Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Wisdom Where We Find It

I have a tendency to take wisdom where I find it.

Obviously, scripture is by far the world’s greatest and purest wisdom source, the only fountain completely safe to drink from — provided, of course, you interpret the Bible correctly — and therefore the only one I drink from time and time again, to the best of my ability every day of my life. Nevertheless, there are numerous useful sources of ‘small-t truth’ out there to explore in the time that remains to us — provided we filter them through the word of God on the way into our brains rather than simply accepting sophistry or snappy formulations as the real deal.

To the pure, all things are pure, right?

Fooled by Randomness

Lately I’ve been enjoying Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the ex-Wall Street financial analyst and trader-turned-philosopher, author of Fooled By Randomness, The Black Swan and other collections of reflections on how and why men succeed and fail, why we think the way we do, and why we are so often wrong about almost everything.

Truly, we are.

Taleb proved instantly likable the moment I discovered he agrees with me about all kinds of things I’ve observed over the last ten years in this space about human nature. Say, for instance, our natural propensity to construct largely false narratives about our lives and those of others. Or the fact that even the most well-documented truths can only be apprehended probabilistically. Or, maybe, our inclination to reduce complex situations to manageable binaries in our heads. Or, perhaps, our tendency to let failure define us rather than move us to apply the lessons failure teaches. Or the fact that one of the best things we can ever do for ourselves is watch less news rather than more, and read our enemies as well as our friends. Negative reinforcement of our beliefs is often the most effective sort.

Hey, what’s not to like about a guy who tells you the things you already believe make perfect sense? In his own words, Taleb’s principal aim is “not to be a sucker in things that matter”. I agree entirely.

In keeping with that goal, like me, Taleb is a catastrophist. He grew up the middle of a seventeen-year civil war (Lebanon), a situation that surely might make any intelligent person question the suppositions, expectations and rationalizations he heard around him every day. Then, as a young man coming into his own in New York City, he couldn’t help but observe that much of what passes for skill in the business world is basically luck. People are fooled by randomness. Hey, Taleb is definitely not wrong. Thirty years in the financial world has belatedly led me to much the same conclusion, albeit by a different route.

Then there is Taleb’s delightful penchant for coining words out of the blue. What’s a “satisficer”? It’s a combination of “satisfy” and “suffice” that denotes a person who knows when to stop the present run before his luck evaporates. That is so hard to do, and so few know how to do it that it actually does need a word of its own.

Life Lessons from Wall Street

All these lessons, of course, can be learned from the Bible over repeated readings, but the real world is the place where we test the general principles we have gleaned from scripture and find they actually hold true. So, don’t expect tomorrow to be exactly like today (“you do not know what tomorrow will bring”). Don’t put your confidence in your own presumed abilities because of previous successes (“the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong”). No kidding. Don’t write your autobiography in your head before God writes the ending for you (“I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted”). Don’t push your luck when you’re on a roll (“be content with what you have”).

In Taleb’s numerous (and sometimes humorous) examples, we find stories both true and fictional that often incidentally drive home the explicit teachings of scripture’s books of wisdom. Taleb is biblically literate to an unusual degree, but I’m quite sure he didn’t set out to illustrate timeless spiritual truths when he wrote his bestsellers. I suspect sometimes he’s echoing the physics of eternity entirely by accident. Then again, truth is truth wherever we find it, including in an intelligent Levantine trader’s back pocket (Taleb prefers Levantine to Lebanese), waiting to multiply its effects in the lives of anyone paying attention. Sometimes hearing truths we already know phrased a different way drives them home more poignantly and permanently, a fact that probably accounts for Jordan Peterson’s otherwise inexplicable continued appeal with serious Christians.

The Limits of Natural Wisdom

But earthly wisdom also has its limits. As Solomon put it, “In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Too few wise men practice what they learn, and nobody is an expert in everything. To muse too long on the errors of others may be to miss your own, and even an intellect like Taleb is not exempt from that danger. The programming defaults of his upbringing and education that he has never questioned (at least in the books I have read so far) include the current (loony) climate change narrative and (also loony) evolution.

Worse, [early] Taleb has an inexplicable fixation with a younger version of George Soros that probably has less to do with Soros’ current aspirations for world domination than the fact that legacy-Soros too recognized the significant part played by (apparent) randomness in all our lives. In that respect at least, Taleb thinks of the would-be Great Resetter / election fixer as a kindred spirit. Meh. Double meh, in fact. [I will give him this as I read on: he hasn’t mentioned Soros again in about 400 pages. Although, Taleb does continue to mystify me as I try to decipher what he really believes about origins. In Antifragile, he references Methuselah as if he actually had genes to pass on to future generations, then two pages later goes into a discussion of how evolution and antifragility are compatible.]

And, of course, without a consistently biblical backbone to his worldview, even the wisest man can’t be expected to distinguish randomness from the hand of God. That’s a feature of Taleb’s theories even he would acknowledge. From the human perspective, without revelation nobody can tell a Black Swan (a high impact random event) from the thoroughly intentional fire and brimstone at Sodom and Gomorrah. The net effect is the same, and the (nonexistent) learning curve for those under judgment indistinguishable.

In so many cases, there’s nothing truly random about randomness.

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