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You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you here today

Due to an oversight by the ancient Greeks, there is no Muse of blogging. Denied the ability to begin with a proper Invocation To The Muse, I will compensate with some relatively boring introductions.

The name of this blog is Slate Star Codex. It is almost an anagram of my own name, Scott S Alexander. It is unfortunately missing an “n”, because anagramming is hard. I have placed an extra “n” in the header image, to restore cosmic balance.

This blog does not have a subject, but it has an ethos. That ethos might be summed up as: charity over absurdity.

Absurdity is the natural human tendency to dismiss anything you disagree with as so stupid it doesn’t even deserve consideration. In fact, you are virtuous for not considering it, maybe even heroic! You’re refusing to dignify the evil peddlers of bunkum by acknowledging them as legitimate debate partners.

Charity is the ability to override that response. To assume that if you don’t understand how someone could possibly believe something as stupid as they do, that this is more likely a failure of understanding on your part than a failure of reason on theirs.

There are many things charity is not. Charity is not a fuzzy-headed caricature-pomo attempt to say no one can ever be sure they’re right or wrong about anything. Once you understand the reasons a belief is attractive to someone, you can go ahead and reject it as soundly as you want. Nor is it an obligation to spend time researching every crazy belief that might come your way. Time is valuable, and the less of it you waste on intellectual wild goose chases, the better.

It’s more like Chesterton’s Fence. G.K. Chesterton gave the example of a fence in the middle of nowhere. A traveller comes across it, thinks “I can’t think of any reason to have a fence out here, it sure was dumb to build one” and so takes it down. She is then gored by an angry bull who was being kept on the other side of the fence.

(this blog will continue to use “she” as the default pronoun. We strive for equal opportunity bull-goring-victimization here at Slate Star Codex)

Chesterton’s point is that “I can’t think of any reason to have a fence out here” is the worst reason to remove a fence. Someone had a reason to put a fence up here, and if you can’t even imagine what it was, it probably means there’s something you’re missing about the situation and that you’re meddling in things you don’t understand. None of this precludes the traveller who knows that this was historically a cattle farming area but is now abandoned – ie the traveller who understands what’s going on – from taking down the fence.

As with fences, so with arguments. If you have no clue how someone could believe something, and so you decide it’s stupid, you are much like Chesterton’s traveler dismissing the fence (and philosophers, like travelers, are at high risk of stumbling across bull.)

I would go further and say that even when charity is uncalled-for, it is advantageous. The most effective way to learn any subject is to try to figure out exactly why a wrong position is wrong. And sometimes even a complete disaster of a theory will have a few salvageable pearls of wisdom that can’t be found anywhere else. The rationalist forum Less Wrong teaches the idea of steelmanning, rebuilding a stupid position into the nearest intelligent position and then seeing what you can learn from it.

So this is the ethos of this blog, and we proceed, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

And speaking of Abraham Lincoln…

The other day I may have sorta kinda mentioned the theory that Lincoln summoned up a couple of evil ghosts and then signed a demonic pact with Attila the Hun to become Supreme Ruler of Earth (or at least America). I might have maybe made fun of Fayette Hall, the Civil War-era dentist who proposed the idea and embellished it with stories of ape-men, and voodoo fortune-tellers. I might have kinda mocked it as kind of maybe a little the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life by far.

Now the problem with charity is that people always want to stop the tiniest fraction of the way – oh, I’ll have charity toward people who believe pretty much what I do only even stronger. But that other guy over there? She’s so far beyond the pale that there’s no way I could learn anything from her.

This blog will have none of that. Let’s go straight for the money. Let’s try to steelman Fayette Hall. And if it works, if we find ourselves discovering something new and surprising, some new truth such that even if Dr. Hall wasn’t completely right we are glad we tried to learn to see the world through his eyes – then maybe, reader, you will think twice before saying someone is too far gone to be saved.

Let’s argue – nay, let’s prove, that Abraham Lincoln summoned the spirits of the unquiet dead to change the course of history.

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10 Responses to You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you here today

  1. Clark M says:

    Your blog’s ethos reminds me of Arnold Kling’s relatively new blog, where the tagline is “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree”.

  2. Mary says:

    Invoke Urania. She’s appropriately stellar. 0:)

  3. Oligopsony says:

    You’re the man who steelmanned Timecube. I have no doubt you are qualified to do this.

  4. Army1987 says:

    The name of this blog is Slate Star Codex. It is almost an anagram of my own name, Scott S Alexander. It is unfortunately missing an “n”, because anagramming is hard.

    You could’ve called it “Slate ‘n’ Star Codex”! 🙂

  5. Deiseach says:

    Okay, I’ll take a stab at the séance part. I know a tiny bit about the Fox sisters and the Spiritualist craze that swept over America and England, so I’ll look at Dr. Hall’s possible reasons for adducing this as evidence.

    First, of course, he wants to demonstrate Lincoln’s superstition and lack of rationality. That’s easily understood by a modern audience, who are likely to perceive reliance on advice from mediums for steering public policy as not a good idea (who else here remembers the stories about Nancy Reagan consulting astrologers and persuading Ronald Reagan to take their advice?)

    Secondly, Hall is doing more than appealing to common-sense. He’s writing in a time and for an audience that can be assumed to be majority Christian and/or believer of some kind, even if not very devout or well-instructed in doctrine or caring much beyond a sort of moral guideline way. Commerce with spirits through séances and mediums has the sulphurous tang of diabolism, and deals with the Devil never work out well.

    Even more than this, for the Biblically-literate (and this would have been many, even more than those who held the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, either allied or not to that of literalism), the image of Lincoln attending séances would have had strong resonances of King Saul visiting the Witch of Endor to evoke the spirit of the prophet Samuel. Saul, having lost the favour of God and being embroiled in a war against David, seeks reassurance and advice but is only told that he will lose his battles and his life.

    There is probably also an allusion to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, whose ambition is stoked by the witches who call up spirits to show him his destiny and then tell him what turn out to be ambiguous fortunes. I think Hall intends us to make the connection with Saul and Macbeth, both men elevated to a rulership not theirs by right, and having early successes, then losing their lives as a result of bloody wars. Macbeth especially, being spurred on by the misleading advice of the witches to commit slaughter in order to gain and then keep power, only to be killed by the son of his victim, is probably a very good exemplar of Lincoln (in Hall’s view).

    Thirdly, and it may seem oddly, Hall is using the spiritualist craze as both evidence and proof. Although he scoffs at Lincoln’s superstition and at “Negro voudoism”, he probably was aware that there was a good chance many of his intended readers might have dabbled in a little spiritualism themselves. As one unintended consequence of the Enlightenment treatment of religion (the push, particularly within Protestantism, towards a ‘rational’ faith stripped of the mysticism, miracles and mummery of Catholicism -which, in light of the “voudou” tag, makes me wonder if Hall wasn’t playing on anti-Catholic prejudice as well with a phrase that would evoke subliminal associations along the lines of New Orleans ->French ->Catholic ->Bad!), the search for tangible evidence of does such a thing as the soul exist, does it survive after death, is there an afterlife, fuelled the enthusiasm for Spiritualism.

    Here was a means of proving such things for yourself. You didn’t have to take it on faith or just content yourself with what you heard preached in church. You could have a medium come to your own home and evoke phenomena for you. You could even do it yourself – table-turning and planchette became the hot new parlour games of the time, where anyone could get rappings and movings and messages from the beyond. The fate of the dead was a question of particular in a society which had undergone an event like the Civil War; for the same reason there was an upsurge in Spiritualism and all kinds of interest in occult and mystical happenings in England during and after the First World War (note how Arthur Machen’s declaredly fictional story “The Bowmen” morphed into the alleged to be true-life battlefield tale of “the Angels of Mons” with accompanying eyewitness accounts and ‘friend of a friend’ testimonies). This, combined with the urge for empirical evidence and (pseudo) scientific examination of such claims, spurred the craze.

    So Hall was appealing to people on several levels: you know (from personal experience, if you’ve ever been to one of these séances yourself) that spirits exist. Your religion tells you that there are good and bad spirits. History tells us that ambitious men have made deals with evil. Here is an average, or even below-average, man of mean parts and no accomplishments who emerges out of obscurity to ascend to the highest office in the land. He then plunges the nation into a bloody fratricidal war, against the advice and wishes of sober and reasonable folk, due to his tyrannous insistence on having his own way. He then pays for his crimes with his own blood when assassinated.

    It’s a classical tale of hubris and divine punishment!

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  7. Gareth Rees says:

    “Scott S. Alexander” is an anagram of “Translates Codex”, which seems appropriate.

  8. Post request: do the best steelman of (or perhaps something from the rest of the site).

    They’re clearly all unpleasant loonies but I have faith in your skills!

  9. Rachael says:

    Weren’t you going to call it Astral Codex Ten at one point? That sounds cool and is a better anagram; what happened to it?

  10. Nick says:

    You might like this, it’s another description of charity – the guy uses the word “faith” instead.