example being the halting problem, as well as everything related to uncomputable numbers.

    Naturally, if we can't even use a finite algorithm to list "all truly halting programs", our hopes for getting a finite description for any more complicated "book of truths" is gone. But there is another funny reason. Once we have decided to define the book with all true statements and devise an algorithm for generating it, we must not forget to include into the book some statements about the book and the algorithm themselves. In particular, we must consider the following phrase: "This sentence will not be included in the book generated by our algorithm."

    If our algorithm does include this sentence in the generated book, the claim turns out to be false. As a result, our precious book would have false statements in it: it would be inconsistent. On the other hand, if our algorithm produces a book which does not include the above sentence, the sentence turns out to be true and the book is incomplete. It is just the liar's paradox.

    And so it is — we have to put up with the situation, where it is impossible to produce a finite representation for all true statements without stumbling into logical paradoxes. Or, alternatively, that there are mathematical statements, which cannot be checked or proven within a finite time.

    This describes what is known as "Gödel's first incompleteness theorem" (namely, the claim that in most cases our algorithm is only capable of producing either an incomplete or an inconsistent "book"). A curious corollary may be derived from it, which is known as the "Gödel's second incompleteness theorem". The theorem says that if our "book-generating algorithm" happens to include into it exactly the phrase "This book is consistent", it must necessarily be a false claim, and the algorithm must actually be inconsistent. This is often interpreted that no "honest" theory is capable of claiming it's own correctness (there are caveats, though).

    Gödel's theorems have several interesting implications for the foundations of mathematics. None the less, those are still theorems about the fundamental impossibility of using a finite algorithm for generating a book of logically correct statements without stumbling into logical paradoxes and infinite loops. Nothing more and nothing less. They have nothing to do with the experimental sciences: note how we had to cut away all connections to reality in the very first paragraphs of the explanation. And thus, Gödel's theorems are not related to the causes of "human inability to grasp the universe", "failure or success of startup business plans", or anything else of that kind.

    Posted by Konstantin @ 12:40 am

    Tags: , , , , , ,


    1. anonymous coward on 27.01.2013 at 12:45 (Reply)

      thank you!

    2. Dominique Unruh on 28.01.2013 at 15:07 (Reply)

      Yes, thank you! You nicely express the frustration I had when reading http://skibinsky.com/godel-incompleteness-for-startups/.

      By the way, I think you forgot to mention Einstein's theories, which, for the popular mind, show that all is relative, e.g., good, evil, suffering, love, whatever.

      1. Konstantin on 28.01.2013 at 15:16 (Reply)

        Oh, yes, of course, Einstein! "Physics is relative and depends on the observer!"

    3. Dominique Unruh on 28.01.2013 at 15:08 (Reply)

      A small observation: You sent around a mail on the ATI list on January 26 about this post from January 27. ?

      1. Konstantin on 28.01.2013 at 15:12 (Reply)

        It must have been some kind of a time loop. 🙂

        (Actually, I started writing the reply email, then figured out this looks like a blogpost more than an email, wrote things up here, and then sent the email. Thunderbird seems to use "the time you first create an email" as the email timestamp, not the time when the email was actually transmitted.)

    4. Oleg on 01.02.2013 at 01:04 (Reply)

      As I said it is sometimes used to prove the imposibility of Mighty too

      "Thou shalt not seek Me in symbols" 🙂

    5. Chris m on 31.08.2015 at 23:58 (Reply)

      I disagree doesn't the incompleteness theorem and the uncertainty principle along with Einstein's relativity tell us we can never have certain knowledge in any situation

      Isn't the basic idea that all information is relative and limited

      Therefore all biological systems can only have partial information of any situation

      We could throw in the idea of entropy as well

      But the basic point I'm getting at is that humanity has always wanted to know the truth and it seems that the frontiers of science have showed us that there is no such thing as truth or true knowledge

      There is only going to be models of what reality is and while some models can be shown to be better than others and have better predictive power no model will ever be complete or give an accurate picture of what the future will bring

      The basic essence of being biology is being an energy converting organism Striving for more life and the frontiers of science show us that what is more life will always be tenuous we can never know reality in any ultimate way

      Again I think those three principles show us that we can never know reality in an ultimate way and will always be stuck driving after the best models but those models will always be incomplete and uncertain

      Therefore I disagree that the pop versions of these scientific statements are completely off the cuff I think they do shed light on the ultimate nature of reality

      and I think people solutions to these in general ways do have merit and again to shed light on the basic situation that human knowledge is always tenuous and again while some models are clearly better than others no model of reality will ever be complete just due to the basic nature of information and organismic reality

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