Saturday, August 09, 2003

The Kurt Godel of the Philippines

One of strangest results in mathematics is that not every truth can be deductively reached from a given set of premises no matter how rich these foundations are. 

In 1931 the mathematician and logician Kurt Godel proved that within a formal system questions exist that are neither provable nor disprovable on the basis of the axioms that define the system. This is known as Godel's Undecidability Theorem. He also showed that in a sufficiently rich formal system in which decidability of all questions is required, there will be contradictory statements. This is known as his Incompleteness Theorem. In establishing these theorems Godel showed that there are problems that cannot be solved by any set of rules or procedures; instead for these problems one must always extend the set of axioms. This disproved a common belief at the time that the different branches of mathematics could be integrated and placed on a single logical foundation. Alan Turing later provided a constructive interpretation of Godel's results by placing them on an algorithmic foundation: There are numbers and functions that cannot be computed by any logical machine.

Dean Raul Pangilinan of the University of the Philippines Law School made a similar assertion when he argued that the text of the Philippine Constitution had to be creatively extended to attain a public good. Justifying the ouster of former Philippine President Joseph Estrada by a massive urban demonstration called "People Power", Pangilinan said:

As I have said at the University of the Philippines forum and elsewhere, People Power cannot be reduced to legalistic formulae; it demands that we view law "in the grand manner," and seek legitimacy not in law as inert rules mechanically applied, but in law as the embodiment of values for which generations of Filipino patriots have shed blood to preserve.

According to the Dean Pangilinan, removing the corrupt President Estrada was a proposition which could not be deductively reached from the letter of the Philippine Constitution. Therefore enlightened individuals, acting "in the grand manner" could dispense with pettifogging legalistic formulae and sweep Estrada aside. Not having found the axiom to depose the tyrant in the book, Pangilinan suggests that we simply extend the system to suit. Here is the Incompleteness Theory  right where we would expect to find it: in the Philippines.

But since Incompleteness is logically twinned to Undecideability, contradiction was to make its immediate appearance. Responding to suggestions that the overthrow of Estrada may have been unconstitutional, Pangilinan rounds on the doubters and accuses them of being in league with the lawless putschists who attempted to seize the Manila business district. "In hindsight, in light of the recent coup attempt, the sustained campaign to discredit the Supreme Court (which administered the oath of office of Estrada's successor) was but the intellectual component to a military assault on our democracy." 

To question the Philippine Supreme Court, or at least Pangilinan's interpretations of its decisions, was tantamount to inviting an assault against constituted authority. In the bat of an eye, what had been latterly dismissed as "legalistic formulae" in majuscule is subsequently raised to towering majesty in miniscule. For if the Philippine Constitution can be dismissed with the flick of a fingernail, as Pangilinan suggests, what dignity can its creature, the Philippine Supreme Court, possibly attain to? If the source is foul, how can the issue be perfumed? The contradiction appears exactly where Godel said it would and where Pangilinan thought it would not.

Oliver Cromwell was caught on the horns of a similar dilemma in 1649. He wished to execute the tyrannical King Charles I, against whom he had waged war, but he did not wish to abolish the monarchy. In that event, the lawyers said, King Charles I could not be hanged for treason, because a monarch by definition could never rebel against himself.

(Parliament) established a Commission of one hundred and thirty-five men to try King Charles for treason. One of them named, Algernon Sidney, faced Cromwell’s anger when he stated that they had no authority to try the King. ‘I tell you’, Cromwell screamed at him, ‘we will cut off his head with the crown upon it.’ Yet, it had proved impossible to find an English jurist who would write the indictment, or create the tribunal. It would be an unprecedented trial and execution in English history.

Cromwell, determined to go ahead, ultimately executed Charles on his own authority, for reasons of policy, rather than on any pretensions to legality. Here, mercifully, was an acknowledged separation between the demands of revolutionary power and the hopes for its subsequent legitimacy; for Cromwell was, after all, that ultimate contradiction, a military dictator bent on establishing a reign of liberty -- and aware of it. When he beheaded the King, Cromwell knew better than to claim the protections of monarchy for himself.

Pangilinan would do well to argue that People Power was a legally unconstitutional act required by necessity, hopefully a singular phenomenon, or at worst, a once in a century occurrence; and that for all ordinary and subsequent occasions, the Constitution should be observed. He cannot simultaneously invoke Incompleteness if he dreads to to meet Undecideability. A river that is restored to its proper bounds must first be acknowledged as having jumped the levees. The Philippines government, having begun through a revolutionary act, should put that event behind it and begin building a new and respected edifice. It cannot tout its origins as a legal commonplace without inviting others to emulate it; and it is that faulty assertion which encourages military mutineers to emulate it for their own purposes.