The Ornithology of Epistemology

Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. 

— Richard Feyman

There is an interesting flock of bird concepts in epistemology, philosophy of science and risk theory:

Russell’s Turkey

Black Swan

Pink Flamingo

Ostrich Effect

Raven Paradox

283px-kaninchen_und_enteDespite decades of intensive ornitho-epistemological research, the bird-ness of Rabbitduck [1] could not been firmly established yet. Every time we think we nailed it, the the rabbit-ness wins over and we are back to square one. More research is needed.

[1] We are sad to report, but there is still a small, but very vocal part of our research community, that insists on the clearly ignorant “Duckrabbit” nomenclature.

We also don’t subscribe to the wishy-washy, cheap consensus of the Copenhagen interpretation, that claims that the creature is both a rabbit and a duck.


Sararīman in the high agency economy and in the roboconomy

1. Rise of the freelancer

Taleb just reprinted his excellent How To Legally Own Another Person essay at It originally appeared at Evonomics, which is very much worth following.

Developed nations are increasingly relying on freelancer / contractor works (40% of America’s workforce will be freelancers by 2020 says Intuit’s report). This puts new demands on the workforce – high agency, independence, risk tolerance. Reputation is already now one of the main currencies (think Uber, Airbnb et al.).

2. Internal and external coordination costs

Is this the death of the poor Sararīman (salaried employee)? How far can this trend go?

Coase’s Theory of the Firm did tap into an important insight from complex systems: Firms grow to achieve a dynamical equilibrium between internal and external coordination costs, between economies and dis-economies of the scale.

The technology-enabled, highly networked world with its remote communication and work tools and reputation-rings shifts the set point of most companies towards a more distributed, freelancer-reliant structure.

Nonetheless there are limits to this shift as coordination cost will never quite reach zero. More importantly, there are limits on the size of the workforce pool, that does have the required levels of agency and risk tolerance.

3. Rise of the robo-worker

There is one more, overwhelming trend that is coming to play. The rise of the freelancer (and the death of sararīman) will co-evolve with automatization. The Uber freelancers can already start competing with their robotic colleagues.

The salaried man will not live long enough to die by glorious Karōshi (death by overworking), but rather die the double death of outsourcing to a freelancer or a robot.

4. The Tale of the Slave

While I don’t want to get into the neo-luddite debate now, I do want to link Taleb’s article with Nozik’s fantastically funny Tale of the Slave. It is a very short read, but very much worth it. The point being, that maybe the salaryman-hood is not such such a great thing to cling too anyway.

5. The Diogenesian or Epictetian future of the salaried worker

Ultimately, the boundary conditions for the “freed” (= kicked-out, redundant) Sararīman are:

  1. living in barrel like fellow slave Diogenes (the neo-luddite scenario)
  2. or flourish like ex-slave Epictetus, becoming a wealthy and self-actualized freeman

Here, I’m more on the cautious optimist’s side.

While not everybody will become an influential philosopher (artist, writer…), my hope is that we will be wise enough to use the surplus generated by automatized technology to make the barrel really comfty (good Wifi and VR googles are included of course).

Wait, did I say optimistic?




Niches between two absurd positions


In many discussions we are drawn to extreme boundary values. Here is a possible dilemma for a potential parent:

“If all comes down to genetics, there is nothing I can do to really affect my child. It is a total gamble. I have no control.”

But imagine it was 100% nurture: every interaction with your child, every word you say shapes its personality – permanently and possibly irreversibly.

Who could bear this kind of responsibility?


This can be extended to everything in your life. (Learned) helplessness is a serious condition, when one believes that everything that happens to him is completely out of his/her control.

The other extreme is Total Responsibility – you are responsible for everything that happens to you, to your current conditions and future prospects.

Again an immense burden.


As it is often the case, the truth is in-between: Genetics does determine most of the variance in traits (even complex ones) and its effect depends on time and overall socio-economic status (hereditability increases with both). It seems that nurture doesn’t do much on long term – but at least something short term. Beyond partner selection, one is largely (but not completely) absolved of metaphysical responsibility (definitely not the case for physical responsibility – shelter, food, protection).

For life outcomes it is similar – any outcome is a mixture of elements you control (your skills, resources you invest in it etc.) and random noise. The mix depends on the task/decision on hand, going from pretty much all noise (playing roulette), to much more controlled environments (but never completely without noise). You have some responsibility for the outcome, not total.

We are caught somewhere between two absurd positions, reminding me of:

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.

— Voltaire.