The Perils of Parables

3 min. read Submitted 15/05/2021 Last Edited 24/09/2021 #writing #philosophy

Occasionally, I read LessWrong. People on LessWrong often describe themselves as "rationalists". It's a little tricky to pin the term down beyond "users of LW", though many have tried. I won't try to define a community that I don't identify with and that isn't the point of this post. I wouldn't describe myself as a rationalist for reasons that should be obvious if you read more of my writing, though to be honest if you did ask me what intellectual labels I identify with I'd probably just say "dumbass". Rather, I'd like to examine what I think is the community's overuse of parable as a deceptively irrational rhetorical tool for explaining epistemic and empirical concepts.

A parable is a story meant to convey some sort of lesson to the reader. Many religions and schools of philosophical thought are packed with parables meant to convey moral or logical ideas. It is, quite evidently, a fantastic way to get people to think about a certain thing and to retain their interest. It's also, unfortunately, a deeply flawed one if our intention is truly for the reader to rationally and objectively evaluate our ideas.

This is not to say that examples, allegories, stories and parables can't be an important part of learning. The right parable can do wonders at intuitively explaining complex topics. However, the culture of LW is such that many posts either open or mostly consist of a parable. Why might this be dangerous?

1. Narratives prime us to suspend disbelief.

Many parables portray realities which contain elements of our own and yet are fundamentally different. Despite the ubiquity of the trolley problem within contemporary ethics, an onslaught of rampaging tram drivers making the hard choices has yet to eventuate. When used wisely, parables can indeed show an abstraction which represents reality. The trolley problem portrays a solid problem in everyday morality, about agency and the suffering of others.

But we must acknowledge the liminal, imaginary space in which these parables occur. People seem socially primed to find pleasure in a good story, and are good at entering into imaginary worlds which follow all sorts of rules. They are skilled at doing so. We must be cautious of the pliability of an entertained and engaged listener.

2. The space of all possible parables is vastly larger than the space of useful parables.

There are virtually infinite possible stories you could tell. The vast majority are utter nonsense - just random words thrown together in some garble. Let's discard those and just look at the ones which make grammatical sense. An even tinier amount of those tell a story which has any kind of semantic sense. This is still quite a few stories you could tell, and we're now in the domain you're working in when you sit down to express your idea via parable.

A sufficiently intelligent person will be able to correctly identify the parable which truly encapsulates their point. But the devil is in the details, and it's not quite possible to know for sure that you really are sufficiently intelligent. All of us mere mortals must assume the possibility of error, and acknowledge that we are casting a line out into an unthinkably vast domain where the vast, vast majority of possibilities are bad.

3. Presentation of parables encourages us to work back to first principles, not forwards from them.

A very common rhetorical strategy is to open your piece with a parable. For many LW posts, the parable may form the opening and the majority of the post, with some reflection on that parable at the end which attempts to hang a lantern on the meaning. This dominance of the parable over argument means that the reader begins in context, then moves to the abstract.

In my opinion, this is entirely the wrong direction if you wish to arrive at first principles which are consistent and well-reasoned. For the writer, it seems obvious that the principles flow from the story and so such a presentation seems natural. For the reader, it immediately engages and entertains. But the somewhat masochistic demand of philosophy is that we, the reader, must begin at first principles and find the road ourselves. It is insufficient to be shown a well-trodden path by some wise elder.

4. The universe is under no obligation to tell us stories.

This last point is the most fundamental to me. Parables can tell us an enormous amount about the human condition and about subjective experience. But they encourage us to anthropomorphise reality, or to shrink reality down to the thin surface of the Earth. They encourage us to settle into our pattern recognition mode, well-suited for this local context but relatively useless for anything beyond it. The universe is a deeply unintuitive, complicated, messy place that does not tell us stories. Only we do that, and so stories can only really teach us about ourselves and our experiences. That's incredibly valuable, but it shouldn't be the point of epistemic or empirical thinking where you're trying to learn about the wider universe.