Thursday, 10 July 2014

Interview with a Master Philosopher

I imagine I interviewed the master philosopher, Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness and Anti-fragile. I imagine further that his answers to all my questions were taken directly, unmodified, and word-for-word from his amazing book of practical aphorisms entitled The Bed of Procrustes. Of course the caveat here is that the answers do not fully represent his personal views since it is a simple case of cut-and-
paste as answers to contrived questions. But if the interview (as I'd imagined it) had gone through, it would go something like this.

Thanks for coming sir.
Let’s start with this question: What is true love?
True love is the complete victory of the particular over the general, and the unconditional over the conditional. Love without
 sacrifice is like theft.
Mm...interesting. How about love, money and knowledge, can we have it all?
At any stage, humans can thirst for money, knowledge, or love; sometimes for two, never for three.
And what can you say about happiness and love?
The difference between love and happiness is that those who talk 
about love tend to be in love, but those who talk about happiness tend to be not happy.
I see. Let's pick your brain on generosity. What is pure generosity?
Pure generosity is when you help the ingrate. Every other form is self-serving. Even the cheapest misers can be generous with advice.
How about true humility?

True humility is when you can surprise yourself more than others; the rest is either shyness or good marketing.
And false modesty is?
Most of what they call humility is successfully disguised arrogance.
So, we should be wary of first impression?
We expect places and products to be less attractive than in marketing brochures, but we
 never forgive humans for being worse than their first impressions. To value a person, consider the difference between how impressive he or she was at the first encounter and the most recent one.
But how do we become more authentic, more sincere?
You want to avoid being disliked without being envied or admired. Half the people lie with their lips; the other half with their tears.

So it’s about being true to yourself in deeds and words?
When expressing “good luck” to a peer, the weak wishes the opposite; the strong is mildly indifferent; but only the magnificent means it.
You make it sound like people can’t be trusted?
I trust everyone except those who tell me they are trustworthy. Trust people who make a living lying down or standing up more 
than those who do so sitting down. People usually apologize so that they can do it again.
Good advice. Any wise words for humanity as a whole?
You have a real life if and only if you do not compete with anyone in any of your pursuits.
Is that success to you?
My only measure of success is how much time you have to kill. The opposite of success isn’t
 failure; it is name-dropping.
I understand you were once a trader. In your early days, have you ever wished to be successful like those wall street bankers?
Some, like most bankers, are so unfit for success that they look like dwarves dressed in giants’ clothes. Fate is at its cruelest when a banker ends up in poverty. Fortune punishes the greedy by making him poor and the very greedy by making him rich.

That would mean being rich is bad karma?
You are rich if and only if money you refuse tastes better than money you accept.
Good point. What’s your measure of a good life sir?
You have a calibrated life when most of what you fear has the titillating prospect of adventure.
So life’s one long beautiful adventure for you?

Life’s beauty…the kindest act toward you in your life may come from an outsider not interested in reciprocation.
Hmm…selfless giving. What in your view is man’s problem?
Over the long term, you are more likely to fool yourself than others.
Self-deception I see. What makes it worse for us?
The person you are the most
 afraid to contradict is yourself.
So, we fake everything? We are fakes?
Hatred is much harder to fake than love. You hear of fake love; never of fake hate. Usually, what we call a “good listener” is someone with skillfully polished indifference.
But don’t we want the truth? Doesn’t the truth set you free?
If you lie to me, keep lying; don’t hurt me by suddenly telling the 
Are you saying that we can’t handle the truth? What about the freedom to change?
You don’t become completely free by just avoiding to be slave; you also need to avoid becoming a master.
Does modern technology attenuate this problem?
The difference between technology and slavery is that
 slaves are fully aware that they are not free.
You're talking about self-awareness. Is that the key to understanding?
Medieval man was a cog in a wheel he did not understand; modern man is a cog in a complicated system he thinks he understands.
And it is your view that we think we know when we don’t really know that we don’t know?

It takes a lot of intellect and confidence to accept that what makes sense doesn’t really make sense. Knowledge is subtractive, not additive – what we subtract (reduction by what does not work, what not to do), not what we add (what to do). Any idiot can be intelligent.
So self-awareness is coming to a point of admitting your ignorance?
Conscious ignorance, if you can practice it, expands your world; it
 can make things infinite.
And knowledge is power and yet humbling, especially the knowledge of knowing the extent of your ignorance. I heard that’s Confucius’ definition of being wise?
It takes extraordinary wisdom and self-control to accept that many things have a logic we do not understand that is smarter than our own.
I see your point. What is your
 view on the vanities of man then?
They read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall on an e-Reader but refuse to drink Chateau Lynch-Bages in a Styrofoam cup. Upon arriving at the hotel in Dubai, the businessman had a porter carry his luggage; I later saw him lifting free weights in the gym. Meditation is a way to be narcissistic without hurting anyone. Just as dyed hair makes older men less attractive, it is what you do to hide your weaknesses that make them
So all that unravels the superficialities of modern men?
Modernity inflicts a sucker narrative on activities; now we “walk for exercise”, not “walk” with no justification: for hidden reasons. Finer men tolerate others’ small inconsistencies though not the large ones; the weak tolerate others’ large inconsistencies though not small ones. 

I guess that sums us up quite neatly. Do you always know what to say and how to say it?
A good maxim allows you to have the last word without even starting a conversation.
I see…I guess I am very much persuaded by your biting wit. Just for kicks, can you share an aphorism from your book?
The three most harmful addictions are heroin,
 carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.
Haha...funny, monthly salary. It's the opiate of modern cubicle slavery. I guess we are out of time sir. Thanks for coming. Any parting shot for the reader?
They are born, then put in a box; they go home to live in a box; they study by ticking boxes; they go to what is called “work” in a box, where they sit in their cubicle box; they drive to the grocery store in a box to buy food
 in a box; they go to the gym in a box to sit in a box; they talk about thinking “outside the box”; and when they die they are put in a box. All boxes, Euclidian, geometrically smooth boxes.
And on that sobering note, good night sir. Cheerz.

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