#50 Black Swans revealed to the intoxicated mind

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb, pages xvii-50

“First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable” (Taleb, 2007, xvii-xviii).

I’m currently reading Taleb’s The Black Swan (I’ve only read sections of the book before, so this will be the first time reading it cover to cover). So far, it’s part autobiographical, historical, and philosophical. In reference to the quote above, a Black Swan event is something completely unexpected, something so out of the ordinary that no one could have, or rather would not likely have, predicted. The two planes that brought down New York’s Twin Towers in 2001, for example, would be considered a Black Swan. The reason Taleb calls these events “Black Swans” is because prior to Australia’s discovery by Europeans in the 18th century people thought all swans were white. It was inconceivable to think that a swan could be any other color. The same shock would occur today if someone discovered a three-legged horse or a two-trunked elephant.A black swan on a white background.The backbone of Black Swan theory relates to the “problem of induction.” Inductive reasoning draws on past events, usually mundane and predictable. For example, someone could say: “Bob has never missed watching a football game on Sundays, therefore he will likely be doing that next Sunday let alone every Sunday in the future.” The same can be said about the sun: it has risen each day that I’ve been alive, so it will rise tomorrow. This kind of reasoning draws from past events and one assumes that the same event will happen in the future. While I believe the sun will rise tomorrow, I have no proof that it actually will regardless of how many times I saw the sun rise in the past.

First, Taleb says Black Swans are outliers, therefore defying one’s normal expectations and predicted outcomes. They exist outside the realm of normality and in the realm of the unknown. Second, the extreme impact it carries is so far skewed from the normal, which is why it carries so much significance. I would argue that it has to be an event that has never been seen or considered before, such as two planes flying into two of the tallest buildings in the world and of which had tremendous symbolic impact (e.g. America, New York, innovation, capitalism, free trade, freedom, etc.). Third, we give reasons why we couldn’t have seen it coming but justify it retrospectively, that is, after it happens. Now that it has happened, cockpit doors are bulletproof and some pilots carry guns, therefore decreasing the possibility that it will happen again (unless the pilot him- or herself is a sleeper cell terrorist or mentally unstable).

Taleb gives the analogy of two different worlds: Mediocristan and Extremistan. In Mediocristan, a single anomalous occurrence will not skew the rest of the data points, however, one single event in Extremistan can. Taleb says that someone living in Extremistan should be skeptical of past data, which ultimately prepares one’s mind to expect the unexpected (see pages 32-37).

How can psychedelic researchers/experiencers apply Taleb’s Black Swan theory (from what we know so far about these kinds of experiences) to their own research/experiences?

The first thing to note is that just because multiple trials reveal the same results do not make the results fact (e.g. Popper’s falsificationism); they are always vulnerable to being proven false. I forgot who said this, most likely Popper, is that all it takes is one false result to disprove a theory that has been proven thousands of times. The flip side of the coin is Emerson who famously said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” As for my own iboga experiments, the first two times I took it entity experiences generally began on the second night, so when these beings, whoever they are and wherever they’re from, appeared on the first night of my third experience, I was shocked because I thought this phenomenon only happened starting on the second night. I could only draw on my previous two experiences. The experiences you have under your belt, experimentally and/or experientially, the more the experience reveals itself as to what is possible and of what it’s capable. Additionally, let’s say you took mushrooms ten times in a row and had wonderful experiences. You think: I’ve heard of these so-called “bad trips” but I must be immune to them or something. Once you start thinking like this, the eleventh experience might produce that bad experience once you let down your guard. It’s not that you should try to avoid a bad experience – there are things you can do to mitigate these risks, however, instead be aware that such possibilities can occur.

What excites me most about taking psychedelics is experiencing their seemingly infinite capabilities in altering my mind, consciousness, perception. I’m never dissatisfied with my experiences because I learn a new way in which it affects my sober self and mind. Each experience builds upon the last, creating a rough map of how it will affect me while simultaneously not knowing the details of each subsequent experience. I strongly believe the what has just as much impact as the how because certain visions might be imbued with specific properties or ways of giving themselves (called “givenness” in phenomenology) to my (altered) consciousness.

Furthermore, if you do experience something psychedelically otherworldly of Black Swan proportions, can it be reproduced, can it be engineered so that you and others can experience it if all conditions are duplicated that generated it in the first place, from mindset, setting, dosage, etc.? Doing so will allow for a psychedelic-specific phenomenology, even a dynamics/mechanics, of the altered mind to be developed, and therefore predictable, depending on whether very specific conditions are met even for individuals naïve in both experience and knowledge of that substance.

Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House.

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