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A thought inspired by Thursday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Nedarim 51

A thought inspired by Thursday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Nedarim 51

We answer the cynic that, yes, we are playing games.

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This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.

Cynicism (not to be confused for the modern use of the word) was one of the popular schools of Philosophy of Ancient Greece that lived on through the Hellenic period. (Others were Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics.) They rejected all social conventions, including any luxuries, anything more than basic shelter or any rules about what was acceptable for public behavior. They were recognizable for:

  1. Arguing that we should be bound only by nature itself. All the artifacts of human society were arbitrary, bogus and led to unnecessary suffering.

  2. Displaying their contempt for these social conventions. They would live in the street and scandalize the public with their behavior. This contempt was intended to teach people to see the truth by demonstrating to them that they could overcome these biases in their value systems.

On the one hand, it is a fair point that the social conventions are, in a sense, arbitrary creations of human life. We all tend to see them as part of nature itself, but the project of finding objective proofs for these values has not succeeded very well.

On the other hand, there are some answers to the objections that Cynicism raises. More specifically, even if these values are just social creations (point 1), we can challenge the value of trying to destroy our conventions (point 2).

One answer, that I have argued for in previous posts already, is that even if conventions are created by us and that we could create any convention, that does not mean that they are totally arbitrary. Some conventions are more useful then others. There are underlying constraints, and some ways of looking at things or doing things are more useful than others.

However, there is a better, more modern, answer to the Cynic. That answer relies on Game Theory and the concept of the Nash Equilibrium. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nash_equilibrium) . In terms of this theory, our social conventions create local Nash Equilibria. When we all know what the convention is and we all expect that others will follow them (more or less), we can all achieve our own life goals better. The chaos that would result if we did not have these conventions would cause far more suffering. Even if a rule is totally arbitrary, it is still valuable once we all know it. (More details in a comment below).

For example, we could drive on the right side of the road or on the left. Both would be equally good and therefore the choice is arbitrary. However, the fact that we agree on which side, prevents a lot of deaths from car accidents.

Our society is made up of games with rules for those games. We could play different games, but we must agree on the rules of the games because agreements on rules are better than chaos.

So the answer to the Cynic is not that they are wrong, that we are only following the fundamental rules of nature itself. It is that even if we have created arbitrary rules, the Cynic is wrong to try and destroy those rules.

submitted by /u/eliyah23rd
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