The Holy and the Empirical

October 6, 2009 at 10:02 pm (By Amba)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, best known for his searing critiques of the great minds of Wall Street:

I make a divide between the holy, the sacred, the mysterious, the unexplainable, the implicit, the aesthetic, the moral, and the ethical on one hand, and the empirical, the functional, the explainable, the logical, the true, and the proven on the other. In short, the Holy and the Empirical. Literature belongs to the holy. You can do fiction, nonfiction, a mixture, who cares. Literature is above the distinction. It is sacred.

Clearly, there’s a lot more to the man than high finance.  A fascinating thrilling mind.  More links here.


  1. Ron said,


    Where’s porn in this schema, I wonder…

  2. amba12 said,

    Well, “pornography” means “writing about prostitutes,” and prostitutes used to be holy, at least.

  3. Ron said,

    Maybe writing about Pompeii…But I like your Ambient Legal mind… “Your Honor, it was my religion…and the cash on the dresser like….like…the collection plate!”

    odd joke springs to mind….

    What did the drunk in the last row at church say when the priest in his vestments came in with his inscence burner?

    “I love your gown but your handbag’s on fire!”

  4. Ron said,

    I guess that one’s for Ruth Anne!

  5. amba12 said,

    Definitely! Just sent it to her.

  6. El Pollo Real said,

    You can do fiction, nonfiction, a mixture, who cares. Literature is above the distinction. It is sacred.

    Roman Polanski would approve that sentiment. :)

  7. amba12 said,

    I doubt that Taleb, who has real respect for religion, means it in the Hollywood sense.

  8. Donna B. said,

    It’s a quote from the interviewer (Dobelli) but I like this:

    “So, in a sense, art (and religion) requires a cognitive
    error. Without that error, we couldn’t appreciate it.”

    In light of that, why does anyone try to “prove” religion? Perhaps the statement would make even more sense if “spirituality” were substituted for “religion”. It is, I think, formal theologies that most agnostics/atheists have difficulty with. Theology does tend to be a bit like looking at a paint up close with a magnifying glass.

  9. amba12 said,

    Note that Taleb says, “Religion might have started as a Fooled by Randomness problem (of seeing false patterns to chart uncertainty). [a.k.a. “the narrative fallacy – our tendency to create explanations to give ourselves the illusion of understanding the world.”] But soon, later it developed into 1) theosis [“personal communion with God ‘face to face'”](Orthodoxy, Buddism, and mystical Sufi Islam), 2) golden rules (‘don’t do to others…’).”

    There’s a common assertion about now that religion originates in the human brain’s tendency to overattribute agency and purpose to random, unconscious forces, e.g. thinking a storm is vengeful or that the wind is alive. Here’s an explication of that theory that’s also a good example of a hard-core materialist atheist’s determination to demystify the world. Taleb is saying that even if that was the origin of religion, it soon deepened into something more, and more valuable: a communion with something transcendent and inspiring. It’s almost meaningless to ask whether that something “really” exists independently of human brains, since it takes a brain to perceive it? or create it? How can we know which, and what’s the practical difference?

  10. amba12 said,

    The link in that last comment is a bracing example of the debate between hard-core materialists and their detractors, one of whom, in the comments, declares that “this sort of blithe pseudoscience is itself a species of fundamentalism.”

  11. Donna B. said,

    Well… if we are to find the source of religion, where else are we to look except within our brains? I don’t for a moment think we’re going to find the “source” in the pituitary or something similar, but if there is “something” out there, finding the source of communication with it is theoretically possible.

    “What makes us human,” Wolpert explains, “is causal beliefs. What makes us different from other animals is that we have a concept of cause and effect in the physical world.”

    I don’t find the above quote incompatible with Taleb’s quote in comment #9.

    They appear to be two different ways of saying the same thing.

  12. amba12 said,

    Well, and . . . if you can only view the world through a human brain, how can you ever draw a bright line between what happens “inside” the brain and what happens “outside” it? You can, but it would be a fictional line.

  13. amba12 said,

    That’s not to say that there’s nothing outside the human brain (as Bishop Berkeley would have it), just that its nature as not perceived by a human brain is by definition unknowable to us. All the possible ways we can conceive of it, however abstract and mathematical, are still conceived by a human brain.

  14. Ron said,

    Ah, this is where Kant is an advancement on both Berkeley and Hume. In their cases, the mind is passive and it is our “selves” who cannot see beyond it But for Kant, the mind actively creates the structures of human understanding, his “categories” of the mind. Kant describes 12 such categories, the easist (for me anyway) to grasp is Time. For Kant we cannot define Time without an intrinsic sense of Time. This leads to his analogy of being forced to see the world with “rose colored glasses.” (I think that’s right.) Kant does connect all this to a belief in God, (through the idea of the Catagorical Imperitive) but that’s tougher to explain in a comment box…

  15. Ruth Anne said,

    Thanks for the funny, Ron.

    There are only two Sundays a year [half-way through Advent and half-way through Lent] when the priest wears rose-colored vestments. They can also opt for the seasonal purple. It is my delight to see real mean wearing rose. I asked one of our priests [who, if he weren’t celibate, would probably swing for the other team] if he would wear the rose vestments whereupon he guffawed like a girlfriend and said, ‘I have a hard enough time with my sexuality as it is…do you want me to have a handbag and skip down the aisle?’ Or words to that effect. We just love this priest. He is holy and wholly hilarious.

  16. realpc said,

    “It’s almost meaningless to ask whether that something “really” exists independently of human brains, since it takes a brain to perceive it? ”

    That is the brain-as-computer theory, which there is no evidence for. It takes a brain to detect what we sometimes call the “physical” world. That is a tiny fraction of what exists. We have instruments that detect energies and fields that are beyond our senses, so we know that what our brains register is a very small fraction. But why should we assume that what our brains and senses can detect, plus what our instruments can detect, is the sum of all that is?

    The alternative science theory of the brain says it is much more than a computer. It is an instrument that allows the mind to interact with a particular dimensional level and with particular energies and fields.

    It probably does a lot of what we might call “computing,” but that does not mean its only function is computing. A computer does not generate consciousness or intelligence. It processes information. The brain is not simply an information processor.

    We don’t really know how the brain works — that is, we really don’t know. There are theories and assumptions. The alternative science theory is very different from the mainstream materialist theory, which says the brain is a computer than generates consciousness.

    No one knows, so don’t start yelling that the alternative science theory isn’t proven. The mainstream theory is very far from proven. We each base our opinions on what we happen to have learned and experienced. We cannot spell out every little detail of our knowledge, so we can always be attacked for holding a belief without having absolute proof.

    No one has absolute proof, for one thing. But we all have our reasons for believing whatever we believe. These things are unknown, possibly cannot be completely known. If the universe is infinitely complex, then however much we learn it will always be infinitesimal.

    Darwin observed that species can be modified by natural selection, just as domestic species are modified by artificial selection. It seems so obvious to us now, but it wasn’t obvious to most people back then. This simple observation was immediately elevated and became the engine that drives the origin of species. Atheists were delighted because that meant life was not created; it just happened.

    But that was an enormous leap ahead of logic. When things are unknown, as most things are, people believe what feels right to them, what agrees with their experience. This is natural. But in science, theories should not leap far ahead of the evidence.

    As I said in my much-loved earlier post, there is evidence for evolution and there is evidence for natural selection, but there is no evidence that life and species originated because of chance plus natural selection.

    That is one of the main confusions at the heart of contemporary atheism.. The other confusion is the idea that the brain is a computer, and the Turing test will eventually be passed.

    50 or 100 years ago, life seemed a lot simpler than it does now. Now we have seen decades of failed attempts at creating machine intelligence. We have also seen that the more biologists learn about life, the more unfathomably complex it appears.

    At this point we can scream and fight, but it’s hard for either side to actually win. We should either agree to disagree or listen respectfully to those who see things differently.

    I am definitely, and obviously, on the side of alternative science. I have looked at both sides pretty carefully, and that is my conclusion. When more evidence comes along, I consider that also.

    So Amba, I strongly disagree that it takes a physical brain to perceive anything. It takes a physical brain, most of the time, to perceive what we call our ordinary world. But not always, since there is remote viewing evidence, for example. And our physical brain is specifically for perceiving things of this world, and for interacting with other things and beings in this world.

    We should not say this world is all there is, because we have no logical or scientific basis for making that kind of statement. We know very little about this, so I am not going to state anything with certainty. I suspect that when people say they communicate with spirits, some of them are probably telling the truth, at least some of the time.

    That is my opinion, which i don’t need to fight over and there is no benefit in insulting me because of it. Insulting me or acting condescending will not make me agree with you, and it will not make you look smart.

  17. amba12 said,

    Ruth Anne: he sounds irresistible.

  18. amba12 said,

    real: NO!! It is not the “brain as computer theory.” Not remotely so. It is merely a statement of the obvious: that it is with and through a human brain, and only thus, that we perceive the world. I don’t mean to say “only through the five physical senses.” I mean to say that how things appear to us, what we call them, how we categorize and understand them, is all filtered through a brain which has certain predispositions and also has acquired (whether by building from sensory data, and/or receiving from morphogenetic fields) concepts and structures from culture and culture-guided experience. We cannot perceive the world directly without those structures — at least not those of us who are adults doing science and talking about religion. This is so obvious that it’s almost absurd to have to say it. But it makes it difficult, to say the least, to distinguish between what is “the brain” or “the mind” and what is “the world.” They are inseparable.

    If you do Buddhist insight meditation, or sometimes spontaneously or when stoned, you can separate from your mind and observe, from outside concepts, that it is an intricate mechanism of associations. (Buddhists call the mind another sense.) That is a hint that the observer is not mechanical or physical. Maybe people in that state perceive some things about the universe more directly.

  19. amba12 said,

    “don’t start yelling”: you stop yelling, please. You’re talking to me! Remember?

  20. amba12 said,

    It takes a physical brain to conceptualize what we see. Even your ideas of “alternative science” (which you know I am interested in) were cooked up in some brains, and are ways of trying to open up and change and humble our conceptualizations to allow for our inability to know very much. We are limited by what we’ve got both in what we can perceive and what we can conceptualize. Or, as Blake said, “What if ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way/Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your Senses five?”

    Real, you need to realize that you are doing exactly what you despise in the atheists. You’re becoming the mirror image of your enemy. Calm down! You went from mistaking what I said for hard materialism (you should know me better than that) to assuming I was going to insult you because of it. You’re not talking to me at all, you’re talking to some boogeyman who isn’t here on this site.

  21. realpc said,


    I think we’re just having trouble finding words to explain what we mean. I was trying to say that the brain is an instrument that allows our brain to take in information from the senses, and to interact with the world via the voluntary muscles. I think a lot more goes on in the mind than just this kind of input and output. So I would differentiate between the mind and the brain. I think our minds are on some kind of higher dimensional level, and they work through the brain to interact with this level.

    And the remote viewing evidence, for example, suggests that a brain is not needed to register sensory date.

  22. realpc said,

    [“don’t start yelling”: you stop yelling, please. You’re talking to me! Remember?]

    No, I didn’t mean you! You never yell. I meant THEM.

  23. amba12 said,

    And the remote viewing evidence, for example, suggests that a brain is not needed to register sensory data.

    Why, then, do things when seen by remote viewing look the way they look through physical eyes? Obviously, the way they appear is conditioned through prior experience with the senses. The brain with its senses is interpretive. And those interpretations stay with us when we move outside the body and perceive directly. This is what I’m trying to say: we can’t perceive the world as perceived by something other than a human being.

  24. realpc said,

    I mostly agree with Taleb, as far as i know from what little I read so far. I believe the financial crisis was caused partly, or mostly, by human arrogance and faith in fancy mathematics. People who do not have a sense of human limitations see no reason why they cannot get complete control over complex natural systems (and the economy is a natural system, I think). So they should be able to calculate probabilities and minimize risk and get it all perfectly under control. A perpetual motion prosperity machine.

    It was the materialist, humanist, progressive, mentality, more than anything else, in my opinion, that caused the crisis. Progressives try to blame it on their usual scapegoats greed and ignorance.

  25. realpc said,

    “Why, then, do things when seen by remote viewing look the way they look through physical eyes? Obviously, the way they appear is conditioned through prior experience with the senses. The brain with its senses is interpretive. And those interpretations stay with us when we move outside the body and perceive directly. This is what I’m trying to say: we can’t perceive the world as perceived by something other than a human being.”

    Well yes, you’re right, I can’t disagree with that. It’s way beyond my knowledge, actually. I wonder about it.

  26. Donna B. said,

    I highly recommend reading “Fooled By Randomness” before reading “The Black Swan”. And if you are only going to read one, make it “Fooled By Randomness”. Another book I enjoyed immensely is “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” by Leonard Mlodinow.

    I totally agree that the economy is a natural system. That’s one of the reasons I never blame presidents for it, unless they actively promote ways to make it worse. I doubt they have the power to make it better.

    I would argue that today’s so-called political progressives are not actually materialists, since so many of their solutions include “and then a miracle occurred” somewhere in the formula.

    An Althouse thread took me to find this quote from the 1973 movie “Sleeper”:
    Miles Monroe: I’m what you would call a teleological, existential atheist. I believe that there’s an intelligence to the universe, with the exception of certain parts of New Jersey.

    I’ve never seen it, but now I want to!

  27. karen said,

    Can we sometimes ignore our brains and just use our other senses- or do they have to ask permission of the brain to work? Meaning- i think it’s ok to disagree w/the brain’s diagnosis of something. I like to think that it is a form of simply ~being~. Communing w/all that is outside my body. It’s a good thing.

  28. realpc said,

    “Can we sometimes ignore our brains and just use our other senses- or do they have to ask permission of the brain to work?”

    The physical senses only work through the brain. But we don’t know how the mind’s senses work. At least modern science doesn’t know, since it doesn’t think the mind has senses. Mystics believe the body exists in levels, in addition to the physical body, such as the astral or etheric bodies. So if a person does astral projection, their astral body goes out while the physical body stays home. Maybe something like that happens in remote viewing.

    I think a lot of information we don’t understand is coming into our minds all the time. You can get some ideas about this from either mysticism or alternative science. The physical level is just the tip of an infinite iceberg.

  29. michael reynolds said,

    The Holy and the Empirical.

    Alternate versions:

    The Unicorn and the Horse.
    The Leprechaun and the Human Being.
    The Not There and the There.
    The Fantasy and the Reality.
    The Crazy and the Sane.

    People just really need their magic sky fairies, don’t they?

    My only request is that some of you needier types put a little creative effort into it. Your fiction is boring. If you’re going to invent magic invisible friends for God’s sake (heh) put some effort into it and stop boring us with the same old crap.

    It makes me appreciate L. Ron Hubbard. At least he came up with a brand new crazy.

  30. amba12 said,

    Michael — I’d love to match you up with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of this quote and of The Black Swan and Fooled By Randomness and predictor of the financial meltdown. Not exactly your average unicorn chaser *evil chuckle*.

  31. Peter Hoh said,

    A favorite prof described literature as gossip informed by philosophy.

  32. pathmv said,

    Michael, I see from your FB page that you’re making some bookstore rounds… if you make it down Louisiana-way, let me know and I’ll buy you a beer while you’re down.

  33. Donna B. said,

    I am, for the most part a very pragmatic person. “Prove it to me” is a favorite phrase. Yet, I not unsympathetic to evidence outside materialism. One experience I had in an historic church… tears of what… I do not know, yet tears were my response.

    Another experience, a motorcyclist passing me who I had a vision of crashing at a certain intersection… and when I approached that intersection I found that he had crashed. He died.

    But the actual result of those experiences, those feelings, is that I am not capable of changing them.

    I believe that my son may be trying to commit suicide. I have several concrete statements from him that this might be true… yet, what can I do other than tell him I love him and wish he would not do such a thing? Yes, I’ve called the cops and more than once prevented his wish from coming true.

    Yet… this has simply made him more secretive and circumspect about his attempts.

    Yes, I may have a feeling, a disturbance in my well-being upon which I feel compelled to act… but that cannot automatically result in a change of someone else’s actions.

    Do you have any idea how hard this is to realize? That I have no control over how those I love act?

    Is it my loved one’s fault because he doesn’t not feel my good vibrations directed his way? Or is it my fault for not sending in such a way he can feel?

    As far as final results are concerned, what difference is there between materialistic and other non-materialistic views?

  34. amba12 said,

    Damn it. It’s all whistling in the dark, isn’t it.

  35. karen said,

    Donna– i’m so sorry. I hope that your son wakes up to see that life changes if we can just be patient enough to wait for it. We change, too. I hope and pray he will not do this thing.

  36. Peter Hoh said,

    Donna, most likely the only people who could give you any insight and support are other parents who are in/were in similar situations with their children. Mental illness and depression expose weakness in our medical/scientific approach. We just don’t know enough. Couple that with social stigma, and the peculiarities of certain disorders, and it’s enough to make one feel powerless.

    I have had premonitions in the past. At their strongest, these were whole body responses, not mere thoughts popping into my head. Probably just anxiety running amok, but a couple of times, these premonitions turned out to be accurate and were based — as best I can tell — on scant empirical evidence. Makes it hard to decide whether or not to act on the next one.

  37. realpc said,

    I get premonitions. It is not just a thought, but an eerie sense of time being compressed into the moment, of knowing something about a whole network of incidents. It is not expressed in words, but in some higher more complex language. However I now take them as warnings, not predictions. I found that whatever disaster might happen can be avoided by being careful, or warning the person. So I really think premonitions are helpful warnings.

    I think that you are lucky to have these warnings Donna, because at least you will pay careful attention to your son. Just pray. A lot. Don’t pray for any specific results, just for things to go as they are supposed to.

    If you can’t figure out any reasons for his feeling this way, then there is nothing practical you can do, except being available if he ever decides to talk about it.

    So I think premonitions should not be ignored, but they should not make you scared either. They are a helpful warning that something may be going wrong. It’s better to be warned than find out too late.

  38. realpc said,

    “If you’re going to invent magic invisible friends for God’s sake (heh) put some effort into it and stop boring us with the same old crap.”

    My invisible friend could be called the subconscious mind, or else the ‘higher self.” Whatever it is that I call “myself,” the little conscious mind, is the tip of an infinite iceberg. William James said out subconscious mind connects us with the infinite source of all being and all wisdom. Jung had a similar concept of the subconscious. Unfortunately, the concept that became popular was Freud’s unconscious which is all repressed and primitive desires (sort of like Jung’s “shadow”). There is no infinite intelligence on the other side of Freud’s unconscious mind.

    We can live in relative harmony with our subconscious, or we can constantly fight against it. We can be generally happy or we can be neurotic or depressed. It all depends on how we relate to our subconscious.

    And yes, it can certainly be a friend. Invisible maybe, but not imaginary.

    When people pray to Jesus Christ I believe they are really trying to connect with their invisible friend, the subconscious mind.

    So too bad, Michael, that you have no need of your enormously powerful and wise subconscious mind. It doesn’t like to be ignored or denied.

    And one other thing — if we have invisible friends, we also have invisible enemies. So watch out you materialists!

  39. amba12 said,

    Karen, it’s harder for him because he had a serious closed head injury as a child. I doubt that means someone can’t change, but i probably makes it harder than we can imagine. Donna, I wish to God someone could reach him.

  40. amba12 said,

    Michael’s invisible friend helps him a great deal, just doesn’t get any credit for it. Michael regards himself, I think, as genetically lucky.

  41. amba12 said,

    That’s another way of putting it.

  42. realpc said,

    “Michael’s invisible friend helps him a great deal, just doesn’t get any credit for it. ”

    Yes, God is always with atheists, whether they like it, or know it, or not. But where do they think all their ideas come from?

  43. Donna B. said,

    One of the first things I did after Eric’s health “stabilized” after his head injury was head to the medical library with the neurologist/radiologist reports of his CT scan. Their summary to us was that he would likely never speak or walk again.

    His injury was contrecoup, twisting, and some lack of oxygen. It happened 25 miles away from a hospital. He would not have survived had my cousin not been there and knew how to give artificial respiration. My father and my cousin started toward town with him and met the ambulance. Paramedics intubated him. He was transferred to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas by helicopter the next day.

    It took two weeks to wean him off the ventilator. A month later, after all signs of swelling in his brain were gone, he was transferred to Dallas’ Scottish Rite Hospital. For another two months, the only movement he made was a wild swinging of his left arm. The only good sign was that he began tracking people and noises with his eyes.

    It was during this period I had to pull my mother off a nurse’s aide who told her that we weren’t “loving” him enough and that’s why his recovery was slow. If I hadn’t thought we’d both end up in jail and Eric get kicked out of the hospital, I would have joined Mom.

    I won’t bore you with more detail of his recovery, but in slightly less than 7 months after the accident, he left Scottish Rite walking and talking, though he still has problems with both.

    What I want to talk about here is the complete change in his personality. His brain re-wired itself enough in areas controlling physical movement, but in this imperfect process, a new personality emerged also.

    This is not unusual for people suffering any type of brain injury, including stroke.

    How much of a person is personality? What some of you here seem to intimate is that the mind is somehow outside ourselves and our brains… or am I misunderstanding?

    If I’m not, why do changes in our brains bring about such changes in personality? Is it really that some of us have “lost” our minds, no longer able to communicate with them, but they are still there? Somewhere?

  44. michael reynolds said,


    Come up to NYC on 10/15. I’ll need all the help I can get. The other three authors all have new books out and mine came out in May. I’m going to have the waiting line equivalent of what George Costanza delicately referred to as “shrinkage.”

    They’re threatening to tour me more for my next series. I’d love to have a drink in Nawlins and maybe some etouffe as well. Love me some Creole and Cajun food.

  45. pathmv said,


    Oh, if only I had the cash to jet up to NYC at the drop of a hat. Alas, not. Just got back from Colorado visiting friends, and their oldest son’s 7th birthday (alien invasion themed!).

    Get somebody to make a movie out of your books, and tell them to film it down here. We’ve got all sorts of crazy tax incentives to lure filmmakers. We’re the home of all sorts of vampires, ghouls, and ghosts these days. Are there any adults in your books? We can get Brangelina to play them.

    Then you’ll have plenty of time to get lunch at Mother’s, dinner at Arnaud’s or Galatoire’s, or heck, just about any of 2 dozen restaurants in the French Quarter. And there’s plenty of liquor available. One bar even stayed open during Katrina and the aftermath thereof.

  46. amba12 said,

    Dang, would I love to be there.

  47. Donna B. said,

    Not everything in Louisiana happens in Nawlins. Don’t forget Shreveport.

  48. Ron said,

    Any excuse to get to The City I’d take….if I could!

  49. pathmv said,

    Well, any of you passing through Baton Rouge, drop me a line. Within the next month, I will once again have a spare bedroom available for visitors. Donna, Shreveport is cool, but man, the drive between here and there is just dreadfully dull.

  50. michael reynolds said,


    Did you know I was involved in a documentary filmed partly in New Orleans. DESERT BAYOU, a film about Katrina survivors who’d been relocated to Salt Lake City. I think I have the “story by” credit on that. I got that for calling up my documentary buddy and saying, “Dude, you should totally do a film about these people who got sent to SLC.” Exhausting work on my part.

  51. Donna B. said,

    Pat, the drive wouldn’t be so boring if it weren’t for the state police. But… nevermind.

    Michael, I would like to see that documentary. Talk about a change of climate, culture, and scenery.

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