As I read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and a draft of Joshua Ramo's new book, I notice a common theme in many of the good books that I'm reading. Most significant events are not predictable. "Education" and at the notion that we actually understand the world causes us to be unprepared for the unpredictable. Science, which makes a great attempt at trying to make the world appear predictable, is really a rough approximation of things so that our simple minds can try to grasp the complex world around us. It also remind me of Science in Action by Bruno Latour which I wrote about years ago which argues that scientific facts are really a product of a very social and political process and isn't really a kind of channeling of mother nature as it might appear to be.

In The Way of Zen, Alan Watts has a wonderful explanation of how western science and philosophy and words themselves take the unknowable "void" and turn them into "rigorous" and "understandable" abstractions of the world which can't really be described by science or words. In a way, everything we write or argue is a version of the "assume a frictionless surface" or as Joshua says in his book, "imagine a spherical cow" jokes about physicists failing at describing solutions to real-world problems. All of our theories are very incomplete models of the real world and the only way to really get close to understanding the real world requires a kind of "unlearning" and a connection with the real world at an intuitive and an "uneducated" level.

Immersion and mindfulness are really important ways to see things that you normally don't see. I think it was Thich Nhat Hanh who said that a monastery is not a good place to learn to meditate because anyone can meditate in a monastery. (This might have been the Dalai Lama... I can't find the reference right now.) It is through learning mindfulness and meditation when there is chaos, suffering and pressure, that we really learn.

In a way, part of the reason for my moving to the Middle East was that while I continue to learn in any environment, days that I spend in the US or Japan tend to be mostly similar to previous days and relatively predictable, pushing me towards the somewhat typical mode of feeling in control or knowledgeable about what's going on.

What I find fascinating (and stressful) is that every day I spend in the Middle East is completely full of surprises and pushes me closer and closer to the understanding that I really don't understand anything. Sort of the pure idiot mode. In a way, I've become more aware and much more mindful of everything. One effect of this is that I less and less fear of the unpredictable and the unknown and unknowable.

I'm still really at the beginning of my immersion process, but chatting with everyone about my experiences in Dubai and reading some of the books that I brought with me helped me tie together some of these thoughts and reflect so I though I'd share. ;-)

25 Comments

Sometimes, simple yet cheap changes can huge impact. Let me know when you feel like shaving your head to see how that affects your thoughts. I am curious but I don't want to do it alone. Maybe we'll end up competing to see who levels up faster. Of course, Eric got there first but his head is filled with music and dancing symbols. ;-)

Haha. OK. I will let you know when I decide to try the head shaving thing.

Black Swan bothers me a lot. Not a good start for a comment. Let's try if I'm successful at explaining what bothers me.

Black Swan is a best seller. Most of the people who are reading it do not have the scientific culture for reading it. Here I do not mean that scientific concepts should be only read by an elit. Not at all. My feeling is more than what the consequences of the book are reverse to the intent of the book.

The book tries to make an healthy framing of what is the object of science and the relation between science and one of its tools mathematics, and the world around us. Unfortunately it takes a lot of times to understand these relationships. It takes also an education. Like everything else, meditation, cooking or sports, all arts require practices.

I see a lot of people, and sometimes around me, going with the line "you see finally someone going against this scientific determinism. Someone finally saying that science can't predict the future." Yourself you go with science, which makes a great attempt at trying to make the world appear predictable…

no. Science is not trying to make the world appear predictable. And that is the fallacy around Black Swan or more exactly the reading and conclusions that people comes to. Something which is important to understand is where Nassim Nicholas Taleb is coming from.

Taleb was a trader for Wall Street firms. A world which does many things but science. Traders don't do sciences. They use mathematics, exactly the way people are doing statistics to play 6/49. When you use these statistics, it gives you a probability of odds. It doesn't predict a future. It just tells you the uncertainty on the future. Uncertainty is not certainty. I wonder if the language plays into that for the English community. In English, we say "take a chance." in French, we "Prendre un risque" (Take a risk). So indeed, Taleb must have seen plenty of his colleague and companies using mathematics to justify their win and loss. And indeed that is really bad.

So we go down to what is science. Science is a social process to first understand the world around us. We use tools for this. The first tools were objects then because of the social process, we gain abstraction and created mathematics. Galillée had a very linear mathematical expression for the fall of objects. As he couldn't measure the fall directly, he used an inclined plan for doing that and came up with an expression which was working in his world and at his time. Fine. If the expression exists, let's apply it to bigger things, like planets for example. Newton comes into the story. Hmmmm it doesn't quite work like that. Galilee expression doesn't give me an answer. Newton create a new mathematical expression which fulfill its requirements: explain the fall of bigger bodies such as the moon on earth. Then we continue a bit more a few centuries later, Newton model is used for calculation for bigger and more distant objects such as stars… and the model fails… Einstein creates the simple relativity. Or more exactly like for the others before the social process of creativity makes it possibe for Einstein to create a new model which is working for the *use case he needs to solve*. A few years later, we needed to create general relativity for other use cases with different scales. And it is still evolving.

What does it tell us. Science is not trying to predict the world. Science creates models to solve use cases. These use cases have a precise context and sometimes when the model fails on a use case, we need to create another model. And you want to know what if you drop your keys from the top of Dubai Tower, you still only need Newton to explain it. Because this model is still valid in this context. You do not need General relativity.

Because of all comments, posts on the Web about the book and the way people perceive science because of the book bothers me a lot. Because it doesn't solve the root of the issue. Once thinking that Science would solve everything, Once thinking that Science would not solve everything.

I hope I made myself understandable. It's a difficult topic, there are a lot of science philosophers, and I have seen many (clueless) scientific. Unfortunately, the epistemology is not a mandatory part of scientific studies. I think it should.

Oooops Sorry it was long. :/

Hey Karl. Thanks for your thoughtful posts. I do agree that some of the assertions that Black Swan makes about science are sort of sketchy and I disagree with some of the tone and points in the book... but I do think that the basic premise, that we tend to try to turn economics into a science and we tend to believe in our predictions more than we should is true. I think Bruno Latour does a much better job describing the relationship between the scientific method and facts. I think that humans need to turn complex things into black-box building blocks in order to be able to think about exceedingly complex things in understandable terms and there is always a point at which models break and we need to build new ones. I think my point is just that it's sometimes good to be aware of the "black" inside all of the boxes we stand on.

Your post brought back memories of the first time I moved to Japan: "fascinating (and stressful) is that every day...is completely full of surprises and pushes me closer and closer to the understanding that I really don't understand anything."

While this new environment is certainly stimulating, I wonder if it is just stimulation, and nothing else. The feeling will go away soon as you get deeper into the culture and into a situation where you have to keep working and not see obvious new surprises daily. Then what? Do you move to Russia?

I think immersing yourself in chaos and trying to become comfortable in it is slightly more than just stimulation. Drinking a lot of coffee every morning can be stimulating, but I don't think you're learning much from that. My point is that a new environment, especially such an important one, forces me to learn and be surprised by the wrongness of my models and resets me to a more child-like state of wondering and ignorance which I think is healthy. It's true that this pace may slow down as the Middle East becomes more "normal" for me, and maybe I WILL move to Russia... but I think it's beyond just "stimulation" that I seek.

Try and read : "Reinventing the Sacred" by Stuart Kauffman Joi,
And check out here: "God Enough" : http://www.stuartkauffman.com
It is all about the "adjacent possible", unpredictability and a way to rethink science and maybe to find somethink like a global ethik bt re-defining the "God"word.

Very interesting reading! Wrote a ranty post on my own blog the other day about the positives of the uncertainty of not being able to find a job, and the necessity of living in a city - had spent the summer working in a lovely country town, which is still a country town, and not really a place for a city boy to live... I was trying to work through the sensation that I had been there a week too long, yet not really understanding why I felt that way, as I was enjoying my time...
Perhaps my problem was that I had come to 'understand' the town, and that I wasn't comfortable _knowing_ what was going on...?

So yes, quite a thought provoking perspective! : ) Thank you

Full disclosure: I'm a scientist.

Most of what I would like to comment has already been said by Karl, but I would like to throw a stone or two more in the water.

As already said science is not an attempt to explain everything in a predictable way, that's religion. Science is a (a set of) tool(s) to analyze the world and help us build our models of it. It has a remarkable difference with other similar tools: it works really well.

It works so well that you may wonder if you can really attempt to model everything with scintific tools. Someone put faith into that possibility, someone is scared about that and fight it. Many tried to show the limits of science to solve the issue and I think that debate about science is fascinating but too many people with little or no knowledge about science partecipate generating a lot of noise.

For example, here we are talking about predictability, but look at one of the most advanced (to me, *the* most advanced and by far) scientific theory: the Standard Model of particle physics.

That theory say it all about science: it's based on simple and very primitive assumptions about how interactions works, it does a lot of approximations to stay where mathematics can help and it's verfied by the most advanced and precise experiments ever built. Predictions of the Standerd Model have been verified up to many decimals in many measures of independent quantities, as of today there are no significant deviation from SM predictions and very few hints of failure of the theory.
The final scientific theory?
No, we know SM it's not a complete theory, embedded in the theory there is the range where it's supposed to work (it's a little more complex than that, but to give an idea ..) and we know some other theory must exist to explain outside that range, also it can't take into account gravity and other minor (and major but technical) problems.

And there's more: it's rooted into quantum mechanics (SM is basically quantum mechanics + special relativity at very high energy) so the unpredictable nature of this world is something taken into account. Better: it's a fundamental of the theory, it will behave differently if nature was predictable.

When you look at science and try to explore its limits and its meanings you should look at the whole picture, at what is science today, and many of the arguments I see around fails short on this.

I do not want to advocate supremacy of science, just say that it's a toughter beast to beat than what it's usually thought.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment dasnake:

I agree with most of what you say here. I think the edge of science is very much about explaining that things are not predictable and trying to understand uncertainty. There are some really interesting books like The Dancing Wu Li Masters which is an interaction between a Tai Ji master and Quantum Physicists exploring the similarities between the Tao and physics when you get to the cutting edge. I am also a huge fan of science and grew up in a physics lab, my father being a polymer physicist.

A scientists working on the frontier is very much like a zen master trying to describe that which can not be described and trying to envision things that are beyond comprehension. Also, I think that most real scientists understand what Bruno Latour explains and the pioneers struggle at the fringes trying to convert into facts, what they have discovered.

I guess I was trying to make two different points here. First of all, I think that many things, like economics, get called "science" when I don't think they are science in the same way that quantum physics is science. I think that the weight, maybe not so much recently, given to the predictions by economics and certain types of "science" has focused on trying to quantify risk and "explain" things which really can't be explained, providing people with assurance and excuses to do things. Maybe we should call this "pseudoscience" but in the popular press, it's mostly called science.

Also, as someone who grew up with scientists and who studied science for a brief period as a major... the first steps of learning science seemed to be very much about grinding through models that were used to calculate predictable responses. Many people along the path became engineers who put into practice, these models. Those who continued on to study and eventually engage in research, spent their time, in many way, unlearning the science they had learned so that they could question the existing theories and pry open the black boxes. The more established the black box, the more energy it required to question and re-open it. You weren't allowed to ask simple questions without being able to cite research and tremendous amounts of mathematics and only a select few are able to participate mentally and financially at this level.

I guess my, now rambling, point is that the interaction with science for the average person is to not question the theories and take for granted those facts that the experts have rendered for us, providing most people with a kind of comfort and laziness. I guess at one level I'm fighting that. Don't think if it's not "rigorous", don't write if you can't cite references within the framework of the current academic debate and "it's not true unless you can describe it".

What about the time that it takes us to learn the unknowable? Will that be enough reason to spend time with in the first place? I have been around for 38 years of my life and I have learned stuff that I thought nobody else knows but when I look in the internet, I was surprised that the results are astoundingly so many.Was there really unknowable stuff? Anyway, just enjoyed your post today.

Ana

I think that there are a variety of definition of "knowledge". I think that most things are "unknowable". We don't really understand very much and we never will REALLY understand very much considering how complex things REALLY are and how small our brains are. I think we often forget that we can't really understand the universe because we focus on those thing that we do understand. I think one of the points of my post is that it's good to be reminded about the things that we don't understand.

Today we're having a Timothy Leary reunion and I just remembered some of his favorite words. "Question authority and think for yourself". I think one of the problems that I have with the way we treat science sometimes is that we treat it as an authority and a justification not to think for ourselves. The scientists involved, obviously, think and question and know that they don't know everything... but many people have given up questioning and thinking. Knowing that you don't know is one of the drivers for questioning authority and thinking for yourself, which I think we need a lot more of.

Or maybe I'm just procrastinating so I don't have to work on my PhD...

I think your second to last paragraph is really important, there's something to embracing the chaos and unknown that goes ignored really often. Most of my scientifically minded friends tend to spend more cycles on things they are familiar with, because they've spent a zillion hours getting that familiarity and don't want to feel it was a waste - this makes sense to some extent, in WoW translations you don't work your way up to the top levels of leatherworking only to spend time messing with cloth. But it keeps things that are out of mind, well, out of mind. I've also noticed in my own trials and tribulations that the more often I do all the math and take all the precautions the more I'm worried about the outcome - even when I've done everything I possibly could imagine so that things are lined up there is still some vast element of chance that I'm freaked out about. Meanwhile when I walk into something saying I don't know what is going to happen and accept that I probably don't know nearly as much as I think I do, the results are never disappointing and always interesting. More often then not the results of throwing caution to the wind so to speak are more favorable then those with endless hours/days/weeks of build up.

There's something about the chaos, I don't know what it is and honestly I'm kind of glad I don't.

glad to see Watts made an impression! ;-)
enjoyed reading your thoughts and observations, as well as the lively debate they have inspired.

i am reminded of the eternal debate i have with friends/colleagues about this topic, which is rooted in the polarity between those that view science as a useful, albeit limited, methodology and those that believe that the scope of science is unlimited in its ability to explain the method to the madness of the universe.

is everything measurable through the scientific method and it's just a matter of time? i have come to believe that there are certain phenomena that cannot be proven by the scientific method. one terribly simple reason being that the act of observation quite often interferes with the natural state of the phenomena itself. then, of course, there's the issue of how the bias/agenda of the observer influences the act of observation, which touches on the role of social and political phenomena as Latour suggests. both of which has played out when attempting to dis/prove any number of alternative healing modalities and super natural phenomena such as ESP.

Freeman Dyson puts it well in the foreword to the book "Extraordinary Knowing - Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind". he writes... "There are thee possible positions one may take concerning the evidence of ESP. First the position of orthodox scientists, who believe that ESP does not exist. Second, the position of true believers, who believe that ESP is real and can be proved to exist by scientific methods. Third, my own position, that ESP is real, as the anecdotal evidence suggests, but cannot be tested with the clumsy tools of science. If one believes, as I do, that ESP exists but is scientifically untestable, one must believe that the scope of science is limited. I put forward, as a working hypothesis, that ESP is real but belongs to a mental universe that is too fluid and evanescent to fit within the rigid protocols of controlled scientific testing." amen to that, i say.

at the heart of all of this, is that by cultivating the capacity to accept the existence of the unknowable, our need to assert or cling to the belief that all is "knowable" begins to dissipate. ironically, this is opens us to greater understanding and wisdom. or not! thats my feeble attempt at a Zen riddle ;-).

fascinating insight into your desire to move to the Middle East. i interpret it as an attempt to return to "beginner's mind". the challenge of course, is finding a way to stay in beginnner's mind when the terrain becomes familiar and comfortable, lest another move. ;-)

This has been a great post to read. Might I suggest checking out www.ted.com for other thought provoking discussions in the future? It's a wonderful site with a lot of very interesting presentations.

I was planning to read Black Swan sometime soon, but this post has pushed it higher up on my list of must read books. Thanks for the thought provoking discussion!

Keep up the great work at Creative Commons.

Uh, what huge comments... can't read them now.
But, Joi, very funny post. :)

You're talking about the comfort bubble system. You know, bubble of your home, of your car, the workplace, party place and so on.
Goodluck trying to see new things. You already did ''jump out of plane'' thing, yes? ;)
I myself, am going back to wing chun. It simply changes my whole life perpective; lion-side lifestyle, it's not about training, sport, or the ''little thing'' I do, it's me.
I understand your ME thing, but ME is not of huge importance, aldoe it tries to be. It will be completely bombed in some war, sooner or later... and disapear in this chaos that is coming.
As you say, it's closer to Africa. ;)

I realize how racist this must sound. Let me clarify, please.
My thought point is going to the inevitable clash of civilizations ''thing''.
We here in the West have our leisures , pleasures, and comfort. But the most important thing we lack is strong convictions. And in this forthcoming wars, or better -bloodfest, I don't believe the West will surely win. History repeats itself, and like in Rome, our advanced civilisation suffers mostly from the inside, the lack of vision and strong/smart leadership, thinking on the long term.
It is not clear at all, how this new international world order is going to work out. This ''clash thing'' will be surely be brought upon us. Just like the 9/11 (with goverment inter-cooperation).
I don't believe in a ''brave new order'' future too. But this, if they win, we are all going back to the middle ages.
Joi is trying to do a good thing, a great thing, bringing people together. But there are deeper things, thoughts, and conviction in our, so multi-clustered world. It will be tough, and ultimately not long lasting. Because, Islam is above all: friendship, technology, progress, intercooperation... simply put, it's the inevitable -this clash of our civilisations. And I don't think we in the West will most definately win. Remember Vietnam? No weapon power can bring down the force of conviction, some people have.
We in the West don't think so, and see how bad the situacion really is.
Not everybody can be friends, work or create, together. We are not all in the same pool, ideas are the fight power in this world. One idea is constantly in conflict with another.
That is why Africa has strugelled for so long. People haven't been organised, and the West just wanted ''the goods''.
Well, people of Islam religion/conviction, especially in their locations, just want for ''other folk'' to be like them. To be muslim.
That is why I am so scared. Not for me, but of this drastic conviction. And they are growing, multiplying, while people of the ''West ideas'' are slowly, but surely dying out. :(
So ask yourself Joi, how long will your influence stick with these people. How long will ''your change'' last, if their islam religion is _above else_? Yeah, be ofended. My conviction for them is - I don't like you. You're making my, future-progresive ideas, look bad. ;)

And believe me, the corrupt powers in this world, are planning a real bloodbash, bigger than world war I (''the war to end all wars'').
But, it is tricky for them, sure. Things are uncertain. Maybe, they will not have their 3.0 system like in the ('Brave new world', Adolf Huxley), maybe this barbarianism will win again. :(
The only thing I as a person can do... is stay, believe strong, in my convictions, in me. Because, ideas are the most powerful thing.
You Joi surely know this. (that is why I am happy about CC)

Reading this post made me remember the film: What the Bleep Do We Know. It addresses the complexity of experience and the interrelationship between intention and experience as well as the difficulty to determine timeframe.

What a wonderful post, Joi!

At some point in my life I learned it myself: that I learn more when I'm in contact with the unknown than when I'm safe within what I already know. I don't have any sophisticated way of keeping the balance, but I have certainly used the trick of moving to another country a couple of times. When you're in a new place that seems to be based on principles you don't yet know or understand, you're really paying attention. You're awake and alive and learning a lot of the time. Of course that probably wouldn't work without some kind of balance. I.e. you're in a new and mysterious place, but you brought some tools and habits with you which you know and which work well for you. You jumped into an unexplored cave, but at least you brought your trusted flashlight and lots of rope.

great point, I think it was McLuhan that said "a fish is most unaware of water until it is taken out of it". I have done many self experiments over years, shaking my ground by temporarily removing technology tools out of my life and then studying the effects of such withdrawal. It is great reading your reaction to the new environment, look forward to reading your future observations.

Nice post, and good to see the Alan Watts reference. He used to live on the Vallejo houseboat in Sausalito that is owned by my friend Eric Gullichsen who incidentially was also a close friend of Tim Leary (but weren't we all?). Too bad I missed the Leary reunion -- I know Barlow, RU Sirius and most everyone else was there.

I very much agree with the independent thinking references -- and I am extreme in this to the point that for the most part I refuse to read at all since I don't want to litter/prejudice/infiltrate/indoctrinate my brain with other people's thoughts and am trying to keep my thoughts pure and independent to the greatest extent possible.

I also believe in forcing yourself to face/recognize/rethink your own preconceived notions by throwing yourself in a greatly foreign environment, and that's been the precise reason I, too, have travelled to many locations in the Middle East, former Eastern Block, etc. on numerous occasions. It is interesting to see both how different attitudes that are considered "normal", "standard", even "universal" are once you get to places like the Middle East, and how on the other end at some level people are just people wherever you go -- the old nature versus nurture debate, I guess.

Next I personally would like to drive down Africa from Alexandria to Capetown, or drive the ancient silk route all the way to China -- must be eye opening.

PS -- I agree that most things, literally most anything at all, while possibly theoretically knowable, are in practice unknowable to lowly humans, and that we should live with the awareness of this, rather than acting on the assumption that everything is knowable or known. I believe it was Wittgenstein who said something to the effect of "Whatever you cannot talk about clearly you should not be talking about at all", and I in some way subscribe to that notion.

I find it dangerous to treat speculation, theory and hypothesis as if it were fact and more dangerous to base wide-ranging action upon such "knowledge" (WMD's anyone?). I am a huge subscriber to the "I know that I don't know but some don't even know that" -- but at the same time I agree that our realization of our own mental limits should not keep us from continuing to strive to understand even a little more to the extent that we can. Realizing the boundaries, but pushing them :)

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