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…
Yesterday I may have sorta kinda mentioned the theory that he 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 a little as 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.