Kurt Gödel: A Contradiction in the U.S. Constitution?

by Jeffrey Kegler

The story of Gödel's citizenship hearing had been much repeated over the years. What was known was that on 5 December 1947, Kurt Gödel went to his citizenship hearing in Trenton, New Jersey. The examiner was Judge Philip Forman. As his witnesses, Gödel brought his two closest friends, Oskar Morgenstern and Albert Einstein. Gödel was granted citizenship, and took his oath on 2 April 1948. Those were the reliably established facts.

Afterwards, Morgenstern told many people that he and Einstein had had their hands full preventing the brilliant, but politically naive, Gödel from derailing his citizenship chances. No account directly from Morgenstern or anyone else at the hearing had survived, but hearsay versions circulated widely. The hearsay versions show considerable variation, but their burden is something like the following:

Gödel, in his usual manner, had read extensively in preparing for the hearing. In the course of his studies, Gödel decided that he had discovered a flaw in the U.S. Constitution -- a contradiction which would allow the U.S. to be turned into a dictatorship. Gödel, usually quite reticent, seemed to feel a need to make this known. Morgenstern and Einstein warned Gödel that it would be a disaster to confront his citizenship examiner with visions of a Constitutional flaw leading to an American dictatorship.

Arriving in Princeton, the trio had no idea who the examiner would be. They happened to run into Judge Forman. Forman was a friend of Einstein's -- when Einstein became a citizen, Forman had administered the oath. How lucky this was became apparent almost immediately during the questioning. Forman happened to remark how fortunate it was that the US was not a dictatorship, which Gödel took as a cue to explain his discovery. A surprised Forman exchanged glances with Einstein and Morgenstern, cut Gödel off, and forced-marched the hearing through to a successful conclusion.

The History, and the Legend

Nobody seems to know what Gödel's proof was. Many versions of the hearing that circulated featured invented dialog. In faculty room yarns this would be unfortunate, but not surprising. More startling is the presence of such dialog in the version given in the extremely scholarly and very carefully edited Gödel's Collected Works, Vol. I, p. 12. A footnote in Collected Works admits that its version is pure hearsay.

I've learned to distrust such sources. When I was in graduate school, studying Theory of Computation, Kurt Gödel was still alive. I heard many tales of Gödel's eccentric behavior from mathematicians. Gödel certainly was eccentric, and first-hand tales of this abound, but I later discovered that every single anecdote I'd gotten second- or third-hand was almost certainly false.

1997 marked a turning point in Gödel biography, with the publication of John Dawson's careful and reliable biography of Gödel: Logical Dilemmas. When Dawson wrote, all four participants in the hearing were dead. Morgenstern refers, briefly and cryptically, to the hearing in his diary, but does not say enough to fully support the story. Dawson in general, and quite correctly, rejected the use of hearsay. But this story was the most well-known story about Gödel, and nobody doubted that it had a basis in truth.

Dawson apparently decided that some reference to this story must be made, regardless of sourcing difficulty. Given no alternative to using hearsay, Dawson was careful to seek out what could reasonably be thought of as the source of the best hearsay -- Morgenstern's widow. She certainly would have heard the story many times, and directly from Morgenstern. Dawson interviewed her on 17 October 1983. Dawson's account in Logical Dilemmas (pp. 179-180) is based on that interview and Morgenstern's diary entry.

The Lost Document

According to Dawson (p. 300), Morgenstern had written up an account of this matter for publication, but Dawson was unable to locate it. Dorothy Morgenstern was sure that she'd once had her husband's write-up, and that she'd sent it to someone. But she could not remember who. This wasn't exactly promising for the accuracy of her retelling. But best evidence is best evidence -- you take it how it comes.

In dealing with the matter as a Wikipedia editor, I took the position that Dawson's account of this hearing was the final word. The other versions were either retellings of the Dawson account, hearsay from less reliable sources or pure speculation. Regardless of which of the three they were, they were to be rejected as sources for the Wikipedia article.

When dealing with the matter as a novelist, the God Proof, I took the position that this story had become a legend as much as any tale of an 11th century saint. Since it was a legend, I was free as a writer of fiction to add any incident or dialog I thought to be in the spirit of the thing.

But now the "lost" Morgenstern document has reappeared. Apparently the IAS has had it all these years.

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