I have just finished Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan. It was, ironically, given the name of the publishing company, published by Random House back in 2007. The Black Swan is about improbable, unexpected events which have a high impact. Even more importantly, Taleb wants the reader to be aware of our inability to predict these events. Indeed, we all stomp around behaving as though we just know that our home won’t catch on fire tomorrow. We also behave like we know that a plane won’t crash into the building we work in while we’re working in it. And yet we don’t know. We cannot know.
This is not a book review, but more of a Christian reflection on the ideas in the book. The kind of events Taleb has in mind are massive stock market crashes (e.g. 1929, 1987, and 2008), terrorist attacks on Australian soil, or the rise of Christianity. High impact, unpredictable, and improbable. That’s the trio of features.
I agree with Taleb’s central thesis. I have also read another of his books, Fooled By Randomness, which takes a similar line about events being random despite our attempts to act like they’re not (especially with hindsight). We tend to generalise about the future based on what we know from the past, and therefore we expose ourselves to Black Swans. Or, from another angle, tend to generalise about the future based on what we know from the past, and therefore fail to capitalise on Black Swans.
Yet, I am a Calvinist. I believe in the sovereignty of God, in his absolute control over all events. I affirm the Providence of God. The 1689 Baptist Confession 5:1 puts it like this: “God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will.” The Confession also says in 5:2 that “there is not anything that befalls by chance, or without his providence.” Psalm 135:6 says:
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.
God does what he pleases, and works everything according to his good will (cf. Acts 2:23).
So, can a Christian embrace Taleb’s Black Swan ideas, his ideas on randomness? Yes, but only up to a point. You see, Taleb writes from a evolutionary viewpoint. He seems to believe in an impersonal universe (despite his constant references to “Mother Nature”). Assuming an impersonal universe, Taleb is absolutely correct: we have absolutely no way of knowing what will happen next. However, the Christian believes in a personal, triune God, who governs all things, knows all things, and who has said (promised) various things will occur.
Where Taleb should be embraced is in his description of our own limitations. We are not God. We are human, and are a creature. Our perception of the world, of history, of the future, of time, of events, is inherently limited. Indeed, we should ask with the Psalmist, “What is man?” (Psalm 8:4) Taleb is correct to point out that we have huge limitations on what we can know. However, as a Christian I am confident that the God I worship knows all. Even if I don’t know much at all, I know that God does, and that he has revealed things to me in the Scriptures which I can know. We can’t know what the stock market will do tomorrow (despite what the newspapers suggest), but we can know that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead.