Bertrand Russell Graphic Novel

I have to share one of the best graphic novels I have ever read. It’s called Logicomix: An Epic Search for the Truth. While I like the subtitle, I think they could have come up with a more accessible main title than “Logicomix” as when I first picked it up the title alone made it sound stuffy and pretentious. It’s far from that. It is a mathematical and philosophical adventure and you may wonder how it this story could possibly be interesting and not a trick by some professor in order to get us to learn the Principia Mathematica, but it’s not. It is, as with most stories, a human adventure filled with darkness, discovery, jubilation, failure and realization.

The principal character is Bertrand Russell, who spoke to me from the dead through his book Why I Am Not a Christian when I was examining my faith at age 23 after chasing after the “True Church.” Russell was the Sagan of his time, one being a logician and the other an astronomer, in that he simplied the hardest concepts for the public to grasp. This is something I appreciated as my background in science was muddled by creationism and my education in math destroyed by sheer revolt against learning it–no one ever answered my questions as to how math applied to me which is a sad note on how morally bankrupt and learning-deficient public schools are. Russell was looking for truth–the consequences be damned–and he did it, as this book relays his history when he pointed out a logic flaw early in his career called “Russell’s Paradox.” It was one that shattered another mathemetician’s book that was about to be put to print after years of work.

I won’t bother to explain “Russell’s Paradox” as I believe it is preferable to read the narrative of it in Logicomix and see the reactions of his fellow colleagues. One of the anxieties of mathemeticians and philosophers, especially at this time, is that some upstart kid will come along and tear apart your life’s work. And yet, one of the underlying themes of Logicomix is that it is necessary to have “failure” in order to have progress in thinking. Just as Russell pulled the carpet out from under his logician kin, specifically Gottlob Frege, so did other, younger, logicians do to him after reading his failed work Principia Mathematica (Russell describes it as a failure according to the graphic novel).

I don’t think I have had a more enjoyable read than Logicomix in quite some time. It deals with infinity, the quest for truth, the consequences for delving so deeply into such questions (though I think it is highly debatable that it will drive you mad) and ultimately it is a graphic novel about truth or rather the history of truth. One of the most interesting points within the novel is when logician Kurt Godel is lecturing to his colleagues and says in regards to the question, “Is every mathematical statement provable?” Godel’s answer is, “There will always be unanswerable questions.” Why? Because “the scope of truth is infinite.”

In other words, you can never know the entirety of truth. I’m simplifying of course since I’m hardly a logician and I do not know the resulting math, but the statement seems so obvious and yet it struck me pretty hard. I had been raised on the idea of absolute truth or transcendent truth which is the foundation of morality for Christians because God is “all truth.” I have since modified absolute truth to “absolutes within context” as I don’t believe it makes sense for an absolute to transcend context–maybe time, but not context. This may be a contradiction or it may be an easier way of understanding a form of relativism (the moral law or legal rule has to be relative to the situation), though hardly is this cultural relativism as our rule against murder would fall into context for the human race and override any tradition, religion or ritual that advocated murder. Why would it be absolute? Because of reason and the struggle for reason. Need proof? Do we have to remind Christians that we do not stone homosexuals?

If you think God is this transcendent absolute, a foundation against murder, then ask yourself how God can be good apart from God? Or rather how can we know that God is good apart from God? If you cannot separate the two then you cannot know that God is good. You only have blind faith that he is so and we would have to question his genocidal acts against humanity in the Old Testament and the ones supposedly planned for the future. He may certainly be all powerful, but not necessarily good. Otherwise good is relative to God’s desires and as we all know, power corrupts (“Don’t question me you little flea of a human!”).

As usual, I bring this around to religion, but the moral argument is the hardest, Russell struggled with it as well, and it is what Christians hold onto as their last piece of evidence for God. If you want to see what a real struggle is for finding truth, put down the Bible and read Logicomix. It’s a mindbender even if you’re not a math whiz–because I failed Algebra in highschool. I’m only catching up and I was enthralled by this wonderful book!

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