Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Books: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth


Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth
Written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou
Art by Alecos Papadatos, Dimitris Karatzaferis, Thodoris Paraskevas and Annie Di Donna


Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

I studied philosophy at university. Which I guess is a pretty good reason why I now work in a library and write a blog about comic books: if I had more "sense" (whatever that means) then I guess I would have studied something that would have been a little bit more useful at securing myself decent employment. You know - like economics or architecture [1] or something like that. But then: money is overrated anyway right? And who wants to spend their time doing stuff like don't really like (and - hey probably making the world a worse place to live - capitalism is bad and all that) when you could spend it - well - reading comic books and thinking about how the universe is put together [3].

Of course working in a library doesn't really offer one that many chances to do any philosophical-thinking - but then that's pretty much true for all jobs that aren't "Philosophy Lecturer" or "Philosophy Teacher" - so that's no real biggie. But then - well - then this book appeared on our shelves and these two separate worlds (Library World and Philosophy World [4]) briefly collided: only (you know) in a good way - it's like it killed any dinosaurs or something like that.

But yeah - Logicomix (a title which is either somekind of genius or somekind of stupid - I still haven't quite decided which) [5]. Opening with a very disarming fourth-wall-breaking [6] Overture (their word not mine) that lets you know from the get-go that "This isn't your typical, usual comic book." [7]

Starring the esteemed philosopher Bertrand Russell [8] and mainly taking place in the late 19th/early 20th Century (and featuring other such famous names as Wittgenstein, Frege and Gödel: so you know - all the heavyweights) - Logicomix is concerned with the big questions (yeah - ok - I think this is where we can start breaking out the capital letters): Truth. Logic. War. Mathematics. And (of course) Philosophy. 

I mean - yeah - that makes it sound like super-tough going and about as appetizing as day-old porridge (yum). But (really) don't worry: as Logicomix is written, drawn and presented in such a way that makes it easily accessible for everyone (seriously - even a 10 year old could read it and not have to worry about their brain exploding (or whatever it is that happens when a child's brain overheats? Does it collapse in on it's self? I must confess I don't really know)). Even as it loops about on itself and shows the writers and artists trying to figure out how to write book you're already reading and showing the great minds descend into insanity (oh dear) it still manages to be clear, compulsively readable and entertaining.

But then - for me - the issue wasn't so much that it was a comic book about Philosophy (because - hey - that sounds amazing: and (god damn it) why aren't there more books about Philosophy anyway? [9] Philosophy is super-fun happy times for everyone). But rather - the fact that it's a book where - well: all the heroes are Logicians.

In case it's not obvious - I totally hate Logic. Not the principle - you know 2 + 2 = 4 and the basic stuff like having certain things following on from other things (If a Plato is a man and all men have a head then Plato has a head) - but the real hardcore Classical Logic stuff where you get sentences like "If c is a constant, then DM,s(c) is I(c), and if v is a variable, then DM,s(v) is s(v)." That stuff just kinda fries my head and makes all the sparks fly out. I don't know what it is exactly - but I just can't handle it.

A comic book about Logic then. Well - that's not so much my cup of tea then (or so it would appear). I mean - if it was Metaphysics or Political Philosophy or Ethics or something like that - then: yes. I would be at the front of the line, waving my flag and cheering it on. But when I first saw this book - well: my insides shrivelled a little and I kinda pushed it away. Like I said: who wants to spend their time doing stuff that they don't really like? I don't like Logic. Logic doesn't like me. It follows that Logicomix - not going to be something that's going to appeal.

Except - once I got over my trepidations and decided (what the hell) I'll give it a try - a funny thing happened: instead of finding myself falling asleep or getting that whole "brain on fire" [10] feeling I found a comic that's (like it says at the start) all about telling a story in the best, more exciting way possible: you know - spinning a yarn and all that: like one of those films that you used to find yourself watching on a Sunday afternoon (with lots of great lines like (my favourite) from Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege: "Women are such illogical creatures. I try to explain the fact to my wife... but she cannot understand."). A lot of that comes from it's stated desire to "focus on the people! Their ideas interest us only to the extent that they spring from their passions." but also - well - even tho it's only about Logic there's still a lot of discoveries, surprises and emotional conflicts. The story proper opens on a lecture Bertrand Russell gave entitled "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs" - and (as cheesy and as obvious this might be to say) - Logicomix is all about showing the reserve: the role of Human Affairs in Logic (like all good stories really - just substitute "Logic" for whatever it is you want to talk about - War, Bread Making, Working in a Library - whatever: it don't matter - just make sure that come at it from the human angle and you're golden).

And - even better than the story is what the story shows. Namely that the project amongst Logicians of the early 20th Century: the pursuit of "the delicious experience" of knowing everything with "total certainty" is something that is doomed to failure (ha! Take that Logic!). Halfway through the book you get an orator proclaim: "Our profound conviction that all these great problems are solvable rests on the principle that the world is totally understandable by reason that if a question can be rigorously stated, it can be logically answered!" and yet - as you find out in the second half: this idea can be proven (with Logic) to be untrue. Of course for most of us you don't need to see any kind of theorem to know that there is all sorts of vagueness and ambiguity existing everywhere you look [11]. But what becomes increasingly clear is that this conviction this "near manic passion for certain, absolute knowledge" is something that comes from the kind of mind that is apt to fire off into a thunderous rage over missing cookies, takes 362 pages to show that 1+1=2 (you think that's an exaggeration? Ha - just you wait...) and spends ten years of their lives writing a book that no one (well... very few) people will ever be able to read.

I wish that somehow I could show this book to my younger self so that he would not have had to worry so much about not being able to get the hang of Logic. Indeed - from the evidence on display in Logicomix - Logic seems more like a disease of the mind rather than a pure expression of it [12]. But then - what do I know? (and I'm probably overstating the case a little - but whatever).

Oh and (final thing) - I will just say that if you enjoy Logicomix then I very much recommend that you try out the (non-comic-book) Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. It's really very  good and covers much of the same ground as Logicomix but manages to delve in a little but deeper.

[1] Should I be using capital letters here? Is it philosophy, economics and architecture? Or is it Philosophy, Economics and Architecture? This is something that I should know right? I'm thinking that it should be capital letters at the start - but "I studied Philosophy at university" seems like too much for an opening sentence and I prefer the more low-key version... It's less gaze upon my works ye mighty and despair! And more - well - this was something that I did - said with a gentle shrug: less like a proclamation and a simple statement of fact like: yeah - the sky is blue [2] or something like that.

[2] Although (obviously) saying that the "the sky is blue" is a simple statement of fact opens up several cans work of philosophical worms - but we'll just let that slide for the time being...

[3] Actually "How the universe is put together" is a pretty poor description of what philosophy is about. A better one would be: "how do words work?" Or (even better maybe?): "what's the best way to ask a question?" (What words are you using? What do those words mean? etc Really three years worth of work basically just comes down to this: make sure you know how to phrase your questions right).

[4] I could have added Comic Book World here - but (technically) I guess the comic books stuff is more a feature of Library World: I guess it's like it's own separate land mass or something... Comic Bookeria maybe?

[5] Me - I would have gone with the phrase that pops up the start: "The Quest for The Foundations of Mathematics!" But maybe that's a little bit too dry?

[6] Strangely - this whole "talking to the camera" method is something that I've only seen (well - at least: can only remember seeing) in two other places: Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland and Warren Ellis' Crécy which I guess is because - well - I dont' actually know why more people don't use it. It's actually pretty effective and makes a comic seem (I dunno) kinda friendly - like you're being spoken with rather than just being spoken to. Or something.

[7] Which doesn't mean that it's snobby at all. Especially how it then goes on to say (on the very next page) that it's "...just what 99.9% of comic books are, an honest-to-God, real yarn. Simply, a... story!"

[8] Described in the book as a "Political activist  Philosophy Ladies' Man" And who - towards the end of his life - looked exactly like how a philosopher should (he even has a pipe! YES!): and (!) he even sounds right: check out this famous video about why he is not a Christian (“…there can’t be a practical reason to believing what isn’t true. I rule it out as impossible. Either a thing is true or it isn’t. If it is true you should believe it and if it isn’t you shouldn’t. And if you cannot find out if it is true or isn’t you should suspend judgement. It seems to me a fundamental dishonesty and a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it is useful and not because you think it is true.”) In fact - if you can: watch the video and listen to him speak before you start reading the book - so you can keep his voice in your mind and match it up to the bits where he talks: it'll make it better (trust me).

[9] The only other ones I can really think of are Asterios Polyp and Promethea. And those are books that have other things on their mind and only stumble across the Philosophy on their way to other places...

[10] "By the way, I read Gian-Carlo Rota's article you sent, on the curiously high rate of psychosis in the lives of the founders of logic." "Doesn't that make you think? Especially since, contrary to popular legend, most other mathematicians are not mad!" (this does not surprise me at all).

[11] Best Philosophical example of this that I know of would be the Problem of the Heap: which goes something like this: how many grains of sand make a heap? One? Two? Ten? Fifty? Hundred?

[12] And even tho I said up above that Asterios Polyp isn't really too concerned with Philosophy - it does have a good line on how to approach the kind of meticulous, dialectic mindset ("everything is either true or it's false") that pervades the main characters of the book. Namely: don't be such a stuffed shirt all the time: and (for Godsakes) try and enjoy life once in a while why don't you?


Furthing reading: Asterios Polyp, The Photographer, Promethea, Alice in Sunderland, Berlin, Don Quixote, Science Tales: Lies, Hoaxes and ScamsSatchel Paige: Striking Out Jim CrowCrécy.

All comments welcome.

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