The Pot-O-Gold #5 - The SSCeaquel
Your weekly collection of the most thoughtful writing on the internet - this time about the Scott Alexander story.
The most riveting conversations this week happened around Scott Alexander and the infamous NYT article (here as archive) finally published about him and the legions of wrongthinkers(-lite) he inspired in Silicon Valley and beyond.
The short version of the story is that rationalist blogger Scott Alexander, of Slate Star Codex fame, knowing an NYT piece about him was imminent and would reveal his identity, decided to preemptively take down his blog, restructure his life completely, reveal his own identity and restart the blog as a Substack called Astral Codex Ten.
This week, the NYT story finally came out and it was exactly what everyone expected it to be, a guilt-by-association piece that used Scott as an intermediary port to link the “(neo)reactionary fringe” to the Silicon Valley that’s been making life so uncomfortable for the rightful aristocracy at NYT, locking them out of clubhouses and disrupting business models with their pesky paid newsletter services.
A few people had interesting takes on the event, first of all, Scott himself:
The New York Times backed off briefly as I stopped publishing, but I was also warned by people “in the know” that as soon as they got an excuse they would publish something as negative as possible about me, in order to punish me for embarrassing them.
I don’t want to accuse the New York Times of lying about me, exactly, but if they were truthful, it was in the same way as that famous movie review which describes the Wizard of Oz as: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”
I believe they misrepresented me as retaliation for my publicly objecting to their policy of doxxing bloggers in a way that threatens their livelihood and safety. Because they are much more powerful than I am and have a much wider reach, far more people will read their article than will read my response, so probably their plan will work.
Curtis Yarvin seems to be on a roll with Taleb-like verve against a host of public figures, and Scott Alexander attracted his interest this week. This is undoubtedly because the spectre of neoreaction is what was used to smear Alexander in the NYT piece. This one is a sprawling 15,000-word essay, it has many tangents, but the part on the blindspots of rationalism is worth a read, and fits with some of my own observations on the matter.
As an irrationalist, my view of the matter is simple. I have already stated it; let me state it again. I believe that, like Jonathan Edwards’ sinners, we are in the hands of unreason. We are tossed in its waves; we are clinging to its spiderweb; we are idiots, grifters, perverts, addicts, madmen and beggars; how could we possibly afford to be choosers?
Rationalism is extremely dangerous because it focuses you on only one way of thinking reasonably. In theory, this or any way of thinking reasonably can reason out anything. In practice, the only way to be reasonable is to think reasonably in every possible way—and realize that even then, you will probably fail.
Here is an example. Another technique I like is the dialectic or adversarial technique. Before I express any opinion on any dispute myself, I want to make sure I have heard the best possible arguments from both sides—and I am alert to situations in which these optimal arguments are not being made, or not being communicated.
If I failed to do this, I would be in the position of a juror who volunteered a verdict after hearing only from the prosecution, or only from the defense—a profoundly careless and irresponsible, and certainly unreasonable, way to think. Do you think we’ll be able to catch any rationalists thinking in such an unreasonable way?
If you think you have one magic formula that makes you a prophet of reason, and “all else is commentary,” then go around with your brain puffed out like a pigeon’s chest, declaring yourself the second coming of Spock—kid, you’re cruising for a bruising.
Bayes is a good tool. If it is the only tool good enough for you—I expect you to drown.
Rationalism vs. nihilism is an interesting take. The rebranding of neoreaction as nihilism seems like a bit of reputation laundering, but maybe I’m missing something.
Rationalism swims toward loyalty. Rationalism is drawn to power. Nihilism swims toward rebellion. Nihilism is drawn to reason. Obviously, if power and reason were aligned, rationalism would equal nihilism; no rebellion would be possible, or needed; no one would need to believe in anything.
Contra Weyl, it is always the loyalty of rationalism that betrays it. Because it does not push back against power, it must be sucked into power’s orbit. While this submission is why Weyl, who reads me as a dangerous heretic, can talk almost civilly with Scott, it is also the cause of most if not all of the differences between nihilism and rationalism.
The dissident has an advantage over the rationalist. Since the dissident has a theory of why so many smart people are so unreasonable these days, he knows where to look for unreason. He is like a dog long practiced in finding balls under blankets. You will not see him running around the room yelping wildly, “where’s the ball? where’s the ball?” He knows this kind of a ball very well, and what sort of a person might put it where.
The rationalist is a Disney dissident—a G-rated nihilist. Disney, wisely, always worked with formulas, and there is a certain formula for a Scott Alexander post. It starts with: why can’t we have nice (nerd) things? Where’s the ball?
Then Scott goes through four or five reasons we can’t have nice things, and steelmans them (he may have invented the term “steelman”) convincingly. One of these may or may not be the true (dissident) reason. Then he’s like: as we see, nerds, the whole thing is a big beautiful mystery. You find the ball!
This formula is to the lonely, curious nerd as the romance novel to the unsatisfied frau. It’s beautiful—like watching a boxful of kittens roll around in catnip. And it doesn’t leave you anywhere but where you started—which is what you want in a bunny slope.
The other good piece on SSC is by Steve Sailer, another known heretic.
The title isn’t quite correct, as they forced Scott to dox himself preventatively and essentially perform a “controlled demolition” of his previous persona, but the article offers a useful look at the narrative structure of the NYT article and the six impossible things we’re supposed to believe before breakfast.
This Week’s DISCOURSE
A few of my favorite things (about the Scott Alexander story).
Comments are welcome and thanks again for checking out my Substack.
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