Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Black Swan--Arrogance

There are many things that we don't know.

The problem is that we don't know that we don't know them and that we won't admit many of the things we do know that we don't know.

Taleb is not writing about theology, but he might as well be. Here are a few of his words in isolation:

He starts with rigidly Platonic assumptions, completely unrealistic. . . . Then he generates "theorems" and "proofs" from these. The math is tight and elegant. . . . But the whole edifice is like a game that is entirely closed, like Monopoly with all of its rules.

A scholar who applies such methodology resembles Locke's definition of a madman: someone "reasoning correctly from erroneous premises."

Now, elegant mathematics has this property: it is perfectly right, not 99 per cent so. This property appeals to mechanistic minds who do not want to deal with ambiguities. Unfortunately, you have to cheat somewhere to make the world fit perfect mathematics; and you have to fudge your assumptions somewhere.

[They] can be safely accused of having invented an imaginary world, one that lent itself to their mathematics.

If you question what they do . . . they will ask for "tight proof." So they set the rules of the game, and you need to play by them.

I want to be broadly right rather than precisely wrong. Elegance in the theories is often indicative of Platonicity and weakness—it invites you to seek elegance for elegance's sake.

He then presents a chart (on page 284) contrasting his "skeptical empiricism" and the orthodox "Platonic" view. I have reworded his comments to apply to theology instead of finance. (I have also added a few observations of my own.)

Skeptical Empiricism

Rigid Theological Systems

Interested in what lies outside the systematic theology box

Focuses on what is entirely within the theological box

Respect for those who say "I don't know"

"You keep criticizing these doctrines, but these doctrines are all we have."

Wear suits only to funerals

Wear dark suits and white shirts, speak in a boring tone

Bottom-up theology

Top-down theology

Prefer to be broadly right

Precisely wrong

Minimal theory, consider theorizing a disease to resist

Everything needs to fit some grand, general theological model.

Ideas based on skepticism, aware that there are unread books in the library

Ideas based on beliefs, on what they think they know

Goes from specific biblical truth and moves toward a unified theology

Starts with a systematic theology and tries to incorporate specific biblical truths

Blind man (John 9)


More concerned with reality than with a rigidly, precise theological system

More concerned with a precise theological system than with a messy reality

More concerned with the overall teaching of Scripture in selecting and supporting a theology

Begin with a theological system and use "proof texting" to reinforce that system

See epistemological humility as an essential characteristic in the search for the truth

Consider the search for the truth over and see any deviation from epistemological certainty as heresy

Comfortable with an absolute truth only partly known

Confuse absolute truth with absolutely perfect understanding of that truth

Of course, anyone who accuses others of arrogance becomes a target for the same attack. And Taleb is no exception. But he argues:

People who worry about pennies instead of dollars can be dangerous to society.

So what do you think? Do you see similar danger in overly rigid theological systems? Do you epistemological arrogance as a more serious problem than epistemological humility?

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"


Pastor Rod said...

Here's an example of what I'm talking about (surrounded by many other examples).

"All this talk about culture is nonsense."

daniel the smith said...

I agree with the concepts behind this post, and I think your targets deserve the criticism (I still refuse to visit that site for the sake of my sanity).

I think the comparison chart verges on straw-man territory, however. As polemic it's fine, but as a persuasive piece it would probably seem to be a loaded description to those it is intended to apply to. All that to say it probably will not do much to convince those not already inclined to agree with you...

Anyway hope that doesn't sound negative...

Pastor Rod said...


You're probably correct. But the tone comes straight from Taleb. What struck me was how much it applied to this particular situation. Actually, I probably toned it down a little. He has no time for "experts" who claim to know more than they know.


daniel the smith said...

haha, neither do I if my non-reading of certain blogs is anything to go by... ;)

jeff franczak said...

My 2 cents… Taking the humble approach does not imply that the Bible has not clearly revealed essential truths to us. However, it starts by acknowledging that our ability to understand is inherently limited and that without submitting to the Holy Spirit, it will be impossible to understand and accept the truth.

Philip Barington said...

Whilst Taleb does not specifically claim to be writing about theology, but more specifically epistemology, and using this epistemology to discuss this in the business word, I see no problem with the idea of looking at this within other areas of life, including Christian Theology.

The Black Swan is the thing that we were not expecting, that was profoundly significant, and required us to rethink, relearn, revise our understanding, and act differently going forward.

Any Theophany is essentially in some way a Black Swan. That however does not mean that every Black Swan is a Theophany.

For the Galilean Fisherfolk Jesus simply called and they followed. That implies some kind of Black Swan experience in the encounter.

For Judas Iscariot Jesus was a Black Swan, he was looking for a liberator, and the liberator he found was not the one he was looking for.

For Saul on the road to Damascus the encounter is classic Black Swan experience, unexpected, significant, caused a change on understanding and resulted in change of focus and activity.

Religious epistomology understands that God reveals himself, for some that revelation is limited to the pages of Scripture, whilst for others scripture is the measure by which we can validate the revelation.

For us who believe that God is in some sense hidden, beyond our immediate reach, and yet delights in revelation, I think Taleb's discussion is a helpful springboard, not necessarily a textbook. By his own confession a textbook would not be all that helpful.