Rationality vs. Taleb's Antifragilism

by Mellivora4 min read2nd May 20203 comments

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Edited for LessWrong from my Original Post.

Nassim Taleb rails against Rationality frequently in his books, but as someone that finds both Antifragility and Rationality beneficial concepts to aspire to, I feel the need to try to reconcile them.

Bridging the gap between Traditionalism and Modernism

Traditionalism is manifest in a confidence that the way we have always done things is the best.  Modernism by contrast is a term used to describe the almost monomaniacal application of “scientific principles” to optimise every aspect of life.  Whilst in many ways the opposite of traditionalism, this confidence in the correctness of the approach is something that both modernism and traditionalism very much have in common.  The planned, orderly approach to things that modernism advocated, resulted in both huge advances and huge catastrophes in the ‘50s and ‘60s – huge rockets that could reach the moon, monoculture farming turning large areas of the planet into arid dust bowls, glittering skyscrapers providing homes and office space for thousands of people, sterile grid-based cities devoid of culture or community.  Clearly modernism was not all bad, but the negative consequences were remarkably far-reaching – if we view traditionalism and modernism as opposite ends of a spectrum, can we find a middle, and will this middle allow us to reap the benefits given by both approaches, avoiding the drawbacks of either?

The main thing we must sacrifice to find a middle-ground is confidence.  It is easy to have confidence in an extreme view – the answers are simple, which allows them to be spoken with conviction.  “Do it as we’ve always done it” or “Our calculations show this is the best way” leave no room for nuance, therefore little room for thought and little room for doubt.  Several practical philosophies have been developed since the fall of modernism, and both Antifragilism and Rationality stand out as particularly instructive. Both of these philosophies appear highly prone to misinterpretation, much to the apparent frustration of their respective advocates, however this is quite possibly a direct result of the sacrifice – people crave confidence, and a theory that does not offer enough of it will be simplified until it does.

Embracing Uncertainty

Picture the spectrum from traditionalism to modernism, representing the scale from “all change is bad” to “progress at any cost”, but allow the line to curve upwards in the middle, perhaps forming a semi-circle or bell curve.  This new axis represents confidence, or rather a decrease in confidence as we climb up the curve, increasing in confidence again as we slide down the other side. I picture antifragilism as a region of this curve slightly before the peak – Taleb abhors overconfidence, and whilst he does not discount progress, he espouses a respect for traditions.  If a tradition has survived for a long time, it may serve a purpose and it would be foolhardy to reject it out of hand simply because we don’t know the reason for it. Equally, I picture rationality as a region of this curve slightly after the peak – scientific studies often fail to be replicated, so Yudkowsky and the other pillars of the modern rationalist community are similarly wary of overconfidence.  Whilst they do not discount the values of traditions (c.f. “Chesterton’s Fence“), they espouse a desire for progress – to improve the world as best we can.

Rationality has an unfortunate tendency to be conflated with modernism, no doubt especially because the word itself was used by modernists to justify their endeavours (c.f. “Rational planning“).  In fact in Taleb’s book Antifragile, he rails against modernism for all of its failures, whilst unfortunately referring to it as rationality. Even aside from this however, it is easy to see how rationality is reduced to modernism by the desire for confidence.  Even though the whole point of rationality is to find the best route towards a goal, causing the least amount of damage – the desire for a definitive answer, combined with the desire for progress allows people to slide down the curve towards modernism, throwing caution to the wind.

Equivalently, while antifragilism is more helpfully named to avoid immediate conflation, and its whole point is to facilitate a system where risks can be taken in pursuit of progress without destabilising the whole system, the desire for a definitive answer can push people down the slope towards traditionalism.  People can make the argument that ‘we don’t know what the effect might be’, erring too far on the side of caution, throwing away the quest for progress. Trying out a new idea on a global scale is indeed a dangerous act, which antifragilism opposes, but this nuance can be lost, leading to the traditionalist mindset of “new ideas are dangerous”.  The argument that “ideas that have been around for longer are more likely to outlive newer ideas”, can be simplified to “newer ideas are not worth trying”. This is of course a gross over-simplification, and ignores the process through which the old ideas came about – every idea was new once. Even the description of evolution as an antifragile system can be twisted into a perspective in which random variation is acceptable, but directed attempts to progress are compared with genetic modification and viewed as unnatural.  This simplification, allowing for traditions to change “naturally” over time, but viewing purposeful changes as dangerous is the rather fatalistic traditionalism of “Whatever happens will happen, but don’t actually try to improve things”. It is challenging to get people to accept the uncertainty of “this idea might be good or bad, so lets carefully try it out in a way that insulates the world from any catastrophic failures”.

Developing a Unified Approach

The similarities between the philosophies of antifragilism and rationality are really far more significant than their differences. Both are keen to stress the dangers of overconfidence, both are trying to find a way to facilitate progress and improve the human condition without causing collateral damage, and both are aware of the dangers of throwing out established traditions without understanding what they are for.  Antifragilism perhaps stresses the overconfidence and tradition angles more, while rationality stresses the progress and understanding angles more, but they are far from mutually exclusive.

It could be argued that both are trying to create a structure in which the other becomes superfluous – antifragilism’s goal is a system in which a deep understanding of the world is not strictly necessary to allow the system to survive adversity and improve, due to its fragmented and non-interdependent nature, while rationality’s goal is a system in which a highly fragmented and non-interdependent world is not strictly necessary to allow the system to survive adversity and improve, due to our deep understanding of it.  Realistically however, both philosophies are made stronger by incorporating each other into themselves – it is difficult to argue with a straight face that we will ever achieve such a deep understanding of the world that we will be able to reliably mitigate any uncertainty, and it is also touched upon in Taleb’s book that even an antifragile system, one that benefits from disturbances, can be undone by a large enough disturbance which makes trying to understand the nature of the disturbances a valuable course of investigation.

Therefore it is rational to make systems antifragile, and it is in pursuit of antifragility that we should incorporate rationality into our mental toolkit alongside empathy, intuition and tradition.  Most of all though, we should resist the lure of overconfidence, and try to make the world a better place free from the tyranny of simple answers.

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