Continuing my thoughts stimulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan on the validity of human-acquired wisdom, information, predictions, etc.
In Chapter 5, entitled “Confirmation Shmonfirmation” Taleb observes, “…a series of corroborative facts is not necessarily evidence [of something]. Seeing white swans does not confirm the nonexistence of black swans…” However, seeing a single black swan will prove that not all swans are white. In the same way finding a malignant tumor proves you have cancer, whereas not finding one doesn’t prove you don’t. [As the doctor said recently to my mother, the cancer cells migrated from the first location to the second and logic says they took up residence elsewhere besides in her leg bone. Hence they opt for another round of chemotherapy. How can we know that the chemo is needed, that it will kill the cells we are hoping it will? We can’t.]
Taleb calls this “negative empiricism” and contends that negative instances (like cancer, like a black swan) can bring us closer to the truth than verifying instances. “It is misleading,” says he, “to build a general rule from observed facts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, our body of knowledge does not increase from a series of confirmatory observations.”
That’s one of those sentences that makes you stop and ponder. It seems that the more we see of something, the more certain we can be of the truth, but the reality is, we just don’t have a large enough sample size. Or, put another way, we simply don’t know the big picture.
This recalls to mind God’s command that His children live by faith in His word and character and not by what they see. Sight would involve confirmatory observations, and we crave confirmation of the things that we believe. Yet as we grow God increasingly asks us to put that desire for confirmation aside. Noah had never seen rain, had not one convert in his 120 years of preaching to the antedeluvian world, yet he kept on.
Abraham spent his entire life waiting for a city without foundations and is still waiting. Moses spent his adult life traveling toward the promised land and never got to enter it. The church has waited 2000 years for the return of our Lord with no confirmatory evidence for the most part. (Though lately that’s been less true than in the past!)
And then there was Job, who was actually being shown off by God to Satan and the world. “Have you noticed my servant Job?” he asked of Satan. “There is none like him in all the world.’
Job was a mature believer with whom God was well pleased. And what did He do with His mature believer, one who had been faithful for many long years? He drew Satan’s attention to him and allowed him to take all that he had without cause. And after Job lost all his children, all his livestock and houses and servants, and even his health, there wasn’t a lot of confirmatory evidence to bolster the notion that God loved him, and that He was a just God who had all under control.
Nevertheless, Job’s initial response was to affirm that very viewpoint: “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Even after his wife came advising him to curse God and die, he said, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” and did not sin with his lips. It was only when those three so-called friends arrived to sit with him silently for seven days before urging him to confess his sins because it had to be his fault that all this had befallen him — which was not at all the situation! — only then did he start to fail the test. Why? Because he had only the word of God to rest in and the lack of confirmatory evidence had gotten to him, especially when the “friends” used that very lack against him.
Our Lord also did not seem to be in the Father’s plan when He was tried, convicted and marched up to the hill of Golgotha to be crucified. There His enemies mocked Him, demanding, once again, confirmatory evidence: “Why don’t you come down from there if you’re the son of God? Where is He? Why doesn’t He deliver you if you’re really who you say you are??”
Of course the evidence did arrive eventually, but it’s in those dark hours that we most want it and don’t have it and the fact that we don’t is by God’s design.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a philosopher, concerned with human viewpoint, and the limitations of man’s perceptions. He doesn’t touch at all on divine viewpoint — at least not directly, but what I like is how he highlights many of the tendencies we have as humans that make having faith in someone we’ve never seen, having faith in the words of men long dead, as all the while the exact opposite is apparently staring us in the face and “everyone” is telling us how things “really” are, and they aren’t like how the Bible says.
It also shows the myriad ways in which the cosmic system deceives. With such tendencies in us, it’s not all that hard. Especially when you combine it with our lack of brainpower to process all the details that surround us and our resulting need to summarize. And then there is our almost hard-wired inclination to make stories out of everything, regardless of the amount of actual facts we have. But those are subjects for future posts.