Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Summary Statement on The Black Swan

I've been musing about Taleb's book the past few days (probably because a review is due soon for the periodical Books and Culture), and two key words have come to mind: humility and providence.

Now I've already posted about providence: that the concept of the Black Swan--and especially its randomness--may seem to collide directly with the Christian Church's commitment to God controls the world. If the pattern of history makes no sense, then is God really bringing any sense to it? But the doctrine of providence actually does not commit Christians to asserting that we understand history, only that God does. The famous statement from Paul that "God works all things together for good" (Romans 8:28) never goes on to describe how we see God's plan clearly unfold before us. And this brings me to humility. Taleb correctly points out that, in a world of management and scientific predictability, we are blind to the fact that we know so little about the highly improbable events that significantly affect our life and our world. Similarly humility before God's will is the call of the Christian Church. Or as the prophet Yogi Berra put it so well, "It is tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pascal, Asymmetric Outcomes, and My Next Decision

I return again to my reading of Taleb's The Black Swan and particulary to what appears to be a critical quotation: “Indeed the notion of asymmetric outcomes as the central idea of this book: I will never get to know the unknown since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that." Taleb ties this to Blaise Pascal’s well-known wager, which he defines, “I do not know whether God exists, but I know that I have nothing to gain from being an atheist if he does not exist, whereas I have plenty to lose if he does. Hence, this justifies my belief in God.” And so he concludes: “In order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than on the probability (which you can’t know)."

Interesting, and I wonder what difference it makes to my quotidian life and particularly to my decisions. How would this guide me in deciding what to do next?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Postmodern Paradox and The Black Swan

If understand it correctly, a standard argument goes like: Postmodernism declares that “nothing is absolute,” but since that statement constitutes an absolute, postmodernism is self-contradictory and therefore absurd. Postmodernism has therefore nothing to offer. I don’t actually think that’s what “postmodernism” says—as I read contemporary authors, they state in a much more limited way, that they simply can’t find any absolute statements that hold up and that the path to certainty is strewn with road-kill. So I strain out a slightly different insight: there is a latent inconsistency, the Postmodern Paradox, in our contemporary philosophical and cultural climate. We want a grand narrative, but distrust it. So our Big Story is that there is none.

You see, I’m as distrustful of totalizing concepts as the next guy. I can sniff them out even when the author protests against them. So what I take up here—with Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan to my right—is that his contention that we by nature create huge structures in order to assert certainty and predictability in a highly improbable world. He calls this tendency (among other things): PLATONICITY, “our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defined ‘forms,’ whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias… [etc.].” But we don’t live in the world of the Forms. (Actually Plato didn’t think we did either.) Taleb wants to open us to the possibility of the Black Swan, to events and realities we could never predict, but that constitute what is most definitive for our lives and our world. Who could have seen the stock market crash of 1987 or the planes of 9-11? In other words, Black Swans rule, in a world that can only countenance boring, predictable white swans.

So I come to the Postmodern Paradox: No sooner does a thinker like Taleb want to emphasize the fragmentary, the irrational, the postmodern—no sooner does he evoke an incredulity toward metanarratives—than some new meta-structure comes around the back door. The Black Swan constitutes his totalizing structure. (The definition is in the post below.) Taleb wants to eschew the certainty that we derive from perfect, platonic concepts. And yet, it comes around that famous one-sided Mobius strip. In an odd way, it seems, asserting unpredictability (against the common, pedestrian desire for the known and the repeated) offers Taleb some level of mastery over the world. And that, to be sure, is a paradox.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Breaking the Silence

My blog entries the past few months have been spotty. The only excuse is well-worn: Too many things to do, and too many pedestrians… Nonetheless, here’s my first contribution to altering that reality.

I’m thrilled to say that my article for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), “The Church of the Last Stop” just appeared this week. In it, I offer five distinctives from Reformed theology that have guided our congregation, Bidwell Presbyterian Church, through a period of growth and renewal: the doctrines of Christ alone and of grace alone (that’s two), translating the contents of our faith into the vernacular, the church for the world (i.e., mission), and the sovereignty of God. The piece should be available on Geneva Press’s website, www.genevapress.com, but I haven’t seen it there yet. So send them harassing emails daily until the article appears.

Umberto Eco meets Milan Kundera—that’s the vibe from The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and that’s what I’ve been reading recently as I prepare a review for the periodical, Books and Culture. Here’s what Taleb asserts: “Our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable (improbable according to our current knowledge) [i.e., the Black Swan]—and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated.” That’s provocative for sure, especially because we like the predictable and the idea when we’re surprised that “we should have seen it coming.” The book so far also reads chaotic and in desperately in need on an editor. Gregg Easterbrook panned it in The New York Times Book Review, and I find the argument a bit flighty in spots. But I suppose that’s what we should expect from a book that asserts the unanticipated makes the biggest difference in life—a style that is unpredictable and jumpy.

I’ll have more to say as I indeed read more… What do you think? Have you read The Black Swan?