Nassim Nicholas Taleb is one of my favourite writers and one of the true original thinkers and true philosophers of our time. So I was looking for an excuse to write about his latest book here. He gave it to me in the following passage:
I was just reading in John Gray’s wonderful The Immortalization Commision about attempts to use science, in a postreligious world, to acheive immortality. I felt some deep disgust- as would any ancient- at the efforts of the “singularity” thinkers (such as Ray Kurzweil) who believe in humans’ potential to live forever. Note that if I had to find the anti-me, the person with diametrically opposite ideas and lifestyle on the planet it would be that Ray Kurzweil fellow. It is not just neomania. While I propose removing offensive elements from people’s diets (and lives), he works, by adding, popping close to two hundred pills daily. Beyond that, these attempts at immortality leave me with deep moral revulsion.
It is the same kind of deep internal disgust that takes hold of me when I see a rich eighty-two year old man surrounded with “babes”, twenty-something mistresses (often Russian or Ukrainian). I am not here to live forever, as a sick animal.
Taleb as I said has fascinating ideas. His neologism “anti-fragile” in this book is genuinely new concept with some import. However, personally Taleb seems to be something of a character. He spends a lot of space attacking today’s neomania as if to suggest that the apparent acceleration of change in our time is the result of fad chasing rather than genuine technological improvements.
Taleb doesn’t even consider the truth which is that much of the new really is much better but it comes at us faster than we psychologically are prepared to accept it. We don’t seek out the new. Most people scoff, hold out as long as they can, and accept eventually that they are going to use something that is so much better. That is to say things are changing fundamentally, not superficially. The self driving car isn’t today’s pet rock. The P.C. is not just some neomaniac’s re interpretation of the typewriter.
Taleb is sort of a macho full of himself person who rails against nerds and idolises the ancients. I can’t help but laugh out loud sometimes when the audio book of this breaks out into a foreign language in quoting some ancient. He takes himself quite seriously. But even at his luddite worst Taleb makes good points. He observes that the longer an invention has been around the longer it’s likely to stay around. This seems largely to be true. When people 200 years ago imagined the future they pictured people floating on hovering bean bag chairs and replacing meals with pills. They did not picture that the vast majority of change would relate to communication technology and it would be film cameras and wired telephones, relatively new inventions, would be on the chopping block and not chairs, meals, or shoes which have been around for thousands of years.
Related to the framework of the robust, fragile, and anti-fragile Taleb also introduces the concept of applying optionality and convexity to everyday life. He correctly observes that a person with terminal cancer is better advised to take extreme interventions than someone with a cold. He also advocates that the burden of proof should rest on proving an unnatural action safe rather than disproving it’s safety. To my delight he to an extent advocates the paleo diet and intermittent fasting. However he eventually goes to far and crosses into the naturalistic fallacy as can be seen in his attack on Kurzweil. Because our genes want to live on at our expense does not mean we should adopt this as our life purpose – perhaps by becoming a prolific sperm donor. If he wants to leave books behind as a legacy we’re all richer for it. I take the Woody Allen approach. I’d rather go on living in my apartment than in the hearts and minds of my countryman. Of course Taleb would actually need to become familiar with Kurzweil’s work to realise this is a remote possibility which I believe he is unlikely to do.
I think what I like best about Taleb’s books is he examines modern life and applies philosophy to it. There are genuine take aways from his books which is more than you can say about many actual self help books. Eat as your ancestors did, invest in a dichotomy of very safe and very risky investments rather than just middle risk investments, surround yourself with less successful people, major in a science rather than business, take extreme interventions only in extreme conditions in accordance with convexity. There are many others and I would recommend all of his books. I believe I’ve read them all including his book of aphorisms which to my co-workers’ chagrin I used to read at work. Many of the aphorisms were about the drudgery of a 9-5 hourly job.