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When Hitler took over Austria, the famous logician Kurt Gödel fled to the US. When he became a US citizen, he took two friends to the naturalization hearing: Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern, one of the inventors of game theory! In preparing for the event, Gödel claimed to have found a flaw in the US Constitution that would allow a dictator to take control in a completely legal way. It was up to Einstein and Morgenstern to keep Gödel from talking about this and derailing the hearing.

There have been rumors about this for years, but in 2006 this typed letter from Morgenstern reappeared, which tells the tale first-hand. There's a scrawled cover note by his wife. It's pretty funny. It turns out Einstein mainly played the role of an irresponsible joker throughout the whole affair.

For more, see:

http://morgenstern.jeffreykegler.com/
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Paul Hsieh's profile photoAmine Benaichouche's profile photoPhilip Thrift's profile photoMatthew Leifer's profile photo
36 comments
 
Unfortunately, the margin appears to have been too small to contain Godel's actual argument.
 
LOL, that's hysterical (comment by TT above, though the original story is also quite funny and one I've heard before - actually I think it's in one of Gödel's biographies).
 
haha :L Kurt Gödel was a unique thinker and logician, period.
He scared everybody: Mathematicians, Physicists and politicians.

Not weird actually that he found contradictions in a constitution, he did something harder than that and went to Einstein himself to scare him, six years before Einstein's death, and tell him that he figured out a solution for Einstein equation and found out that he can get rid of 'Time' in some kind of a rotating universe in his model. :-)
 
+Terence Tao - There's at least one paper devoted to reconstructing Gödel's actual argument - it's not free, but the abstract is interesting:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2010183

In a nutshell: "Part 4 then presents the author’s reconstruction of Gödel’s Loophole. In summary, Gödel’s discovery may be divided into several steps. First, the constitution contains a finite number of legal provisions or “constitutional statements," and one of these statements contains an amending clause, which permits the people to amend to the constitution (when certain conditions or procedural steps are met). Second, since there are no limits on the amending power, then the amending power can be used to amend itself, and third, if the amending clause can amend itself, then all express and implied limitations on the amending power might be overcome through a constitutional amendment."

Not sure why he said "finite number", except to sound like a math nerd. But the argument sounds like something Gödel might have cooked up.
 
+John Baez Thanks for the great opportunity to glimpse history like that. I wonder if these brilliant people could have extrapolated that in a few decades someone, on a whim, could read a copy of such a letter in the comfort of their own home.
 
Once you all are at Jeffrey Kegler's site, look also for his awesome parser generator Marpa, AFAIK the most modern CFG parser in existence.
 
+John Baez I'm fairly certain that he wrote something up on it in German and that it's sitting in the archive of his things in Princeton collecting dust. I seem to recall reading that somewhere. I know there's a lot of his stuff at IAS (I think? or private collection maybe?) that's sitting around untranslated.
 
+Ian Durham - find it and become famous. It's a bit odd that nobody else bothered to write up Gödel's argument. The attitude seems to have been "oh, that Gödel - there he goes again, don't mind him."
 
Has anyone read this Jeffrey Kegler fellow's book "The God Proof"? If so, is it any good? It's about Godel's claim to have a proof of the existence of God. +Ian Durham , while you are at it you can look for that in the IAS archives as well.
 
+John Baez I've thought about doing that but it would take a LOT of time (having done similar historical research, I can tell you it can be tedious). And free time is one thing I have very little of. I guess I will simply have to remain obscure. ;)
 
Thanks for that ssrn link +John Baez. The other day when this article was posted by another person we set off to find that Godel proof but were unsuccessful.

So we surmised that maybe Godel never submitted it for publication?
 
+Jane Shevtsov - you're making me want to say "I never said it was new", which will make you want to say "I never said you said it was new", which will make me want to say...

The story has been around for ages, and I said the letter was rediscovered in 2006. I'd just never seen it before.
 
Not the story, the explanation of the loophole. I wonder why the author of the paper wrote it.
 
Oh, okay! Whew, I was sinking into an infinite internal mental dialog hissy fit loop. Thanks.
 
+Matthew Leifer Thanks to +John Baez I can skip taking a trip to Princeton (as enjoyable as it might be - I do enjoy poking around in musty old notes) for the God proof. I have always been intrigued by that Constitution one though. I wonder if poking around in the IAS archives would qualify for an FQXi mini-grant. Hmmm. Maybe I'll ask about that (because, as we all know, free time can be purchased...). :))
 
+Ian Durham Well, it would be nice to have actual documentation rather than just a "reconstruction".
 
Yes, I think the project would garner a lot of attention if successful. And if not, well, you still get to hang out in the Institute for Advanced Studies.
 
No formal proof needed if they just decide to directly demonstrate the proof of concept. Of course this is made trivial if the Supreme Court simply reinterprets the constitution to suit.
 
In the Morgenstern document, Gödel is quoted to have said, "I can prove it." But I couldn't find his "proof" anywhere. So was this something he alleges to have done but never wrote down, like Fermat? He was crazy, you know. :)
 
I can't remember the last time I read such an awesome story! I can't believe Einstein was trolling Goedel.
 
+Paul Hsieh wrote "I can't believe Einstein was trolling Gödel". Yes, it's pretty funny. But they were good buddies, you know. There are some great pictures of them together:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/daudpota/302856770/

http://onionesquereality.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/einstein-and-godel.jpg

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-_dgjnY63Pwk/TY_mgZ9BIyI/AAAAAAAAAC0/MOKtDEqLSQg/s400/eins.jpg

In the first Einstein looks cool, while Gödel looks almost like a caricature of a logician in that double-buttoned coat and round horn-rimmed glasses. In the second I'd say Gödel wins the coolness contest. In the third... well, you can't help but wish you'd been on that walk.
 
I wonder if Gödel and Einstein sat around together in Princeton and watched What's My Line, I Love Lucy, Your Show of Shows... That would be quite a scene.
 
I would hope not. I think they had better things to do!
 
I always assumed that this story is apocryphal, because forgive me, but the idea is just stupid. The Constitution is not given as a precise formal system; Gödel is justifiably famous for showing how to make mathematical proofs into mathematical objects, but he never did this to legal proofs. That is the preliminary work which he must do (and did do for mathematics) before he can start promulgating theorems.

Of course, it's still useful to look for specific flaws and weaknesses. Historically, simpler ones than amending the amendment process have been used. FDR suggesting stacking the Supreme Court (which requires the acquiescence of a majority of both houses of Congress); in fact, the mere threat to stack the court was enough to get the incumbent court to start changing its rulings. Andrew Jackson took the more elegant approach of simply ignoring the court; Lincoln was prepared to do the same (and did ignore lower court rulings). The Federalist Society today has the long term strategy of simply getting as many like-minded people on the bench as possible; decades in the works, it's now starting to pay off.
 
I didn't think Gödel claimed he could prove a theorem about the constitution. When he said "Oh yes, I can prove it", I thought he was talking more or less like a normal person.

However, I can easily imagine him being the sort of person who would care whether a dictator could come into power while following the letter of the constitution, instead of just breaking the rules.
 
+John Baez +Jane Shevtsov I knew I had gotten my idea about sifting through IAS archives from somewhere. I'm back in my office this week and pulled out my copy of Rebecca Goldstein's biography of Gödel. In a footnote on p. 232 she says she e-mailed John Dawson about what the proof was supposed to be and John replied, "No, I don't, though many have asked that question. There is a set of shorthand notes in Gödel's Nachlass concerned with American government (presumably made while he was studying for the citizenship examination) that might contain the answer, but transcribing that particular item has never had as much priority as the mathematical material" (3 January 2004). I must have assumed his Nachlass was at IAS. I'll have to check on that.

+Roko Mijic Sometimes I think we're already there...
 
The scenario of using constitutional amendments to legally create a tyranny, usually by the method of a constitutional convention, has been explored in Science-fiction novels a few times. One I can think of off the top of my head is Piers Anthony's Bio of a Space Tyrant series which was a transparent allegory of the United States.
 
There's also the wonderful urban legend about Carnap:

"When the logician Carnap was immigrating to the US, he had the usual consular interview, where one of the questions was (and still is, I think): "Would you favor the overthrow of the US government by violence, or force of arms?". He thought for a while, and responded: "I would have to say force of arms...""

from: http://mathoverflow.net/questions/53122/mathematical-urban-legends/53184#53184
 
+Ian Durham - Cool, an actual clue! I've never done scholarly detective work except from the comfort of my home computer and university library. Digging around looking for old manuscripts is no doubt tiring, but it must also be exciting. My wife does classical Chinese, and not she but her colleagues are finding lots of ancient texts in tombs and the like as the Chinese dig up land to build railways and buildings... these are revolutionizing the field! In Western classical scholarship it's much harder to find anything new, but I'm really excited about how they're gradually reading the charred library at Herculauem, near Pompeii:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herculaneum_papyri

The idea that there's stuff by Gödel that hasn't been pored over yet is equally exciting.
 
+Matthew Leifer :

If God = the omnipotent law/s controlling the form and function of a universe

and if there is a universe that exists in a unique form and function as a whole,

then God exists.

How does that work?
 
+Igor Segota - Yes, I too am very excited about the Archimedes Palimpsest. I should learn more about it! I think we'd both enjoy Lucio Rosso's book The Forgotten Revolution, about how Greek scientific knowledge was lost when the Romans took over. I haven't read it yet but there's a review here:

http://www.ams.org/notices/199805/review-graffi.pdf

The book sounds speculative but utterly fascinating!

You'd also enjoy watching Agora, which imagines that Hypatia discovered the elliptical orbits of planets based on the math of Apollonius. That part is speculation... but a lot of the movie is realistic.
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