Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More Black Swans

Today Benedict Carey offers to guide us through the world of pink unicorns, three-dollar bills, and bearded nuns. I am surprised that he left out black swans, but his points are well taken. Link here.

As Nassim Taleb explained, black swans are events that were thought to be impossible or inconceivable. Not only did these impossible events happen, but they often changed the world. Among his black swans were the terror attack of September 11, World War I, and Hurricane Katrina.

Call it uncanny, call it extremely unlikely, in Carey's words: "such an experience... violates all logic and expectations."

As Carey explains, the human mind plans for the future. Before setting off on a journey, it plans for the possible eventualities. It also creates certain expectations, of pleasure, of relaxation, of enlightenment.

Before changing careers, you will consider all of the possible consequences and plan accordingly.

Policy analysis and war games always factor in the different possible outcomes of any action. At times these become enormously complicated. And, dare I say, there is always an element of the unpredictable.

Such exercises require considerable imagination. The worlds containing the possible outcomes are, obviously, fictional.

Much planning is based on past history. If you know that doing X has usually produced outcome Y you will reasonably expect that the pattern will maintain itself.

And yet, great planners do not limit themselves to the past. They engage their imagination to conjure up alternative scenarios that might never have happened.

Recall that after 9/11 commentators were saying that we were unprepared for the attack because our intelligence services lacked imagination.

Problems arise when your best laid plans go awry, when the future that arrives is not one of those you had planned for.

Psychologists believe that such experiences spur us to find patterns and order. The experience of disorder, or perhaps the feeling of being unprepared to confront something that we had not foreseen, activates the mind to seek out order. Or else, to force reality to make sense.

This implies that the next time we will be able to foresee all possibilities and thus be prepared.

As Carey puts it, absurdity focuses the mind. An encounter with something absurd sets the mind in motion. He adds that these mental activities are not always salutary: confronted with a calamity the mind might well light on a conspiracy theory.

Disoriented by absurdity we try to force the world to make sense. We try to explain it away. Carey offers the example of our running into an easy chair in the middle of the woods. First, we try to figure out how it got there. Largely because we want to know whether it is signaling us to an impending danger.

More importantly, when we are disoriented, we need to reorient ourselves. Whether that means jumping over the chair or walking around it... reorientation means continuing our journey.

Unless the event is so cataclysmic that it prevents us from continuing the journey, that is, acting according to plan.

Now, change the terms. In place of a chair, run into a large and menacing bear. Evidently, that will require a change of plan, to say nothing of some extreme caution.

In those cases we will make a new plan for a new journey. But that is not the same as trying to figure out why a specific event has happened and why we had not imagined it or planned for it.

Carey seems to suggest that when our plans are disrupted we feel something like shame. Then we can either wonder why we made the mistake or can proceed.

Shame makes us withdraw. It tells us not to try our luck. It does not tell us to adapt to new circumstances; it tells us that we have failed to master reality.

Of course, the existence of pink unicorns and black swans means that we can never fully master reality, that there will always be a part of it that escapes the mind's will to make it make sense or to fit it into an orderly whole.

One thing you do not want to do when you confront something absurd or uncanny is to follow Freud's advice and assume that it is a flash of truth from your unconscious mind.

You do not want to withdraw into your mind to seek out what it is saying about your repressed desires.

Those who engage this psychoanalytic exercise are attempting to assert their mastery over reality, the better to avoid redefining their goals and planning a new journey.

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