Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #9 – The Black Swan (Not the Movie)

March 2nd, 2020

I bought a book in the airport: 50 Philosophy Classics from the 50 Classic Series by Tom Butler-Bowdon. My idea was to skim through the summaries of the fifty classics to see if I could recognize a truth that was conceptualized and expressed in an especially inspiring way. As a writer, I am always looking for fresh material.


I liked that each classic had an “in a nutshell” summary that enabled me to judge which ones I thought would be worth reading and which ones I thought would not. For example, “Nicomachean Ethics” by Aristotle seemed interesting: “Happiness comes from what we have rationally decided is good for us over the longer term. Happiness is not pleasure, but a by-product of a meaningful life.” I found the idea of materialism expressed in “The Ego Trick” by Julian Baggini quite unappealing: “The brain and body provide us with a strong and continuous sense of self, which gives us freedom to create who we are.”


My search was not exactly what I expected. Summarizing and clearly expressing deep philosophical conceptions is a daunting task for any author. 50 Philosophy Classics was, therefore, not easy reading. What I did get while briefly going through the book was more faith in my own tradition. The Vedas teach that truth is manifest and recorded simultaneously with the manifestation of the creation and preserved through bona-fide lineages of teachers. To be connected to that gives one a sound metaphysical standard to gauge the validity of all philosophical speculations. I will try to demonstrate that by analyzing just one of the classics in the book, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.


The title of the book and Taleb’s philosophical message come from a particular historical phenomenon that he read about. Until a black swan was sighted by early explorers in Western Australia, people not only assumed that swans were white, but they were, in fact, even defined in that way. From this event Taleb developed an entire theory of events and causality. He postulated that things that happen against all expectations, which he named “black swans”, had a much more extreme and important impact on history and one’s life. These include, for example, anything from the unexpected spread of great ideas and powerful religions to dynamic historical events that no one foresaw, like the rise of Hitler or the spread of the Internet, and so on. Accepting this fact of randomness as it applies to the world and one’s life rather than a strictly causal or linear perspective, he concluded, is the first step in succeeding in the world. Here is how 50 Classics sums up “in a nutshell” the import of The Black Swan:


“We want to make the world an orderly place, but the frequency of truly unexpected events should tell us that we really don’t know what causes things.”


Taleb therefore concludes, “black swan logic ‘makes what you don’t know far more relevant that what you do know’, because it is the unexpected that shapes our lives.”


Now a brief analysis of The Black Swan from the perspective of Vedic teachings, starting with the part of Taleb’s teaching that I found reasonably congruent with what you would find in the Vedas.


Taleb saw an obvious weakness in human psychology. We impose order and control beyond our capacity to do so. Living in that way makes one more fearful and frustrated. In other words, to see the world too much as linear and predictable according to the way we want it is a recipe for disaster. As we are not the controller, what happens in our lives and the world around us is highly unpredictable. I think Taleb got this right. Unless we temper our hope for a world that is stable around our control and desires, we will always live in uncertainty and disappointment and be sorely unprepared for the unpredictable.


While I think Taleb’s insight is important, Vedic perspective gives much more depth. While certainly the world is beyond our control, he is wrong when he says that the world moves haphazardly and without meaning. The Vedic perspective teaches us that unexpected events, while far beyond our control, do not happen randomly. They are the result of the law of karma. They come to teach us important lessons essential to elevating us to a higher level of realization and satisfaction, which can be ascertain by the sacred texts under the guidance of one who understands and realizes them.


The frustration in writing Monday Morning Greetings is that the subjects I sometimes pick deserve elucidation far beyond the words I have limited myself to. However, I hope you get the gist of the point about the conviction I felt. “Veda” means knowledge. Connection to Vedic knowledge therefore gives a tool of understanding to put into context all philosophical speculations, and certainly The Black Swan — not the movie.


“When God is digging a ditch to throw us in, he is actually making a well to quench our thirst.” — Rumi


“We think in the future it will only get better, but actually it gets worse.” — Tamal Krishna Goswami


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