Rationalist Seder: A Story of War

by Raemon1 min read3rd Jun 201714 comments


Parables & Fables
Personal Blog

For whatever reason, the rationality community is inordinately Jewish. Among other things, this resulted in 2011 in people in New York putting together "Rationalist Seder", a reframing of the story of Jewish Liberation From Egypt to reflect upon liberation in general. What does it mean to be free? What are the many things we might want to be free from?

As a non-Jewish person, it took me a few years to really wrap my head around the holiday, but it's evolved into one of the more poignant moments throughout my year.

The holiday was begun by Zvi Mowshowitz, and has been modified by various people in different geographic corners. In NYC, for the past few years it's been refined and tweaked by Daniel Speyer, who's aimed to invoke a strong sense of history that feels purposeful, connected to the original story, uniquely "rationalist", and feels very much like a holiday in the ancient, venerable and valuable sense.

The complete text of Dan's most recent iteration is here. It contains a mix of retellings of traditional Jewish stories, abridged essays from around the rationalsphere, and a few original pieces. It has a lot of nice gems that I'd like to be able to refer to more easily, but they make the most sense in context with each other. 

But one particular new story stands alone, and establishes the frame around which the Rationalist Seder is told:

(Image from the wikimedia foundation, credit to Thomas Forester)

A Story of War

Two tribes live next to each other. Each fears the other will attack, and so builds weapons to hold in readiness.  And then, seeing that the other has built weapons, builds more weapons.  Their clothes are threadbare.  Their children are hungry.  But still they spend their time making weapons, lest the other tribe build more.  They would prefer to live in peace, and make no weapons, but whichever tribe adopted that policy first would surely be killed.

Are these tribes free?  There is no pharoah putting the whip to their backs, but still they do not live as they choose.

In the next valley, there are two more tribes.  They distrust each other as much as the first two, but they are ruled by a powerful empire. The empire forbids tribes to fight each other, and enforces that rule with unstoppable legions.  And so these two tribes have the peace and prosperity that the first two tribes wanted.

And in the valley beyond that, there are two more tribes, who only think they are ruled by a powerful empire. The empire has long since collapsed, but they still believe that if they fight, the empire will come and punish them.  And so they don’t fight. And by the most naive interpretation of counterfactuals, their belief is true.  And they too, live in peace and prosperity.

That is the power of a story.

They also pay taxes to the empire, by floating valuable timber down a river from which no one will collect it. That too, is the power of a story.

And in a farther, more distant valley are two tribes who really understand timeless decision theory. They should publish a paper or something.

Link to 2017 Haggadah




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There's a reason we have a "beware fictional evidence" article. Perhaps the two tribes who think they are ruled by a powerful empire don't go bankrupt buying weapons, but the belief that they are ruled by a powerful empire causes them to do things that are so bad for them that going bankrupt buying weapons is a better deal.

The idea of rationalist seder is to -- carefully! -- use the effect described in "beware fictional evidence" to promote ideas to our awareness.

We know that "the obviously better thing wouldn't be a Nash equilibrium" traps exist, but we have trouble seeing them, and keep seeing malice and power where there is only desperation. We know that stories can give structure to societies (or, at least, we do if we've read Haidt), but we have trouble seeing it, instead seeing madness and gullibility. We know social structures have both costs and benefits which are difficult to weigh against each other, but tend to see only the side that is effecting us right now.

So I wrote this story, this obviously not true story, stripped to its barest bones, so that it could stick in our heads. So that when we should be noticing the things from the preceding paragraph, a spark of recognition fires in our brains and we generate the hypothesis. Once the hypothesis is generated, we can evaluate it with all the tools at our disposal, and this story will (hopefully) get out of the way.

Certainly there can (and have) been tribes/nations that did bad things because of false beliefs (and sometimes true beliefs!).

The point here is more about various relationships between stories and freedom, than it is about tribes. It's not meant to dictate a concrete moral, so much as to illustrate a few different things that can happen, that are worth being cognizant of.

In the Seder context, this is the first of many stories, some true, some fictional, that illustrate different concepts, some with clearcut morals and some deliberately openended, but A Story of War is there to set the general metaframe of "we're here to talk about stories and freedom and how they relate".

Even if we're going to use fiction to show something about potential behaviors, why wouldn't we pick a more rationalist story, where most members just don't care about the border, and happily trade and marry across the border until the entire concept of tribalism is shown to be ridiculous?

Caring about your own tribe is a matter of different goals, not different degrees of rationalism.

Believing that there are fundamental differences between tribes that prevent mixing and demand that you overspend on armaments is not just different goals, it's a failure of rationalism.

You're begging the question with the use of phrases like "fundamental differences" and "overspend". Those are value judgments; they're not facts. There's no one "rational" way to decide what counts as a fundamental difference, nor can you decide that some amount is "overpsending" without deciding how to weighthe outcomes.

Ok, maybe I'm completely misreading the post. What do you think is the point of the stories?

Stories like that allow plausible deniability, so it's hard to tell. "Of course the story isn't about that, now that you've refuted it." .

My first thought was that the story taught that it doesn't matter whether religion is true, because it helps people cooperate. "There's a powerful empire that will get you if you don't do the right thing, but people only think it's there" is basically God. Of course, if you do this, God is going to "tell" the people a lot of things, and they won't all be as good as "you'd better cooperate", and some of them can be pretty terrible.

Also, I was replying to you, not just the original post. People who don't want open borders and who prioritize their country (or just their friends and family) over others are not being irrational. They just have different goals and different utility functions than you do.

Oh, I was commenting on the concept of "rationalist seder" and what we can/should learn and teach via fiction.

I think you and I disagree on whether there are rational and consistent sets of beliefs about strangers on one side of a border vs another side of it that lead to willingness to subsidize one and let the other starve, but that wasn't the topic of this thread.

If only we could trick everybody into believing they are ruled by a powerful empire / God that can't been seen or proven to exist. The empire inspires good behavior in its citizens by enforcing policies in a way that is anonymous (it might just be randomness or other causes). The empire demands no taxes (you're already protected or "saved" just by being human). The empire rewards people who treat others with love and kindness by magically imbuing them with invincibility / eternal life. (They don't actually have these things, it's just a way to feed the egos and reward good actors in society). The empire punishes war by ensuring that only the side perceived as worthy will prevail. (This distracts from simply building an army by focusing the creative elements of society on arbitrary actions to appease the empire / God. Some of these may coincidentally have a positive influence on society.)

What would you even call such an organization?

Something Orwellian, like The Guild of Truth or Reality Club or something. It would need a name that would inoculate new members against thinking they were joining a religion.

I can no longer tell if I'm trying to be ironic or serious, it's a consequence of living in the post-truth era.

This is painful, because it's obvious and yet all around we see that the "farther, more distant valley" does not exist, and most people do not even conceive of it.

How do we make the mental motion from the "farther, more distant valley" obvious to everyone?