Is God a Black Swan?: Part 1, Black Swans and the Triplet of Opacity

Two of the more interesting books I've read in the last year are Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable both by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Both Fooled and The Black Swan are about issues of chance and randomness. Fooled is a cautionary tale focused mainly on investing and financial markets. The basic argument is this: Nobody knows how to predict markets but enough people are playing this game of roulette that, by chance alone, some people are "successful" in their investments. And yet, we regularly misunderstand this success, mistaking chance for causality. We see the successful as skilled rather than lucky.

The Black Swan continues this meditation on chance and randomness but it is more philosophical and epistemological in nature. If you are interested in the markets read Fooled. If you are interested in epistemology read The Black Swan.

The metaphor of "the black swan" comes from the notorious problem of induction from Philosophy 101. It goes something like this:

Every swan you have ever seen, read, or heard about is white. Thus, you conclude that "All swans are white." This form of reasoning is called induction. You reason from particulars to a general conclusion. But are you truly justified in this conclusion? The conclusion seems reasonable. All the data point to the truth of the conclusion. And yet this conclusion is very fragile. All it takes is one black swan to immediately falsify your claim. And here's the thing, how do you know you've checked thoroughly for the black swan? Just because YOU haven't seen or heard of one doesn't mean they don't exist.

For Taleb the black swan from the classic problem of induction becomes a metaphor for his project: Pointing out to us how we confidently predict the future based upon our past experiences when in reality we have no real idea what the future will bring. We routinely predict a future full of white swans because that is what we've always known. And yet black swans enter our world and disrupt the cosy plans we built upon our can't miss forecasts. Many of these black swan events are hugely disruptive and radically alter the course of the future. And yet, despite their huge impact, these events were wholly unexpected.

Taleb argues that Black Swan events are what drive the history world. From the computer to the Internet to nuclear bombs to the invention of the printing press. Prior to the onset of these Black Swans the future appeared orderly and predictable: Tomorrow will be like today and all the days before. But either quickly or slowly the Black Swan took history into a completely different direction, a direction no one had imagined or predicted.

One of Taleb's main concerns is this: How shall we regard forecasts of the future in a world of Black Swans? His answer, not surprisingly, is this: We should ignore them. Why? Because no one really knows what tomorrow will bring. Black Swans are, by definition, unpredictable. If you could predict them, well, they wouldn't be Black Swans.

Let's give Taleb's definition of a Black Swan:

"First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable." (pp. xvii-xviii)

Black Swans occur when there is a disjoint between what we know and what we think we know. Black Swans come from beyond our epistemic horizons. This disjoint is fueled by facets of human psychology that make us overconfident in our pronouncements about the future. Taleb calls three important features of this psychology the triplet of opacity:

"a. the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;

b. the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality) and

c. the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories..." (p. 8)

Taleb is a provocative writer and thinker. I encourage you to read either Fooled or The Black Swan. As I read the books I couldn't help but think about them from my fused psychotheological stance. Again, Taleb's interests are empirical and pragmatic. I doubt he would smile on theological applications, And yet, I kept wondering "Is God a Black Swan?"

Specifically, I thought of the Call of Abraham, the Exodus, and the Incarnation. Each event fit features of Taleb's definition of a Black Swan: A rare, high impact event that only retrospectively "makes sense." And I also wondered at how, given God's Black Swan character, religious people might also suffer from the triplet of opacity. Don't religious people suffer from the illusion that they know what God is up to? Don't religious people clean up the past making God's actions appear more expected and rational than how they really appeared at the time of their occurrence? And might preachers, church authorities, theologians, or other "learned persons" be particularly prone to overconfidence when guessing what God is up to?

So I wondered, is God a Black Swan? And if so, what are the implications for the religious life?

Next Post: Part 2

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16 thoughts on “Is God a Black Swan?: Part 1, Black Swans and the Triplet of Opacity”

  1. Thanks Richard for this post... I am currently pulling together a dissertation proposal that looks at decision-making around black swans (e.g. venture capitalists trying to invest in the 'next googles') and how this is influenced by networks, strategic certainty/ flexibility/ rigidity, uncertainty, etc.

    I will have to pick up his book, as it sounds exceptionally relevant.

    I am looking forward to hearing your theological applications as well!


    Watch the video in my blog post; Taleb discusses his "interesting view of religion" - I suspect that he will touch more on religion in his next book (which may carry the title: "Tinkering").

    Great post.

  3. Richard,

    A three observations. (1) Three weeks ago, I made reservations for a Mothers' Day lunch at a restaurant I had always experienced as high quality, expecting that our entire family would gather for a wonderful meal. But two black swans flew into our celebration. Due to a scheduling mixup, our son and his family were unexpectedly out of town. At the restaurant where my wife and I and my daughter and her family gathered, the food and the service were terrible.

    (2) Jung has referred to the "shadow" within each of us. It seems to me that in some ways that shadow is our black swan with whom we must make accomodations in the same way we adjust to the black swans.

    (3) If a black swan comes as a traumatic event, it immediately forces us either to become well-defended so that we reinforce our expectations or (more rarely) we rethink our expectations and reform our way of responding.

    For many, the coming of Jesus as Messiah was so threatening to our identity (it still is), that we reject him or rationalize him and domesticate him. Fear does such things.

    George C.

  4. I've toyed with the idea of writing a book about expectations, something like "What do you expect?". I really got this theme from a message by Landon Saunders when he asked this question to the audience and answered it with "I expect trouble." His basis was John 16:33, the most infamous promise Jesus ever gave that no one likes to talk about! "In this world you will have trouble." As far as the world goes, it's all we are promised. To expect anything else is to ignore Jesus prophetic promise.

    So much of the problems we have today are wrapped in unrealistic expectations. In a marraige, we are shocked and sometimes horrified when after the honeymoon, we have "trouble". In business, in relationships of all kinds, in churches, we are going to encounter "trouble". The question is not whether or not we will have "trouble" but rather how will we deal with it? Jesus answer? "But take heart! I have overcome the world."

    In this sense, the "Black Swans" are very predictable in a general sense. In fact, Jesus promises it.

  5. Richard,

    A personal observation followed by a question.

    One of my pet peeves is people who take their lack of understanding as an argument, as in "I don't see how you can think that!" used as a discussion-ending rejoinder (is one to repeat the discussion in hopes of a better result?). And in my experience that stance is not affected by intelligence or education--"the illusion of understanding" seems to be the default human stance...

    The question--which will require just a small set-up. To test Taleb's work on individual subjects would be very difficult, since the test would have to be individualized for each subject. The default means of research would seem to be to look to intellectual history. But there it seems that the paradigm shifts--which I here assume function as the "black swans"--are not so much "events" as new conceptual contexts which explain the old and offer a better way of integrating the "black swans" into human understanding.

    Here's the question: Does Taleb conflate "black swans" and paradigm shifts? If so there is one kind of problem (obvious), but if not there is this: b. and c. seem to drop out of his account--at least in the case of "successful" paradigms.

    Sorry to be such a stick in the mud, but I just don't see how he can think that way!


  6. For persons of religious faith, I think this "black swan" idea might remind us to hold onto our ideas of God with the ephemerality of finitude, and to be willing to when we think we have the picture completed, wipe it clean like a Buddhist mandala. Or when we think we have met God, to kill God, because what or who we think we have met is not really God at all, only our idea of God.

    In a sense, all theology and religious belief is blasphemous and idolatrous. All of it, in one sense or another, is made in our own images. Of course, that doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

    You blog has become one of my favorites to read. Always thought provoking. Thanks for that.

  7. Peter,
    Thanks. That sounds like a very interesting research project.

    Thanks for that link. His views are perhaps more sympathetic to religion than I had expected. I think I heard him say he was Orthodox.

    So sorry about the Mother's Day debacle. Mother's Day lunch and Valentine's Day dinner are just crazy times to be eating out.

    Your comment about domestication goes to what I'm after in this series: Our attempts to make God less disruptive.

    I think in many ways Taleb's point is similar to the one you are making: Approach life by expecting the unexpected.

    Thanks. It's always to have encouragement when I attempt one of these odd juxtapositions.

    I'm not quite sure what your question was. Let me take a stab at an answer and correct me if I miss the point.

    Taleb focuses much more on empirical events than ideas as "black swans" although, I'm guessing, he wouldn't rule out an idea as a possible black swan. Again, Taleb's main focus is on failures of prediction. So, I don't think he sees black swans as paradigm shifts (although they can cause new paradigms to emerge).

    Your comment is exactly want I'm wanting to say using the black swan idea.

    Thanks for the link. I'm guessing I am to look at the issues of epistemological emergence?

  8. Richard, great post on God as a Black Swan. I’ve wrestled with this elsewhere. Depends on what tier of the Tower of Babel you’re on when the language of your experimental metrics gets confused. Taleb’s friends in non-linear dynamics at work in market places don’t have George Soros convinced (his recent critical interview) that random walks adequately model the market. Enough to satisfy his needs for prediction. Soros wants God-the-Government regulators against black swans to regulate fractal market chaos rather than let the “invisible-hand” of the market self-correct. Soros a disciple of Popper. So much for trust. And for hedge funds. Maybe for theology as our hedge-fund too. I don’t have the answer. My guess is that God plays all sides of the tables: from order through higher dimensional chaos. I really think that what Heisenberg discovered is trivial compared to the ubiquitousness of chance throughout all of life. I argued this case today: chance happened equally in the development of the canon. I don’t look for buyers of that thesis to be comforted anytime soon. I think it was von Rad who hailed to the skepticism of Ecclesiastes – “all is vanity.” And look at all the black swans in Ecclesiastes. Humility trumps certainty. Cynicism (instead of skeptical humility) is for those who run theology as a hedge fund against the black swans.



  9. From the horse's mouth...

    Hey, Richard, on Taleb's notes page, it is possible to see some of his reflections on God and religion:

    Specifically, in point 81, he writes:

    She (karen armstrong) understands that religion is mostly an emotional-aesthetic commitment and one that is shared with other people; it becomes a collective commitment. It is not about belief, but about trust (earlier notes on pisteuo). It is not a desire to be fooled by randomness by seeing false patterns (or, as she explains in her Great Transformation, it ceased to be so at some point in the sixth century BC).

  10. One more from Taleb....

    Social science is more destructive than religion. I wrote in “the opiate of the middle classes” about the domain-dependence of rationality. Rationality is costly; complete cross-domain rationality is impossible. I prefer to believe in the bishops rather than the stock analyst, be it on aesthetic grounds.
    Many problems associated with religion come from something else, mostly nationalism or other diseases. I observed the Lebanese civil war between Christian and Moslems: I am convinced that it was ethnic, not religious. Religious people on both sides tried to calm things down: all we saw were pictures of robed figures kissing each others on television while street militia fighters ignored their calls to calm down. Furthermore, the most murderous conflicts have not been between Islam and Christianity but within Islam, between Shiites and Sunnis, mostly because of the Persian-Arabian tension. Weinberg may know a lot about physics; he should stay away from historical analyses.
    To understand what I call the “rationing of rationality”, read bishop Huet or chanoine Simon Foucher (out of print). The argument is repeated (or rediscovered) by Karl Mannheim in Ideology and Utopia –when he talks about what he calls “a typically modern rationalistic disregard for the basic irrational mechanisms that govern man’s relation to his world”. I do not conceal that I have been reading theology.
    Finally, I have a thirst for aesthetics and I feel better after listening to Palestrina at église Saint Germain des Pres or the holy week chants at the Greek-Orthodox churches of Amioun. The highlights of my last couple of years are Orthodox masses in Saint Petersburg and Bucharest, with churches full of crowds ensnared with the chants (I am Greek-Orthodox). Stalin never offered anything to replace them. Nobody ever did.

  11. The concept of the Black Swan grabbed my attention almost immediately. I just finished my second run through N.T. Wright's Resurrection of the Son of God, and his central argument in favor of the resurrection as an historical event is just that - it is , so to speak, a Black Swan event. Nothing in history or literature before it anticipated it. People knew perfectly well that the dead don't get up and walk around. Even the Pharisees didn't expect something of that nature until the conclusion of history.

    It is precisely because the resurrection has the feel of an event that caught everyone off guard that it is difficult to dismiss it as a fabrication or metaphor. God a Black Swan? The pinnacle event in God's redemptive movement suggests that the answer is "yes."

  12. thank you Dr. Beck for helping me to realize why I'm on my journey. I believed only in "white swans". When the "black swan" appeared in 2001, I was befuddled. It took three years to begin a search for reasons, I have now been on my journey for nearly four years. I have never looked back. I am content. I have made peace with the "black swan".

  13. "Nothing in history or literature before it anticipated it."

    Sorry, but that is incorrect. Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, and Osiris were all deities that were killed and rose from the dead. They accomplished this in different ways than Jesus (although there were also a few parallels), but rebirth of crops in the spring, and the cyclical nature of nature in great and small ways, were a basic observation of the earliest societies, so their religion reflected that understanding.

  14. @Step2
    You probably know something I don't know, but I do know that some folks have reasonably shown that the supposed parallels between Christ and Osiris, etc. are not as sensational, or relevant, as they first seemed to be. (See "The Case for the Real Jesus" by Lee Strobel).

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