Kurt Gödel (1906–1978) was in the news lately, but not because January 14th marked the 42nd anniversary of his death. Rather, the Austrian-born mathematician made headlines after two computer scientists claimed to have proven Gödel’s theorem about the existence of God.
Considered to be one of the most influential logicians in history, Gödel is best known for his Incompleteness Theorems, which demonstrate that, in mathematics, it is impossible to prove everything.
Yet, sometime in the last three decades of his life, Gödel wrote an argument essentially stating that God must exist if people believe He does. Whether this was a leap of faith or of logic on his part, the two researchers used their MacBooks to show that the mathematical model used by Gödel was correct.
Abstract reasoning and mathematical equations aside, did Gödel really believe in God? There is credible evidence that he did. Shortly after his death, his wife Adele stated that “although he did not go to church, he was religious and read the Bible in bed every Sunday morning.” But as Gödel wrote in a letter to his mother in 1961, the fear of ridicule from his peers made him reluctant to broach the subject publicly. “Ninety percent of contemporary philosophers see their principal task to be that of beating religion out of men’s heads,” he noted.
In fact, the subject of religion has often been debated among the most prominent scientists—both past and present. For instance, Gödel’s friend and Princeton University colleague Albert Einstein (1879–1955) left no clear clue to his beliefs. He did famously say, “I want to know God’s thoughts—the rest are mere details,” as well as “God does not play dice with the Universe”—both of which might suggest the great physicist harbored religious views. However, in a letter he wrote shortly before his death to philosopher Eric Gutkind, Einstein noted: “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”
Given these divergent opinions, we can’t be sure what—if any—religious beliefs Einstein had.
What about Charles Darwin (1809–1882), whose theory of evolution clashed with the church-backed idea of biblical creationism? We might assume that he wasn’t a man of faith, yet he did say, “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” In other words, in matters of religion, Darwin was a fence sitter.
Two scientists whose views on religion have been clearly defined are Max Planck (1858–1947) and Stephen Hawking. The former, founder of the Quantum Theory, was a Christian, who once said: “Religion is the link that binds man to God.” Hawking, on the other hand, arguably the most famous physicist alive today, rejects religious concepts. “The notion of heaven or afterlife,” he said, “is a fairytale.”
While the most brilliant scientists have not been able to prove or rule out the divine presence, at least Gödel—and the computer technology—have not cut God out of the equation.