Raymond Smullyan (1919-2017)


Raymond Smullyan, Oscar R. Ewing Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Indiana University, Bloomington, and before that professor of math and philosophy at Lehman College (CUNY), died last week. 

Professor Smullyan’s first career was as a magician. As an academic he was known for his work in math and logic. He remained in the public eye by way of logic puzzles, for which he was famous. See, for example, his What Is The Name Of This Book?or this appearance on the Tonight Show with  Johnny Carson:

The New York Times has an obituary here, as well as a sampling of his puzzles.

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Eric Sotnak
Eric Sotnak
4 years ago

Some years ago I found what I was sure was a mistake in one of Smullyan’s books. But the problem was a fairly tricky one, so I lacked confidence that it really was a mistake. This gave rise to what I thought was an interesting paradox of expertise. I wrote to Smullyan to share it with him.

On the one hand, as carefully as I thought about the problem, I could not but see Smullyan’s solution as mistaken. Also, nobody is perfect, and so of course Smullyan must sometimes make mistakes. But on the other hand, I thought it true that Smullyan was a better logician than I. On the basis of expertise, it was more likely that I would be mistaken than he.

So in such a situation, should I go with superior expertise, or with my own judgment?

In his very gracious reply, Smullyan acknowledged that it was, indeed, a mistake, and humbly suggested I had greatly overestimated his expertise (or underestimated my own). Of this I remain unpersuaded.Report

palma
palma
4 years ago

Ray was a case of inverse pedagogy, while his AI I was instructed to invent theories that would show the student was right. ethically the point was subtle, anyone should get slightly less than deserved and a few far more than what was deservedReport

Matthew J. Brown
4 years ago

Smullyan also wrote a beautifully charming popular book on Taoism that was one of the books that got me really interested in philosophy. Its an idiosyncratic and probably awfully historically inaccurate book, but gives a good sense of the man that wrote it.Report

Alan White
Alan White
4 years ago

Smullyan was a literary hero of mine, my parents’ generation, my version of the greatest generation.Report

Mike Jones
Mike Jones
3 years ago

And yet, he never learned Esperanto.Report