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The Row Boat
"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
A Science of the Present1/07/2008 21:09:10
Lately I've been exploring the ideas of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Wall Street trader and bestselling author (he describes his business career as a means toward intellectual independence). His work deals with issues of randomness, probability, and especially prediction, combined with a Socratic-prophetic imperative. On his website he writes, "My major hobby is teasing people who take themselves & the quality of their knowledge too seriously & those who donít have the guts to sometimes say: I donít know...."
There is a vast industry of "experts," modern-day shamans who claim to be able to predict the future, in not so many words. The same people who once consulted oracles—political and business leaders, heads of families, decision makers of all stripes—now seek out predictors trained in the ways and means of science. Indeed, prediction has become the very criterion of science after Karl Popper: the exercise of making falsifiable predictions. Here, in an economy where knowledge must have (or at least market itself as having) some bearing on the bottom line, expertise means the ability to predict, and to do so better than one's competitors.
This is the kind of work that Taleb finds suspect. Economics in particular has had an ongoing debate of its own practicality: whether a seasoned market expert has any better chance of getting rich in the stock market than a monkey with a dartboard. Maybe yes, but maybe no.
Taleb is not alone here. Chaos theory, quantum physics, and Godel's incompleteness all point to the limits of prediction and the perfect knowing that it would require. Taleb's own contribution to this field is what he calls the Black Swan: a highly improbable event that does more than anything else to mold our world. While experts can predict a series of probable events, they will probably not be able to encompass the decisive unlikely ones—9/11, for instance, or the evolution of human beings.
Science, except perhaps (but not quite) for archaeology and paleontology, nearly always leans toward futures, toward what will be invented, what will be understood, and what, simply, will be. But is there a science beyond prediction, beyond a science of the future?
One of the great contributions of Martin Heidegger's philosophy is the way in which it reminds us that the future, as far as human life goes, is not an endless sequence of future presents that a stable person shuffles through. Rather, there is something absolutely, unimaginably new about the to-come, something totally unknowable. It lies not simply in new things, bigger and better than old things (Heidegger would have had a field day with the last presidential debates, in which the candidates put furious hope in the salvific possibilities of undiscovered technology). Rather, since a being knows itself only in and through the world it finds itself in, a world of different things means a different being, a different way of being a person. All the categories that make the world become rearranged. In the future, we will be seeing through different eyes. As a result the predictions of the present fundamentally do not apply to the future. They speak of a different world, of different kinds of beings.
In these terms, the only science possible is a science of the present, made out of the categories of the present, the world of the present. What might such a science look like? What, if not prediction, will be its objective?
Heidegger and his followers, and like Taleb as I read him, insist on a stance of openness to unknown possibilities. A science of the world we live in, therefore, would not aim to capture the future in predictions but to capture the present in possibilities. What can be known now? What can be done now? What is possible? I'm not sure the science itself would look much different, except our posture to it would, our expectation that science will save us, that the future will save us. A science of the present would not assume that problems will magically go away, or that our same selves will be there to enjoy it. It would have more patience in the present age.
re: A Science of the Present - 1/13/2008 21:06:07