Gurus, Swans, and Invariances: How Nassim Taleb and Robert Nozick Influence my Worldview

Posted: September 5, 2012 in Because I love Judaism I can never be a pure rationalist, My moral code, Politics, Science and Religion
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This probably won’t surprise you but there are not that many people who I admire so much that I’d call them my “gurus”. I’ve mentioned a couple of people over the past year who fall into that category. Today I’d like to mention two of them again and to tell you why, although they are vastly different people, they form much of the foundation of my worldview. These two guys truly ARE my gurus: Robert Nozick and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

To me, Robert Nozick is a genius. He started out leaning far to the left, became associated with the far right for a while, and came to be called one of the “fathers of libertarianism” because of his book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia“. That book was a frank and direct disputation of Rawls that clearly claimed and supported the arguments for the absolute primacy of the individual. It took the position that the only acceptable government is a minimal one with the limited role of protectecting individuals against violence and property violations; and ensuring the enforcement of contracts. “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” won the National Book Award and was named by The Times Literary Supplement as one of “The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War.” But, while AS&U is Nozick’s most well known accomplishment, over the years he backed away from some of his rigidity and ultimately ended his (far too short) life’s work with a book called “Invariances“. Nozick called himself a Libertarian until his dying day but, by the time he reached “Invariances“, he had moved from a position of rigid beliefs to an acceptance of human “falability”. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to call Nassim Taleb a “genius”. But, he is a mathematical stalwart, an experienced thinker, a friend of Benoit Mandelbrot, and a great writer. Taleb received his BS and MS degrees from the University of Paris, an MBA from Wharton, and a PhD in Management Science. He had a well established career as a derivatives pricing wiz and a Wall Street “Quant”. All of that is cool, and I’m sure he made more money than I’ll ever make doing those things. But, it was not until he turned his interest in mathematics to the area of uncertainty that he became a well-known writer. Taleb’s first book for we lay people was “Fooled by Randomness“. His second, just in time for the great American financial fiasco, is called “The Black Swan“. In the latter, Taleb takes very direct aim at financial regulation and risk management using statistical analysis. His premise is that stats don’t protect you from risk because the greatest damage you can encounter comes from exactly what statistical models tell you NOT to worry about (We thought all swans were white… until the rare instance when we saw a black one! – Then our whole model of “swan-ness” was proven wrong.) Taleb has almost nothing in common with Nozick except that his work concerns “fallibility” and the ways that our unwillingness to acknowledge it can harm us. You guessed it… we’ll come back to that in a moment.

I’m not sure how Robert Nozick managed to move through a life of so many disparate ideas. But I think that his willingness to explore with an open mind is an admirable trait and one that I want to emulate. The whole premise of his book “Invariances” is that we need to think about philosophy as we do about physics. I can’t say I readily buy into the idea of applying Heisenberg to logic, epistemology, ontology, and reasoning. Yet, Nozick’s premise – that the objective certainty of something relates to the ability to transform the conditions in which it exists and to have it’s truth remain invariant – is a magnificent way to look at the world. No doubt it drives my Objectivist friends nuts. I’m sure Nozick wrestled with it as well. But that is really the point. Unless something is invariant under every possible transformation, it can always be fodder for wrestling. Nozick’s willingness to publicly struggle with a world of potentially valid philosophical pluralism; and his willingness to consider that ideas with which he disagrees MIGHT be valid; are the two things that most inspire me about him. We’re fallible; and it’s okay to examine our lives by struggling to understand that! We must consider the reality that there are things we do not know – and that THEY are what most challenges us.

Taleb’s view of fallibility is different. To him, we are fallible because, no matter how firmly we ground our decisions in solid data, there is always a chance for that rare, unpredictable event to shatter everything. We can think we are right. We can “prove” it with the most rigorous analytical models possible, but there is still a chance that we will lose everything. There is still a change we are wrong; and we have to hedge our bets. Unless something is completely immune to the potential effects of chance, it can, again, always be fodder for wrestling. Taleb’s willingness to stand against ignoring things just because they are statistically improbably is a view I greatly admire. We’re fallible; and it’s okay to live our lives by struggling to mitigate those risks. We must consider the reality that there are things we do not know – and that THEY are what most challenges us.

So, why would I take my lead from 2 guys who really don’t have much in common? Because underlying both of their work is the notion that we can’t know everything. We can’t always be right. There might be things that we don’t understand. And… it is struggling with these unknowns that brings the most excitement and fulfillment (and, yes, the most risk) to our lives. The reason these ideas resonate so profoundly for me is this:

  • I believe in rationality but I remain open to the possibility that my dataset is incomplete.
  • I love my Reform Judaism but I remain open to the possibility that other spiritual paths have no less validity than my own.
  • I believe in laissez faire capitalism with limited regulation but I remain open to the fact that in such a system it takes only a single immoral participant to damage millions of other lives.
  • I believe in “school choice” but I remain open to the knowledge that this leaves parents in control of what children learn irrespective of whether it is intellectually sound.
  • I believe in evolution by natural selection of random variation that was initiated and is being driven by no external force; but I remain open to the knowledge that the vast beauty of our universe rests upon many things I can’t comprehend.
  • I believe in compassion, unconditional integrity, universal tolerance, human rights, liberty, and love; yet I know that even a single unlikely event can jeopardize those values for the whole world; that even compassion and integrity may not be “invariant under all transformations“; that I’m not always able to practice these values myself.

Nozick and Taleb are my “gurus”, my guides through life, because they remain a constant reminder that I am fallible and that not everything is predictable. Nozick and Taleb offer me an open door to struggle with my beliefs, to change my mind, to recognize and wrestle with my inconsistencies, and to examine my life with the knowledge that not knowing can be, not only acceptable, but a driving force behind a good and fulfilling life.

Nozick and Taleb stand before me at the twin guardians at the door of fallibility – at once guarding it from the entrance of the unwary and the weak – but allowing the prepared ones a cautious entrance.

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