Prof Hawking was an avid bettor. But his bets come with a positive twist. It seeks to advance science and knowledge. It is nothing personal.
So, it is not about winning and losing with Prof Hawking. He was prepared to lose a bet and to be proven wrong because his attitude towards losing is that the winner gains for science and the world is better for it.
Science is therefore the ultimate beneficiary of the direct challenge to humanity's ego to prove another wrong. That's the irony of reverse psychology and Prof Hawking was a master of placing such bets to spur man's (sometimes desperate) drive to be right.
In the above article written by Adam Minter, he wrote this about Prof Hawking's penchant for betting:-
"For years, he had been making - and losing - public bets on fundamental questions of physics. He felt no shame in these repudiations but rather revelled in them, knowing that science advances when its participants are wrong as well as right."
Prof Hawking had made many bets over his lifetime. He once bet in 1974 that "a bright object in the Cygnus constellation was not a black hole". He lost that bet in 1990 and had to pay it off with a subscription to Penthouse.
In another bet that he lost, he challenged Physicist John Preskill by stating that "information swallowed by a black hole could never be retrieved." However, his own research in 2004 would undermine that statement.
So, in a major physics conference, he announced, "he had devised a calculation that proved he was wrong."
For that bet, he "presented Professor Preskill a baseball encyclopedia from which information could easily be retrieved."
Prof Hawking's most famous bet was with another Professor, namely, Peter Higgs, who won the Noble Prize for finding the God's particle, eponymously named after him - Higgs Boson. But that discovery came partly (or largely) from a professorial taunt (a bet) by the notorious bettor himself.
In 2000, Prof Hawking wagered with University of Michigan's Gordon Kane that the God's particle would never be found. Although it was not a wager directly with Prof Higgs, the latter took it personally and strove to prove him wrong (or himself right).
Alas, Prof Hawking lost that bet too.
In 2012, Higgs Boson was confirmed and Prof Hawking "made a global spectacle of paying off the US$100 wager, admitting he was wrong." But he did not stop there.
Ever a gentleman in losing, Prof Hawking called for Prof Higgs to be awarded the Nobel Prize.
Whether right or wrong, Adam wrote, "Prof Hawking's humility and graciousness would be rare in any age, but particularly at a time when conceding even the slightest error is viewed as a weakness to be derided and exploited."
Lesson? I am curious about what we as believers can learn from Prof Hawking. Of course I am not talking about betting here, for an atheist's bet against faith or omnipotence will take an eternity to unravel.
What I am however talking about is his gracious attitude towards the possibility of being wrong, thereafter accepting it and moving forward with it.
Can we Christians consider that, accept and learn from that? Can we accept that we are not always right about our belief? Can we accept that we are not always that certain about what we claim to be certain about?
What Adam writes below about science in the article is relevant to our belief:-
"Public-facing scientists become reluctant to concede uncertainty about data for fear that the admission will undermine funding and support for their research. The result: well-intentioned intellectuals who feel obligated to present science as a series of truths not to be argued or rebutted."
The issue I have with belief is absolutism. When we claim that we can't be wrong, we suffocate our belief into insufferable tyrant.
We turn every interpretation of scriptures into a truth never to be argued with. We close off debate. We shut out the light of reasonable doubts. We become an epistemological Dead Sea surrounded by a fortress which is constantly pampered, or mollycoddled, by the harem of our own confirmation bias.
We are thus trapped in the hermitage of our own arrogance whereby we voluntarily deny ourselves of a whole, almost infinite, world of discoveries out there.
However fallible we are as a believer, it seems like what we say about what the Bible has to say becomes an infallible pronouncement very much like the ex cathedra declarations of the pope as the church's universal shepherd.
But the church has been wrong on many occasions. They have been wrong about sex, about masturbation, about science, about cosmology, about demonology, and about evolution.
Now, the modern megachurches are repeating the same mistake with an incomprehensible level of self-conceited panache.
Preachers in their glamorous suits and glittering hairdo unpack self-proclaimed revelations with every sermon about how they are so cocksure about God's will, direction and even emotions. Ironically, their certainty seems to be equated with their believability. The more cocksure they are, the more persuasive they become. Go figure.
With every ex cathedra pronouncement, they conveniently sweep away all mysteries and wonders and leave their audience with the remnants of reality that just doesn't reconcile with the reality they have come to know when they walk out of the sanctuary with light feet and head.
If you need examples, here goes.
"God is never angry with you. God has "retired" the Holy Spirt to convict you of sins. God is happy when you are happy. God is even happier when you ask big because he gives big. God no longer punish you for sins. God is your new buddy in Christ. God can't wait to bless you beyond your wildest imagination. God is a cheerful giver, you should be one too. When you prosper, God rejoices with you. God's will without exception is your healing and longevity, because death can wait. God hates it when you speak bad about his anointed".
They seem to have God all figured out, fully unpacked, with an exhaustive manual inside...(and I can go on and on with this).
I guess the worse infraction in the modern church today is to allow the preachers to do all the thinking for us, to spoon feed us with the spiritual stuff, essentially with what we would like to hear.
And we want answers, fixed answers, good answers, answers of certainty, answers that are easy to swallow, well crushed out, like sweet liquids fed into the estuaries of our self-confirming belief system, the fortress of our own pet theories.
Alas, by embracing or hallowing certainty, or cocksureness, we unknowingly garland our faith with the condolent wreaths of wonders, curiosity, uncertainty, and discovery.
We therefore become anti-Berean believers spoon-fed with the junk food of self-conceited revelations dished out in an all-you-can-eat buffet from the mouth of equally ignorant preachers.
Let me end with the article’s conclusion:-
“If Prof Hawking’s life can teach anything to scientists, public intellectuals and social media users (and believers?), it is that humility and a willingness to change one’s mind are a sign of not weakness but an adventurous and intellectually engaged mind and polity. This is a legacy as worthy as Prof Hawking’s monumental scientific achievements.”
Amen, RIP Professor. Cheerz.