Slate Star Codex and the rationalists

Rick first alerted me to the end of the popular rationalist blog Slate State Codex. Then it was all over my internet. I have never been a huge fan of the rationalist community, mostly because they don’t do history very well, but this is a big deal.

It has also produced some great conversation on both sides of the American cultural divide. Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote an excellent meta-piece on the whole affair. Lewis-Kraus uses “Silicon Valley” as shorthand for the intellectual right. This is more correct than wrong, even though the region votes Democrat, because Silicon Valley is more of a mindset than a geographic place.

Lewis-Kraus’s Silicon Valley is a new, decentralized informational ecology. He contrasts Silicon Valley with the old media: big corporations trying to maintain a stranglehold on “the narrative.” (Lewis-Kraus readily admits he’s part of the old media.) For Lewis-Kraus, Silicon Valley is trying to build an alternative mediascape. Big corporations such as the NY Times are fighting back.

It’s an interesting cultural war to follow, if you’re in to that kind of stuff. I can’t seem to shake my uneasiness about the rationalist community, though. As I mentioned, they don’t do history, or they don’t do it well. They are also into communes, which I distrust immensely. Utopian and communitarian experiments are bad for all of your healths (physical, emotional, etc.). I don’t know how the rationalists ended up on the side of Silicon Valley. My guess is that the big corporations didn’t like what the rationalists had to say, or how they lived, so the rationalists found solace in the decentralized ecology of Silicon Valley.

I think the verdict is still out on who the victor of this cultural war will be. The big corporations have government backing, and they own the narrative bought by most of the American public, but the old media has shown its true colors in how it covers Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for the guy but it’s obvious his administration is not being reported on by the old media; it’s being slandered and attacked, with lies or with small untruths, rather than objectively reported on. The rationalists and their decentralized allies in the Silicon Valley informational ecology at least have truth on their side. Not the truth, but a commitment to the truth by way of discussion, the sharing of information, and fighting to protect the freedom of everybody’s conscience, rather than just their own team’s conscience.

We live in interesting times, and this makes blogging – a decentralized activity if there ever was one – all the more important.

The Intolerance of Tolerance

Just recently I read The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D. A. Carson. Carson is one of the best New Testament scholars around, but what he writes in this book (although written from a Christian perspective) has more to do with contemporary politics. His main point is that the concept of tolerance evolved over time to become something impossible to work with.

Being a New Testament scholar, Carson knows very well how language works, and especially how vocabulary accommodates different concepts over time. Not long ago, tolerance was meant to be a secondary virtue. We tolerate things that we don’t like, but that at the same time we don’t believe we should destroy. That was the case between different Protestant denominations early in American history: Baptists, Presbyterians, and so on decided to “agree to disagree,” even though they didn’t agree with one another completely. “I don’t agree with what you are saying, but I don’t think I have to shut you up. I’ll let you say and do the things I don’t like.” Eventually, the boundaries of tolerance were expanded to include Catholics, Jews, and all kinds of people and behaviors that we don’t agree with, but that we decide to tolerate.

The problem with tolerance today is that people want to make it a central value. You have to be tolerant. Period. But is that possible? Should we be tolerant of pedophilia? Murder? Genocide? Can the contemporary tolerant be tolerant of those who are not tolerant?

Postmodernism really made a mess. Postmodernism is very good as a necessary critic to the extremes of rationalism present in modernity. But in and by itself it only leads to nonsense. Once you don’t have anything firm to stand on, anything goes. Everything is relative. Except that everything is relative, that’s absolute. Tolerance today goes the same way: I will not tolerate the fact that you are not tolerant.