Book Summaries

Resolving a Talebian Paradox

There are several principles that the Nassim Taleb has talked about, including the precautionary principle, which teaches us to be cautious under conditions of uncertainty. But sometimes, his principles seem to clash with each other. The precautionary principle, for example, would seem to clash with survivorship bias, another mental model that Taleb has popularized. 

Key Definitions

1. Precautionary Principle: a broad epistemological, philosophical and legal approach to innovations with potential for causing harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking.

2, Lindy Effect: a theory that the future life expectancy of some non-perishable things like a technology or an idea is proportional to their current age, so that every additional period of survival implies a longer remaining life expectancy. Where the Lindy effect applies, mortality rate decreases with time.

3. Survivorship Bias: the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways. It is a form of selection bias.

Taleb would argue, on the basis of the precautionary principle, that religious ideas that have been useful for thousands of years (Lindy Effect), and would be better arbitrators of truth than personal rationality or new moral ideas. But at the same time, religion is only accepted because it survived, while other belief systems that would have been equally valid did not survive. How do we reconcile survivorship bias with the precautionary principle in the case of religion?

There are two parts to this answer. The first is to think about the question more closely. Let us assume that there are other religions that could have been valid had they survived the test of time, this would still not imply that the religions that did survive are invalid.

Second, the fact that these religions did survive speaks more about something functional about them rather than mere arbitrariness. Taleb repeatedly talks about the limitation of our ability to know. The dichotomy is between episteme and techne. Episteme is what we conceptually know, while techne is what we practically know. 

Taleb is known for defending the value of religion, but this would seem to contrast with survivorship bias. 
The atheist philosopher places a lot of value on episteme. That is, on knowledge.

The atheist philosopher assumes that we can know things about the world and how it came to be, and that our knowledge of what exists is the best indicator for what actually does exist, and if there is something we do not know much about, we can discount it or assume it doesn’t exist. Taleb, because he was a trader, and is generally distrustful of academia.

Even his mathematical proofs are used to undermine the predictive powers of economists and PhDs. His concept of the “Black Swan” is about episteme. He’s saying, there’s a lot we don’t know, in fact, the most important events are the things we don’t know or can’t predict, and they are the most important because they are unseen and they will have a great impact on our lives if they happen.

To trust that one’s knowledge is a sufficient representation of reality is to commit a kind of epistemic fallacy, to assume that one knows far more than what one actually does. The precautionary principle is a derivative of this idea. Don’t dabble with nature because it’s too complex for you to understand, the causal relationships are too messy. Avoid tampering with what is beyond your rationality. And the Lindy Effect too, follows the same logic. If something has survived a very long time, then it is likely to survive in the future. We might not understand why that is the case, or why we cannot replace it with something newer or more updated, but that is irrelevant. The object or idea that survives such a long span time has already proven itself to be useful, regardless of whatever rational reasons we fail to conceive of.

When it comes to religion, what we do know is that, as you mentioned, it has survived in various forms, and it is, in a sense, anti fragile. Why? Think about this idea that occurred to me recently. From the perspective of a religious text, such as the Bible, it has succeeded in the evolutionary race, it has survived, and has only proliferated more with time.

The Bible was written and transmitted at a very fast pace in first century AD (relative to the time) and since then, each technological revolution has accelerated the pace at which the Bible is constructed and dispersed, so that now, it has become completely digitized, and accessible in its entirety to anyone in the world who has an internet connection. The same can be said about other religions. So, from a purely pragmatic perspective, these religions, in some way, benefit from shocks.

We don’t understand why that is the case but we know that it just is the case. Are religions true because they work(remain relevant) or do they work because they’re true? The pragmatist would answer “yes” to first question, the theologian would answer “yes” to the second question. The atheist would say that it doesn’t matter, because even if they do work, we still don’t know if they’re true.

The important point is that everyone would concede that religions do work, they have managed to survive the test of time, and in terms of giving meaning to people’s lives, helping them with existential angst, providing principles that can create functional communities, and uniting people together, religion is unparalleled. Of course, the existence of different religions creates conflict, but each religion, in itself, is undeniably a very useful tool.

Now let’s try to apply survivorship bias. Because religions have happened to survive, that doesn’t mean we can know anything about their truth value, since other religions could have just as easily survived as well. But I think that is a misuse of the concept of survivorship bias. It’s like saying, we don’t know if democracy is a good system because it just happened to be a system that survived. To have survived, it must have been a good system. And for religions to have survived, there must be something true about them, otherwise they would have been completely dysfunctional. Dysfunctional ideas can only lead to dysfunctional outcomes.

Survivorship bias is a useful concept only if we consider causal claims that are not necessarily true.
There was something that Taleb once wrote along the lines of, “war makes people tough”. We assume this is the case because the people that have survived the war are tough, but we don’t understand the causal chain. Does war make people tough or do tough people survive war and thus live to tell us about it?

For example, if I made a claim about religion like, “religion makes people more resilient” because when I observe religious people, I observe in them a resilient character. But are they resilient because they are religious, or are they religious because they are resilient? No way to know.

The only people that have survived, that we know about, seem to be resilient, but we don’t know about people who were not resilient and yet were religious. Here, we can invoke survivorship bias, because we are drawing an unnecessary causal link. But do we draw the same unnecessary causal link when we say that religion is useful? No, because by definition, if it has managed to give utility to so many people, it can only be considered useful.

The reason why I can question the causal direction of the previous claims (war, religion) is because neither presuppose the existence of the effect it brings. It is not necessarily true that religion makes people resilient, and not necessarily true that war makes people tough. War could make people tough or it could kill them. But it is necessarily true that for religion to have survived, it must have a functional purpose, it must be true in some way, and most likely, in a way that we cannot properly articulate.

So I think when Taleb defends religion, he does so in a technical sense. That is, there is something technically true about religion, which we cannot rationally understand, or recreate, which allows people function relatively well.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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