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What are examples of Rationalist fable-like stories?

by Mati_Roy1 min read28th Sep 202043 comments


Parables & FablesCommunityRationality

I will post some of the collection I've acquired. I have ideas for more. And would be interested in seeing more.

If there's enough interest, and with the permission of the authors, I would like to make a book of Rationalist fables / parables (but with a more generic name). Maybe it could be adapted for children. Thoughts?

Let me know if you're interested in helping me with this project, including but not limited to: finding stories, selecting stories, adapting them, reaching out to authors, writing more stories, writing their morales (?), making a book cover, (self?) publishing it, marketing it, choosing a title, donating money to contract external help, etc.

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My own Parable of the Clock, which I guess is short enough to just copy here:

The monk Dawa had a clock that had stopped, and he was content. When he wished to know the hour, he would glance at the clock, and discover that it was noon.

One day a visiting friend commented on the clock. "Why does your clock say that the hour is noon, when I am quite sure that it is six in the evening?"

Dawa found this unlikely, for the hour had always been noon in his experience. But he had been instilled with the virtues of curiosity and empiricism. If the hour is noon, I desire to believe it is noon. If the hour is six in the evening, I desire to believe it is six in the evening. Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want. Thus fortified, he sought out other clocks.

The time was indeed six in the evening. In accordance with the virtue of relinquishment, and gently laughing inside at his past foolishness, Dawa serenely set his broken clock forwards by six hours.

so now it's always six? XD nice!

  • The Whispering Earring
  • Universal Love & Transcendental Joy
  • Invisible Dragon in the Garage
  • Ozymandias
  • Blue vs. Green sky
  • that survivorship bias story about the plane
  • that one rice doubling on a chessboard story
  • fictionalized AI box scenarios
  • retellings of failed Petrov Day
  • the general concept of repeating variations on a simple quest or cautionary tale a tediously large number of times, such that the odds of unlikely outcomes come out properly represented.

see also Glowfic

I had the same fable idea before that post ^_^

You’re on an airplane when you hear a loud sound and things start violently shaking. A minute later, the captain comes on the speaker and says:

There’s been an explosion in the engine, and the plane is going to crash in 15 minutes. There’s no chance of survival. There is a potential way out—the plane happens to be transferring a shipment of parachutes, and anyone who would like to use one to escape the plane may do so. But I must warn you—the parachutes are experimental and completely untested, with no guarantee to work. We also have no idea what the terrain will be like down below. Please line up in the aisle if you’d like a parachute, and the flight attendants will give you one, show you how to use it and usher you to the emergency exit where you can jump. Those who choose not to take that option, please remain in your seat—this will be over soon, and you will feel no pain.

What would you do?

in Why Cryonics Makes Sense by Tim Urban

The Parable of Predict-O-Matic by abramdemski (I haven't read it yet)

The Parable of the Sphex (from CFAR's handbook)

As an analogy, imagine a group of castaways who have spend years trapped on a large, unexplored, tropical island. Two of the castaways are exploring an unfamiliar beach, when they come upon a large, entirely unexpected, and unfamiliar object. The first castaway, a bright academic, carefully measures the dimensions of every single part of the object. She tells the rest of the castaways about her measurements and they present her with an award for her hard work. To some acclaim, she explains that the unknown object might actually prove useful: the castaways could use it to 1) hang up their laundry, 2) provide shade from the hot tropical sun, and, 3) offer shelter during tropical storms. The second castaway has a more intuitive and creative bent. He carefully looks over the object, announces that it’s a plane, and offers to fly it off the island and save their lives.

Sometimes, it’s not the measurements, it’s the ability to see new possibilities.

by Michael Fossel (http://www.michaelfossel.com/blog/)

related: Seeing with Fresh Eyes

Is Success the Enemy of Freedom? (Full)

(I haven't read yet, but there's a parable, and it's highly upvoted)

There's an old story about a Chinese farmer who buys a horse.

A short while later, the horse runs away.

Zirs neighbor says, "Oh, that's bad news."

The farmer responds, "Good news, bad news, who can say?"

Three days later, the horse returns, and with it, a herd of wild horses.

Zirs neighbor, seeing zirs good fortune, congratulates zir on the good news.

The farmer responds, "Good news, bad news, who can say?" The farmer gifts one of the horses to zirs son.

Zirs son rides it, only to be thrown from its back, badly breaking zirs leg.

"That's bad news," says the neighbor.

The farmer replies, "Good news, bad news, who can say?"

Days later, the emperor summons every able-bodied young man to fight in the war.

The farmer's son is spared.

What good news.

Good news, bad news, who can say? It all depends where the story ends.

And that is the only thing in life we can predict.

The only thing we truly know.

Everybody's story ends the same way.


(Read more: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=the-last-man-on-earth-2015&episode=s04e05)

Video: https://estream.to/embed-4soa0uz1piwm.html

Audio: https://soundcloud.com/mati-roy/the-story-of-the-chinese-farmer

Other: https://ask.slashdot.org/story/04/03/31/1420252/the-worst-development-job-youve-ever-had https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX0OARBqBp0

The most famous King Midas is popularly remembered in Greek mythology for his ability to turn everything he touched into gold.

15 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:55 AM

Story of Richard hamming:

Richard hamming used to work at Bell labs, where he would befriend someone new in the cafeteria and talk to them about their field.

The next day he would ask them about the most prominent and important problems in their field.

And in the third day he would ask, "why aren't you working on the most important problem?"

On day 4 he would have to find a new friend to annoy at lunch time.

He inspires us to ask each other, "what is the most important problem in your life?" and "why aren't you working on it?"

This works great as an answer!

Parable idea: Even if you literally play a perfect game of chess, if you play second and play against another perfect player, you'll still lose. We might just be playing a losing position.

This parable has no lesson.

Meta-lesson: Not everything has a lesson? ^^

"It is possible to commit no mistakes, and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life." — Jean-Luc Picard

oh, good quote!

Maybe there could be one with a bottomless pit of suffering

I feel this could be turned into a fable:

Robin Hanson: The standard view is certainly that we can see very little effect on the margin of more spending on medicine, on health, and certainly the standard view that we see a lot of other things that are much bigger.

I did a Cato Unbound forum about 10 years ago where my starting essay was cut medicine in half, and a number of prominent health economists responded there. None of them disagreed with my basic factual claims about the correlation of health and medicine and other things, but, still, many of them were reluctant to give up on many medicine. They said, “Well, yes, on average, it doesn’t help, but some of it must be useful and, uh, we shouldn’t cut anything until we figure out what the useful parts are,” and I make the analogy of that with a monkey trap.

In many parts of the world, there are monkeys that run around, and you might want to eat one. To do that, you need to trap one, and a common way to trap a monkey is you take a gourd, that is, a big container that’s empty, and you put a nut on the inside of that gourd, and the monkey will reach into the gourd and put his fist around the nut and try to pull his hand out because then mouth is too small to get his hand up, and he will not let go of that nut.

Robert Wiblin: Is that actually true? That’s just not a metaphor? That’s literally true?

Robin Hanson: Yes, he will in fact get caught and eaten because he will not be willing to let go of that nut, and this is a way to trap and eat a monkey. Now, I don’t know, I think this is how Curious George was caught, but it could have been, so this is a sad thing basically if you won’t let go of that nut, but I think that’s also true.

My colleague, Bryan Caplan, again, at the moment, has his book, The Case Against Education, and he’s getting a similar response. People tend to agree with him, “Yes, we don’t learn very much. There’s not much actual, uh, learning going on in the school or we don’t remember very much of it,” and he says, “Well, let’s cut the education allotment,” and they say, “No. No. No. Uh, let’s, you know, wait until we can figure out what parts are useful and, and, you know, focus more on those, but we shouldn’t cut anything,” which, again, I think would be the monkey trap.


I don't think it's proper to present something as a literal quotation when you have changed its content.

(I saw all those "zir"s and "ze"s and thought "That seems very un-Robin-Hanson-like" and checked, and indeed RH used "he" and "his" throughout. It may well be that it would be better if RH had used gender-neutral pronouns, but as it happens he didn't, and you shouldn't "correct" that and still present the resulting modified text as a quotation.)

ah, I definitely agree yes, thank you for pointing that out. it was a quote I took from old notes back when I had a browser extension that would automatically change all pronouns to gender neutral pronouns, and I didn't know at the time I would share that quote publicly, which is the source of the error. I fixed it.

Ah, I see.

It could be worse. There was (I guess still is) a famous browser extension that replaces every instance of "cloud" with "butt" as a way of making fun of the fad for doing computing things "in the cloud". Some people have had ... unfortunate experiences with that one.


I make the analogy of that with a monkey trap.

OTOH, Chesterton's fence.

[+][comment deleted]4mo 2