Friday, May 21, 2010

Very Logical

I don't usually "give away the ending" of a book I'm reviewing. However, it's very hard to review this book sensibly without touching on things that come up near the end, including some things that might be thought of as "spoilers" in a more conventional book. I honestly don't think they would spoil your enjoyment of the book. The plot is hardly the main point here, although it is in fact a gripping story.

Would it really spoil a James Bond movie for you if I leaned over and whispered in your ear, "Bond gets the villain in the end."? Of course not.

Still, if that sort of thing bothers you, if you hate reading any review that reveals anything other than stuff that happens in the first few pages, then you might want to skip the rest of this review and just take away would normally be the last paragraph, moved up here for your convenience:

Read this book! It's surprisingly engaging and enjoyable, despite being based on a subject matter that would put many people to sleep if handled conventionally. This most unconventional narrative with enthrall even the most anti-mathematical soul.

And now that we've had the ending, let's start at the beginning:

This book is about the fundamental quest for certainty, the nature of truth and how we can be sure that we know what it is that we think we know.

That sounds like a treatise, a philosophical essay of the time most would probably find boring, but this is in fact a fascinating story, presented through the lives of some of the foremost philosophers and mathematicians of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, focusing primarily on the late Bertrand Russell.

It's also a dialogue between the two writers and the artists who drew the pictures. Indeed, the book opens with Apostolos Doxiadis speaking directly to the audience. If you don't like that sort of thing, you probably won't like this book, because the whole thing goes back and forth like that. In fact, most of the book is presented as being told by Doxiadis to co-writer Christos Papadimitriou, with the artists occasionally entering into the conversation.

The heart of the book is a lecture by Russell at "an American University," supposedly given on September 4, 1939, the day after England declared war on Germany in response to Hitler's September 1 invasion of Poland.

(I say "supposedly: because it's pretty clear that this event is at least fictionalized, if not completely made up. In the course of it, Russell recalls meeting people that he never met, or meeting people decades earlier than he actually met them. However, the authors assure us that the *ideas* presented are faithfully presented as are those associated with them, and the way these ideas clashed and developed on each other is real.)

When Russell arrives the way to the lecture hall is blocked by protesters, who demand that Russell call off his lecture and join them in their protest against this new war, reminding him that he spent time in prison as a pacifist during World War I. Instead, Russell advises them that the theme of his lecture, "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs," will touch on their concerns and invites them all in to listen, and then make up their own minds.

After joking that a lecture on the role logic has actually played in determining human affairs in history would be very short, Russell makes it clear that his subject is the role logic should play, and as the lecture develops we see that it is also about the role logic can play, the extent to which human beings are even capable of acting logically, and finally, on the very existence of logic as a reality outside the abstractions of philosophers and mathematicians.

Russell proceeds to give his audience an autobiography, which means, of course, that Doxiadis is giving Papadimitriou a biography of Russell, which of course also means that the team of creators responsible for the book is telling us Russell's life story. This Russian doll structure of the story is, I think, an important part of what makes the story work, and also makes a subtle commentary on the subject matter.

Russell's account of his life focuses on his life-long quest for verifiable truth. At first, he was attracted to mathematics because it seemed so objective and absolute. Eventually, however, he discovered that it was built on a set of axioms, which were basically nothing more than assumptions, unsupported and unprovable. He began to search for something that would ground mathematics in a provable way, a search that led him to philosophy.

With A.N. Whitehead, he began to work on what would become a massive multi-volume Principia Mathematica, which ran to thousands of pages. In the first volume, the authors spent 362 pages proving that 1+1=1.

In the lecture, Russell is confessionally frank about his own failings, and also of those he encountered along his journey, which includes a veritable Who's Who of the most important mathematicians and philosophers of his time, a few of whom ended up in asylums. Indeed, the authors belabor this point perhaps too strongly, wondering if there may be some kind of link between logic and madness.

To me, the real point is not that geniuses are susceptible to madness -- that is so commonplace an observation as to be cliché, though some might find it surprising that geniuses of a logical and mathematical cast of mind may be just as susceptible to it as artists and poets. No, the truly meaningful insight provided by Russell's lecture is hinted at in his opening joke: even among those most devoted to it, logic doesn't guarantee actually making correct decisions in life. Not only do many of its most devoted advocates find it difficult to actually apply to their own lives, but even seemingly logical decisions can turn out to be disastrously wrong. Russell's decisions regarding the experimental upbringing of his son lead to bitter resentment on the son's part later in life.

Russell ends by challenging the audience to examine their own axioms and assumptions, to question their own certainty. He leaves no doubt about his own stance, but at the same time insists that it must be an individual decision.

By Apostolos Doxiadis
and Christos Papadimitriou
Art by Alecos Papadatos
Colors by Annie Di Donna

Published in the U.S. October 2009
Bloomsbury, 352 pp., $22.95, trade paperback

4 stars (out of 5)