Taleb vs Harari, the Showdown

How the great ideas of these intellectual giants compare

Arguably two of the deepest thinkers in this century. I’ve read everything they’ve written several times and I agree with both despite the contradictions.

I would love to see a debate between them but it’s probably not going to happen. So instead I’ll have a go at comparing their ideas and see how they complement each other.

Main Ideas

Taleb

Reality is too random for us to understand. Every so often, unexpected events of vast consequences — Black Swans — happen, altering the way we see the world.

What we call truth is just a narrative fallacy — stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world.

We must be careful with these stories because they give us the wrong view of reality, a false sense of security and the illusion of knowledge.

The only way to protect ourselves is by becoming Antifragile — the ability to benefit from disorder. Since we don’t know much about reality, or what’s going to happen next, we’ll be better off by designing our lives in a way that we benefit from the upside while limiting the downside.

Harari

We humans came from being an insignificant ape in west Africa to completely dominate the world and everything in it. We owe this success to our ability to create fictional stories that are shared by millions of strangers.

Religion, nationality, money, sports, human rights, freedom, justice, and many other concepts have no objective reality and exists only in our shared imagination.

Take money for instance. If you and I agree on the price of a banana is $1 then we can exchange it without losing value. You get the banana, I get $1. However, the value of a banana is real while the value of the green bill is only imaginary — it only holds when we both agree on it. The moment we stop believing in it, its value drops down to zero, i.e the Venezuelan bolivar. Harari distinguishes between objective and subjective reality, while the former is non-negotiable, the latter is agreed upon and it’s not reality bounded.

Harari is a globalist. He believes the big problems of humanity can only be solved if we agree to cooperate on a global scale. Not much point in being green in Norway if China is burning oil like crazy.

He sees three main threats to humanity; Global warming, nuclear war, and technological disruption — any one of these can only be solved by global cooperation.

His antidote to fiction is meditation. By serious meditative practice, we can see reality as it is, rather than how we’ve been lead to believe, and that way we’ll be free to choose what stories are more beneficial for us.

Harari reckons freewill is another illusion to feel well about ourselves. Our genes and environment determine most of our decisions and we just construct back fitting narratives to make sense of our decisions. On top of that, the advent of A.I is eroding the little free will we had left — algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. We can be easily manipulated without even noticing. This is questioning democracy — if we can decide freely who to vote for, is it really democratic? Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Liberal humanism promotes the idea we are the only source of knowledge and moral code, we have replaced God as the center of the universe. Well, according to Harari, this idea is also in crisis. Since we can’t be objective, we believe in fictional stories and have no freewill, how can we be the unquestionable source of knowledge and moral code?

This egocentric idea is what is making us destroy the planet, make animals suffer, and pursue an endless race to do more, have more, and be more at any cost which could destroy humanity itself.

Common ground

Narrative fallacy

Both authors believe in the capacity of us to bend reality to suit ourselves.

Taleb sees this as a flaw and advises us to stop lying to ourselves and see reality for what it is. Harari thinks narratives, when used properly, can be very beneficial and make us cooperate and advance as a race.

For example, I could choose to believe I am a good writer or I could choose the opposite. Since both are fallacies, I might as well choose the one that benefits me. By choosing the positive spin I will keep practicing and getting better until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In this sense, Taleb is more realistic but Harari is more useful.

Perception

Both agree on the difficulties of perceiving reality.

The world is too complex and random for us to understand. We can never comprehend what’s really happening since our view is limited and distorted.

For Taleb, we are like the turkey that has been fed daily and has come to the conclusion its master is benevolent…until thanksgiving day when the master comes with a knife.

Taleb believes we should be ready for any event and even try to benefit from randomness by becoming antifragile.

Harari thinks meditation is the key to understand reality — getting rid of all illusions will let us see the world as it is.

Communism

Taleb is against any centralized system where all power is concentrated in the hands of a few. Any small mistake from the top can lead to a disaster since the system is fragile. In that sense, he opposes anything that resembles the political system of the former Soviet Union.

Harari believes that communism, capitalism, and other ideologies are non-theist religions and as such, can be both very powerful and very dangerous.

Totalitarianism

They both agree that big totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union don’t work in the long run and are very damaging for the population.

Taleb argues that top-down, centralized power is prone to failure due to the power of leverage. Harari argues that some fictional stories can give unlimited power to the elites and that can have nefarious consequences.

Main differences

Globalism

Taleb is opposed to any big organization whether is a company, the UN, big government, the Soviet Union, or academia. He believes big structures amplify the damage done by people with no skin in the game. Most of the problems in the world are caused by bureaucrats with too much power and the wrong model for reality.

Harari reckons that only big alliances like the EU can tackle big problems like global warming, A.I, or nuclear war.

Both are right. Big institutions don’t work efficiently and yet, some problems can only be solved by them. We should realize citizens have power and can pressure governments and big institutions to do the right thing.

Top-down approach

Taleb defends bottom-up strategies as more robust and efficient while Harari believes more in top-down solutions.

Academia

Harari teaches history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He believes in the power of academia to push new ideas, progress, and research. Top-down approach.

Taleb accuses academics of lecturing birds on how to fly, meaning they are totally disconnected from reality and can only pontificate recycled ideas from their ivory towers while writing papers that only get read by peers.

In that sense, I lean more towards Taleb’s point of view. For all the money invested in research in universities, there is very little to show, which is odd, given the brightest minds and the perfect environment is there for the development and nurturing of ideas and yet, not much is delivered.

Instead, the big revolutionary inventions always come from the real world — tinkerers, small companies, mavericks, etc.

This seems to support the idea that reality is too complex and can’t be reduced to mental models like they do in academia. Instead, is better to keep tinkering blindly until eventually, results are achieved.

The Wright brothers weren’t aeronautical professors at some fancy university. The father of the internet didn’t start with a theoretical model of telecommunication and Newton or Einstein made their discoveries independently outside academia.

Statistics

Here is the bone to pick between the two. While Harari reads statistics like a social scientist — looking just at past data and extrapolating to the future — Taleb has a very deep understanding of probability and its statistical models.

With a background in mathematics, economy, and day-trading Taleb knows how to read hidden risks.

For example, Harari mentions that terrorism is not such a big deal since only 2000 people die from it every year (less than people drowning in the bathtub). However, Taleb argues that risk can never be calculated by looking at the past, you have to look at the probabilities into the future. While the number of accidental deaths is unlikely to increase sharply, terrorists could potentially kill millions next year if they get hold of the right weapons.

Risk is always hidden and can’t be understood by looking backward, you have to look forward.

Conclusion

They are both great thinkers, while Taleb is more concerned with randomness, probability and how to survive in a world we don’t understand, Harari is more interested in how believing fictional stories can help us thrive in a world where facts don’t matter.

Taleb is a bit of a jerk but he is right in his conclusions. The ideas of antifragility, skin in the game, fooled by randomness are taking into account by many powerful people because they are very useful.

Harari is very imaginative, he can make you see the world in a very different and original way. He does push his agenda too; as a vegan Buddhist he has a particular way to see the world and tries to sell it.

They are both great modern-day philosophers and great ones as well. In this chaotic and confusing times, we need more people like them.

Student of life. Trying to make sense of it all, be happy and help others achieve their dreams. Join me at: albertotheauthor@gmail.com

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