J.W. Dunne’s incompleteness theorem

J.W. Dunne gives an example of a painter which (I think) can be appropriated to making a very suggestive incompleteness theorem.

Consider a man who wanted to paint the entire universe. He gets a canvas and starts painting the landscape in front of him, figuring that the rest of the universe will just involve filling in the details. He soon recognizes, however, that he has forgotten to include himself in the landscape. So he adds himself in, only to recognize that he now has to paint himself adding himself in. The regress doesn’t have to go though too many steps before the painter figures out that the picture must always be incomplete; and it is no more or less complete if he draws himself in or not. The mere fact that the painting is produced by someone requires that there must be some reality that it leaves out. But every science and art: metaphysics, physics, philosophy, myth, etc are produced. None of them, or even all taken together, can avoid leaving out some reality – though not just some reality, but a crucial, causative, fundamental one.


  1. socraticum said,

    April 24, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Interesting post, I wonder if the claim that “every science and art leave something out because they are produced” rests on a confusion between the operations of the body and spiritual ones: the former cannot reflect upon themselves because of material conditions whereas the latter can.

    Another way of putting the objection would be: God’s knowledge seems to be produced and complete.

  2. BD Knight said,

    April 25, 2012 at 2:56 pm


  3. thenyssan said,

    April 26, 2012 at 7:12 am

    I’ve been turning this over a bit…doesn’t the example end up speaking only to knowing or producing things “now?” The painter CAN, I think, paint the universe as it existed just before he began to paint. The more I think about this the more I think it’s a puzzle for the nature of time.

    I grant that this leads to all sorts of oddities…but it seems to side-step the mentioned regress.

  4. Literarylicence said,

    August 24, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    Which of Dunne’s Books is this in? I’m doing a paper on his theory of time and would like to have a look this, but all of his books are out of print so an edition and pg number would be helpful in tracking down the right one, Thanks

    • August 24, 2012 at 6:52 pm

      Sorry, I got it second hand out of a text that was itself out of print, which I had through ILL, and from which I’ve lost borrowing privileges ever since my wife stopped teaching.

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