I'll have to think about a possible alternative and I think now is my turn to look up something I've never come across before: let me study the Black Swan, philosophise to myself, and then I'll get back you on that...
Let me also thank Hagart for this thinking challenge!
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[ Post made via Android ]
I like learning new things and am currently looking up and learning about Black Swan Theory, Dawkins, and the http addresses Thinker provided. I like to speak and state my opinions, but it's important to also listen and learn and never be afraid to admit you're wrong.
(My candle/flame analogy, although poetic, doesn't quite work because flames emit light and produce heat, and the mind doesn't. I admit I need to work on that and I'll share my new ideas about it later).
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First, let's be clear here that what we will be focusing on here is not so much Karl Popper's falsificationism, or the Black Swan problem, but rather, and to highlight the distinction, the Black Swan theory. (Although, I do want to make clear from the get-go that both falsifiability and positivism make good points.)
The advocator of the Black Swan theory is the Lebanese professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a man who has written works on randomness, probability, and uncertainty (and was also, in part, influenced by Karl Popper). To his credit, he was right about Syria:
"Dictatorships that do not appear volatile, like, say, Syria or Saudi Arabia, face a larger risk of chaos than, say, Italy, as the latter has been in a state of continual political turmoil since the second war."
Although the chaos in Syria cannot really be used as an example of a "Black Swan" if, A) Taleb saw it coming; B) its political repression, unlike the loose Italian voices, portended the chaos; and C) the status prognostication can be empirically derived even if the parties concerned don't see it. But let's move on...
His epistemological argument against theoretical approaches to reality based on the premise that we humans are noetically limited, and that this restricts our perceptual scope, is somewhat misguided. We need pragmatic theories about reality based on a posteriori observations. We cannot help the inferences we make but it must also be pointed out that scientific illations are not dogmas. If a theory proves to be wrong or impractical somewhere down the line, it will be accordingly jettisoned by the scientific community.
To illustrate, physicists were ready to discard the standard model of physics if something like the predicted Higgs boson wasn't found. In the end, the particle that gives all the others their mass showed up, even if not quite as what the experts expected, it was no cause for concern - it just means that there is more work to do in understanding the mechanics within the standard model. So, the scientific community is not as arrogant as Taleb claims it is. Scientists may say based on empirical evidence, "We think this may be what's going on..." - a form of saying, we don't know everything but we are working towards a better understanding of reality based on the best method of enquiry we can conceive.
There is a particular brand of opposition to empiricism evinced by Taleb which worries me. How do we reconcile his position with the empiricism relied upon by medical practice? Yes, medical practice kills, makes mistakes in the process of learning, something which is inevitable, but what Taleb seems to overlook is that it is moving towards sophistication and improvement. He attacks the method of enquiry and is quick to cherrypick the flaws that make part of its evolution, and yet, when it comes to criticism of religion and its atrocities, he says, "leave it alone, don't be a hypocrite, look at the scientific misconceptions and the errors of their ways." He really has some studying to do on the history of religious belief but I won't say anything further on this tangent.
There is a reason why comprehensive bodies of work are called "theories" in scientific circles, a testament to the fact that scientists have never professed to know everything with absolute certainty, or at least not to the extent that Taleb seems to allude to. But the focus is on evidence and what it means, not how it speaks to us and how much it could support our unfounded beliefs. I never thought I'd say this but, on first impressions, especially from seeing the man orate - particularly where he boasts his understanding of economics to profess a clearer perspective in other subjects that he scarcely comprehends (like biology, and daring to contradict Dawkins on evolution; and psychology, also opposing Hume on the human mind) - I am disheartened from looking into his literature.
Also, contrary to what Taleb believed (past tense; surprise: the man died of throat cancer despite never having smoked in his life - and no, this is not a Black Swan event!), I am of the opinion that bodies of research need a degree of competition to incentivise experts and researchers to learn more and fight for, erm... ostensibly pragmatic knowledge (since Taleb seemed to have a problem with absolute knowledge).
But I will concede where he had a point: we often overlook the fact that, specifically regarding how quantum mechanics can affect the world at large, not all relevant factors that can have an impact on observable events are considered. It is impossible to know everything that goes on in the universe at any given time. What I admire about the man is his endorsement of counterfactual thinking - a useful tool when philosophising, making predictions, and gaining a better understanding of the world around us. A sort of thinking outside the box, so to speak, which is what I was doing when I mentioned the "what if" scenario of the Pikaia Gracilens, our common ancestor who happened to survive the Burgess shale decimation (look this up, it's really interesting).
Black Swans, and I mean this in its figurative sense, do exist. Nobody disputes that. But they have logical explanations which include prior causes not so obvious to the human mind at the time but we may uncover them retrospectively. It is like looking at a crime scene and figuring out what happened. The loyal husband suddenly changed in character, had an affair and murdered his wife. This doesn't tally with the type of person he was observed to have been until we discover that he had a brain tumour: then everything makes sense... Things are only Black Swans from the limited human perspective. Then we study them and they lose their reputation of rarity and uncommonness. Suddenly we start seeing the black birds all over the place when we know where to look for them.
So you can see why I'm not so sure that the emergence of unprecedented events (such as 9/11, which Taleb considered to be a Black Swan, but, I can tell you that intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens, in the field of journalism and with a greater understanding of the conflicts between East and West, saw something of that magnitude coming) completely undermines previous educated conclusions. At the most, Black Swans call for a revision. We can only describe new things based on things that we are already acquainted with. We may say, "it was like a swan but it was black," and then, upon greater inspection, decide if the creature is so identical to a swan, or even related to it biologically, that it warrants the logic of being called a "swan." If the latter is the case, then we may say, "Well, black swans do exist after all..." and, much to Taleb's unwarranted satisfaction, append: "We were wrong about our generic conclusions."
Anyway, to widen the ambit of our discourse, here's Nassim Nicholas Taleb, proponent of the Black Swan theory, discussing the subject he supposedly knows best:
And to feed Peter's suggestion of imagining if things were different:
True if you assume one vision of how life evolved on this planet. Take another view for the sake of debate and create another version in you mind and see what it looks like.
Sure. I can imagine many Earth-like planets, which happen to be within the Goldilocks zone of their solar systems; have appropriate orbits and tilts; and many other factors that render them hospitable to life. These planets didn't necessarily evolve lifeforms identical to the ones found on Earth, and many won't survive in their orbits long enough to evolve biological complexity to the extent that we see on our home planet (if we imagine catastrophic cosmic scenarios, like, for example, their mother stars of a make different from our sun might blow up or turn into black holes).
Many planets will only have microbial life even if they happen to be hospitable Earth-like celestial bodies. But, for the sake of argument, let's say some survive long enough to evolve more complex life. You might get some where only plant life evolved. Others, you might get plants and creatures of the same mental capacity of the irrational animals we have here and no sign of intelligent civilisations. Even rarer, you might get some with humanoid primates, with capabilities no different to that of apes and no serious intellectual development.
We must remember that the majority of hominid species here on Earth went extinct due to natural catastrophes when the planet was still cooling down from its formation and the crust shifting violently. We were the lucky ones. By the time human beings evolved consciousness, it was like waking up from a vague dream to a lucid violent world coming into being before our eyes. This frightened us, and, needless to say, there was no explanation for what was unfolding before us, no Divine Creator saying, "It's my world in the making." We'd live no longer then two decades, many of us died of bad teeth, bacterial agents, and many other afflictions that we had no explanation for. It got to the point where we thought powerful invisible agents, such as gods, were angry about the way we behaved and needed to be appeased with sacrifice. But we also paid attention to what was practical in nature, and, needless to say, things got better. We live longer. This is on Earth.
Earth, as a planet that bears evolving life, managed to overcome certain hurdles (Dawkins can go into detail on this) that allowed it to yield intelligent sentient beings such as us. We evolved into something of unprecedented sophistication in terms of evolutionary adaptability and we continue to evolve. These natural hurdles that Earth surmounted are what made other life-friendly planets fail. If Earth is on the third level, many didn't get past the first. Earth could be a needle in a haystack. Life could be rare in the universe. Intelligent life even rarer (and the chances of finding this are quite slim if all we do is look for signs of civilisation that resemble ours). Even rarer, or non-existent, are those planets who managed to get past the "fourth stage." (Imagine ultra-advanced aliens with huge heads with flying saucers, imagine what you will.)
Anyway, this is my take based on the chaos that I see around me, the order that sometimes arises by chance and is set in motion, and the absence of intelligent design in nature (there is no evidence for a holy father looking out for us). As Voltaire would quite tellingly say, "God is not on the side of big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best."
I tried twice to climb the Mount Everest of Summerlander's reply with a Dictionary in one hand like a Sherpa, and Wikipedia in the other like an Oxygen Mask. But I failed to reach the summit.
I jest, but I asked for it, and will read and reply later. I just need to be in the mood and sit down and let it all digest. I like it though, but felt a need to explain why I didn't respond. (I've got a lot on my plate right now from this thread and I'm a slow study... but methodical and I'll get back to this).
There is no rush actually. A topic like this can be on-going for years. But I'll read and reply in the next few days... Sherpa and Oxygen Mask at the ready!
Still my opinion of Taleb still stands. He actually survived his cancer and is still alive. His cancer, however, still can't be used as a Black Swan as it's not impossible to get it in the throat even if you haven't smoked in your life. There may, however, be a statistical correlation between smoking and that type of cancer.
In Taleb's case, I'm not even sure he's never smoked. He strikes me as an individual who is not even honest with himself and little is known about his personal life (he keeps it well hidden).
I also watched a debate with him vehemently opposing science and defending religion. I wasn't so much disappointed with the side he picked (among reverends and theologians) as I was with the way he poorly argued his case.
He said the mind abhors the vacuum and, if we were to get rid of religion, what could we possibly have in its place. "Answer me that" he said turning to the atheists before walking away from the pulpit as if he'd just made the best and most irrefutable point. Then, Daniel Dennett grabs the mike, and, in so many words, answered: secular humanism.
Anyway, I've seen the religious argue a better case for theism than Taleb. He was a disappointent. And Black Swans are not really that special. It's concept exists in the human mind and its tied to discovery. Science is about refinement, not dogmas that pass for revelation or ultimate knowledge.
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If I sift through the philosophical vernacular, I think I can boil it down for my simple mind to understand:
We can NEVER know anything for certain because there are many unknown instances that can prove the idea false.
So we can't say we know anything at all. We have to believe in something though for arguments sake, and when there is a gap in our logical understanding we use gut intuition. We do both, but knowledge always reigns supreme in retrospect and everything had a reason.
But we need both intuition and logic to come up with the absurd ideas to test scientifically. Art and science, left brain and right brain are both intertwined.
Albert Einstein once said, "If an idea does not sound absurd, then there is no hope for it."
Although scientific, methodical testing is important so is 'out of the box' thinking. Otherwise we will never come up with anything new.
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