The Four Children of the Seder as the Simulacra Levels

Link post

Pre­vi­ously: Unify­ing the Si­mu­lacra Defi­ni­tions, Si­mu­lacra Levels and their In­ter­ac­tions, On Nega­tive Feed­back and Simulacra

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.

Thus:

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.