Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rich and Humble

Humility is a virtue. More so when it comes at us unexpectedly.

Note the following exchange between philosopher Jacob Needleman and an unidentified semi-billionaire.

"I met a guy who worked his way up from zero to a half-billion dollars," the philosopher [Needleman] noted. "I asked him, 'What was the most surprising thing you discovered when you got rich?' He said, 'Everybody asks my opinion about things because they think I know something. All I really know is how to make a lot of money.' “ Link here.

So far, so good. You will admit that the humility is refreshing. Especially considering the number of billionaires who believe that they know everything. Think of the billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros who not only thinks he is a great political philosopher but is using his limitless money to force everyone to recognize him as such.

Scientists and other serious thinkers should also be encouraged to manifest humility. To take a random example from the news, eminent scientist Stephen Hawking has recently joined those who insist that they know, to an absolute certainty, that there is no God.

In his words: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark." Link here.

Hawking may be a great scientist, a master of physics and mathematics. That does not make him an authority on the afterlife.

Surely, he is not an authority on the existence or non-existence of metaphysical entities.
In his statement he seems to have made the elementary mistake of confusing the brain with the mind. 
Nor does his mastery of cosmology make him an authority on the question of why people believe in God. 
We would be wiser to refrain from granting any authority to Hawking’s pronouncements about metaphysics.

Humility is not just for the rich and the powerful. It should be manifested by the greatest scientists too.


David Foster said...

The computer analogy sort of breaks down if you consider *software*. Not only does software run just fine on a particular computer other than the one it was originally installed on...via emulators, higher-level-languages, etc, software can often run on computers which are quite different from the ones for which it was originally developed, sometimes decades in the past.

Dennis said...

There is a saying, written by Daniel Boorstin I believe, that fits Obama, Osama, Soros, et al which states, "When the Gods wish to punish us they make us believe our own advertising."
Too bad most people do not understand that life's journey is one where we find out how much we don't know and what we do is so miniscule.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for the comments, David and Dennis.

David makes a great observation, which has the virtue of keeping to the terms of Hawking's argument. If his argument is shown to be an oversimplification on its own terms, then how can it stand up as an authoritative statement on metaphysical realities.

I agree with Dennis, but two out of the three people you mention do not seem to have quite gotten to the point of suffering for their hubris.

But we can still hope...

james said...

An education in higher mathematics has several side effects. The student learns how vast his ignorance is and always will be, but he also gains a cheerful insouciant confidence that he can tackle the same problems that exercised the great masters.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Let's not forget that with mathematics there are always right and wrong answers, and therefore a student has a better chance at being judged on his merits.

I like your idea that math is a humbling enterprise. It's impossible to fake mathematical knowledge in the name of building self-esteem.

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