I ended my last post with the statement that sceptics cannot take ideas – particularly moral ideas seriously. Here is an excerpt from the book Fooled by Randomness – The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that serves as an illustration of my point.
Current thinking presents the two following polarized versions of man, with little shades in between. On the one hand there is your local college English professor; your great-aunt Irma, who never married and liberally delivers sermons; your how-to-reach-happiness-in-twenty-steps and how-to-become-a-better-person-in-a-week book writer. It is called the Utopian vision, associated with Rosseau, Godwin, Condorcet, Thomas Paine, and conventional normative economists (of the kind to ask you to make rational choices because that is what is deemed good for you), etc. They believe in reason and rationality – that we should overcome cultural impediments on our way to becoming a better human race – thinking we can control our nature at will and transform it by mere edict in order to attain, among other things, happiness and rationality. Basically this category would include those who think that the cure for obesity is to inform people that they should be healthy.
On the other hand there is the Tragic Vision of humankind that believes in the existence of inherent limitations and flaws in the way we think and act and requires an acknowledgement of this fact as a basis for any individual and collective action. This category of people includes Karl Popper (falsification and distrust of intellectual “answers”, actually of anyone who is confident that he knows anything with certainty), Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (suspicious of governments), Adam Smith (intention of man), Herbert Simon (bounded rationality), Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (heuristics and biases), the speculator George Soros, etc. The most neglected one is the misunderstood philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, who was born a hundred years too early (he coined the term scientific “fallibilism” in opposition to Papal infallibility). Needless to say that the ideas of this book fall squarely into the Tragic category: We are faulty and there is no need to bother trying to correct these flaws. We are so defective and so mismatched to our environment that we can just work around these flaws. I am convinced of that after spending almost all my adult and professional years in a fierce fight between my brain (not Fooled by Randomness) and my emotions (completely Fooled by Randomness) in which the only success I’ve had is in going around my emotions rather than rationalizing them. Perhaps ridding ourselves of our humanity is not in the works; we need wily tricks, not some grandiose moralizing help. As an empiricist (actually a sceptical empiricist) I despise the moralizers beyond anything on this planet: I still wonder why they blindly believe in ineffectual methods. Delivering advice assumes that our cognitive apparatus rather than our emotional machinery exerts some meaningful control over our actions. We will see how modern behavioral science shows this to be completely untrue.
To which I will only say: If our cognitive apparatus exerts no meaningful control over our actions, isn’t Taleb wasting his time writing a book? He should be composing music instead.