Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Black Swan – Inferring the Existence of God

My wife claims that I read some very strange books. Recently, I came home from the library with Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable. She picked it up and read the inside liner – “A Black Swan is a highly improbable event with three principle characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable than it was. The astonishing success of Google was a Black Swan; so was 9/11. For Nassim Nicholas Taleb, black swans underlie almost everything about our world…” Wendy just shook her head.

I’ve probably already lost some readers by writing that opening paragraph, but if you are still reading this and if you believe that you have a something of a mathematical mind, I highly recommend this book. It opened my eyes to see that events much larger than we can typically imagine are the events that truly shape our world. And the author makes a clear point – anyone who tries to create models that predict the stock market, weather, or the course of history are simply armed with too little information to be accurate in the long run. There are no known models to correctly predict things of this nature. My apologies to the global warming…er, I mean, climate change, crowd.

The story of the black swan analogy goes like this. Before the discovery of Australia, all swans that had ever been seen in the world were white. It was a reasonable conclusion to say that “all swans are white”. After all, no other color had ever been observed by humans. But when mankind “discovered” Australia, lo and behold, they sighted a species of jet black swans. Given the information that they had before these swans were sighted, was there any way to predict the existence of a black swan? No, there was not, and so it was bad science to simply assume that all swans are white. The point is this – we don’t know what we don’t know. Even at this very moment, we dismiss the idea that a green swan could exist – simply because we have never seen one. But does that actually prove the point?

Similarly, Taleb notes, “We are not naïve enough to believe that someone will be immortal because we have never seen him die, or that someone is innocent of murder because we have never seen him kill.” And yet, we often draw conclusions of the same nature – that the stock market is now crash-proof, or that there is no longer any way to hijack a plane.

Philosopher David Hume made the point in the mid-18th century that we cannot reasonably draw valid conclusions simply based on inductive reasoning – that is, just because we have observed something happen repeatedly does not guarantee that it will continue to happen in the future. Taleb makes this point using the excellent analogy of the life of a turkey.

Suppose you are a turkey (I have to smile at that opening). Your every waking moment for the four months of your life to adulthood consists of roaming the barnyard, basking in the sun, and watching the kind farmer turn out to feed you twice a day. For your entire turkey life, there is no departure from this routine – and there is no reason to believe that things will be otherwise.

But the farmer knows more than the turkey does, and on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, he changes his routine. Unaware of the holiday tradition, the turkey makes his contribution to the Thanksgiving dinner. He never knew that this was part of the overall plan - but for the farmer, it was always known. For the turkey, the final day of his life was a Black Swan event. Nothing in his “turkey model” predicted the change, but it happened anyway.

Reading Taleb’s book, I can’t help but think that the analogy applies equally as well to our relationship with God. From our standpoint, like that of the turkey, we cannot conceive of the full course of history, especially the future. But for God, this is easy. Our limited viewpoint may cause us to doubt the existence of God for a time, and some will draw the incorrect conclusion that there simply is no God. But we must realize that in this life, we will always be the turkey. God understands much more than we can conceive or imagine. And thankfully for us, 1 Corinthians 2:9 proves this point – “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”. The Second Coming of Jesus will be a Black Swan event – unless you’re expecting him.


Amy Morgan said...

So somewhere out there, there IS a better mousetrap... we just don't know it yet.

Darren Duvall said...

LOVED this book, Alan. Most of us in technical or scientific fields value and are valued for what we know. Over time we come to believe we know much more than we do, we estimate our ability to estimate to be much better than it really is. The genius of Taleb's book, particularly for people who put a premium on what they know, is that it pretty much proves through a series of rhetorical hammerblows that what you know pales compared to what you don't know (as you mentioned), and that what you know is wholly insufficient to make accurate predictions about what you don't know.

Another spin on this same territory are the books of Malcom Gladwell, namely Blink, The Tipping Point and the latest, Outliers. Gladwell's writing is much less elliptical than Taleb's, but not less illuminating for it. Freakonomics, by a different author, has several more examples of why what you think is probably wrong.

These are mainly books about the human condition, though with a healthy dollop of social science and neuroscience added to make it digestible to people who remain unconvicted of their own fallibility. It's books like these that make me worry about people who choose their Presidents based on "intelligence". For one, verbal fluency is the most common stand in for intelligence, so someone who speaks pretty is more likely to be accorded "intelligence" than someone who doesn't. Verbal fluency doesn't tell you about their thinking processes, how they perceive risk, their ability to withstand personal challenges, their fitness for making important decisions -- in other words, their character.

One of the benefits of Christianity is that admitting your fallibility is among the first steps in the Chrisitian life. Admitting it over and over and over is part of the process. I've talked quite a bit to people unconvinced of the truth of the existence of God, and what it often comes down to is that they are demanding a rational explanation for something that can only be conceptualized. Rational explanations, as Taleb explains, are little more than aggrandized self-talk. As our nation and the world have experienced, rational explanations like computer models of risk, are functionally useless. One example from the Bible is the rich farmer who thought to himself (rationally), "I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones!" His rational analysis did not include premature (from his POV) death.

And if your God can be fully rationally explained, then you need a bigger God. I don't want a God who does a cost-benefit analysis for my existence. I deserve judgment, but I believe in God's mercy, and that the penalty for my trespass has been paid. I'm happy to say that there's nothing at all rational about a God who allows his son to pay for my sins with his life.

Joshua said...

"So, how much of the universal body of knowledge do you know?"

"I don't know. Maybe 5%."

"So, you're telling me, that in the remaining 95% of all the stuff that you don't know, there's no room for a God?"

-Fireproof (Paraphrased)

Thanks Allen. Good one.