Untangling the Search for Social Status from the Search for Truth

Euler and Diderot image
Euler on the left and Diderot on the right.

False Stories With True Lessons
It has been pointed out to me that the story about Pythagoras and Hippasus that I wrote about in my previous post was probably not historically accurate. I certainly hope so for Hippasus… Though the events might never have happened, the moral of the story is true, and you should be careful to keep “truth” as your ultimate goal instead of “being right”.

Leonhard Euler vs. Denis Diderot
There is another fictional anecdote that teachers us a similar lesson: The apocryphal encounter between Leonhard Euler and Denis Diderot.

The French philosopher Denis Diderot was visiting Russia on Catherine the Great’s invitation. However, the Empress was alarmed that the philosopher’s arguments for atheism were influencing members of her court, and so Euler was asked to confront the Frenchman. Diderot was later informed that a learned mathematician had produced a proof of the existence of God: he agreed to view the proof as it was presented in court. Euler appeared, advanced toward Diderot, and in a tone of perfect conviction announced, “Sir, (a+b^n)/n = x, hence God exists—reply!”. Diderot, to whom (says the story) all mathematics was gibberish, stood dumbstruck as peals of laughter erupted from the court. Embarrassed, he asked to leave Russia, a request that was graciously granted by the Empress.

This has been debunked, but the reason why it was told and retold for centuries is probably because it has a ring of truth. We can all imagine a debate between two people where one of them says something that the other does not understand, and instead of asking for clarifications, he simply admits defeat.

Pride vs. Truth
That’s self-defeating pride for you. You are too proud to admit that you don’t understand something, and that perversely leads to the very thing you were trying to avoid, which is humiliation. If your goal is to look for truth, you should want to understand all the arguments from the other side. But if your goal is to look right and superior (humans are social animal that seek social status), you will be reluctant to ask for help because that in itself can make you look wrong (even if you aren’t), and there’s always the danger that the clarifications will just end up making it extra-obvious that you are wrong.

But that’s not a real problem: If you are wrong, you should want to know it so you can change your position. There is nothing noble about sticking to false ideas because of how changing your mind might make you look. The more ego you invest in your positions, the harder it is to abandon them. That’s the difference between “I think X because it is correct to the best of my knowledge” and “X is correct”; you need to keep in mind that you believe the things you believe because of some data that pointed in that direction, and that new data could change that. Not because your positions are intrinsically correct.

So if you are ever faced with an argument that you don’t understand, it is win-win for you to admit you don’t understand and either ask for help or go do some research and come back to it. Once you fully understand it, maybe you’ll find out that the argument wasn’t actually a good one, and you wouldn’t have helped your search for truth by forfeiting to it. And if the argument turns out to actually be convincing, it’ll be a good thing for you to evaluate it and see if you need to change your position. This new information also brings you closer to your search of truth. Win-win.


One Response to “Untangling the Search for Social Status from the Search for Truth”

  1. Charlene Femminineo Says:

    What Diderot left because he understood what Euler meant, which is that that equation is true, it is absolutely true and is eternal because it, and other equations like it, exist in the abstract, conceptual realm. Thus Euler had proven that absolute eternal truth exists thus proving the existence of God because God is absolute eternal Truth. . What does it mean to say that the equation is eternally true because mathematics exists in the abstract? For example, we can think of a unicorn, i.e. a horse with a horn located in its forehead. To make it relate to the real world we can draw it, write the word unicorn, make stuffed toys that look like unicorns and yet the unicorn does not exist in the real world. Because it exists in the abstract we know it exists because we can think about it but we cannot touch it in the real world. We can think about the above equation, we can write it but we cannot find it anywhere in the real world we cannot hold or touch it. However its existence is not based on our ability to think about it, it exists in the abstract whether we can think about it or not. To make it relate to the real world we must substitute real numbers for the variables; a, b and n and solve for x to obtain a real number, which relates to the real world. Because this equations exists in the abstract, eternal and unchanged, it exists for eternity thus proving that absolute eternal truth exists, which proves that God exists.

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