Simulacra levels are complex, counter-intuitive and difficult to understand.
Thus, it is good and right to continue exploring them partly via story and metaphor.
The metaphor here will be that of the four children from Jewish Passover Seder.
The Jewish Seder tells us of four generations of children: The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the one who does not know how to ask.
The story is profoundly weird and does not, on its face, make much sense. Yet every year it is told anyway. What is going on here?
Many attempts have been made to interpret it.
A while back I wrote the first rationalist seder (later versions can be found here). At the time, the story of the four children did not make sense to me. Why this narrative of decline and fall, of wisdom as something that can only decay?
To make sense of the story of the children and to tie it to the themes I wanted to focus on, I told a reversed story and substituted in generations of rationalists and truth seekers.
In this story, we first learn how to ask, then we are simple, then we are instrumental, then we seek to fully understand, and then finally in a fifth stage we can transcend. We can be great because we stand on the shoulders of giants.
Reversing the order of development is reasonably common, as is an implied fifth child. When I was googling for details of what the sons say, the first hit was a reversed-order story of the children as stages of psychological development, with a fifth stage beyond the four listed.
These are fine tales, worthy of telling. Today, I bring a different story.
I bring the story that I now believe was originally intended.
The four children are the four simulacra levels.
The wise child represents level 1. They want to know how the Seder works.
The wicked child represents level 2. They want to know what the Seder can get them.
The simple child represents level 3. They want to know what the Seder symbolizes.
The child who does not know how to ask represents level 4. They don’t know things anymore.
This hypothesis and the analysis that follows could be me doing what Scott Alexander often did and cherry picking to find entertaining and potentially enlightening connections that were clearly never intended. But I actually don’t think so.
I believe this is the primary original intent of the story. This makes the four children, and in particular the fourth child, make sense. This is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.
Quotes are taken from an Orthodox Haggadah excerpt, which is the third hit on a Google search of “the four children passover.” The second hit is reform, so it doesn’t count. The first hit, as noted above, was Psychology Today doing its own thing, which really shouldn’t have been in the highlight box.
You are encouraged to click through to the sources, or even better perform your own search or pick up and read the section from your own Haggadah, to verify that I am not engaging in cherry picking and to consider additional perspectives.
Level One – The Wise Child
The Wise Child lives in object-level reality. She cares about understanding the territory, and knows the map is a means to that end. She wants the facts.
She asks this question:
“What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that G‑d, our G‑d, has commanded to you?” (deut. 6:20)
A naturalist might interpret this question as “how does the physical world work?”
As she communicates, thus shall you communicate to her. She wants to know the facts, so you give her the facts.
You should respond to him as the Torah commands, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, etc.” and also instruct him in all the laws of Passover, up to and including its final law: “After eating the Passover offering, one should not then conclude the meal with dessert which would wash away the taste of the Passover offering.”
When one cares about the object level, one cares about every detail. The final law, a requirement with a specific physical purpose, is stressed here to illustrate that.
The final law is likely the final law so that it can be the final law in this passage. Dessert in the Seder is part of step 13 of 15. It’s not a natural place to put a final law.
The act and purpose matter in the Wise Child’s object-level literal senses. We wish to remember the taste of the Passover offering, so despite having an explicit phase of the meal for dessert, we must be careful that this dessert does not wash away the taste of the offering.
The act and purpose also matter directly as metaphor, in the more important meaning of both this law and its explanation. We finish the ceremony with joyful songs, but joyful songs that remind us of our struggles and do not hide the truth of our world – we know what the numbers are, the strong prey upon the weak then we all fall to the Angel of Death. Actions have consequences.
We also explicitly remind the Wise Child, that merely observing commandments without understanding them is not sufficient, for to do so would allow not merely them but our other actions and maps to cease to be anchored by reality:
So we tell the Wise Child:
It is true that the essence of the soul transcends the “natural order” of the person—the intellect and emotions—and therefore is blind to distinctions between commandments. It is likewise true that one can observe commandments without understanding them but simply because of the innate, essence-connection between the soul and G‑d. One can “pass over” and bypass the complications and limitations of self.
But it is G‑d’s will that we experience commandments within the “natural order” of our psyche, within our intellect and emotions. The transcendent “Passover” of our souls then finds expression within and permeates the “laws” of our minds and hearts (The Rebbe).
The very name of the holiday – Passover – is superficially about the Exodus from Egypt and the concept that the Angel of Death ‘passed over’ Jewish houses during the tenth plague. But that never really made sense as a justification for the name of the entire holiday. This does.
What the name is really for is a warning to avoid this trap of ‘passing over’ the object level, not forming a gears-level understanding, and allowing our maps to become disconnected from profound reality.
Without discussion and argument, the Seder is hardly a Seder at all.
We must remain anchored in the object level, in our profound reality, if we wish to remain wise.
Inevitably, we lose sight of this, and proceed to level two. Thus, the second generation.
Level Two – The Wicked Child
The Wicked Child cares not about the first level, the obligation to the truth — as embodied by the Torah and the Passover story and Passover service.
Instead, the Wicked Child cares about what effect the service, and the story that we tell at the Seder, will have on others – to be at the second level is to draw a distinction between what you believe and do, and what you seek others to believe and do.
He cares not about whether the service reflects reality. He cares about in what way the service could mask and denature reality, and what he can get out of this service.
He thus asks:
“What is this service of yours?!”
He says of yours—implying that it is not for him. By excluding himself from the community, he denies the essential principle of Judaism, the obligation to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.
You should also “blunt his teeth” (speak harshly to him) and say to him:
“It is because of this that I would fulfill His commandments, such as this Passover offering, matzah and maror that G‑d acted for me when I left Egypt (Exodus 13:8)—for me, but not for him. If he [the wicked child] had been there, he would not have been redeemed.”
As he speaks on the second level, so we need to respond to him on the second level.
Thus, the first thing we note about the Wicked Child is that he has separated himself from this central principle of Judaism, the obligation to the truth. We put his failure to be at level one front and center. That’s how important this is.
Yet we do not give up on him. One cannot have level one without the inevitability of level two. To care about what we believe, for any reason, is to invite others to care about what we believe, for their own selfish reasons.
Incentives will always be a thing.
We must constantly remind everyone that we seek truth and to understand and manipulate the object level not (merely) for its own sake, but because this is how we all survive and have nice things. Without this, all is lost.
Thus, we speak back to him in his own language of consequences to him. We seek truth because truth saves us. We fulfill the obligations of reality and tell its stories that connect us to its profound reality – we are the people of the book – because they grant us freedom and life.
If the Wicked Child had been there, he would not have taken such action, would neither have been of help to or earned the help of the community, and thus he would not have been saved.
This is the whole quest. It is the central mission. Once they become wise to this, the child can study the details on their own:
As the Talmud states, a Jew cannot lose his Jewishness. Regardless of the degree of his disengagement from Judaism, the Jewish spark lives on within him.
Kabbalah teaches that the wicked child, second of the four children, corresponds to the second of the Four Cups. This means that the bulk of the Haggadah is recited over the cup related to the wicked child! Clearly, befriending and educating the wicked child is a central aspect of the Haggadah. For this effort helps bring about the ultimate realization of the Egyptian Exodus.
The Jewish spark here represents this drive towards truth in all of us. Of course this cannot be fully extinguished. Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. A sufficiently powerful smackdown from reality will wake anyone (who survives it) up.
It can, however, be suspended indefinitely under the wrong conditions.
Thus, we spend the bulk of the Seder speaking primarily to the Wicked Child.
In each generation the wicked child must be convinced of the need to choose wisdom. The wicked child follows from the wise child, as the second level follows from the first. Only by continuously maintaining right incentives and norms, and hammering the necessary messages into everyone’s heads over and over, can we ensure the wicked children among us ultimately choose wisdom.
This is not a struggle that happens once. It happens continuously for each of us that still thinks reality is a thing. Each of us who still believes that others believe that one thing is and another is not, is tempted continuously by the ability to say that which is not in order to get others to believe that which is not.
This fits with my model that, while higher-simulacra-levels are always present to some extent, past societies have mostly succeeded at keeping the focus on the object level and thus preventing things on the whole from degenerating further.
Or, that those that have failed at this task have fallen soon thereafter.
When the community fails at this task, the Wicked Children grow up and remain wicked. They continuously work to mask and denature the grand reality. Words become less and less often and less and less substantively a reflection of reality, and more and more a mask of that reality – the mask the speaker wishes to place upon it. In turn, people’s expectations adjust.
Things then give way to the third generation.
Level Three – The Simple Child
The Simple Child is not born simple. Nor is she stupid. The Simple Child is responding to incentives. She plays the game laid out before her.
Raised by and around the wicked, The Simple Child lacks the expectation that symbols line up with reality. Those around her have been pretending the whole time. She wants to know how to pretend to do this pretending.
She does not have or seek a useful model of physical reality. Such a model does not seem like it would be useful.
She notices instead that rewards and punishments in such a world are best navigated through asking what signals to send. So she seeks to understand symbols well enough to send the right signals.
Thus, the simple child asks the most basic question: “What is this?”, or “What is this celebration about?”
You shall say to him: “We are commemorating the fact that with a strong hand G‑d took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves” (Exodus 13:14).
As she speaks to you, so shall you speak to her. She wants to know what this symbol means. So we tell her what it means, and what and who is to be raised or lowered in status.
We don’t actually answer the question! We do not tell her what this is.
She isn’t really asking for that information. She isn’t ready for the answer. We don’t have that kind of time. We will. But not now. Not tonight.
But this is all rather tragic. Did we give up on her so easily? Has all been lost by this point? Can we not do better than to get her to think of us as her in-group whose actions should be imitated and signals sent?
This is one of the biggest problems of our age. If someone seeks to be nothing but a partisan, how does one get them to be more than that? If everyone is being judged on their partisanship, how is one to free them from that? To snap them out of it?
The text does not seem to have an answer. The Haggadahs I have used don’t even try to answer. This particular version advises:
We tell the simpleton how the Exodus occurred and how he too can experience a personal “Exodus”: Just as G‑d used a strong hand to “overcome” the attribute of justice, we too must use a strong hand to overcome those aspects of our personalities that impede our spiritual growth. We then experience a spiritual liberation from our personal enslavements.
That does not seem likely to get us much of anywhere. We’re talking in mumbo-jumbo in the hopes it will symbolically resonate. All we hold out is the promise of ‘spiritual liberation.’
It seems that all the Rabbis believe we can do, at this point, is damage control. Thus, we spend so much time trying to rescue the Wicked Child. That’s where there is still some hope. The Simple Child, in this model, is mostly a lost cause.
But we offer a way out. We note that we are commemorating a fact.
We link our explanation back to a concrete origin, as a first step in reorienting her attention. It’s a trick that just might work.
The ‘spiritual liberation’ is exactly this – to notice reality and be liberated from being trapped in meaningless symbols. To think for one’s self.
That’s why there is no talk about the Wise Child’s spiritual liberation. There is no need.
Thus, this model says the goal is purely to get the Simple Child to pay attention. The promises we make to her are to get her to participate at all, to be present. After that, she can be exposed to the arguments and discussions, to the details. She can notice what is actually going on, and think more on that level.
There is hope. Room to grow. She can still ask questions and care about the answers. Remember her opening question. She asks, what is this? Thus, she still knows on some level that there is a this and it has a what.
What she is unable to do, if she is not helped out of her trap, is pass this remaining understanding along. The fourth generation is coming.
Level Four – The One Who Does Not Know How to Ask
It is frequently pointed out that the name of the fourth generation is profoundly weird.
Have you ever met a child who did not know how to ask?
I have not. I’ve met adults who no longer know how to ask. Who have fully integrated level four. Who have forgotten. The fourth level ceases to know that the first level exists.
There is the temptation to not engage with the name. To treat it as some sort of metaphor.
The temptation is wrong. The fourth generation does not know how to ask.
That does not quite mean “literally does not know how to ask anything at all”. But it also kind of does mean that.
Asking requires realizing that there exist questions and answers. It requires believing that those questions and answers matter. That there is a ‘there there’ under all that.
He does not know that some things are while other things are not. If answers don’t matter, there can be no questions.
Even if he did somehow want that information, he doesn’t know how to ask about actual things. Everything is a symbol referencing another symbol. There’s no way to get those symbols to reference the physical world. Thus, no way to ask a question.
This is the giveaway that we’ve been talking about simulacrum levels.
The one who does not know how to ask cannot ask for wisdom. For them, wisdom isn’t a thing.
And they can’t ask how reality works. For them, reality isn’t a thing.
What is to be done about this? We must talk in a way he might understand, that might cause him to realize there are things to be understood.
As for The One Who Knows Not How To Ask—you must open up [the conversation] for him.
As it is written: You shall tell your child on that day: “It is because of this that G‑d acted for me when I left Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).
What we are trying to communicate here is basic cause and effect. That there is a this and it caused a that. Because of this, G-d acted for me when I left Egypt. The very idea of logic, of consequence, is lost upon him. Recover those, together with the idea that some things are and others are not, and the child can learn how to ask. All that matters, for now, is teaching this most basic lesson.
Their need to leave Egypt (which in Hebrew is literally “the narrow place”), is here about the need to realize this. Because we know things and seek knowledge, our world exists and can expand. We can do things, go places, not be trapped. We can be free.
Two levels. Because of these actions, things happened. Because of knowledge, one can take actions that do things.
The child’s participation in the Seder is not about any of that; they are just employing systems that attend the rituals that those around them participate in. They go through all the motions, but have no idea what they are doing.
What about alternative interpretations of this stage?
I have heard the suggestion that the fourth child is very young, and does not yet know how to speak. This seems clearly wrong.
If that was what was going on, the child would have a different name – the child who cannot (yet) speak – and our advice for them would be different. The child being unable to speak doesn’t make sense in the context of the text telling you to start the conversation for them. If they can’t talk, trying to start a conversation about the Exodus would be quite pointless.
Another reason to reject this interpretation is that this child does not yet know how to talk, but does know how to ask. He doesn’t know the words, but if you hang around a child who hasn’t yet learned to talk and pay attention it’s clear they can ask about basic things without words.
Another alternative interpretation, from the same Haggadah as above, is this angle:
Too Smart For Questions
This fourth child may be a ritually observant Jew who fulfills all the customs of the Seder. But his Judaism is cold and dry. He does not feel a need for spiritual liberation. He has no questions about or real interest in the Exodus because he does not think of himself as being in exile.
He claims that he is not the excitable type and thus excuses his lifeless Jewish practice. Yet while he cannot muster any excitement for Judaism, he is easily exercised and engaged by material ambitions. He does not realize that his heart and mind are in exile, oblivious to the spiritual content of life.
We cannot begin by telling this Jew what G‑d did (as we tell the simple child); we must first inspire him to seek spiritual liberation. We therefore tell him:
“G‑d did this for me when I left Egypt”—you too are in need of leaving Egypt.
The key insight here is that we cannot begin the way we did with the Simple Child, by conveying information. It won’t work! The Simple Child has redirected her curiosity, and does not yet much value information, but still understands that information is a thing.
Information would only bounce off The One Who Does Not Know How To Ask. Not being able to ask is merely a symptom. Spiritual liberation again means realizing knowledge exists at all, and is the necessary first step.
However, I think the rest of this is importantly wrong. And it can be wrong in two ways.
First, this child may be misidentified.
If the child is instead Simple, going through the ritual without feeling makes sense. The simple child can be told what this is and what to do, and then they go through the motions. It certainly would not occur to them to seek ‘spiritual revelation’ because life at the third level has no spiritual aspect.
If the child is instead Wicked, that is another potential explanation for this data. They are there to avoid punishment, or to score points, rather than to have the experience and/or better themselves.
The second way this is wrong is the most common mistake when those outside it try to model level four. It is the idea that he is easily exercised and engaged by material ambitions— that those sufficiently at level 4 are doing what the rest of us are doing, engaging in actions because of their model’s guess as to their consequences, in order to achieve particular ends.
That’s not how level 4 works. Such people don’t have goals. They have systems. The fourth child truly is lifeless and unexcited. When such people seem excited, it is because their systems think being excited is the next move, the way deep learning might suggest excitement be expressed at particular points. Nothing more.
Such strategies do often cash out in material ambitions, but that is not because such ambitions excited the person or a plan was formed to get them. The idea of having a plan or ambitions, or of there being a physical thing to be ambitious about, doesn’t parse for them the same way it does for others.
Then there’s this other note:
The fourth child may actually want to ask but lacks confidence and fears being seen as a fool. The Haggadah instructs us to be sensitive to such people and to put them at ease by initiating conversation with them until they are comfortable sharing their thoughts confidently and clearly (R. Shlomo Alkabetz; Chida).
That is definitely not the fourth child. The issue lies elsewhere.
It’s certainly a thing that happens. But the child it would be happening to would be the Wise child.
Knowledge is desired. There’s social issues in the way, but that is our fault.
This is, of course, how it all begins. Children do not start out not knowing how to ask. The problem is caused by the adults who do not know how to answer.
We have somehow taught this child that asking questions can mean being a fool and that this is bad. We’ve answered his questions by telling him what we want them to see, or what the ritual response to their statement is, rather than by explaining what is and what is not. Without answers, what is a question?
It’s on us to fix it. Not them. The prescription here is a good idea, but seems importantly non-central. What is most important is taking away this idea that asking questions is bad or foolish, and setting up an expectation that questions get answers. If seek means ye might find, perhaps then ye will seek.
Otherwise, engaging them in conversation will seem like torture rather than opening them up. It’s calling on kids unprompted in class to interrogate and humiliate them. It’s grading kids on ‘class participation’ where participation means guessing the teacher’s password. It is being polite at the dinner table until you can ask to be excused. If those around you will only respond to your level one inquiries with level three or four answers, either because that is all they know or they assume that is what you must seek, then you too do not know how to ask.
Thus, once things move along sufficiently, the full generation does not know how to ask, even those who remain wise, wicked or simple. When they attempt to ask, no answers come. Meaningful questioning ceases.
This is a common failure mode.
Level Five – The Child Who Is Not There
Despite the failings of the four children, they all did the most important thing of all.
They showed up. They are present at the Seder.
That is important because, in this story and metaphor, the Seder (literally ‘order’) represents civilization. It is the ability to know things and pass on that knowledge. Also therefore to accomplish meaningful things, to gather the fruits of our labor.
The fourth generation still sits down with the first one. They work together. To some extent, they must listen. This maintains an anchor.
Without the first generation’s renewal and participation, the process cannot be sustained.
As the generations progress, it becomes harder to draw the children into wisdom. Those who are drawn in become less rewarded for it, and more punished. The wicked understand, acknowledge and value the Wise—they depend on the Wise for their own cynical gain. The simple don’t see the point of wisdom. Those who do not know how to ask don’t even know wisdom is a thing.
Finally, there is the child who is not there. Not only do they not know how to ask, they are not connected to those that do. Value in the physical world ceases to be sustained at all. All is lost.
Conclusion, Goals and Takeaways
There were a few distinct goals here.
The first was that when I realized this lined up, it felt too good not to explore and share. Other goals were not necessary, and could be figured out later.
The second was to provide another look at the elephant that provides additional intuition pumps. When something is confusing, the more distinct ways to illustrate both the key points and the details around them, the more likely any given person is to find one that resonates. This also provides additional potential names and references for the levels.
The third was to reinforce in particular the idea that there is something profound that is lost at the fourth level, and to provide help understanding what that is and how that could be. That the fourth level loses its logical facilities. This version puts that so front and center that the loss of logic is explicit and much of the rest of the model is implicit. And it’s important enough that it has survived two thousand years of looking like nonsense.
The fourth, similar to the third, was to provide additional support for the idea of progression through the stages. And to look at how this first attempt tried to halt and even reverse that progression, in the hopes that we can use those strategies and/or find ways to do better.
This was a fun one. No doubt there are many other similar attempts out there. I can think of several but am curious what people come up with on their own. What are some others, real or fictional?
Is GPT-3 a simulation of the child who does not know how to ask?
I have now produced a book-long sequence on Moral Mazes, and a succession of posts on Simulacra levels. The central hope is to use this as background common knowledge concepts and jargon vocabulary going forward, and that others can do so as well.