Friday, October 15, 2010

Of mice and men

Last night, as I was walking on a footpath by the river, I felt something softish roll under my left heel. It was a juvenile mouse (or some such rodent) which had fatally mistimed its dash across the path. It was still breathing, its body apparently split, with yellow stuff coming out. I didn't have the stomach to put it out of its misery and gingerly pushed it aside with the toe of my shoe and walked on.

Later in the evening, I chanced upon this passage, this cri de coeur, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, with the section heading, "The world is unfair":

"Is the world that unfair? I have spent my entire life studying randomness, practicing randomness, hating randomness. The more that time passes, the worse things seem to me, the more scared I get, the more disgusted I am with Mother Nature. The more I think about my subject, the more I see evidence that the world we have in our minds is different from the one playing outside. Every morning the world appears to me more random than it did the day before, and humans seem to be even more fooled by it than they were the previous day. It is becoming unbearable. I find writing these lines painful; I find the world revolting." *

*The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable (Penguin, 2008), p.215.

[Something lighter next time. I promise!]


  1. Isn't this feeling part of what drives many people to religious faith? How much better to look forward to an eternity of bliss with the people you love! Oblivion after a short life in an indifferent universe is horrid by comparison. This is the challenge to non-theists like me: Keep up your spirits despite the indifference of nature and the inevitability of death. Honestly, if I could believe, I would.

  2. I can't really add much to what you say, CONSVLTVS. Except perhaps to note that even people who don't believe in an afterlife often believe in some form of providence or hidden guiding hand (for individuals, for peoples, for history in general). For the record, I have some reservations about Taleb's extreme language here ('disgusted', 'revolting'); your phrase 'indifferent universe' sums it up better. I sometimes feel very strongly what I think of as life's pathos. I think this is more or less what Taleb was feeling as he wrote those words. He would have also had in mind the way many intellectuals (and those who believe them) apply an inappropriate kind of statistical thinking to the world which blinds them to the inevitability of the unexpected. And I agree with you it's a challenge to keep one's spirits up without some sort of faith, but everyone copes in their own way I guess.

    One more thought. It seems to me that conservatism, though it is often identified with religious belief, is less inclined than other philosophies to view human nature through rose colored glasses and less inclined to fall for spurious optimistic theories of history.

  3. Mr Taleb seems to be throwing a tantrum. What he really needs is a stronger editor.

  4. Alan, I agree that the language is over-the-top and it would have been better - and truer - if he (or his editor) had toned it down. I can't make up my mind about Taleb. There's a lot he says which I disagree with, but he has something important to say I think about the way many economists and social scientists try to 'tame' reality and in so doing lull us into a false sense of security about the future. They expect aspects of reality which are 'scalable' to fit their models which are based on nonscalable distributions. (I am still trying to get to grips with this.) He is anti-Platonic, a fan of Popper and Maldelbrot. But, for all I know, you may know him better than I do.

    [And please bear with me - I intend to do another Taleb post shortly in which he satirizes philosophers! The section in question provides further evidence of lack of self- and editorial control, I'm afraid. But I'll post it anyway because I find part of it amusing, and because it links in a strange way to a past theme which you had a hand in developing.]

  5. Well, I like Taleb from what little (one paragraph) I've read.

    I love a drama queen.

    It's a lazy man who pigeonholes people.

  6. I'm glad to know that drama queens have their supporters.

    Incidentally, I wonder who invented that term? In my awareness, it goes back only about ten years. Wikipedia links it to "histrionic personality disorder", which is rather harsh.

  7. Adila, I'm glad you liked the quote (histrionic as it may be).