What do black swans, CERN, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Borges have in common?

Posted on August 31, 2011 by


Probably not a lot, except as part of a mental journey I took last Sunday while I was enjoying a beautiful day in Geneva. All of them are linked to Geneva and form part of the answer to questions we often ask ourselves: How do we know what we know? How far can our rationality take us? In more academic language, this could be called a ‘Geneva epistemological journey’.

Photo by AleksandraThe journey starts with the black swans in Geneva’s Jardin Botanique. For a long time, it was thought that all swans were white. Then, in the 18th century, Dutch explorers discovered black swans in Australia. The black swan became a metaphor for the limits of knowledge and the possibility that ‘unknown unknowns’ may appear at any time. Recently, Nassim Nicholas Talab used the black swan metaphor (also the title of his book) to expose the naïve view that we can understand and manage our society through science, an idea pushed to an extreme by the computer modeling mantra ‘give me enough computer power and I will solve all the problems of human society’.  Still, regardless of computer power and scientific modeling, ‘unknown unknowns’ keep surprising us. Unlimited, almost religious, trust in science, measuring and rationality has suppressed common sense and human ingenuity.  While science has made our lives longer and more comfortable, it still has not answered the fundamental questions of human existence and the way human societies function.

CERNThe next stop on our journey is CERN, where thousands of scientists are trying to discover the Higgs boson; the so-called ‘God Particle’. Discovery of the Higgs boson is expected to explain some of the mysteries of the origin of the universe. A few weeks ago, scientists announced that the first results of CERN’s search for the boson were not encouraging. Stephen Hawking seem likely to win his bet of the century that the Higgs particle does not exist. Here we can see the limit of science even in explaining natural phenomena. Future historians may remember CERN more for the invention of the world wide web than for research in physics, the reason it was established.

Now our journey moves towards Voltaire’s house, located not far from Geneva’s biggest department store, Manor. Why is Voltaire relevant to this journey?  Voltaire, like many other representatives of the Enlightenment, had unlimited trust in human rationale and science. He wanted to apply science to all aspects of human existence. This noble idea that organising society in a scientific way could solve all human problems failed completely. The most monumental failure was scientific socialism (incidentally, Marx was careful about unlimited use of science in politics).

We now cross the river and come to the house in Geneva’s old city where Rousseau was born 299 years ago. Rousseau is one of the most controversial philosophical figures in history. He is considered to be the last representatives of the Enlightenment  and its fiercest critic. He made Enlightenment philosophers furious by clearly showing them the limits of rational and scientific methods in understanding human society.  Some of his ideas are as relevant today as they were three centuries ago.

Around the corner from Rousseau’s house is the place where Borges spent the last years of his life. Borges was the master of paradox and of addressing irreconcilable contradictions of human existence. He does not provide answers. Instead he takes us on a journey showing that every certainty triggers a new uncertainty. He provides us with a humbling reflection of the human condition and the limits of our rationality.


Where do we arrive at the end of this journey around Geneva? While we should not stop trying to understand our world rationally, we should remain aware of the limits of this understanding. The trouble starts when our limited understanding becomes a new dogma and a recipe for re-modeling human society.