Conclusions are Sexy. Ambiguity is...

I’m Maseh Hadaf, and this is DeepTox. Every episode, I’ll explore an idea that challenges the way I see the world. I want you to leave this podcast the same way I came into it, having discovered something of value. Thank you for being here with me.

Now I could not think of a more fundamentally gangsta way to start, than with conclusions and the principle of embracing ambiguity. Let’s get it.

My philosophy professor would do two things. He would separate us into Bloods and Crips. He would always tell the class, in his distinctly British accent that, conclusions are sexy.

I thought he was just trying to finesse his esoteric old-British swag. But after some years, I’ve begun reflecting on all the conclusions I’ve come to in my life. Like the political beliefs I identify with. My stance on communism, capitalism, all the isms, my accurate perspective of the other side,my conclusion that there is, in fact, another ‘side.’

How much I love kabob. But where did I inherit these ideas from?

See I don’t even know, like really know, where the meat in my kabob came from, or who mined the raw materials for the mic I’m speaking into right into now. Let alone from whom I got my ideas about right and wrong!

And let’s say I’ve done my reading on the matter, I’ve dabbled in history and philosophy, I know my stuff. I took that course fam. But there are conclusions being drawn, even there.

My conclusions about historicity, or the accuracy of our history, what I’ve been taught and by whom, form the backdrop of my perception of reality. And in order for me to accept history, fam, I have to accept that time itself is real and works the way I think it works. That it moves forward,and that entropy, the law of increasing disorder, will not allow time to go backwards. But what we’re learning in quantum mechanics is, I hate this word, disrupting all of that. Classical physics is cute, but it’s not sufficient.

Theories about parallel universes, the big bang actually being a big bounce, string theory. These are radical ideas.

But, you might be thinking, why does any of this matter? The reason we draw and accept such conclusions is because they simplify things, we can’t be thinking about the infinite possibilities of everything all the time.These conclusions we draw work, for the most part, and these larger questions mean nothing for the day to day. So what if time isn’t exactly what we think it is, I’m still waking up at 8AM tomorrow, so what if history is written by the victor and isn’t exactly accurate, what difference would that make in my life right now?

These are the right questions to ask.

It’s not wrong or unreasonable to draw conclusions that simplify our experience, and make it possible to communicate and make sense of what’s going on around and within us.

And at the same time, we have to recognize these conclusions for what they are. Incomplete. Ambiguous. Or wait, that’s a conclusion.

Through the process of becoming aware of our conclusions,

We discover how they form who we are, we can tear them apart,and form new conclusions, we can become who might be or perhaps re-integrate with who we actually are.

We can find what our purpose is, or at least examine why we search for purpose, whether we believe it was by divine decree or by pure chance, that we are a product of self-determination, or perhaps unconsciously conditioned by the structures and systems that feed us our conclusions.

I think about these things, I ask these questions all the time. Not so much with the hope of coming to any sexy conclusions, but to deepen my awareness. To face my own ambiguity, my not knowing, my inbetween-ness.

I hope that through these pseudo-philosophical deep talks, we can detox from the conclusions we’ve been conditioned to have and together,learn something new.

Let’s take a closer look at ambiguity.

What's ambiguity anyways?

“Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.” Sigmund Freud

I don’t know if he actually said that. It’s possibly an apocryphal quote.

One of the most compelling ideas I’ve come across, is the principle of embracing ambiguity. Ambiguity is defined as being in a state of doubtfulness or uncertainty, especially from obscurity or indistinctness. It’s uncomfortable, uncharted territory. It’s intimately related to the chaos and disorder that characterizes our world.

In this mess, we’ve created an illusion of order for ourselves as a species that we all buy into, an order that many of us are so familiar with, that we accept it as reality. Going to school, getting a job, getting married, having a family, retiring; this sequence just seems normal. We rarely have the impulse, let alone the privilege of time or energy,to question it.

Quick tangent, this past October I was on a hike in the middle of a forest with some friends when we came across this group of people dressed up in Halloween costumes, taking pictures, I told one of them “Yo nice costume man” He said, “You too! We’re all wearing costumes, whether we know it or not.”He gave me a creepy wink, and I nodded and walked away as fast I could.

But damn, he was right. I was wearing a costume.

It portrays me as a character in the social order I’m a part of, an average guy, the brand, the material, even the glossing over of the fact that it was probably made in a sweatshop thousands of miles away. What this man said was difficult knowledge to accept, because I had the conclusion that what I was wearing was just normal, without realizing that really, it was a costume,just like the Edward Scissorhands costume he was wearing.

You might be thinking, okay fam, there is a social order that tells us what conclusions are acceptable, and which ones aren’t. That’s commonsense. So what?

Two things that I’ve discerned are of value from this.

1) There are some areas in life, where if we drop our conditioned conclusions, we can benefit tremendously from embracing the ambiguity that’s left. I’m going to explore Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, AntiFragile, Things That Gain From Disorder, to go about how exactly we can do this.

and

2) We draw our most intimate conclusions when it comes to our identity, and for many reasons, often disregard the inherent ambiguity of it. I’m going to share a story of how the backbone of my identity was shaken when I went to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan this past year.

I like to think of Part 1 as being primarily for creation, it’s external, a synthesis of things in the world around us and part 2 being primarily for discovery, it’s internal, a decomposition of the self. And that’s how I’m currently thinking of framing every episode, to keep the structure blessed and balanced.

How do we gain for ambiguity?

Taleb’s book on antifragility is filled with gems.

The main message he tries to get across is that a system/person’s disposition or responses to disorder/unforeseen random events/ambiguity determine how fragile they are. The more options they have, he calls it optionality, the more they gain from disorder, the more antifragile they are.

Fragile loses from disorder, breaks down, as a result there is more to lose from unforeseen events than there is to gain. Robust is resilient, stays more or less the same, resists. Antifragile gains from disorder, it loses without disorder, it needs randomness and ambiguity.

For example:

A fragile system is something like corporate employment, having a salary, a position with a company, While it provides the illusion of 9-5 stability, you can lose your job when the economy takes a hit, or if the company isn’t doing well, you don’t have many options here. You have stable,small gains that are predictable, and catastrophic loss that is unpredictable.

A robust system would be a profession like dentistry, or medicine, these are more resistant to fluctuations in the economy, as there’s always a need for them, they also have more optionality. But even that can change, if the government decides to change their healthcare system for example.

An antifragile system on the other hand, would be something artisanal, like artists/journalists/taxi drivers. They are far more capable of adjusting to fluctuations in the economy, and can even gain, in the case of artists for example, from infamy or quote on quote, bad press, or in the case of Donald Trump, gaining from fake news.

How is it possible to gain anything from disorder? Taleb describes black swans, which are rare, unpredictable events that have shaped history. The metaphor is that everyone thought that swans were white at some point, all the evidence pointed to them being white. Until someone saw a black swan in Australia.

A particular warning of Taleb’s is that the evidence of absence is not the same as the absence of evidence, just because you haven’t seen a black swan before, and all swans have been white, doesn’t mean that there are no blacks swans. That metaphor is applied to economics, technology,medicine, and even emotional well-being.

One can expose themselves to the benefits of a positive black swan event while minimizing risk from a negative black swan event, not by predicting either one (which he considers as futile) or trying to resist them, but by predicting how antifragile their approach is, how much they can gain from their approach if there are unexpected events.

Barbells? Yeah, I workout.

How exactly do we do this? Taleb outlines many tools, one of which is the barbell strategy.

The barbell approach argues that you should focus your energy on the extremes of stability and risk and avoid the middle. Much like how a barbell has weights on either end but has no weights in the middle.

For example, on one end, you have a highly stable, ‘secure’ job from 9-5 that you don’t have to think about when you get home, and the remaining undivided time is dedicated to your highly risky side hustles that you actually care about.

You make yourself resilient to negative unforeseen events  and maintain wealth and capital(through the stable 9-5 job) while making yourself open to the possibility for positive unforeseen events, like your comic book series really hitting off.

You could flip the barbell so that it’s vertical, and work really hard at accumulating capital for a period of time in a day job, and then for another period of time, spending all your effort/energy on your creative entrepreneurial work, without any distraction.

The point is to avoid any middle-ground, where you lose out on the potential positive black swans of the risky side while getting only some of the security and wealth from the stable side.

Trying to go down the middle can mean sacrificing the integrity of your art, selling out to make ends meet, while remaining in a precarious position. You might make yourself fragile to negative black swans, and eliminate any possibility of gaining from positive black swans. You can get the worst of both worlds, but going for the extremes can give you, potentially, the best of both.

This is a very small taste of the wealth of knowledge in Taleb’s book on antifragility. It captures the essence of embracing ambiguity,and provides easy to understand tools, examples, and most importantly,principles for how to do so. He explores the value of tinkering in science over-theorizing, the primacy of autodidacts, which just means self-learners, as the ones who have made major strides in acquiring knowledge over academics.

He explores the importance of approaching things Via Negativa, or by discerning what something is by saying what it isn’t. It’s about saying no, by not doing things, by not being fragile to unforeseen events. He looks at what it means to have skin in the game, also the name of his newest book. Does an individual take ownership of their own risks?

Having skin in the game means taking on the potential downside of the risk that comes with their decision, it can mean providing an investment strategy to others and actually sticking to it themselves, potentially losing their income if their strategy fails. Not having skin in the mean externalizing risk to others, like what CEOs of major banks did during the2008 global financial crisis, and getting rich by offloading risk onto others.

Having soul in the game, on the other hand, has to do with taking on the downside for others, it’s an act of altruism or losing for the well-being of others. Someone who takes on the downside of risk for others to gain. A hero,revolutionaries, whistle-blowers against powerful corporations.

It’s a damn good book. The power of antifragility lies in its embracement of ambiguity.

Ambiguous identity...? What does that even mean?

Growing up as an immigrant in Canada, my response has always been “Afghan” when asked where I am from. And this has constituted my identity,at least until I came to Jordan. I am usually asked where I am from after someone mistakes me for being Arab, often speaking in Arabic to me. At which point I either try to play along with my minimal Arabic, or give them the good old ‘Aasif, ma behki Arabie’ (Sorry, I don’t speak Arabic).

My initial response to the question has oddly been, at least for simplicity’s sake, that I am Canadian. Apart from the technicalities of nationality and country of origin, I found it particularly confusing to answer where I am from. Can I be Canadian in Jordan and Afghan in Canada? Would I be Canadian in Afghanistan as well? Does it matter?

These questions about identity have led me to reflect deeply on who I am, where I come from, and who I want to be. I have come to accept that identity does not solely exist relationally, that is, between people, but rather within a person as well. National identification puts people into neat boxes of stereotypes and assumptions, for better or worse, and a point of unity for some and contempt for others.

Calling myself Canadian brings an air of respect and status, almost superiority in my interactions. And because I’m not white, I am on the level of the Arab, albeit heightened, in the psyche of those who subconsciously idealize white values. Like the native bourgeois, those who managed to get more of the colonial pie than others, symbolically an attainable aspiration for the Arab who is doing everything he can to get out of his country and make it to the west.

I could feel the dual envy and anger in the eyes of the asylum seekers at the UNHCR clinic in Za’atari, as I walked in, relatively well-dressed, clean, English-speaking, and completely out of place. I have had many conversations with Arabs looking to come to Canada, America, Germany, or anywhere in the west, asking for my help in someway. I have had these interactions with everyone from people at the basketball court in Al-Hussein Public Park to the workers at the UNHCR clinic in Za’atari Refugee Camp.

What can we take from this?

If we’re already imagining a lot of the conclusions that we’ve come to, what’s stopping us from re-imagining something better?

Thank you for listening/reading!