Friday Flotsam: Black Swan

I’m reading The Black Swan by Nicholas Nassim Taleb at present. I haven’t gotten very far, but it’s quite interesting. A Black Swan event is one that is an outlier with a heavy impact which was predictable in retrospect, but not in prospect (that is, you can see where it came from with hindsight, but no one foresaw it). The point being how little we really know about the world, how complex reality is, and how little we can really understand or predict. This fits in well with somethings I’ve been learning from other sources, such as how the real question of evolution is not random mutations of the bodily structure, but mutations of the protein strands that make up DNA: something that is astronomically more complex and less likely to result in useful mutations.

The conclusion I’m drawing from all of this (which is still in its early phases and will need more work) is that the impression given by modern science that we understand how the world works, even in part, is largely illusionary. We know what some mechanisms look like up close and have some idea of how they function, but that’s it; we have absolutely no capacity to understand reality as a whole, or even a small portion of reality. The idea that we understand the world enough to predict what will happen and adjust our behavior accordingly, or that we understand enough even about the human mind and human society to craft new and better societies to replace the ones we are born into is ludicrous; like a man imagining he can reverse-engineer an iMac Computer because he’s been through a two-month programming bootcamp (hey, that’s me!).

So, the principles of The Black Swan seem to me thus far to point (as so much does) to two key principles: one is Revelation. We could never understand the world enough to gain an adequate picture of God, or even of the world itself enough to know what is behind it or how we are to act in it. Hence, revelation is a necessary component of a complete human life.

The second is objective morality and with it the Medieval idea of the Wheel of Fortune. Since we cannot adequately foresee what our actions will lead to or predict, much less control the flow of world events, the only thing we can do is to adhere to objective values, which we can perceive and discern through both revelation and reason. That is, it is senseless to compromise on virtue or principles to get the outcome you think you want, because you have no capacity to actually ensure that outcome, or to control any subsequent consequences (murder mysteries are really all about this; the killer commits a crime to get what he wants, but finds events inevitably spiraling out of his control owing to the limitations of his ability to predict the world around him).

So, since world events are largely outside our capacity to either predict or influence, the image of Fortune’s Wheel is actually closer to the truth than the “go change the world” principle of today. Some countries or people get elevated for a time, only to be ground back down, and it is largely independent of anyone’s dessert. The only thing to do is to fix your attention on Eternity and behave as soberly and virtuously as you can in your own sphere of life.

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