Scott Alexander, Philosopher King of the Weird People

Scott Alexander, Philosopher King of the Weird People

Kenneth R. Pike
Kenneth R. Pike

If you (like me) spend an unhealthy amount of time reading about morality and politics online, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex. In the best of all possible worlds, this would be because someone pointed you toward his pun-laden kabbalistic theodicy or his highly accessible musings on psychotropics or his remarkable essay on coordination problems. Alas, Google Trends suggests that search interest in Slate Star Codex spiked dramatically in June of 2020, when its author announced that he was closing the blog to discourage the New York Times from “doxing” him, publicizing his identity in a way that invited negative consequences for his psychiatry career (and his patients).

The news media’s response varied—the New Yorker essentially scooped the story, while National Review simply took the Gray Lady to task—but perhaps the most interesting response was the eclectic variety of signatures appearing on an open letter to the Times. Readers of Slate Star Codex may be predominantly childless, educated white men working in the tech industry, but the diversity of well-regarded academics, doctors, and journalists also speaking up for Alexander seems like evidence for Venkatesh Rao’s self-deprecating assertion that “actually enlightened elite blog readers read Tyler Cowen and Slatestarcodex.”

Only Cade Metz and his editors can say whether the letter had an impact. The Times did ultimately publish Alexander’s full name, but only after he’d done so himself—a step he took after landing a lucrative deal writing for Substack and leaving his employer to establish his own psychiatry startup. Long time readers of Slate Star Codex rejoiced at the launch of Astral Codex Ten and Alexander’s return to regular publication. But it would be hard to fault a casual Times reader for wondering what the fuss is all about; “niche blogger with niche audience stops writing for a while, starts writing again” is not exactly the stuff of hard-hitting investigative journalism. The real story, of course, is not Scott Alexander’s blog: it is a group of weird people, the so-called “Rationalists,” who say weird things. For what could be more newsworthy (by which I mean to say, what could get more clicks) than weird?

In the interest of charity toward Metz, it must be admitted that Rationalists do believe some weird things. For example, they believe that humans, like animals, have immutable, inborn natures, and that because these natures are passed from parent to child, selective breeding could improve the human race. They are often critical of monogamy and the nuclear family, advocating for polyamorous relationships and communal childrearing. They are outspoken critics of nearly everyone’s most cherished religious beliefs, and think society should be governed by a cadre of highly-educated elites.

Did I say “Rationalists”? My apologies—these were things apparently believed by Plato, the student of Socrates and tutor of Aristotle, author of dozens of timeless philosophical classics, founder of the Academy from which all of academia inherits both its name and purpose. His magnum opus, The Republic, is a work of psychology, political philosophy, metaphysics, and more, so rich and reflective that Alfred North Whitehead once opined that the “safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Through the character of Socrates, Plato clearly outlines his vision of the ideal state, and it is not a vision I think many 21st century Westerners share. For that matter, it is not a vision Plato’s own contemporaries appear to have found appealing. Outside of fictional works (perhaps most famously, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), the Republic has never served as the unredacted constitution of a nation.

But to disagree with Plato’s conclusions is not to disavow the value of his approach. As Julian Baggini once opined, “Although The Republic was wrong on almost every point, the questions it raises and the methods it uses are essential to the Western tradition of philosophy. Without it we might not have philosophy as we know it.” Precisely how wrong Plato was remains an open question; after all, to borrow a dusty Marxist saw, if true Republicanism has never been tried, how can we be sure it doesn’t work? Regardless of the answer, Platonish Republicanism has been tried, in places like ancient Rome and colonial America—grand social experiments with results none but an oracle could possibly have foreseen. Many things once thought weird we now take for granted.

My hunch is that this is why Western society tolerates philosophers. We may be irritating pests (in Plato’s Apology, Socrates famously claims to be a gadfly), but we have a demonstrated capacity for occasionally goading society in beneficial directions. In this endeavor, we are far from infallible, and often downright weird (it is tempting to list several examples, but the phrase “Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon” should suffice). Plato acknowledges this when Socrates admits people will laugh at his assertion that men and women should be educated equally, then suggests their laughter is akin to plucking an unripe fruit, that is, premature.

It is not an argument that there are no absurd claims, but an observation that laughter can be a thought-terminating cliché. To determine whether a claim is actually absurd, one must first be seriously willing and able to entertain the possibility that it isn’t. Sadly, not all philosophers operate with open minds, never mind all journalists—but Scott Alexander has some thoughts about why such frustrating behavior might nevertheless be a feature, not a bug. Specifically, people often have good reason to resist revolutionary ideas, because while some revolutionary ideas exponentially improve the standard of living for billions of people, other revolutionary ideas kill you and everyone you love.

The fact that Scott Alexander has written extensively on the apparent evolutionary pitfalls of rational thought says a lot about the movement’s commitment to its ideals—namely, that it is subject to its own critiques. Unfortunately, in a world where partisan loyalty is commonly prized above intellectual honesty, willingness to be humble and self-critical is often mistaken for weakness. Indeed one critic of the movement likens Rationalists to quokkas, a marsupial species with a reputation for being unafraid of humans, suggesting that they are a danger to themselves:

In more Hellenistic terms: the problem with being a gadfly is that someone is liable to swat you. But this criticism misses the fact that Rationalists are aware of the problem and embrace it. Socrates’s commitment to find and speak Truth, without regard for how people might feel about it, was the crèche of Western philosophy, and he was put to death for it. I appreciate Metz’s restraint in this regard; never once does he call for Alexander to swill hemlock.

Still it is hard to shake the sense that Metz has an axe to grind after he repeatedly insinuates, without evidence, a connection between Slate Star Codex and Internet ethnonationalism. It is true that an exaggerated focus on racism is standard operating procedure at the Times, but the tone of Metz’s piece may also have been influenced by the fact that, after threatening to publish Scott Alexander’s personal information, Metz “woke up the next morning to a torrent of online abuse.” Did Metz’s negative experience with unwelcome publicity make him less cavalier about inflicting unwelcome publicity on others? He doesn’t say—but given the Times’s attitude toward critical self-reflection lately, perhaps he didn’t feel comfortable drawing the obvious parallels in print.

These contrasting attitudes may be a clue to the success of Scott Alexander: what Times reporters do, Alexander does in reverse. Now the reluctant face of the Rationalist movement (as distinct, maybe, from philosophical rationalism), Alexander remains humble and self-critical. He is charitable toward the views of those with whom he disagrees, to the point of explaining some beliefs even more persuasively than the people who espouse them. He aims at elucidating the truth, no matter whose politics it offends or how it makes people feel—while remaining as scrupulously considerate of other people’s feelings (and privacy) as the truth will allow. When I read the Times and similar websites, I read with suspicion, constantly alert for narrative spin and rhetorical trickery; when I read Astral Codex Ten, I read with gratitude the words of someone with whom I do not always agree, but from whom I can expect a fair shake and an honest effort.

Both the New Yorker and the Times emphasize Alexander’s ties to Silicon Valley, portraying him as something of a soldier in the battle between traditional news media corporations and “big tech” for ad revenue and marginal sway over public discourse, but this is a mistake. The true significance of Scott Alexander is less in what he writes, than in his whole approach to writing—and not (or at least not only) because Alexander has a particular gift, but because he has chosen to wield that gift in furtherance of Truth. To notice the specifically weird things Alexander or other Rationalists sometimes say is to miss the underlying message that in their company, the Overton window is open. Speech is free. Respectful, authentic pursuit of the truth is permitted no matter where it leads, and no one will be punished for being wrong. Bad thinking will be corrected, if possible, not with ridicule or other rhetorical pressure to conform, but with good thinking. Rationalists, in short, are a group of people who picked up the liberal, academic, philosophical traditions of Western civilization when institutions like the New York Times decided to abandon them.

So it is fitting that the Times’s threat to “dox” Scott Alexander has turned out to be such a gift to his readers. In the best of all possible worlds, instead of threatening Scott Alexander, the Times might have offered him a job. But by making a pointless and inconsiderate threat to publicize his identity, the Times persuaded Alexander to focus more of his time and energy on writing. It may not be the Prytaneum, but a life of research and writing seems a fitting sentence for one of the greatest public intellects of our age. If, 2,000 years hence, a distinguished scholar could plausibly describe the history of philosophy after the 21st century as a series of footnotes to Scott Alexander, I think we would be giving the best of all possible worlds a run for its money.

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Kenneth R. Pike

Kenneth R. Pike is an assistant professor of Philosophy and Law at the Florida Institute of Technology. The views expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.