Getting Goedel Straight

In response to:

Twilight of Authority from the February 17, 1983 issue

To the Editors:

I feel guilty of having caused a sarcastic attack on Professor R. Nisbet by Ian Hacking in his review of Nisbet’s book Prejudices [NYR, February 17]. It concerned a quote on Goedel’s theorem from a talk of mine entitled “Frontiers and Limits of Science” published in The American Scientist, vol. 65, p. 405 (1977) and in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, vol. 35 no. 2. I must admit that Nisbet did not quote me accurately. I said “…Goedel proved that a system of axioms can never be based on itself; in order to prove its validity, statements from outside must be used.” Nisbet replaces “in order to prove its validity” by “to prove the axioms.” This has aroused the ire of the reviewer. It is true that axioms need no proof, but is this slight slip reason enough to accuse Nisbet (and indirectly also me) of being “silly,” and to call our statements “trivially false”?

After all, the main thrust of the quote was not a statement about Goedel’s theorem, but the idea that science has its roots and origins outside its own rational realm of thinking. It is based on the conviction of every scientist and of society as a whole, that scientific truth is relevant and essential.

Victor F. Weisskopf

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Massachusetts