Nasseem Nicholas Taleb on the uses of religion

In answer to a question after the end of his lecture on risk, robustness, and avoiding catastrophe, (at minute 44.39) Taleb was asked a question about the risk posed by religious people who might want to destroy the earth with some super weapon out of kindness. Apocalyptarians, let us call them. (Taleb is the author of The Black Swan, and a new book, Antifragile, Things that Gain from Disorder.)

Taleb makes several important and surprizing points. He is not so much in favour of religion as against attacks on religion. First, he responds, every time people abandon formal religious beliefs, nature abhors the vacuum. People become prey to nationalism, socialism, and other modern over-rational adventures which have led to more war. The most Catholic societies of Europe, having abandoned Roman Catholicism, with its strictures against borrowing and lending,  have taken on the most debt: Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal. They cease to believe in God and start believing economists, for example.

Second, he trashes modern atheists like Dennett and Dawkins for having no idea of what science really is. Taleb says every real scientist knows we do not know, how little we know and how provisionally what we do know is known. The modern atheists have an absurd belief in the certainty of science when it is not merely uncertain, but wrong.”There is no religious primitive more irrational than Dawkins in his use of probability”. We make millions of decisions that are probabilistic, because we have to.

Third, the more you suppress religion, the more it comes back with a vengeance. “You cannot get into a church in Russia today at vespers, it is standing room only.” Bang on it, and religion becomes more “anti-fragile”, hence robust.

He mentions Steven Pinker, in the following terms, “you know, one of yours, like Dawkins, simple mind, but writes books.”  (How I envy that ability to dismiss in one phrase!).

Fourth, Taleb points out that belief is about trust, not about God. Most religion starts with rituals and only later evolves towards ideas of God. (I do not accept this but that is his argument) Religion is the via negativa, the path of avoidance of danger, of social behaviours against which we have no defence unless they are banned (say, lending money at interest). Religion is about risk reduction. Faith is a form of making human life robust; it is a trust that we can manage, not the world, but to survive in the world. Belief is not epistemic, about knowledge, it is about trust.

I extend credit to the universe, that is belief.

In passing, he makes mincemeat out of some contemporary fatuisms.

NB: Taleb, later in the speech, said: A “heuristic” is a rule that you modify when it does not work, where being wrong has a small cost. When the delivery date is changed, your heuristic for shopping for bread also changes smoothly. Example, buying bread on Tuesday because it is fresher.  A “dogma” is something you do not modify even when it is shown to be wrong, because you will not allow it to be shown to be wrong.

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