I listened to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things that Grow from Disorder a while back (you can find my write-up about it here) and found it to be tremendous, so I got Skin in the Game on Audible (it seemed to be the next-closest thing to my interests).Continue reading “Review and Reflection: Skin in the Game”
I listened to the book Antifragile (affiliate link) last week, and it has some really interesting lessons. Although the author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, might be classified in some ways as an economist (though not in the traditional sense–he writes about the economy but he rejects the notion of it as a field to be studied–classifying him as simply a scholar is probably the best definition), he applies his theory of antifragility to more than just one discipline.
One of the big takeaways I got from the book is a very different way of viewing risk.
The antifragile approach is to identify things that thrive under change. Obviously, change may still cause problems for these if it is a large negative change, but such things tend to change for the better under the sorts of changes that are common and not generally catastrophic.
When combined with robust things, which can persevere through change, the antifragile becomes highly valuable.
I am afraid, however, that much of the greater wisdom of the book is lost on me. This is not to say that I learned nothing, but rather that there are depths that I have not been able to explore.
Part of the reason for this is simple: the book is complex and broad, and while it uses anecdotes and common sense to great effect it also is willing to move very quickly. It is challenging, and for this reason I intend to return to it again at a later date.
However, even with the partial knowledge that I have gained of Taleb’s ideas, there are still many great lessons to be drawn from the book. One of them is to consider carefully actions. Many of Taleb’s assertions are nothing particularly controversial, but when viewed in total, Antifragile becomes a sort of philosophical treatise against thinking that you are more clever than you are.
To use an example, Talib cites traders on the stock market who have no formal economic training, but who make incredibly good decisions. Of course, for every success there are failures, but Taleb notes that there are common trends in these successful traders that would cause economists to tear their hair out.
They overwhelmingly use heuristics, rather than more complicated methods of coming to decisions. This means that rather than using abstract theories, they make decisions based on gut instinct.
This is perhaps more important outside the field of stock trading.
Heuristics, going with available information but not seeking to over rationalize it. Taleb shows through various examples that heuristics can be as useful as complicated theories. For starters, they are much more easy to adjust.
When a theory is wrong, it is easy to rationalize the reason for its failure, to blame problems on unconsidered external factors. This allows the shifting of blame away from the people who make the decisions and toward abstract theories. A person can avoid responsibility, and the theory need not necessarily be abandoned, because it can still be dressed up in new clothes and given a new name. If they made a decision that will cause consequences for others, they only pay the price if they had put their money where their mouth is.
On the other hand, by going and blaming theories, someone who makes foolish decisions can they restore their credibility by attaching themselves to a different school of thought, often not even so much a different school of thought as a rebranded version of the same foolishness.
Taleb is brutally honest. He is also brave enough to make enemies, since he openly names people who he believes to be guilty of infractions against good ethics. Where his skepticism may initially be perceived to cloud his judgment, it quickly becomes clear that his skepticism is based off of experience.
I find it difficult to call Taleb’s work full of wisdom. This is not because of absence of good ideas, but rather because it seems to contain something almost different than wisdom itself. It would definitely warrant the title of philosophical. Rather than simply call the notion that Taleb’s work pursues wisdom, I would call it meta-wisdom. It looks at patterns to determine how wisdom can be found and applied in many different ways.
An example of this is Taleb’s distaste for intervention in fundamental affairs (for instance, using gym machines when more natural workouts are available). While some intervention is praised (vaccines, for instance, are great in Taleb’s eyes), others are derided (an unnecessary surgery carries risks beyond just financial cost).
The fundamental notion of antifragility is this: find things in which loss is limited, but potential gain is not.
Another key notion of determining fragility is to look for places where people gain antifragility at the expense of others: bureaucrats who keep their jobs even if the systems they control fail, and indeed go back to ask for more money to overcome the difficulties their idiocy caused are a major target of Taleb’s ire.
Of all the books I’ve gotten into so far this year, none has inspired me quite so much as Taleb in a sense that I think I can apply his teachings to daily life. He cites Montaigne, who is probably my other top writer I’ve read this year (go figure), and has a sort of similar wisdom and methodology.
I don’t have the time and experience to make a categorical statement about whether all of Taleb’s ideas work, but his work was recommended to me by someone whose intellect and savvy I respect, and the read or listen is itself enjoyable. The Audible audiobook I have is read by Joe Ochmann, and I’d say that it’s pretty well-done.
I’ve picked up his book Skin in the Game (affiliate link) on Audible as well, so expect to see a review and reflection on it once I’ve finished it in a few weeks.
My current listening material is Age of Ambition (affiliate link) by Evan Osnos, which I’m enjoying, and Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (affiliate link). I’m reading through Montaigne’s essays, as well, though I’ve had less time to just read of late.
Recently, I have been reading Montaigne.
The full ramifications of this have yet to be seen; he is an interesting figure, and his writings are even more so, full of anecdotes and ramblings. His works are deep and profound, but they’re also shallow and lighthearted. Simultaneously with contradicting himself, Montaigne seems to be right about everything, which is infuriating.
I have also been working on the aspirational identification of myself with the heroic individual; I feel that this is a necessary step for me to improve my own life and the world.
Undergoing this process is something that is painful, often difficult, and also requires equally painful and difficult soul-searching.
One thing that I will do is consider maxims and then decide whether they are true or not. I try to come up with these as creatively as possible, or use what I read as an inspiration.
Today, one of these maxims popped into my head, and it was rather troubling for me:
I am everything in the universe.
Now, I don’t know how much I trust the random thoughts that pop into my head. In fact, I actually trust them very little. My brain is very good at free association and wandering aimlessly and without purpose. Most of the maxims I try to apply to myself are true only in part, which is perhaps the fundamental element of the human condition.
In any case, to the extent that the above statement is true, I don’t believe that it is necessarily a positive. At least, I do not interpret it in a sort of heliocentric egoism.
Rather, I think there is something to be said for the human spirit as a tabula rasa. Not necessarily in Rousseau’s noble savage conception of it, but rather in the sense that a person undeveloped can turn into anything.
I grew up in a traditional Christian upbringing, though I was not really acquainted as closely with theological traditions until I became older.
Two important traditions within Christianity, or at least the sect of Christianity that I find myself within, are those of original sin and total depravity.
Pairing this with the seemingly blasphemous maxim that popped into my head, it becomes immediately apparent that there are limitations to this, but it holds some truth.
This gives birth to a truer maxim, one which is more measured:
I am capable of becoming everything within my limitations.
The problem with this is that it is not necessarily a positive statement.
I’ve read a fair deal of Jung, though not as much as I would like. One of Jung’s most influential concepts in my life is that of the Shadow, the darker inner side of the subconscious that is hidden from our waking life.
In my life, I have the luxury of being relatively moral. I have made, generally, decisions which I can look back upon with at least a veneer of respectability, though I would say that I have made decisions that have generally benefited the world. I might be barely breaking even, all things considered, but I am at least not dragging everything down.
But I could be.
When I was a young adult, I had my first experience with holding a gun. My mother had paid for my brother and I to go to a firing range (I do not remember the circumstances that led up to this), and we had a rental lined up.
I remember relatively few of the details; I was able to piece many of them together later from the benefit of reflection, but they are not as important as the general experience.
When holding that gun, I had the realization that the power of life and death was in my hands. Perhaps, it would be appropriate to point out, it was only the power of death in my hands.
Barring my initial anxiety–my knowledge of guns came only from the movies, and while we had gone through the basic safety guidelines my brother and I were left to our own devices on the range–the event passed without incident. I was not a good shot, and remain mediocre at best to this day despite a few more trips to the range, but the sensation was familiar.
A similar sensation washes over me when I drive a car, a knowledge that I have within my capacity a great deal of harm.
For a while, I lived in terror of this feeling. I could not put it in words, but my own danger, that is, the danger I posed to the world around me, scared me.
The result was internal conflict. In the Jungian sense, I had awoken a dragon within my Shadow, but I had not figured out how to confront it.
Later, when I was reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (affiliate link), I would discover that this is a common ailment.
I had not considered the fact that everything resides inside me.
This is not to be interpreted as a manifestation of hubris, because the everything within is not manifest in a complex form. Rather, it is as if the elemental motives that make up reality, matter in the sense that the things that matter are matter, all exist within me. They are latent, but awaken in tune with my spirit.
To overcome the dissonance within my psyche, I had to reach the realization that I was not just a good person. The notion of a good person is so vague by definition that it is easy for us to categorize ourselves as such. I often witness children ask if they have been good or bad, as if seeking exculpation. The truth of the matter is that nobody can make that assessment on a reasoned basis. The complexities of reality are such that judgment to the point of condemnation (though not judgment to the point of discernment) is impossible.
The truth is more complex. As I mentioned earlier, I have begun to better envision what a “good person” is; I have begun a process of alignment with the heroic individual who embodies those virtues that I wish to embody.
The counterpart to that is recognizing that there is a fraud, a war criminal, a traitor in every heart. Each step taken toward virtue means a step taken away from blind convention. Peterson would describe this as going from order to chaos, and this is a good conceptualization of the process.
There’s a Nietzsche-like element to the process. Stepping away from habit and toward a place where one can develop virtue also leaves one prone to stepping into darkness. The pursuit of light does not come without a risk of hypocrisy, of bringing the wrong elements of the self into dominance.
This is the Jungian Shadow: you are sheltered from your weaknesses by sticking to the rut, but to move beyond you must confront the worst elements of yourself and risk disaster.
The dragon I had to fight–the adversary I am still facing–is that the potential for great disaster lies within my own self, within my best intentions and the potential for me to give into baser desires.
I am everything in the universe, in its basest form, and that’s not as good as it might seem. I strive to inflect myself in such a way that I develop into the ideal; to pick up my cross and follow the righteous path.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be good.
There’s no particular impetus for this, but I’ve stumbled upon a few things that I think might be of interest to people, and help explain some of the things that I believe could make the world a better place.
Goodness is difficult to define, but it’s easy to define evil: doing intentional harm.
Goodness, then, as the opposite of evil, can be loosely defined as doing intentional benefit.
I’m not some epic sage for the ages (or at least I don’t have pretenses of being one), but that’s a sufficient starting point to move onto my next idea.
We live in a day and age where power is feared. Power corrupts, we are told, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
However, there are very few people who give up power to pursue goodness. There are some, admittedly, who like Tolstoy give up everything and go after a state of renewed innocence, but the ascetic route doesn’t work for most people.
I personally don’t even think it’s necessarily good: there are noble ideas behind it, but it’s disastrous in execution.
If we look at the story of Genesis, there’s a moment in creation where humans are little more than God’s perfect creations; made in His image, but not capable of defying Him.
It is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that grants this decision making quality, and it is quite often described as having the potential for both good and evil.
This is a key point not just of the transformation of humanity in a practical sense (since evil now exists in the world, where it had not before), but also a metaphysical transformation.
Before the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was tasted, humans had only one job: to exist in companionship with God. It was innocence in its most perfect form.
Being powerless, especially by choice, is akin to this state of innocence. Orthodox Christian beliefs indicate that this state of innocence will happen after God returns to purify and save the world, and many utopian thinkers have drawn on a notion that they can achieve this sanctification of humanity on earth (this is not unique to Christianity; similar tenets exist in Eastern religions and in a variety of philosophies).
The problem lies in the fact that evil (defined, for reference, as intentionally caused harm) is a very real presence in the world. We can see its results, certainly, all around us; the decay and entropy of the world push people toward it, and the consequences both of action and inaction can be dramatic. Increasingly we have moved toward social schemes and political machines that attempt to remove the symptoms of evil from our world.
If you’re an optimist or a (little-r) romantic, you might preach that the power of good will always triumph over evil. If you’re a utopian, you might try to remove evil as a force entirely. More dangerously, you might try to hide the outcomes of evil without doing anything to confront it.
I must confess that I am not an optimist. Evil is real, and it often “wins” from certain perspectives. The horrors of the 20th century, and the incredible displays of evil it contained, show that even though we might see some momentary waves of goodness, we’ll never fully eradicate evil, and we’re very prone to forgetting what it matters.
But I’m also not a utopian, and I don’t like hiding evil. There are millions–maybe even billions–of bodies that ought not to be buried. We move on, planning and scheming, trying to forget that humanity is capable of error.
However, we’re also capable of good, and I believe power is the only way to achieve goodness.
I don’t mean any one sort of power.
Power and Restraint
The pursuit of power has proven tragic more often than not, and people trying to be good without fully realizing what it means to be good can wind up committing evil acts and denying their nature, engaging in self-deception and becoming corrupt. This is especially likely when people focus on one type of power over all others (e.g. “I need to be President so I can fix X”) or view power as a zero-sum game and feel they need to take it from others. Making decisions for others on a large-scale is a great example of something that can cause “good” in the world, but also lead to a lot of damage in the long run, either because the decisions were faulty or the mechanisms of gaining power will later be abused (or, worse yet, both!).
Pursuing power must follow, not precede a pursuit of wisdom and discernment. Power must be checked by understanding, a realization that good intentions alone are not enough to protect from evil (and, for that matter, avoid doing actions that lead to or enable evil), and those who pursue power must take every care to ensure that their methods of doing so do not constitute evil themselves.
For instance, violence never leads to power without bringing evil. I am not trying to argue for pacifism, however: there may be times when those with power need to use force to stave off evil.
However, let us consider for a moment the implications of this. If I were to use force (and force and violence are intrinsically linked) to become the only provider of electricity because I provide clean power, and my opponents provide power that is dirty, I’m gaining my power through corrupt, evil means.
I place upon myself the responsibility for all of the consequences of my actions. If I am unable to supply enough power, people may die. This doesn’t even necessarily consider the people who lose things because of the force that I exert upon them (or convince someone else to exert upon them). Perhaps they recognize that their actions could be damaging the world, but they are doing everything in their power to redress these concerns, or have done a thorough analysis and found that the damage is not in excess of the benefits.
On the other hand, those who prepare themselves ahead of time and bring power into their possession through means that do not impose on others through independence, self-reliance, cooperation, and voluntary exchange have prepared themselves to be free to use their power in ways that directly confront evil.
Take, for instance, someone who uses a firearm to stop a mass shooter. It would be nothing short of an argument for society-scale suicide to say that their actions are evil. They are using threatened (if the shooter surrenders) or real violence to put an end to evil actions occurring around them.
The Christian faith teaches that the “meek shall inherit the earth”, and we hear that a lot when people talk about using force and power. After all, power reflects ambition and ambition can be a path to evil. This falls apart when one considers that in Greek, the word that is often translated as “meek” (πραεῖς [praeis]) refers to the notion of power under restraint.
Naturally, something can be said for imposing restraints on those who lack them, but this needs to be done with utmost care and caution. It must be a process of reaching a conclusion that unfitness has been demonstrated, not a lack of demonstrated fitness, as the restraint needed to responsibly exercise power is often an internal quality and not easily assessed by outsiders.
The absolute destruction of a person’s power (self-inflicted via ascetic lifestyle or not) is the destruction of any sort of meaningful self, and the destruction of praeis in the individual’s life. I believe strongly that everyone has value, and that people should not be restricted from earning power unless they demonstrate a clear intent to use it for evil. This is a consequence of the belief that freedom is required for any action to be “good”.
Consider the following scenario:
A child refuses to share with friends. The parent, mortified, forces his child to share. Ultimately, whatever should be shared is shared, but only by coercion and the child is embittered.
Nobody will argue that the child forced to share has done a great moral act. The force used may not be particularly harmful. In some cases, it could show that power is a means to get people to do what you want and encourage that behavior down the road, but I think the more likely lesson is that people use power to enforce behavioral norms.
However, this event doesn’t reflect an end of evil. There is no evil being done by the child. Not wanting to share is not intentionally harming others; there are times we deliberately do not share that have a benefit on society and the world (toothbrushes being a puerile example, and spouses being a more complex one).
Even if sharing wouldn’t cause any harm, however, the child is not brought to commit the good act of sharing to benefit others, or even to the awareness that selfishness can become (emphasis on can become, not necessarily is) a catalyst to evil acts.
It is restraint when seeking power, and restraint in using power, that enables goodness.
Generosity: When Power can be Good
I mentioned earlier that our definition of goodness as causing deliberate benefit is too simple to be useful.
Self-interest generally gets in the way of goodness. This is why the wanton pursuit of power, especially when it is taken away from other people. Restraint involves knowing when it is acceptable to use power for self-interest (which is not inherently good), and when to use it to actively pursue good.
When power is used to acquire more power, it is the generosity and restraint of the individual acquiring the power that determines whether the outcome will turn out for good and for evil.
Generosity is not the only time power can be used for good. We want people who have demonstrated virtues to have the power at their disposal to protect us from evil (and to use our own power for the same purpose), and we wish to see power used to instill virtues and eradicate vices and the situations that cause people to commit evil out of necessity.
Generosity, however, is the act of giving power to promote power in those who need help. I’m a believer in the power of charity, the ability of an individual to invest in someone else for the sake of that person’s betterment. Hugo’s Les Miserables is a great example of the ways that this can play out.
Generosity is not blind giving, however. It is actually possible to create evil in this manner. There are many places where it is not economical to create goods and provide services because they are so heavily subsidized (as many third-world farmers can attest), simply because people who think that they are helping continue to send shipments of “free” goods and “charitable” services without any concern for the effect that has on development.
If so-called generosity impedes others gaining the power they need to achieve goodness, it’s nothing more than bondage. When executed competently, it’s little more than using force to fight against evil–a noble goal, but not one that is inherently good–and with incompetent execution is ignorant or, in some cases, malicious because it denies dignity and power to others. It is not a coincidence that the best charities stress training and equipping their beneficiaries, and may be selective in who they help, and that despite many government’s massive efforts to help people, which are often entirely well-intended, they rarely are considered a force for good in the world (try this at home: ask someone what the top five forces for good in the world are).
Generosity involves not just using power to help others, but making good decisions in how to do so. Virtue is learned by example, and generosity is a virtue.
Power and the Choice of Goodness
Power is a force for good when that power is used to deliberately benefit others. Removing power removes the ability of people to be generous.
More importantly, however, it ignores the reality of evil and goodness at its core. The complete abolition of power would lead to the entropy of the world taking over, and the monopolization of power in the hands of a trusted few is little better.
Instead, power linked to consciousness–knowing what a person is able to do and what good is–provides our only path to a better world, and is, perhaps, even a moral responsibility. Not only must an individual build their own power, but they should seek to empower others, not based on conditions but as a general course of action.
I was reading an article on Vox this morning about the advent of realistic and easily accessible “fake” tools, which allow for the creation of altered video and images with relatively high rates of accuracy, relatively low resources required, and the vast expanse of the internet with which to spread them.
This is a very real concern as we head into the 21st century. Our lives have become controlled by society (whether we like it or not), and if society is controlled by deception, what chance do we have to really have to live our own lives in a good way?
I’ve been reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (affiliate link) recently and I’ve been struck by how powerful his account is. I was turned off by the foreword of my edition, which I found fairly stuffy and difficult to process.
Once you get into Frankl’s work, however, the power of it is incredible. He is honest, open, and incredibly transparent in what he felt. He does nothing to diminish his own guilt or paint himself as a hero, but instead acknowledges with clinical precision how he acted and felt during the Holocaust and the horrors that had enveloped him. Although a prisoner, he refuses to be a victim.
Stoicism is an important philosophy in the founding tenets of the Western world; it is frequently tied into Christianity owing to the religion’s nature as part of a Roman tradition (albeit one that grew to outstrip the political entity that eventually adopted it).
Stoicism involves the pursuit of morality and virtue above all else (which certainly helps explain its appeal to Christian scholars who saw a link between it and the teachings of their faith, leading it to be preserved for centuries with a great deal of fervor as a sort of secular proof of the rightness of a moral life).
I read Frankenstein for the second time this week (technically, it’s more like first-and-a-half, because the first time I read it was in college in a single night), and I was struck by some of the lessons it has for us in regards to morality and the progress of science.
Mary Shelley is considered one of the first writers of science fiction novels, and Frankenstein combines the Gothic, Romantic, and science fiction genres together, with a focus more on the human side of the equation. Critics have pointed out many interpretations about Frankenstein, but I’m struck by one:
At the time of writing Frankenstein, Shelley was pregnant. She was also in a time of tumultuous progress.