Category Archives: FEATURE ARTICLES

The Black Swan: All in the Mind?

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Penguin, 2007.

I had a mixed reaction to this book, spending much of it trying to avoid being suffocated by Taleb’s ego. More serious was the ignoring of Taleb’s bar-room philosophy (see my previous article) as he pontificated on anything that lurched into view on his meander to the meat of the book in part 3 (p. 213). He says that he gets emotional (p. 252) because of the irrationality of those around him in not coming round to he is way of thinking (and he does have a point) but there is nothing rational about being ’emotional’ and the various rage fits he seems to enjoy provoking in others (p. 64) or indulging in himself (p. 128). Interestingly Taleb’s mother elicits the most revealing passage:

I am reminded of a measure my mother concocted, as a joke, when I decided to become a businessman. Being ironic about my (perceived) confidence, though not necessarily unconvinced of my abilities, she found a way for me to make a killing. How? Someone who could figure out how to buy me at the price I am truly worth and sell me at the price I think I am worth would be able to pocket a huge difference. Though I keep trying to convince her of my internal humility and insecurity concealed under a confident exterior; though I keep telling her I am an introspector–she remain skeptical. Introspector shmintrospector, she still jokes at the time of writing that I am still a little ahead of myself.

Why don’t we all listen to our mothers more. As this article is not nearly flattering enough I guess it will never be read but should Taleb ever read these words I really think he should find out just what humility, what its cause are and what it looks like. Humility comes from inner confidence but bluster comes from insecurity. We all have to do battle with our insecurities and arrogant demons but it is going to be much more difficult if these categories are confused.

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The Causation Debate

I have been discussing causation over at Crooked Timber and despite a couple of attempts to explain myself I am not being understood. Having chucked a simple textbook example at me folks seem to have just ignored my point which I find interesting. To recap the point at issue is when does a set of correlations become a cause? I have proposed that it becomes a cause when some of those correlations lie in the future, when there are predictions involved and the correlation is surprising—i.e., is the correlation is true it adds to our knowledge of the world (see here; my thinking here has been entirely shaped by the late, great Richard Feynman). So if I claim that when you jump up and down on one leg while picking your noes, your tooth ache will always disappear then you can try it out and see it is it works—see if you observe this correlation the next time you get a tooth ache. If you do (and repeatedly so) then you have some new tentative causal knowledge that will become strengthened as you reliably see the correlation in a variety of circumstances. The textbook example that people have been throwing at me is that if I take causation is correlation too seriously then I will be forced to conclude that cock’s crows cause sun to rise, but this isn’t a problem here. Suns rising after cocks crowing isn’t surprising to me—I am not looking to explain that correlation having a perfectly satisfactory set of causal relationships to explain it (but thanks anyway).

I prodded noen (a commentator of this blog) and noen was good enough take pity on me and explain what nobody had thought worth spelling out to me:

I’m not sure what you’re getting at Chris. Discovering a correlation is an invitation to further study. One shouldn’t leap to conclusions. The problem is that no matter how fine grained our mechanism is there will always be a leap involved. So we are left with observing that B follows A and concluding that A causes B. We call that deduction but there is a gap in our understanding. There always will be.

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The Mac Droids (The Register)

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here The Register) on my blog-roll; see the about page. ]

With The Register reporting in its usual scurrilous style Microsoft’s ongoing difficulties in killing Windows XP, Bill Gates stepping down as the head of Microsoft and Taleb making an instructive blunder on the Mac-versus-Windows religious wars I thought I would indulge myself in a rare techie post.

It is also part of the review Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan.

Windows 3.0 (1990)

One of the many interesting (and instructive) observations that Taleb made in The Black Swans was the following.

A person can get slightly ahead for entirely random reasons; because we like to imitate one another, we will flock to him. The world of contagion is so underestimated.

As I am writing these lines I am using a Macintosh, by Apple, after years of using Microsoft-based products. The Apple technology is vastly better, yet the inferior software won the day. Why? Luck.

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Of Causation and History (Crooked Timber)

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Crooked Timber) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

I have completed Taleb’s The Black Swan and will say more about it later but I first want to take him to task on one of his opinions (one that he doesn’t really hold as it turns out). From page 171:

Popper’s insight concerns the limitations in forecasting historical events and the need to downgrade “soft” areas such as history and social science to a level slightly above aesthetics and entertainment, like butterfly or coin collecting. (Popper who received a classical Viennese education didn’t go quite so far; I do. I am from Amioun.) What we call the soft historical sciences are narrative dependent studies.

To confuse historicism and history is a horrible conflation, and no claims to rural roots should excuse this kind of boorishness. As Aristotle by way of Aquinas and Schumacher reminds us,

‘the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.'(*) ‘Slender’ knowledge is here put in opposition to ‘certain’ knowledge, and indicates uncertainty.

(*) Aquinas, Summa theologica, I, 1, 5 ad 1.

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Metaphysical Bloviation (II)

The Ducks have challenged me on my pleas for metaphysical tolerance and Hey Skipper has posted some reflections on an Economist article, When Religions Talk, asserting “By definition, religions assert mutually exclusive metaphysical claims”.

Robert Duquette strikes close to the heart of the issue in his comment on my article:

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Ye shall know them by their fruits (I am back!)

I hit quite a block after posting that acknowledgment of what a superior blogger Yglesias is. To what extent was it ego? I don’t know: it is difficult to be sure, but I suspect it was one of several factors.

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Metaphysical Bloviation?

Over at talkingphilosophy blog Jeff Mason has an elegant essay on metaphysics that takes the Kantian view that the physical sciences are the source of all knowledge and everything else is mere speculation. My problem with this essay, and Kant’s critique, is that they are the worst examples of the very thing that they are complaining about—making, as they do, grandiose excessively-general statements about the nature of reality that are quite immune from empirical or logical examination, the most extravagant metaphysical conceit of them all. The genre really should be called metametaphysics as it installs itself as the last arbiter on truth and preemptively disqualifies, tout court, anything that could offer an alternative to its dogmatically positivistic understanding of reality.

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Why Fisk is Wrong about Ahmadinejad

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Robert Fisk) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

[Update: See also The Love Buzz, an important companion article without which this article may seem a little puzzling, and Goldberg is also Wrong on Ahmadinejad.]

Latest reports suggest that there could be a resolution to the nuclear dispute between Iran and the USA on the horizon? If it is so then Ahmadinejad had better if the Iranians kept Ahmadinejad out of the way. But before I come to these reports I would like to look at how the President of Iran may have influenced the process. He is portrayed, even by great instigative journalists as insane, but others have detected method in his madness. To do that you have to avoid getting distracted by the hysterical projections of his detractors and treat him seriously.

The great instigative journalist is Robert Fisk, who has a new article in Saturday’s Indie, The Middle East never tires of threats. Until the end of the article it is vintage Fisk, looking at the absurd, boastful theatrics that makes up so much of conflict, and especially Middle Eastern politics. His best shot comes when the boasts stop.

The problem about threats, of course, is that once you’ve made them, you’ve either got to carry them out or pretend you were misunderstood. I never believed George Bush would invade Iraq; not, that is, until I turned up at UN headquarters in New York and actually heard him ranting on about the powerlessness of the UN. And then he actually did invade Iraq. And I still have my notes of an interview with a certain Osama bin Laden, and his last words to me were: “I pray that God permits us to turn America into a shadow of itself.” And I wrote in the margin the one word “rhetoric?”. September 11 cleared that one up.

For those that haven’t already read Commander Huber’s essay on how we all walked into the trap, I recommend it, for it America has become a shadow of herself, even if, despite extensive south-west-Asian commitments, her ability wreak death and destruction remains formidable . I mean the American brand is a shadow of itself, though its not irreparable (and already underway?).

Unfortunately Fisk gets carried away with his story and finishes with the most hackneyed of comparisons, and following a narrative lovingly constructed by the purveyors of the meaningless, lazy and empty rhetoric that Fisk despises so much.

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Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Trita Parsi) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of
Israel, Iran and the United States

by Trita Parsi (2007)

This is one of the best books I have read. I read it over six months ago yet it seems as clear as if I had read it yesterday and still feel excited about what Trita Parsi has achieved with this book, demonstrating that while the evolution of the relationship between Israel and Iran has had a deeply ideological face, underneath this façade geopolitical factors have been the real drivers and the real causes of their gradual transition from allies to enmity. Again, their current enmity is not founded in the Iranian revolution at the end of the 1970s but the termination of the cold war and the defeat of Iraq in the first Persian Gulf war in the 1990s. Parsi bases his analysis on 130 interviews of senior officials in charge of the foreign policy of the three countries covering the period from the decline of the Shah to the 2006 Lebanon war.

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More Earthquake Follies

Will Buckingham at has an article on Sharon Stone’s clumsy comments on Karma, linking to BBC reports covering the remarks (1 and 2) and notes that people who really know what they are talking about (such as Lati Rinpoche), reaffirm my own understanding, that metaphysically speaking, according to at least some schools of Buddhism, it is quite possible that there may be a causal link between the actions of the Chinese government and some of the citizens of the PRC enduring an earthquake.

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Climate-Change Denial

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here The Daily Duck) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

This isn’t actually a part of my series on counterproductive and downright ethically and intellectually sloppy liberal elitist attitudes towards people they disagree with. The reason is that I am highly critical of those that have been arguing that climatologists are a bunch of ignorant, discredited alarmists, or part of some vast conspiracy to defraud the consumer of their divine right to cheap fuel. Of course I am adopting the kind of snarky, dismissive language that I have been criticizing, and my tongue is half in my cheek because there is a not-insubstantial school of thought out there that seems almost impossible to parody. I have listened to them change their story so often, from denying that there is any change in climate, to denying that it is caused by human activity, to denying that it is caused by CO_2, to denying that even if all of that is true then there are actually net benefits to the climate change. These are the lines of argument that I have heard advanced by a single group of people, all encouraging each other and not showing the slightest concern for the contradictions entailed in any of their positions. The common factor that must be denied at all costs is the need to do anything about the degradation of the environment. I feel quite sure that this is part of a modern nihilism, a kind-of party mentality that says we should live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself. I am convinced it is the pathology of a drug addict.

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In Defence of Motherhood

Jean Kazez has an interesting article at Talking Philosophy, Are Kids Green?, where she discusses the ethical dilemma of having children (for an atheist). As Kazez makes clear, and this is an argument that the Chinese government has made, children are not environmentally friendly, so how do you ethically justify having children. The article is brutally honest, and Kazez rightly argues for the common sense position.

But that’s not how I read it. I think in discussions of morality there’s usually an unstated assumption that moral imperatives take priority. Either you do what you should, morally, or you hang your head in shame…you lose your right to self-respect. In the lingo of metaethics, this is the view that moral considerations are overriding.

But I think not. Morality is a very important part of what we aim for, but not all of what we aim for, and not first priority all of the time, over absolutely anything else. What can compete with morality? A variety of things, but one is the sense of having one life to live. I will do what’s critically important to me before I die, and I won’t hang my head for that.

On another meta-point, I agree with Kazez allowing common sense to take precedence here. If your philosophy is contradicting reality then this is interesting, but you must give the benefit of the doubt reality and assume the philosophy has gone wrong somewhere (at least until the reason for the paradox has become clear). I think there is a paradox here as ethics is a guide to actions and why shouldn’t ethics guide the decisions over how many children to have. The environmental logic is difficult to escape yet it is plainly barmy to conclude that it is ethically dubious for a couple to have a child. Kazez is clearly interested in grown-up real-world honest philosophy, which can’t but command respect.

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Mansfield Park and The Culture Wars

After a hiatus I have posted an article, Everything of Higher Consequence, on my Mansfield Park blog. Here I have brought together some of my thinking on the novel which also intersects with some recent thoughts on what makes progressives and conservatives tick. Given that the two stream of thought originated with the French revolution and Edmund Burke’s reaction to it, and the way that the baby-boomer culture wars have been fought out in Austen criticism (see Conservatives and Progressives) and Barack Obama’s objective to move beyond these culture wars (see about half of the posts on Andrew Sullivan’s blog), you can see strong convergence in these seemingly disparate areas covering philosophy and the enlightenment, Jane Austen’s writing and contemporary politics.

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Marc Ambinder and Obama’s New Politics

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Mark Ambinder) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

For anyone who hasn’t seen it I recommend Ambinder in conversation and Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan, who makes no pretense at all of running a non-partisan blog, explains that when he needs to ground himself he heads for Ambinder’s office, just such an occasion providing the inspiration the video discussion. The discussion is vintage Sullivan, but I think it is vintage Ambinder too who quickly gets out of the way, giving Sullivan the space to make some eloquent observations about the appeal of Obama and the nature of politics.

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On Dividing Jerusalem

Over at South Jerusalem Gershom Gorenberg has a thoughtful article where he explains in stark terms the bind that Obama is in in addressing the concerns of AIPAC over an Obama presidency pressing a future Israeli government to divide Jerusalem with the Palestinians, which Obama resolved with this pledge.

Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.

Gorenberg is alarmed as he would rather see peace with the Palestinians and that means finding an arrangement that accommodates the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians, and the Palestinians want their capital in Jerusalem. This position rules that out, so Obama is going to have the choice of either backing out of this pledge with messy consequences or blocking a peaceful resolution to the conflict, neither of which is very satisfactory.

Could it be that Obama is politicking, making this pledge to secure the Jewish vote with the intention of doing what is best for everyone later? Or could it be that he just doesn’t understand the issues all that well? Nothing that I have seen suggests that either of these are true.

Could it be that political reality–Nixonland–leaves him with no choices as Gorenberg suggests? This is possible but I think there is another way of looking at this which rests on the following observation.

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Subjective Truth and The Rationality of Religion

[The discussion thread for Julian Baggini’s Karma’s heart of Stone at Talking Philosophy took off and produced an interesting discussion of how atheists should critique religion. I was making the case that atheists were far too prone to satisfy themselves with critiquing the crudest religious expositions but that they should be gunning for the most sophisticated critiques. It produced a long and interesting discussion thread that broached many subjects. It is a shame that this kind of discussion between atheists and religious people doesn’t happen more often instead of the stock bun fights were people get to reiterate their stale positions.

One of the more interesting interchanges concerned a discussion of ‘subjective truth’. This illustrated for me another area in which atheists and those adhering to religious philosophies are inhabiting different mental universes. I have lightly edited the discussion into the following.]

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Attachment and Desire in Buddhism

[In a long discussion thread on atheism, Buddhism and who atheists should be critiquing in response to the article on karma and Sharon Stone’s comments at Talking Philosophy the subject of attachment and desire came up.  While I have this little series on Buddhism I may as well look at it as it is one of the points of the Buddhist teachings that is least well understood (judging by the questions that I have seen asked to Buddhist teachers).  Here is a lightly edited record of my reponses to Eric MacDonald.]

Eric MacDonald said:

It is true. The fact that we are transient beings means that to love is to give a hostage to fortune. It does not follow, however, that forgoing love and attachment will preserve us from suffering. It may just mean that we live lives of a semi-detached loneliness instead. I have never been convinced by the Buddha’s message. It has always seemed to me that the way of non-attachment is an invitation to pointlessness. Desire may be the root of suffering, but non-attachment is not the cure. Is there one? Should we be looking for it?

You would be quite right to be sceptical of such a philosophy, but it is subtly different from the Buddhist teachings, at least as I have understood them. […]

William Blake’s lines are often quoted here:

He who binds himself to a Joy,
Does the winged life destroy;
He who kisses the Joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

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George Monbiot and Our Guilty Taboo

I am generally wary of empty, vain gestures and am well aware of the trap so it was with great interest that I read about George Monbiot’s attempt at a citizen’s arrest on John Bolton. My first thought was how is this going to work and that no way would I have the bottle to attempt it. I agree with Monbiot that the Iraq war is a vast war crime, the worst and most distressing aspect of it beyond the fact of the millions of lives smashed and countries destabilised being the normalisation of the crime.

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Earthquake Follies

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Talking Philosophy) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

After picking up Peter Singer on his inability to even attempt to address the ‘problem of evil’ seriously I see Julian Baggini has written a similar article on karma in the wake of Sharon Stone’s clumsy remarks. Just as Singer chose a hopelessly weak foil, one that is not known for any mastery of theology to make his point Baggini has chosen Glen Hoddle and Sharon Stone. As I suggested in the earlier article this I think fits a pattern of a particular kind of atheism, the faith system being based on the incompetence of the religious. This can’t be stated too clearly: the object of their faith, the thing to be protected, is the belief in the irrationality, stupidity, confusion, corruption, etc., of religious people. It is a profoundly negative belief system.

The earlier article, Why I am not an Atheist, avoided getting down into the issues themselves as I was convinced that this would trigger a tedious repetition of entrenched positions. Also not being a Christian I didn’t feel it was my place to wade in, but I have since promised to engage the issues and write a blog article, Theism for non-Theists. Here I do get involved with the Buddhist issues and you can consider it a bridge to the promised article, as the misunderstanding of karma and failure to grasp the Christian approach to the ‘problem of evil’ seem have similar underlying causes.

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The Cause of Terrorism?

It struck me while writing the previous article how pervasive is the idea that things have a single cause, but we have no reason to believe this, and we know it. To create fire I need to bring together fuel, heat and air. Take any of these away, as any fire fighter will tell you, and you will no longer have fire: all of these causal factors need to be present. So many arguments swing on the fallacy that things have to have single causes: whether terrorism is caused by unscrupulous people and their malignant ideology or attacks on other people’s countries and cultures. Plainly they are both causal factors—everyone feared an increase in terrorist attacks after the invasion in Iraq and in England cash machines tell you to be wary of suspicious packages while ATMs in the Republic of Ireland don’t carry any such warning. Invading other people’s countries is reasonably good predictive indicator that some of the people being so attacked (and they may not reside in the countries being attacked but merely identify with them) will seek to reply in kind by attacking the countries doing the attacking at their vulnerable points. Clearly violent exploitative ideology is necessary too.

While all the causes need to come together to bring about a terrorist attack, it makes sense for us to focus on the causal factors that we control and are responsible for. Once we address these it will become a lot easier (and much more effective) to ask others to address their own contribution to the problem.