Logic by Any Other Name

Book Review: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

I heard about this book via friend who thought I might be interested in learning more about logic and I finally decided to get it from the library a couple of weeks ago. Logicomix is a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell who was one of the first mathematicians/philosophers to devote himself to the study of logic as the underpinnings of math and philosophy.

Logicomix has several narrative threads: it is a frame story with a meta component, which sounds ridiculous, but is actually quite easy to understand thanks to the artistic conventions used. The book opens with one of the authors, Apostolos, discussing the somewhat crazy decision to discuss logic, of all topics, in graphic novel format. Apolostos introduces his creative team and his friend Christos who is responsible for injecting a little more logic into the narrative. The authors discuss some general ideas for the narrative while walking through Athens (where they work). Then, the frame of the main story is introduced. The reader first meets Russell when he is in the United States (Russell was English–the grandson of a Prime Minister, in fact) to speak to a group of isolationists who are protesting to keep the US out of World War II. Russell agrees to advise the protestors by discussing logic, providing the frame for him to narrate his life and achievements to date. This is occasionally interrupted by the meta layer of the narrative, in which the authors discuss a controversial choice or attempt to clarify certain things for the readers. Russell sketches an outline of his early life, his work and frustrations in university, his quest to understand and build upon the “giants” of the field, his personal life, and his publication of Principia Mathematica with Alfred Whitehead. The narrative also includes some very basic introductions to logical concepts, like set theory.

Graphic novel is an interesting narrative choice for discussion the foundations of logic. I expect that this medium was chosen because it is a way to connect readers with a topic they might not have otherwise investigated and because it is an effective way to introduce readers to Russell as a person in addition to some of his ideas. A book on logic and Russell’s life would probably be too dry for most readers, but Logicomix manages to straddle entertaining and informative quite well. Personally, although I enjoyed Logicomix, I think I am one of those odd people who would probably prefer the dry, no-pictures text version of learning about logic. It was hard for me to remember who the major logicians were by sight (they would pop up at conferences and such) and I don’t feel like I really got that much logic out of it. However, I will admit that my dissatisfaction with the amount of actual logic may be because I am already casually familiar with concepts like set theory, which Russell explains is based on Boole’s work. And any good librarian knows about Boolean operators, so this was not one hundred percent new.

Despite all that, I did learn some logical concepts from reading Logicomix. Russell was obsessed with the concept of mathematical concepts requiring concrete definitions and rules. He felt that there was no way to move forward with mathematics until its foundations were strong and definite. This lead directly to his work on Principia Mathematica, which occupies a significant section of the narrative. Set theory was what Russell saw as the key to mathematics. Sets are groups of objects and the way sets are organized and understood is what Russell focused on. Russell is later criticized by his student, Wittgenstein, who claimed that all Russell accomplished was to establish a series of tautologies. Wittgenstein later went to work on logic as it relates to semantics (at least, that is how the text made it sound); he also expresses in the novel, “The meaning of the world does not reside in the world,” and seemed to develop a somewhat mystical bent in his work. Russell and Wittgenstein’s works also lead to major philosophical players like Gödel. There is also an interesting (but somewhat too briefly covered for my taste) treatment of these philosophers working in Europe leading up to World War II. Logicians were divided along pro and anti-Nazi lines and some of them used their work to justify the Third Reich and the extermination of the Jews, which I found alarming.

Finally, an overt theme of the work is the intersection of logic and madness. The authors discuss the concept throughout the work and they seem to conclude that a certain degree of madness seems to be inherent for people interested in logic. I can’t recall if the text specifically alludes to this, but this link seems to suggest that people who have turbulent minds are more likely to want to impose order on the world around them, which seems to be the case for Russell. Ultimately, both Russell and Wittgenstein come to the conclusion that while logic is important, it isn’t everything. Wittgenstein states that “The things that cannot be talked about logically are the only ones which are truly important” and Russell explains that human life isn’t logical, so people should not use logic to justify things like the Nazi regime, for example. Leaving the story here, as the authors point out in their meta section, makes it sound like logic was a failure: Russell and Wittgenstein admit that it isn’t everything, and Continental logicians are using it to kindle a genocide. However, one of the authors, Christos points out that logic actually won the war. People like Alan Turning leveraged it to create early computers and crack the Nazi codes, which of course lead to modern computing, et. al.

I enjoyed reading this and I will admit it was quite interesting. It was cool to read about a specific slice of history in comic book format because it gives you a better sense of the period (showing the aesthetics, etc.) and it was probably easier to follow than starting out cold with a textbook on logic. Overall, it made me want to read a lot more about logic, set theory, and Bertrand Russell, which is probably the main aim of the book. In which case, it can definitely be considered a success.