Po nan Jwèt la: Asymétri Kache nan Lavi Chak Jou

Taleb, Nassim N., Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. New York City: Random House, 2018.

NB: precisely because I regard Taleb as a national treasure and have considerable respect for his work, I am not going to pull punches here. I get to do this because I have … skin in the game, and not only in Haiti[1] (where I wrote this post over the past ten days, thus the Kreyòl Ayisyen title), but in a couple-three moderately hair-raising situations back in KC, which I will relate when appropriate. Which might be never; see Matthew 6:1-4 (cited by Taleb on page 186).

Getting this out of the way—buy this book, read it, and recommend it to others. I say this very much irrespective of what might be called the Manifold-Taleb delta, which is not altogether trivial, as I will explain in some detail—again, as a sign of respect—below. Immediately below, in fact.

In figure 6 on page 229, Taleb depicts a hierarchy of identity, and associated relative value of risk-taking, as follows:

6. Ecosystem
5. Humanity
4. Self-defined extended tribe
3. Tribe
2. Family, friends, and pets
1. You

In this schema, the worst possible outcome is ecocide; Taleb takes level 6 as unique and irreplaceable. I contend that it is neither.

As for its supposed uniqueness, Lee Silver describes a set of beliefs about nature held by a large majority, perhaps four-fifths, of college-educated Americans; all are nonsense.[2] They include:

  • most species in an ecosystem are in mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationships
  • ecosystems are stable unless disturbed by humans, with the rare dinosaur-killing asteroid as the only possible exception
  • climates cycle through at most a small number of predictable and benign states, again until human activity throws things out of balance
  • indeed, the entire biosphere may be said to function as a unit and personified as “Gaia”
  • in summary, to borrow a phrase from Orwell—“four legs good, two legs bad”

I suspect that this belief system may represent the actual dominant American religion, and by placing the ecosystem at the pinnacle of his hierarchy, Taleb, hardly a Gaia-worshipper himself, inadvertently aligns with it.

But over the past 10,000 years, humanity has already replaced over 98% of the biomass of higher mammals with A) itself and B) its domesticates.[3] James C. Scott points out that a majority of all plant life on Earth has become pyrophytic thanks to ~105 years of human-initiated range burning, most of it deliberate.[4] These overwhelming developments have taken place in the last 0.01% of the history of life on land. Their only approximate precedents are mass extinctions caused by—possibly coupled—extraterrestrial impactors (much more on those below) and enormous volcanic eruptions.[5]

And as I am wont to remind locals, normal is not the present climate; normal is ice a mile thick, south to the line of the Missouri River. The question is not what we imagine to be “natural,” but what we want, which broadly converges to a savanna environment[6]; as Robert Zubrin once put it: “Humans are not native to Earth. Humans are native to Kenya.”[7] See also Psalm 23:2.

Earth’s ecosystem irreplaceable? Recall Tsiolkovsky: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.” (a lightly paraphrased «Планета есть колыбель разума, но нельзя вечно жить в колыбели.»)[8] … and of course Heinlein: “Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.”— on the desirability of transcending it, precisely for the sake of level 5 in Taleb’s ranking. This novel method of risk management may be regarded as an extreme form of risk mitigation.[9] Historical efforts have consisted of risk transfer[10] to government agencies for space exploration and development. These are being replaced by more organic entrepreneurial efforts, eg Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, SpaceX et al. The work of O’Neill (significantly assisted by non-STEM-major undergraduates) established the feasibility of constructing large-scale habitats in high Earth orbit with technology already available in the 1970s.[11] These could eventually reproduce any desired terrestrial environment with “land” on a scale of ~103 km² and with human populations (if desired) of ~107, again with materials and methods available over 40 years ago—and nanomaterials would increase these numbers by at least one full order of magnitude. Such entirely realistic projects have not been executed only because of differing societal priorities, not insufficient capabilities, much less any lack of physical resources.

I note that the construction of ~103 such habitats would allow the entire population of Earth to move off-planet and our (former) world to return to its Pleistocene pre-pyrophytic state, perhaps the ultimate application of Talebian via negativa.

I divide the risks of ecocide into endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous risks are widely known, or to be rather more accurate, widely feared (about which much more below):

Applied Science

  • pollution/biochemical; everything from CO2 to pesticides to GMOs, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and even water treatment
  • nuclear technology, both for electricity generation and explosives
  • future tech, eg AI

Unconstrained Human Activity

  • overpopulation/habitat destruction
  • pandemic (sometimes seen as a “balance-restoring” positive, thus allowing supposedly caring people to applaud the death of billions)

Exogenous risks are much less widely known/feared, and are sometimes even mocked, just the attitude that enrages Taleb in an only slightly different context. Nonetheless, these are phenomena that could manifest at any time on scales of a few days to a less than a year.

  • Extreme solar events: the best-known is the Carrington Event of 1859[12], but a much stronger one took place in 774/5 AD, leaving a distinct 14C signature in vegetation.[13] We know essentially nothing about the mechanism behind them or their probable frequency. A repeat of the 8th-century event would destroy technological civilization and might annihilate humanity.
  • Extraterrestrial impactors: asteroid sizes follow a power-law distribution (n ~ D-2.3) [14], such that there are ~1010 objects in the inner Solar System and Asteroid Belt[15] capable of producing low-altitude petajoule-range explosions like that of the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013.[16] Had an otherwise identical event occurred instead in late October 1962[17], it would have started a nuclear war that would have wrecked most of Eurasia for centuries to come and severely damaged the US. Had it occurred a couple of decades later, the resulting nuclear exchange would have, like a repeat of the 774/5 AD solar event, destroyed civilization altogether and might have annihilated humanity.

The orbits of larger asteroidal impactors (≥10x the diameter and ~103 the impact energy of Chelyabinsk) have mostly been characterized and are therefore unlikely to catch us unawares, but long-period/aperiodic comets are unpredictable and have caused several mass extinctions and numerous smaller but devastating events in natural and even human history. The “Clovis Comet,” a likely impact over northeastern North America ca 12,900 BP, killed two-thirds of the continent’s human population outright, partially destabilized the Laurentide Ice Sheet, temporarily re-imposed an ice age (the “Younger Dryas” cooling), and helped finish off some 17 species of “charismatic megafauna.”[18] An impact in the Tasman Sea around AD 1500 raised tsunamis over 100 meters high on the east coast of Australia and the west coast of New Zealand[19]; the same event today would kill or displace ~107 people. The Tunguska explosion of 30 June 1908 would have drastically altered the history of the 20th century had it occurred a mere four hours later—and thereby four thousand kilometers westward, over St Petersburg.

Such events are classic black swans: fourth quadrant[20], thick-tailed probability structures with complex (and potentially utterly disastrous) “payoffs.” And because of observation selection effects, we are prone to, if anything, anthropic overconfidence bias in this area.[21] The a posteriori distribution of impact craters, 14C signatures, etc tells us how Earth’s, and humanity’s, history has been affected; but the a priori distribution of near-Earth objects and Earth-crossing comets, and the possible fluctuations characteristic of spectral class G2V stars, tell us how human history, along with that of much of the biosphere, might be ended. Anthropic overconfidence bias is an excellent fit with Taleb’s expressed concerns about “ergodicity” and “absorbing barriers.”

How to manage exogenous ecocidal risks? Before I list my suggestions, let Vaclav Smil define the envelope: “We should act incrementally as prudent risk minimizers and pursue any effective no-regrets options. We do not have to wait for the formulation and acceptance of grand strategies, for the emergence of global consensual understanding, or for the universal adoption of more rational approaches.”[22]

In other words, no Paris Treaty or analogous ostensibly “historic” virtue-signaling by elites; just get to work:

  • Education: begin raising public awareness—which is nonzero but low; carefully explain that big meteors didn’t end with the dinosaurs (Russian dashcam videos from Chelyabinsk can help a lot), that the Sun can behave alarmingly, and that some of the risk from such disruptive events is geopolitical, given how much of Earth’s surface is occupied by rival nuclear powers.
  • Investigation: we need to know more, possibly much more, about how the Sun works, which means both direct observation of it and the monitoring of large numbers of closely similar stars; a search for every potential impactor larger than 10 meters in diameter on a repeating orbit that might intersect with Earth at any time in the next several decades; and another search to find every cometary body in the outer Solar System that might pass within, say, 0.05 AU/20 lunar distances (cometary outgassing continuously changes orbits) on the same timescale.
  • Communication: given geopolitical risk, it is always at least as important to be able to clearly announce and explain the true nature of a disaster as it is to mitigate it; even a few hours’ warning could make all the difference in what happens next.
  • Mitigation: including hardening (against electromagnetic events), evacuation plans, decentralization, interception (of impactors)—and above all, simplification.

In summary, although I advocate for managing risk to Level 6, such risk management is significant only insofar as it fulfills the desires of Level 5; my highest loyalty on this scale is to mankind, not nature.

But that does not mean slavishly enabling the priorities of an intransigent minority of mankind. Taleb himself points out (on page 86) the danger of allowing Salafist/Wahhabi Islam to operate in the West. We may have to make a noticeable de facto carve-out to the First Amendment to ensure the de jure survival of the American constitutional order. This will be at least as unpleasant as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Here I see Taleb and raise him the prospect of containing the technophobes.

Since I am otherwise likely to be accused of misunderstanding Taleb’s argument on pages 163-4, I will go to the trouble of presenting it in condensed form:

  1. The real cause of malnutrition is inadequate transportation, not the nutrient content of available foods;
  2. but children are being used as props to sell …
  3. an overcomplicated technological solution
  4. that is categorically different from previous techniques
  5. and can therefore cause unforeseeable effects;
  6. although associated overuse of pesticides is already a problem.

I see considerable value in these objections—in other contexts. A genericized version of this trajectory might be invoked to explain everything from NASA’s post-Skylab floundering over the past four and a half decades—exemplified by the Columbia accident[23]—to the generally disastrous course of aid to Haiti even before the earthquake.[24] I suspect that 3-5 above, in particular, may be involved in the recent AMD[25] and Intel[26] hardware vulnerabilities, and would not be at all surprised if many of the most severe software vulnerabilities are associated with “bloatware”—obscure, complex, and rarely utilized features whose de facto purpose is to entice the unwary purchaser.

(Indeed, in the broadest sense, the cycles of Strauss-Howe generational theory may be seen as a pendulum swinging between hypertrophy/atrophy of performance vs security. We have been promoting performance at the expense of security for several decades now, although an emphasis on security, to put it mildly, characterizes the parenting style being inflicted on the Homeland generation, which suggests that some cultural arenas lead others in the cycle. But all this is another post, or several.)

But applying a critique of Golden Rice to GMOs overall is problematic. Matt Ridley points out[27] that many GMOs need fewer pesticides, allowing insect biodiversity to rebound; that individual farmers can benefit as much or more from them than Big Ag; and that “genetic engineering is a method, not a category”—one far more precise, and therefore more predictable, than the methods it supersedes. Details matter.

Opposing a technique rather than a specific characteristic is analogous to thinking that the application of, say, Gantt charts to project management might someday make projects fail in some particularly disastrous way. (To be sure, an absolute majority of projects do fail, as measured against their baseline projections, even in the private sector. I would pay good money to see Taleb address a PMI conference; notwithstanding this extended rant, I think his insights would be invaluable.)

But by far the greatest problem I see is the political context; the anti-GMO position is threatened less by the arguments of its enemies than by the associated foolish, often conspiratorial positions indulged in by its friends.

Opposition to GMOs correlates rather strongly, in my experience, with opposition to a whole array of modern technological developments that sustain most of humanity. Such opposition is obviously an inevitable outgrowth of the “nature religion” outlined earlier. Ask someone who makes a point of self-identifying as “pro-science” how they feel—and it’s always a matter of feelings—about the following:

  • pesticide use
  • pharmaceutical regulation
  • vaccines
  • chlorination and fluoridation
  • fossil fuels and petrochemicals
  • nuclear power
  • the US nuclear deterrent (bonus follow-up about the Israeli nuclear deterrent)
  • space exploration (if the current US President is Republican)
  • population growth
  • novel viral pandemics

Those questions have a range of answers; some that are pro-humanity and some that are … not so much. Enough answers that don’t support human thriving, and you’ve caught a technophobe. Enough technophobes spreading their mind virus, and we’ve got a problem on our hands at least as bad as, and probably much worse than, Salafist/Wahhabi terrorism. Enough embrace of “alt-med,” rejection of water purification, replacement of productive agriculture with “organic farming,” disdain for/suppression of reproduction, fear of high-energy-density power generation, and ignorance of the staggering resources of the Solar System—and a massively foreclosed human future, with attendant mountain of corpses, is a sure by-product.

The irony here is that many of these same people are all about promoting the danger of one ecological calamity after another; Matt Ridley again: “The past half century has brought us warnings of population explosions, global famines, plagues, water wars, oil exhaustion, mineral shortages, falling sperm counts, thinning ozone, acidifying rain, nuclear winters, Y2K bugs, mad cow epidemics, killer bees, sex-change fish, cell-phone-induced brain-cancer epidemics, and climate catastrophes.”[28]

To this I can only say that, like Pascal’s God-shaped vacuum, there is an apocalypse-shaped receptor in the human psyche, perpetually vulnerable to the next mind virus with the right kind of metaphorical hemagglutinin to hook onto it, settle in, and start propagating. We come by them honestly—Scott’s Against the Grain, footnoted earlier, points out that city-states routinely disappeared entirely in the ancient world, much more often (and more prosaically) than depicted in Jared Diamond’s Collapse—but such apprehensions are no longer … altogether adaptive. For our civilization, the real “absorbing barrier,” the state from which we cannot emerge, may be one of collective fear.

Our most relevant recent experience, with Ebola in the autumn of 2014, was not encouraging. Ebola was never a candidate for a pandemic in the First World. The virus is fragile, has a modest R0 value—partly because it is not airborne-transmissible and is extraordinarily unlikely to become so[29]—and has proven surprisingly treatable with hydration and electrolyte replacement. A whole complex of environmental, economic, and cultural factors in West Africa had to come together for the epidemic to occur. Taleb understandably frets over the possibility of a “multiplicative process” involving Ebola (page 232). But again, details matter.

Plenty of this was known and could have been properly communicated, but primitive fears[30] were the order of the day. Some were deliberately stoked for political advantage at the midterm elections[31].

Another example: no one has ever been killed or severely injured by radioactivity at any commercial nuclear power plant in the First World. No one. Even in the Fukushima meltdown, radioactivity killed no one—but the evacuation killed 1,600. Patients were taken from hospital ICUs, senior citizens taken from nursing homes, and left to die in high-school gymnasiums.[32]

The overwhelmingly obvious risk is official overreaction as an emergent systemic property, founded on public panic, encouraged by carriers of the “mind virus” of opposition to applied science. Ruinous positive-feedback loops lie in wait in airports, hospitals, mass transit facilities, schools, and even large entertainment/sport venues[33]—not from the deadliness of a new disease or radioactive isotopes, but from our own, very First World complex of cultural factors, including overcomplicated, easily-bottlenecked, and generally badly designed mitigation processes. In the crunch, will our response be better than Liberia’s?

Indeed, how much of the First World is psychologically healthier than the Third? Are we any less vulnerable—or, as Taleb might say, more “ergodic” (page 225)? Bluntly, are we doomed to resolve the Fermi Paradox through self-destruction, because we feared or even merely failed to effectively use our own tools?

Of course, I neither know the answer nor know if it is ever possible to know it. But I think our chances get better the more of us that have skin in the game.

Buy this book, read it, recommend it to others. And apply it. The civilization you may save is your own.

1. Extended ramblings at Poukisa Mwen Te Ale An Ayiti (https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/52160.html).
2. Silver, Lee M. Challenging Nature: The Clash Between Biotechnology and Spirituality. New York City: Harper Perennial, 2007.
3. Smil, Vaclav. The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002: 185-186.
4. Scott, James C. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017.
5. Mark A. Richards, Walter Alvarez, Stephen Self, Leif Karlstrom, Paul R. Renne, Michael Manga, Courtney J. Sprain, Jan Smit, Loÿc Vanderkluysen, Sally A. Gibson. “Triggering of the largest Deccan eruptions by the Chicxulub impact.” GSA Bulletin, 127 (11-12, 2015): 1507–1520.
6. Orians, G. H., & Heerwagen, J. H. “Evolved responses to landscapes.” In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press, 1992: 555-579.
7. This was a line in a speech I heard him give at one or another International Space Development Conference back around the turn of the millennium.
8. Archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20140219031703/http://www.rf.com.ua/article/388.
9. Project Management Institute. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute, 2013: 345.
10. Ibid., 344.
11. O’Neill, Gerard K. The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. New York City: William Morrow and Company, 1977.
12. Edward W. Cliver, William F. Dietrich. “The 1859 space weather event revisited: limits of extreme activity.” J. Space Weather Space Clim. 3 (2013): A31
13. Adrian L. Melott, Brian C. Thomas. “Causes of an AD 774-775 14C increase.” arXiv 1212.0490 (2012)
14. Sloan Digital Sky Survey news release of 5 June 2001 (originally at http://www.sdss.org/news/releases/20010605.edr.img9.html).
15. Derived from Ibid. (see also http://www.wwu.edu/depts/skywise/a101_asteroids.html)
16. Olga P. Popova et al. “Chelyabinsk Airburst, Damage Assessment, Meteorite Recovery, and Characterization.” Science 342, 1069 (2013)
17. See https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cuban-missile-crisis.
18. Christopher R. Moore, Allen West, Malcolm A. LeCompte, Mark J. Brooks, I. Randolph Daniel, Albert C. Goodyear, Terry A. Ferguson, Andrew H. Ivester, James K. Feathers, James P. Kennett, Kenneth B. Tankersley, A. Victor Adedeji, Ted E. Bunch. “Widespread platinum anomaly documented at the Younger Dryas onset in North American sedimentary sequences.” Scientific Reports, 7: 44031 (2017)
19. Paywalled at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20040306/bob8.asp.
20. See http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/taleb08/taleb08_index.html.
21. Nick Bostrom, and Milan M. Cirkovic, editors. Global Catastrophic Risks. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011: 125, Table 6.1
22. Smil, Vaclav. Global Catastrophes and Trends: the Next Fifty Years. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008: 238
23. A little light reading at https://www.nasa.gov/columbia/home/CAIB_Vol1.html (especially chapter 5).
24. Schwartz, Timothy T., Ph.D. Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking. North Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing, 2008.
25. See https://threatpost.com/amd-investigating-reports-of-13-critical-vulnerabilities-found-in-ryzen-epyc-chips/130404/.
26. See https://threatpost.com/intel-in-security-hot-seat-over-serious-cpu-design-flaw/129289/.
27. See http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/genetically-modified-crops/.
28. See http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/apocalypse-not/.
29. The first of several shameless plugs; Ebola Realities and the True Test (https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/46564.html).
30. See Don’t Panic: A Continuing Series – Ebola or Black Heva? (https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/46254.html).
31. See Observation of the Month (https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/46470.html).
32. Johnson, George. “When Radiation Isn’t the Real Risk.” New York Times, September 22, 2015
33. See Don’t Panic: A Continuing Series (https://chicagoboyz.net/archives/45948.html).

17 thoughts on “Po nan Jwèt la: Asymétri Kache nan Lavi Chak Jou”

  1. Good discussion.

    This: “official overreaction as an emergent systemic property” is often a head fake to cover up rent seeking and asset ransacking under the guise of “DOING SOMETHING” about a proclaimed world-threatening problem. Relatedly, the overreaction is often the use of some level of panic to advance an ideological agenda. In either case, interested parties use overreaction to expand government power for their own personal or ideological benefit — or both, since ideological commitments and self-interests are usually brought into alignment.

  2. Indeed I have long maintained that getting off the planet in quantity is the most important thing our species can do. Once well spread out, we are much harder to wipe out. As we are, we can all be destroyed by a host of different things.

  3. Taleb needs an editor so, so badly. Of course he wouldn’t tolerate being edited, but his writing is just so impossible to read. It’s like a core dump of aphorisms straight from his mind onto the page.

  4. ” my highest loyalty on this scale is to mankind, not nature”

    Unfortunately, we are part of nature. Godel proved with his incompleteness theorem that you can never know everything about a system if you are inside of it. I believe Taleb’s objections to genetically modified organisms are that the risks are not measurable because nature is a complex system whose whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Looking only at static constitutive elements, you will not be able to conclude everything about the whole, which has emergent properties that are born from dynamic interactions among unrelated or unseen elements. Furthermore, because of the monopolistic tendencies of the current agribusiness industry, whatever risks there may be, whether seen or unseen, will be rapidly transmitted across the food system and into the people who eat it.

    This isn’t some tree hugging fantasy either. It follows fundamental conservative principles. See Russell Kirk’s principle of prudence

    Prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.

  5. I have frequently seen people making the argument that we need to spend $XXX trillion on Climate Change, even if the probability of disastrous human-caused change is very small, because the consequences are so awful if it *does* turn out to be real. This strikes me as a variant of Pascal’s Wager, and flawed in the same way as the original.

    Pascal’s Wager being the idea that you’d better believe in God, because the consequences of being wrong on this issue are so devastating (eternity in hell versus eternity in heaven) that you are multiplying a probability by an infinite number.

    The problem with this seems obvious: What if you picked the wrong God? Is the wrath of (insert god of your choice here) going to be stayed because someone became a devout Christian?

    Similarly, there are plenty of potential events that could have a devastating impact on life on earth: planet-smashing asteroids, for example. You can’t treat them ALL as justifying *spend without limit*.

    I cynically suspect that the reason there is so much focus on Climate Change as opposed to asteroid threats is that the first one provides a much better excuse for controlling everyone’s lives in great detail.

  6. With regard to “official overreaction as an emergent systemic property”, Michael Crichton was (typically for him) ahead of his time. “State of Fear” (2004) is both a fun read and an elegant exposition of the phenomenon.

  7. Taleb mentions Pascal’s Wager in his book. Unless you take it to its logical conclusion, then it’s a little bit like buying an umbrella to insure against a hurricane. If you are just basing your belief on a rational assessment of probabilities of the outcome, an omniscient God will be able to recognize that you were only going through the motions for the reward. You would have to weigh the consequences of every single action of every single second of your life and act according to God’s Will in order to plausibly convince Him you really believed, and even then it wouldn’t suffice because obviously an omniscient God knows more about you, your intentions, and God’s own intentions than you can ever hope to know.

    Since the fullness of God’s plan will never be completely revealed to us, a leap of faith is required along with sacrifice. Someone using Pascal’s Wager in Taleb’s view has the critical problem of no skin in the game.

    He uses the example of Jewish dietary laws. A lot of people think they originated simply for food safety. However, he makes the point that other groups of people around the same region at the same time didn’t have these rules about food. Why didn’t they care about food safety? The reason might be because the dietary laws originated as a form of sacrifice to establish group cohesion. As the people who practiced the rules survived, the rules survived too and became cemented in culture.

    Quote from pg 216, “Judging people by their beliefs is not scientific. There is no such thing as the “rationality” of a belief, there is rationality of action. The rationality of an action can be judged only in terms of evolutionary considerations.”

    and pg 220, “Rationality does not depend on explicit verbalistic explanatory factors; it is only what aids survival, what avoids ruin. Why? Clearly as we saw in the Lindy discussion: Not everything that happens happens for a reason, but everything that survives survives for a reason. Rationality is risk management, period”

    Or as the rabbi says in mitzvah 73

    “And if there are some among them whose harm is understood neither by us nor by the wise men of medicine, do not wonder about them; as the faithful, trustworthy Physician who adjured us about them is wiser than both you and them. And how foolish and impulsive is the one who thinks that things don’t have damage or benefit, except for that which he can grasp. And you should know that their reasons were not revealed, for our benefit; lest people who hold themselves to be great sages get up and feign wisdom to say, “X damage that the Torah stated in thing y is only in place a, whose nature is such,” or “with person b, whose nature is such and such,” and lest one of the dim-witted be seduced by their words. Therefore their reason was not revealed, to avoid this obstacle.”

  8. ” “The rationality of an action can be judged only in terms of evolutionary considerations.” ”

    This assumes that rationality is based on the value of survival, intentionally or unintentionally. So it would follow that if I have the greatest love for my wife and sacrifice myself futilely for her safety. I am defined as irrational since it did not further survival. If I am successful by the same action, I am defined rational. If it was an accident that my action had the saving effect, I am rational. Note that my wife is not assumed to have any plus or minus evolutionary characteristics for me to take the action and might even object to me doing so. How does that meet any evolutionary test?

    Doesn’t it seem strange that rationality is defined unconnected to reason and intent? Natural selection is not synonymous with rationality. Actions are generally motivated by reasoned directed toward a goal based on a value in combination with instinctive actions. The more considered, the greater proportion is reasoned based on internal and individual goals. That seems to me a much better understanding of rational. It seems to me that the statement above is part of a train of thought that reduces reality to external observations. To me the most interesting questions are normative rather than positive. The “ought” flows from considering values, however imperfectly we can know them.


  9. “Doesn’t it seem strange that rationality is defined unconnected to reason and intent?”

    No, because of the Problem of Induction.

    No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.

  10. I don’t follow the induction example as relevant to the issue of rational action being judged only by evolutionary results.

    By the way observation, in the absence of any observation of a black swan and the repeated observation of white swans would justify an “assertion” that all swans are white. This is a theory that would be capable of testing through observation. Its strengthg would grow as a theory with consistent confirmation. Upon the single observation and investigation of a black swan, the initial theory (assertion) would be proved false (as some assertions are) and likely be modified by the new observbation to a new assertion likely along the lines of most swans are white and a lesser number are black. This new assertion is a better theory since it accounts for all the observations we now have, but it to may prove to be false if we subsequently find vast populations of black or other color swans. That is inductive reasoning, but the rules of deductive reasoning also apply, i.e. a swan can not be a swan and a non swan at the same time.


  11. The problem of induction shows that your intent will always be based on incomplete knowledge. It may very well be the case that your love for your wife is considered by most to be extremely noble, and it motivated you to save her. However, it can never be ultimately and definitively established by logic alone that love for your wife is necessary to save her. It requires a leap of faith to say that your love for your wife is the right principle to base your actions on. You have that faith that it’s true because it’s worked out for you that way. It worked for your parents, relatives, friends, ancestors, and many many others.

    In the absence of a priori proof, the justification we can count on comes from experience. Even that is incomplete, but it’s the best we can do.

    Also, trying to save your wife but failing could still be considered rational for evolutionary reasons. Take for example the the French police officer who died over the weekend saving a hostage. Had the hostage died he would still be a hero just for the example he set for the rest of his wretched nation. Or think about the firefighters who rushed up the World Trade Center building. We commemorate and honor those who sacrifice their lives to save others, not because of any logical calculation of their act, but for their “skin in the game”. Love and bravery of individuals enables the system to survive. See my comments above about signaling sacrifice for group cohesion.

    The problem with basing actions on reason alone is that someone in power will eventually come along and say, since love for one’s fellow man is a requirement of a successful society, we now mandate that you must love your fellow man. Then they delegate to an unaccountable bureaucracy to devise, based on further reasoning, which specific acts of love you must undertake. Next thing you know, it becomes clear that there’s only so much love to go around, so, while all love is equal, some love will now be more equal than others, based not on reason anymore (ultimately impossible) but on the whims of the powerful.

  12. I think we might be talking past each other, at least partially. I would never assert that a rational decision or action would be always made without experiential reference, I am saying that a correct decision to take an action is usually based on the application of reason to the choice based on consideration of expected costs and benefits based on goals, values and principles.

    Very little consideration of the cultural efficacy of my actions based on evolutionary consequences enters my decision making. I consult a belief system based on my faith that I can know what is right and what is wrong. It is faith, the same faith that makes me believe that what I have learned about cause and effect will continue to be true. These values are learned from careful consideration of various options judged through my limited experiences applied by rational means for consistence and avoiding erronous conclusions. This results in my selection of actions that are true to my principles while being possibly injurious to me personally (except for the fidelity psychic benefits to what I believe is true and right).

    So my objection to the statement that rational action is only judged by evolutionary consequences discounts the role of other values and the mental process of correctly applying deduction in order to match intentions and results.


  13. Ok, I’m going to try one more time.

    Very little consideration of the cultural efficacy of my actions based on evolutionary consequences enters my decision making. I consult a belief system based on my faith that I can know what is right and what is wrong.

    Deductive reasoning is moving from a general rule to a guaranteed specific application. Inductive reason is moving from limited, specific empirical observations to a generalized conclusion that is perceived as likely (but by no means certain) in light of the evidence. These two methods of reasoning are only valid in closed, narrow, mechanistic domains, not in the complex realms of human behavior and ethics.

    The actions within your ethics system are defined as rational based on rules and observations that also exist within your ethics system. These rules are ultimately based on your faith, the rationality of which is not definable outside of your ethics system. Therefore, the rationality of your rules and observations is not definable outside of your ethics system.

    Now you may say, “well it’s rational inside my system, and that’s something.” It is, but only in the evolutionary way Taleb mentions. Something that is only rational sometimes and only somewhere doesn’t necessarily help us when the winds change and the sands shift and the ice flows.

    What does help is that, by basing your ethics system on faith, you’re actually doing something besides deduction or induction. You’re using abductive reasoning to consider an incomplete set of observations, experiences, and knowledge and then inferring what’s perceived to be a likely (but by no means certain) explanation. In other words, you’re making sense of the evolutionary consequences of past behaviors, events, heritage, etc.

    To your conscious everyday awareness it may seem like the accumulation of cultural and evolutionary forces don’t have anything to do with your decision making process, but in fact much of our mental actions are driven by what psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer calls the unconscious intelligence. Our minds are an adaptive toolbox of heuristics, rules of thumb, and intuition that have been transferred culturally and genetically, developed by ourselves or evolved from other rules and instances.

    In conclusion, the only way you ultimately know what is rational about an ethics system is because of how you have been informed by evolution.

  14. OK, my last try as well. Your system seems to assume that evolutionary natural selection is the only purpose, value or goal. That becomes a circular agrument where any outcome must be the “rational” outcome of the evolutionary process. What you experience and how you process it are the predetermined results of your evolutionary heritage, including any abstract concepts which have no direct observable (five senses) manifestations. Love is not the same thing as acts of love and are frequently confused, maybe more times than not. At any rate there are black swans in the mix.

    I believe reason, logic and rational decisions must be based on the transcendent truth of the rules of logic. These are separate from experience though we can see their operation in experience and we must obey them to make sense of our real life choices. I do not accept that the source of all human values, goals and concepts (including the rules of logic) is evolutionary natural selection. I believe that the truth of first causes implies a reality beyond the evolutionary process, both internally to our universe and external to it. A process is not a purpose and I believe in purpose separate from natural selection.

    Great discussion and I appreciate your arguments and taking the time to explain them to me. I had never previously attempted to understand evolutionary processes as such a global concept. It is still imperfectly understood by me, but I will think on it more and perhaps research it more. Very stimulating. Thank you.


  15. Death6, it was an honor and a privilege discussing this with you. I believe there are first principles, although as St. Paul said, we see them through a glass darkly. I think Taleb does too in his own way, as you’ll see if you read his book, which I recommend.

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