Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nassim Taleb: My points of disagreement

This post is directed at those who are somewhat familiar with Nassim Taleb's writings "The Black Swan" and "Fooled by Randomness", or even articles by him which talk about these ideas. So I dare say I am looking at quite a niche audience, not unlike my other posts.
I am in complete agreement with the "trunk" of his ideas regarding funds with better than market returns often taking blow up risks, which in expectation doesn't leave you better off than market returns etc. I however disagree with a number of "branches".

Specifically I can't help thinking Taleb goes overboard to placate pseudoscience and religion, merely because as he rightly points out, a good deal of financial analysis and recommendations performs no better than random guesses and is probably bordering on pseudoscience too.

Taleb describes his typical fool of randomness as one whose views match say that of Richard Dawkins with regard to the claims of religion, astrology, faith healing, miracles, the paranormal etc., which is to be highly skeptical of all of these since there isn't an iota of evidence for them. I firstly see no evidence to believe that these people are greater suckers for financial markets than the non-skeptics. He claims to be involved in some research on this and I predict that he would see a tiny positive correlation between general skepticism and financial market skepticism.

Another fatal premise that he bases a lot of his views on his the following. He asserts that it takes humans enormous mental effort to disbelieve anything and that that humans have a fixed capacity for disbelieving. From this, he concludes that belief in religion, astrology, miracles etc. can often be harmless and assets without justification asserts that belief in financial analysts is worse for society. And since disbelief in religion, astrology, miracles etc. consumes some of the fixed disbelief resources, we would be in a bad position to be skeptical of financial analysis!

In reality, skepticism is readily transferred from one field to another, and the whole "fixed bag of skepticism" hypothesis is utterly absurd. This is exactly why scientists who are skeptical of fantastic scientific claims (such as cold fusion) are also much more skeptical on average of religious claims, and claims of the paranormal.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Existential Crisis

It has been on my mind for sometime that the so called philosophical idea, the existential crisis is not caused by the lack of an inherent purpose to life. It is merely thrown up when the person is unhappy for other reasons. This is a nice post on overcoming bias on the very same thing.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

God and Evolution

For those who properly understand the fundamentals of evolution (eg: if the person understands the reasoning and mathematical intuition in the book, "The Selfish Gene"), I think it's very hard to maintain a belief in a personal God and most variations of that. I was fuzzy on God for a while, but still considered myself to mildly theistic since I allowed for the possibility of inherent meaning/purpose in the universe, in particular with regard to life.

A reading of the selfish gene however destroyed all illusions of divinity or inherent meaning from life. The concept of a soul or anything like that looks ridiculous in the light of that understanding. At some level, an understanding of evolution implies that humans (and all life forms) are "automatons", only much more sophisticated than many other life forms and of course non-living objects.

Another strong implication is that the idea of "atomicity" of an individual (which is a cornerstone of all our social interactions) has no more biological basis than the fact that we have a bunch of DNA that were iteratively refined for billions of years and all our body parts happens to work together as "one unit", since it was locally optimal this way from the point of view of natural selection.

Feelings are another thing that we tend to assign a somewhat divine/metaphysical status to, but again they are products of natural selection and it's very easy to see the evolutionary basis of some of the feelings we hold most sacred.
With all this understanding its very hard to believe in a God of some sort.

I find the whole idea of "God did it through evolution" very puzzling. This means that God like emperor Nero, fiddled when the brutal processes of natural selection were at work, implying starvation of several young animals/humans whose genes were not among the best, life-forms carrying sub-optimal genes getting eaten more by predators, a small percentage of males cornering most of the females in a lot of the animal kingdom (4% males corner 100% females in elephant seals), with the majority of males remaining celibate or getting killed in the process of trying to copulate with females in the harems of stronger males.

In other words, most of the beautiful life forms produced have been the result of unbelievable brutality and cruelty of nature with absolutely no divine kindness rendered towards the carriers of sub-optimal genes. The kinds of brutality that shock us today are probably nothing compared to what has been going on in nature for billions of years.

With an understanding of all this, it is very hard to imagine how one could ever imagine a loving, merciful, caring God choosing a method like evolution to spawn off the rich and diverse life forms we see. I suspect most people who say "God did it through evolution" have no idea of how the process works. They probably subscribe to the common misconception that it is some kind of painless process wherein species constantly "improve" themselves with some Goal state such as humans in mind. Indeed, many people seem to think of humans as "more evolved" than other life forms, rather than recognize that the only "evolutionary goal" is to survive and spread your genes and humans are no better at it than others. Humans were pretty competent in their ecological niche and so are other life forms.

People like Francis Collins puzzle me to a much greater degree though. As director of the human genome project, there can be no dearth in his understanding of evolution.
He however professes strong faith to the extent of writing books about it. It comes across multiple times that he keeps his faith largely as a result of how it makes him feel, rather than good scientific arguments. It nevertheless puzzles me as to how belief in a God, who chose evolution as the path for creating life could make one more comfortable with his existence. This implies believing in a God, who chose a path of untold pain and misery for all life-forms, with no generosity towards those lagging behind in the evolutionary arms race.
So a God consistent with evolution would have to be an extremely lazy (since evolution takes care of the whole job, with no need for the God hypothesis)
and malevolent and I don't see how anyone can derive comfort or inspiration from him.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Siddharth Jonathan and I recently started Infoaxe, a search company currently in the stealth mode.