This type of radical discontinuity is what Nassim Taleb calls 'a Black Swan'. He explores the topic at length in his excellent book of the same name. See The Black Swan Random House (2007)

A Chicken's Eye View

Thinking about induction has put me in mind of Bertrand Russell's illustration of the folly of believing that things will always go on as they have done in the past. Imagine a chicken. Every day the farmer comes and feeds it. This goes on day after day, week after week. The chicken's world is stable. It understands how things work, until one day the farmer comes along and wrings its neck.

How do we know the sun will rise tomorrow? Because it has risen every morning in the past. Of course, our assumptions about the sun ae supported by a sophisticated physical model involving stars and planets and relativity and gravitation and quantum phenomena and string theory going right back to the Big Bang, all of which sustains us in our confidence that things will keep going on as they have done. Our deep understanding of the physical world is all part of the fabric of our human point of view, however, and we just do not know whether this is a chicken perspective. No doubt the chicken had it all sussed, thoroughly confident that the world could never be other than the way it seemed to be.

Despite our sophistication, we cannot know that there is not a farmer perspective that is radically different from our own and which will result in our downfall. Indeed, it is in the nature of a perspective that it is not unique or absolute. A point of view, as any novelist knows, is defined as much by ignorance as by knowledge.

'That's like this world financial crisis thing,' Janice said when I mentioned this to her. 'Nobody saw it coming.'

'People should have known,' Amanda answered. 'If they'd thought about it.'

'You could say the same thing about the chicken,' I said. 'Maybe it even had that very thought itself as the farmer's hands closed around its gizzard. "Oh, shit! I should have figured this."'

'So what's the moral?' Janice asked.

'That you shouldn't lend money to people that are poor credit risks on the assumption that the housing market will keep going up,' Rupert said.

'Is that all?' Amanda frowned at him.

'Maybe the moral is to look for the farmer's perspective,' I said.

'Ah,' Trevor answered, 'but I bet you the farmer's taken out one of those crap mortgages. That's why he killed the chicken. He's feeling the credit squeeze. He's got nothing else to eat.'

10 October 2008


© Chris Else 2008