Tag Archives: Cosmic System

Thanksgiving Turkey

One of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s earliest points in The Black Swan regarding the difficulties of prediction resides with the Thanksgiving turkey. Though Taleb is specifically addressing the inadequacy of using the present and even the past to predict the future, his discourse stimulated lots of branching thoughts for me that had little to do with his original point…

First though, Taleb’s point: For the first 1000 days of a hypothetical Thanksgiving turkey’s life, he is protected, cared for, fed, and treated kindly. Looking at days 1 – 1000 of his life, neither the turkey nor an uninformed observer would have reason to think his life would not continue as it has. But then on day one thousand and one (which this year would be November 26) something utterly unexpected and disastrous befalls the turkey. He experiences a very negative Black Swan event.

Thus Taleb illustrates the fallacy of relying on past observed data to make accurate future predictions, a practice that people seem to do all the time, particularly, says he, in economics, where they add insult to injury by making their faulty predictions with great authority and conviction. Just one among many flaws of the cosmic or worldly what of thinking, and a valid point… but not where the turkey illustration led me.

Let’s go back to the farmer who, of course, knows what he has planned. It’s the turkey who’s out of the loop. The comparison of the turkey’s relationship with the farmer and ours with God is unavoidable. You might argue that God would never do such a nasty thing as the farmer did to the turkey — raising us up and caring for us just to eat us! Well, of course He’s not going to eat us, but there are similarities nevertheless.

The farmer has plans and purposes that go far beyond the turkey’s simple life and understanding. He is raising the turkey to feed his family, to provide for their sustenance, nourishment, pleasure and blessing. The Thanksgiving turkey has become an icon of God’s blessing Americans in the warmth and closeness of family, and in celebration of the struggles, faith, needs and provisions for the people that began this great nation. And the freedom we still enjoy.

The turkey has to die, has to be consumed for the farmer’s (father’s?) purpose to be fulfulled. So it is with our Lord, the Father’s beloved Son, and so it will be for us as believers, followers who walk after the pattern established by the Son. There must be death for life to follow.

He who seeks to save his life will lose it; the one who loses his life will find it.

The farmer allows the turkey to continue in ignorance of his plans, first because the bird would be unable to understand his attempts to communicate them (even if the farmer came into the pen everyday and chased the turkey around with an axe, he’d only scare the creature not convey any sense of purpose), and second, even if he could, such plans would only frighten and distress the creature, producing a skinny bird and an unsatisfactory Thanksgiving meal.

Most of God’s people are in an uncannily parallel situation to the turkey. If they knew all the trials that were going to come their way, they would only live in fear and distress and probably go insane from the pressure, not fulfilling His plan at all. Therefore, most are left in the pen, relying on the notion that since yesterday passed without disaster, tomorrow will as well.

But it is not God’s desire for us to be out of the loop like a Thanksgiving turkey, pecking and scratching and gobbling about our pens in ignorance until the big Black Swan blindsides us. No, He may not want us to know specifically what’s ahead, but  His word undeniably warns us there will be suffering, undeserved and deserved, in our futures . “Momentary light affliction is part of His plan for us. And if we learn His Word, make it part of our thinking, it will enable us to handle whatever suffering we have to face. The Black Swan event may be surprising, but not unexpected, and it will be something through which we can be assured we will see God’s hand and wisdom and grace.

His thoughts are not our thoughts; His ways are not our ways. We can’t know them apart from knowing His word, and I don’t mean a casual superficial knowledge, I mean really knowing it, digging deep, learning constantly from a prepared pastor. Such knowledge produces the capacity to receive greater knowledge, deeper knowledge, until we reach a point where it’s impossible for us to perceive the Black Swan’s that God places in our lives (has placed in eternity past, actually) as anything but positive and right.

Turkey image by freeimageslive.co.uk – valuestockphoto

Quote: Predicting Poorly, Unawares

The inability to predict outliers (events which lie outside the realm of regular expectations) implies the inability to predict the course of history, given the share of these events in the dynamics of events.

But we act as though we are able to predict historical events, or, even worse, as if we are able to change the course of history. We produce thirty year projections of social security deficits and oil prices without realizing that we cannot even predict these for next summer — our cumulative prediction errors for political and economic events are so monstrous that every time I look at the empirical record I have to pinch myself  to verify I am not dreaming. What is surprising is not the magnitude of our forecast errors, but our absence of awareness of it…

Our inability to predict in environments subjected to the Black Swan, coupled with a general lack of the awareness of this state of affairs, means that certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not. Based on their empirical record, they do not know more about their subject matter than the general population, but they are much better at narrating — or worse, at smoking you with complicated mathematical models. They are also more likely to wear a tie.

From the Prologue of  The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The Illusion of Predicting

One of the things The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, points out is the delusion we have that we can predict the future. We have all these formulae, formal and otherwise, that we use to do so… Having been involved in stock trading (he was a risk analyst and advisor) Taleb uses that background along with a strong interest in philosophy and science to dissect and consider all the ways we have of assuring ourselves that the world is steady, even and subject to our interpretation and prediction. If we want to avoid some disaster or to bring about some happy result, we have only to follow the recommended course of action, and voila. There we have it.


In Taleb’s view the world is far more random than most people will admit. I think to some degree this is a product of business, travel, civilization where you have all these organizations of people interwoven. My editors need to estimate how many copies my next book will sell so they will know how many to print, and much paper, etc, to have on hand to do so. They want me to predict how long it will take me so they can get the cover artist started at the appropriate time, get the book in the appropriate catalogue and start the appropriate marketing plan at the right time for the release of the book. Today’s competitive market demands that you begin marketing before the book is out.

In fact, today’s competitive marketing depends a lot on predictions — only one firm will be the one to make the killing on the next celebrity, best-seller, popular technical advance, demand for xyz that no one saw coming. It’s the reason news agencies break stories before reporters have all the facts, hoping to be the one with the scoop. So it’s very important to those in the marketplace to predict the future, to figure out why things happen as they do and then try to emulate those things…

The trouble is, says Taleb, the illusion that all this planning works, is really… well, an illusion. There is more luck involved than anyone wants to admit.

Of course what he calls “random” and “luck,” I see as the sovereignty of God, so it was gratifying, a day or so after I started the book to open my Bible randomly to Isaiah 41:21 where I read:

“Present your case,” the Lord says. “Bring forward your strong (arguments),” the King of Jacob says. Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; as for the former events, declare what the were, that we may consider them, and know their outcome; or announce to us what is coming. Declare the things that are going to come afterward, that we may know that you are gods; indeed, do good or evil, that we may anxiously look about us and fear together. Behold you are of no account, and your work amounts to nothing; he who chooses you is an abomination.”

“Declare to us what is going to take place… that we may know that you are gods.”

And of course there is this one, too:

“Come now, you who say “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow (let alone a year from now). You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.” James 4:13-15

And yet, the culture we live in asks us to do the opposite.

The Black Swan

black swanI first became aware of the existence of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb when my son put it on his Christmas list (last year? the year before?) and I bought it for him. Looking through it casually (the subtitle is “The Impact of the Highly Improbable”) I knew I eventually wanted to read it. Recently my son brought it with him on one of his trips home and told me that he was finished with it for the moment and I could read it. I stuck it on the shelf to await my attention once I’d finished various other books I was involved with.

Recently, finished with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I stood in front of my bookshelf in preparation for going to the Y (where I needed a new book to read while I rode the stationary bike) and asked the Lord what I should read next.

Should I start my own Guardian King books as a dear friend recommended I do (I have never read any of my books in entirety since they’ve been published) or something else? The Lord drew my eye to The Black Swan sitting at eye level between Builders of the Ancient World and One Door Away from Heaven. I asked again, specifically, should I read Guardian King or Black Swan? He prompted me to pull Swan off the shelf and open it to the place where I’d left off when Adam had first given it to me (on the first page), where I read, “[the sighting of the first black swan] illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our (human) knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single black bird.”

 I was immediately pulled in: “First, it [the black swan] 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.”

 Is this not a perfect description of the first advent? And the second? Nothing in the world points to it, only the Word of God.

 The writer goes on…”A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives…”

 I continued reading, riveted, knowing that there was much here about perception, belief, human bias and our almost total inability to predict the future even though many of our authorities claim to be able to so, all of it showing just how much of a deception the cosmic system really is, and how much more reliable is the word of God. The writer’s premise is that we think we know far more than we do (about the world and life and events) when, in fact, we really know very little… and this fits so into the whole framework of deception… which God has recently pointed out to me as being the “Thing” that I’m to write about (and have been writing about all along) that I knew this would be the next book I’d read.

So I took it with me to the Y and as I mentioned here, I have not been disappointed. I’ve dog-eared page after page and have taken to writing about thoughts generated from reading it in a spiral notebook. It has opened my eyes to so many things — not only with regard to how the cosmic system (of thinking) works, but also why we are so vulnerable to it.

 Naturally, I’ll be blogging more on the subject in the next few days.