This story was originally for my blog, and it was going to build up to a follow-on post about morality/philosophy, but I think it's an important notion for rationalists too.
(NB: My blog has a gimmick, which is that I don't post anything with E's in it. As such, this story's wording is a bit unusual.)
On a cool autumn day, two girls found a dark hollow. At 14 and 16, Otu and Lai had no grasp of what risks its winding corridors could hold. Lai, always an analyst, was curious what lay at its bottom, if it had a bottom at all. Otu, young and timid, saw no option but to tag along.
It wasn’t long until that hollow’s mouth was a long-ago ghost of a thought. Lai’s hand ran along dank rock walls just to find a way to walk; sunlight had all but quit our protagonists.
“I know this wall!” Lai would say now and again. “Now I can find us a way out!”
On no occasion did this pan out, and following six dud calls, Lai didn’t try again.
“Damn,” said Lai at last. “Okay, I couldn’t hold a full map of this hollow in my mind. But you know what? Turning right at all junctions should work to bring us back out. That’s a fact I know from math class, so it has to work.”
But that was a no-go too; it wasn’t always turning right that would bring you out; it was always following a wall that would do it. Lai’s slip cost an hour, at which point both girls had to stop walking and sit down for a bit. Gloom sprung up, and spans of quick sobs took turns with spans of calm.
Finally Otu lay down, admitting that touching a bit of dirt was worth not having an aching butt from sitting for so long. Might so much as a nap stand as too high a wish?
It did, for Otu’s torso hit not ground but a plastic chassis.
“Ouch! What was that?”
Lai sat up. “What’s what?
Otu’s hand found it, took it, hit it, hit it again, and ran along its plastic skin, trying to find out what it was. It was long-ish, a tubular form, with a sort of protrusion on its top. It was mostly rough and hard, though its protrusion’s front was smooth and glassy. It also had a small switch on it. Flipping that switch did nothing at first, but…
O brilliant light! Abruptly a hollow priorly dark and boding was brightly lit and allowing, possibly, of a happy conclusion.
Otu’s jaw hung, and said nothing.
“Fascinating!” said Lai. “Can I hold it?”
Now it was Lai’s hand that took it, hit it, ran along its plastic skin. It was an amazing apparatus, and Lai was profoundly curious how it did what it did. So captivating, just to look at it…
Shortly, Otu said “Um, don’t you want to start trying to find our way out? I think with this much light it won’t—”
“Hang on, hang on,” said Lai. “I want to know how this thing works. Light must form in this part, right? Or no, wait, it could build up in this long body and spill out on command. This switch could control a trap door. Oh, or mayhap God monitors it and calls down light if—”
“Lai! I know this stuff is fun for you, but shouldn’t you and I focus on finding a way out first?”
Lai wasn’t paying any mind. “—a mirror. That way any light it spawns would, uh… oh! Or it could just trick you into thinking it’s making light, but it’s actually an illusion! If that’s it, it’s still dark, and using this thing to try to find a way out will bring us away from our goal. Or—”
Otu was almost crying now. “What? You know it’s light, just look! How can you find that stupid contraption so alluring right now?”
This didn’t stop Lai’s mumbling and puzzling. No, nothing could stop it at this point. Lai’s curiosity had no bounds and no limits: it could sustain a distraction for infinity, blind to crucial situational factors, blind to rising panic, blind to logic.
And so, our two girls stood in a dark hollow’s gut, having a tool that could bring faith of finding a way back out, but failing to apply it to that task. For all that tool could do, for all its magic — that was void if its cryptic quality was too much of a distraction for its claimant to actually put it to work.
I’m afraid my story cuts off at this point — I don’t know if Otu and Lai got out of that hollow. I want to think that Otu finally got to Lai, that what was actually important finally won out against what was shiny and fun to think about. But I don’t know.
Stay vigilant, folks. Lai’s flub looks obvious from this standpoint, but foolish distraction is an insidious bastard — anybody can fall victim to it.