Learning from War and Peace

I’ve spent the past two years learning economics, coding, and what I want from my own life. When we model any system, we use past measured data series that we suspect are related to our questions. Our brains operate the same way as they turn our sensory information and experiences into inferences on the world and ourselves.

When I was a child my grandma told me a story about a child who didn’t listen to his parents, and spilled boiling water all over himself. The story is so simple, and the goal is to replace the desire to experience a new dangerous sensation without actually experiencing it in reality. Why was it a story, and not just a statement to stay away from boiling water and hot stoves? Because humans prefer experiences to calibrate their brains. If you tell a child not to touch, he still wants to touch it because of a base desire to build new experiences from sensory information. This same command wrapped in a story let me experience a simulation of the experience rather than just a mandate to avoid it, which I’d rebelliously ignore.

This is the same reason why the death of a fictional character can move me to tears, but the headline loss of civilian life doesn’t pull that same emotional feeling from my brain. I know it’s sad when people die, but without knowing the emotional bonds underlying that sadness, even if it’s simulated in a book, I won’t feel that profound sense of loss. That shouldn’t surprise you, because you’re probably the same. But when you stop to think about it it’s pretty weird huh?

It’s important to me to live my life correctly, really important. I don’t believe there is no right or wrong way, I’m pretty sure there is a right way, and that’s the way I intend to live. Similar to my innate ability at math and scientific inference, my innate ability at how to live the right life is probably wrong and poorly calibrated. We take for granted that scientific inference makes sense, but as I’ve written before, it was far from obvious. If you taught a 10th grade principles of scientific inference and sent him back to 16th century Britain, he could revolutionize epidemiology and save millions of lives based on a few concepts of controls and experiments. There is no reason to think we’ve solved science.

As we are born and grow up our calibration is set through a shared societal knowledge, historical stories, apocryphal stories, and religion. If you’re lucky, your family helped in your calibration. Maybe your school. But not everything is done by others, we’re responsible for calibrating our views of the world as well. To do this we need to simulate experiences we have never felt, and might never feel.

I have read many books that have moved or shifted my outlook on life by letting me simulate experiences I might never experience. I read the Brothers Karamazov a few years ago, which improved my outlook on the pious. The youngest brother of the Karamazov’s was the purest and kindest Christian. I hadn’t met anyone like him, but now I know people like him exist. I updated my model of the world by simulating experiences I haven’t had. It’s true that it was a fictional novel, but I trust Dostoevsky to get these things right.

This past year I read War and Peace by Tolstoy. Andrei Bolkonsky is a prince in War and Peace who claims to be an atheist and holds a nihilistic philosophy of the world. His view of the world is one where he acts and lives for himself, he acknowledges that this by extension means he will love his family and wife, but thinks it follows simply from his own self-love. Throughout the Napoleonic wars this shifts as he experiences pain and beauty in a way he had never felt before. There is a scene where after being injured he lies on the battlefield and looks up at the sky, overwhelmed by all the world has to offer and how he has never taken advantage of it.

I’ve kept thinking about the book, and not just this book but the experiences of others real and fictional. Why is it that so many soldiers who made it out of great wars physically and mentally together have radical changes in their life outlook? Why do refugees and immigrants have such different metrics for success? What is it about profound suffering, pain, struggle, and loss, that changes choices and views of the world?

The truth is when I’m unhappy it’s because my quality of life as a human across time and space has been something like only in the top 0.001%, when I wish it was in the top 0.0006%. Even if we collapse the time dimension, my life is still pretty good. Relative quality of life isn’t everything though, although it is important, and that’s where it gets interesting. Whether it’s in War and Peace or present-day Syria, the day-to-day trauma and suffering realigns peoples view on what is most important. We have all seen it in our lives as well, even if we haven’t experienced it, and we see how people change their view of the world following a grand or traumatic event.

So why do we all wait to change how we live our lives and evaluate our happiness? We know that we will have to re-evaluate eventually when we reach the painful experiences that lie waiting for all of us in the future (sorry). But if we look at those who have survived some sort of trauma, or those like Buddhists who practice detachment, or those who meditate, those who volunteer their time to those less fortunate, those who read and pay close attention to suffering, they seem to me to have a view of the world that helps keep them happier. We can use their experiences to train and calibrate our own brain on their data. If we simulate what they have gone through we can avoid deep regret or suboptimal choices in our own lives.

This is why I think War and Peace is such an incredible book. It’s a full simulation of the lessons of war and peace written down for you to learn from whenever you want. It is a story about individual men and women, and their search for meaning in a complex and messy world. The world around them is thrown into war. Tolstoy rejects the idea that this is a world driven by individual men and their quest for greatness. Instead the path of the world is unpredictable and detached from our best laid plans. In other words, they follow from a set of hyper-parameters that no individual can meaningfully change.

The character Pierre is a bastard who inherits a phenomenal amount of wealth from his estranged father. The arc of his character and who he is starts with his despair at having done so little with his life in comparison to his aspirations of greatness. As Moscow is lost to the French, he dreams a plan to kill Napolean, which he imagines will alter the course of history and in his sacrifice give meaning to his life. For unrelated reasons he is captured as a French prisoner, and meets a peasant who holds joy close to his heart and shares a potato with Pierre as they are locked in prison. As they are forced to march through Russia in retreat with the French in winter, his friend is shot when he lags behind, and Pierre is on the brink of death when rescued by a man whom he shot in a dual before the war. Sobbing, he hugs him and calls him his dear friend.

As Pierre regains his health his outlook on his own life shifts. In our lives this realization is never as profound. Tolstoy brings us close and walks us through, using his exceptional skills at telling stories along with his own experiences in war. We see that even in our machinations, there is beauty. Pierre calibrated his own view on the world. It no longer was an obsession to be one of the great, men who claimed to have been able to push a hyper-parameter in a certain direction and alter the course of humanity. It was about his own journey through life, and his discovery on the personal parameters that influenced him.

Tolstoy’s argument was that an obsession with greatness misunderstands how history unfolds and the roles we play. The purpose is to find value in our own individual sincerity. In my view, Tolstoy is right. He figured it out, and I’m glad he wrote it down for me to learn.