Is Life Black and White, Or Are There Shades of Gray?

May 31, 2007
The Great Ganesha

I'm a big fan of Emmanuel Derman. Both he and I are in the same field (quantitative finance) and he's a much accomplished and widely published academic and quant, who's at the top of his field. He gives good reason to us young 'uns to look up to him.

Regardless of that though, I was reading his blog this morning and came across an interesting post entitled '10cc of H2O'. He says:

I have a hard time dealing with these kinds of contradictions, when someone tells you something that is both half-true and half-nonsense. .... I like things and people to be clear cut; people should be either obviously smart or clearly bullshit artists. [link]

This got me thinking. I have rarely come across anything in my life that has been so clear-cut. The only exception to that is (possibly) my work, which is purely theoretical mathematics, but that exists only in one's imagination, so I'm not sure if it really counts.

While it would be nice to have the world neatly divided into black and white, it has never been that simple for me. Take, for example, the US. When I first got here, I was a teenager, and pretty much everything about this country looked nice, shiny and bright. But beneath that gleaming surface (a consequence of the image it exports) were things that were neither gleaming nor bright. People were ignorant. Sometimes, more ignorant than those I had encountered back home. Life was fairly individualistic, which is nice for a while, but has its negative consequences (isolation, a spiritual void). And, from time to time, I was discriminated against. Nothing serious, but enough to remind me -when I was aware of it- that I didn't quite belong here.

My point is that the country, while once The Best Place In The World for me, suddenly was no longer so great. Don't get me wrong, the US has a lot to offer, but nothing in life is so black and white. Everything has its pros and cons.

Derman also talks about the movie, The Lives of Others, where a Stasi (the then-East German equivalent of the KGB) agent starts off being clear-cut about his role in the agency, and his purpose in life. He's an up-and-coming agent at the top of his game and has few questions about what he's doing. Life, for him, is black and white. Either you are a dissident or you're not. There's no gray area. That is, until he's assigned to spy on a so-called dissident writer whom, the Stasi agent quickly realizes, is not quite a dissident. And that the entire assignment originated in the selfish motives of a senior officer, and not the so-called 'good of the country'. His realization that life is not so black and white is what the movie is all about, and he pays for this realization dearly.

If there's one thing that's clear-cut, it's that life, people and things are never black and white. In the Economics courses that I've both, taken and taught, the mantra "There's no such thing as a free lunch" gets repeated endlessly. So perhaps life is something like that - you can't have the good without the bad. You can't have the pros without the cons. And anything that's too good is, at the cost of writing a cliche, too good to be true.

The Great Ganesha is a doctorate in Quantitative Finance who loves to write. Originally from Bombay, he now lives in San Francisco. Read more about him, if you like.
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June 1, 2007
12:10 AM

I think you are confusing concepts here. I wrote a whole post on my personal blog on this very same topic.

When philosophers like Ayn Rand say that life is--indeed, has to necessarily be--black and white, they are referring to the metaphysical nature of reality. Observe that all our principles of logic symbolically and linguistically represent the very nature of entities and their relationships in the real world.

What is logic? Logic is non-contradictory identification. What is truth? Truth is the epistemic grasp of a fact of reality. How does one arrive at the epistemic grasp (truth) of a fact of reality? Using logic as the cognitive tool guiding one's reasoning.

For example, the law of the excluded middle is not merely a law in logic but a representation of the way nature exists (contrary claims of half-baked understanding in quantum mechanics, notwithstanding).

This life is black and white because logic--and ergo, reality--permits only an either/or. However, man's consciousness is free, volitional, and contextual; thus what confuses you as "grayness" is your attribution of the nature of man's consciousness to the nature of external reality. Man's consciousness--because it is not omniscient--might not (for example) grasp all the logical chains in a given situation; issues might seem more complex to his mind; his own train of thought might be riddled with illogical, non sequitors or contradictions. However, holding a contradiction in one's mind does not translate into the manifestation of that contradiction in the external world.

In fact, contrary to popular beliefs and bromides, it is incredibly more complex and difficult to think in terms of black and white, because you have no fuzzy, foggy, wiggle room in such a situation. It is much harder--and requires scrupulous commitment to reason, rationality, and independence of thought--to arrive at and hold true conclusions that are distinctly black and white. In contrast, it is so much easier to hold half-baked, foggy, and ill-defined beliefs in the guise of "complexity." It is much easier to shrug one's shoulders and say, "who can really know for sure what's right and wrong/true or false. It's all very complex... and gray."

My post on "Lost in Grayness" tackles this issue head-on. http://ergosum.wordpress.com/2006/12/22/lost-in-grayness/

The Great Ganesha
June 1, 2007
01:23 PM

ergo -

a very insightful comment. i did go and read your post (but not trey's) and its comments. very interesting.

perhaps i am guilty of simplifying the issue a little bit. i do see your points: to make difficult decisions, one must choose one side or the other. in that sense, life is certainly black and white. and if life seems otherwise(i.e., "gray"), it is our consciousness and not the reality itself that is the case.

certainly (to use the examples from the comments to your post) you need to steal bread if you're going to save someone's life, or kill ayn rand if she's attacking you. and in that sense, life is black or white. i completely agree with you on this.

however, i was talking about derman's statement, where he says that people are either bullshit artists or smart. and that's where i don't think life is so clear-cut. how can you judge a person or a place so unequivocally? unless there is a context, i don't think it's possible.

for instance, linus pauling - the only person to win two nobels in two categories (medicine and peace) in his later years became obsessed with vitamin c and was convinced that it was a cure-all for every disease including cancer. he believed it to the point where he was consuming something like half a kg of the stuff daily! now, does this invalidate his achievements and contribution that won him two nobels? i don't think so. is he a smart person? or is a bullshit artist? that's not so clear-cut.

so that's basically what i was getting at. perhaps i was a little careless in the post, but hope that this comment makes my thoughts clearer.

of course, i could have missed your point entirely. in which case, i look forward to your reply.


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