Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Head-hijacking Martians

A reviewer wrote in the Daily Telegraph that Nassim Nicholas Taleb "is an eclectic scholar and a rude man." Yes and yes. He is also provocative, intelligent and informed. (Some other adjectives and epithets appear in the comments section of my previous post.)

Here is Taleb's description of a (typical?) philosophy colloquium [The black swan (Penguin, 2008), p.289]:

"HOW MANY WITTGENSTEINS CAN DANCE ON THE HEAD OF A PIN?

A number of semishabbily dressed (but thoughtful-looking) people gather in a room, silently looking at a guest speaker. They are all professional philosophers attending the prestigious weekly colloquium at a New York-area university. The speaker sits with his nose drowned in a set of typewritten pages, from which he reads in a monotone voice. He is hard to follow, so I daydream a bit and lose his thread. I can vaguely tell that the discussion revolves around some "philosophical" debate about Martians invading your head and controlling your will, all the while preventing you from knowing it. There seem to be several theories concerning this idea, but the speaker's opinion differs from those of other writers on the subject. He spends some time showing where his research on these head-hijacking Martians is unique. After his monologue (fifty-five minutes of relentless reading of the typewritten material) there is a short break, then another fifty-five minutes of discussion about Martians planting chips and other outlandish conjectures. Wittgenstein is occasionally mentioned (you can always mention Wittgenstein since he is vague enough to always seem relevant)."

Taleb proceeds then to be very rude to those philosophers "whose curiosity is focused on regimented on-the-shelf topics" and whose critical faculties are "domain dependent." In other words they fail to apply their skeptical methods beyond their philosophical work. For instance, they might blindly believe in the abilities of their pension plan managers.

"Beyond this, they may believe without question that we can predict societal events ... that politicians know more about what is going on than their drivers, that the chairman of the Federal Reserve saved the economy, and so many such things. They may also believe that nationality matters (they always stick "French," "German," or "American" in front of a philosopher's name, as if this has something to do with anything he has to say)."

If Taleb is hard on philosophers, it is not because he doubts the importance of philosophy but precisely because he believes in its importance. "Philosophers," he writes, are "the watchdogs of critical thinking" and "have duties beyond those of other professions."