The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Blogger
Start here, because it’s the most personally damning. Saith Eliezer Yudkowsky:
The first virtue is curiosity. A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth. To feel the burning itch of curiosity requires both that you be ignorant, and that you desire to relinquish your ignorance. If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction. Curiosity seeks to annihilate itself; there is no curiosity that does not want an answer. The glory of glorious mystery is to be solved, after which it ceases to be mystery. Be wary of those who speak of being open-minded and modestly confess their ignorance. There is a time to confess your ignorance and a time to relinquish your ignorance.
The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs. The thought you cannot think controls you more than thoughts you speak aloud. Submit yourself to ordeals and test yourself in fire. Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm. Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.” Beware lest you become attached to beliefs you may not want.
The third virtue is lightness. Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can. Do this the instant you realize what you are resisting; the instant you can see from which quarter the winds of evidence are blowing against you. Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy.
This, if you haven’t noticed, is not at all what I’m like. I claim only the virtue of knowing what I am, and that I have only intermittently. Closer is this:
I was recently talking to a friend about the rather open-ended recovery/12-step concept of placing yourself at the mercy of a “greater power.” As a lifelong atheist, this seems like it’s bound to present some problems if I ever develop a sufficiently bad habit, and so it would probably behoove me to figure out some plausible greater power candidates just in case. And I think I’ve found mine: I believe in the Great Wiki.
Like a lot of my friends in this town, I spend a lot of my time dealing in arguments and ideas. I produce them for a living, and then I knock off and have some more arguments over drinks for fun. Does this mean I’m actually supremely confident that my own beliefs are right, and all the smart people who radically disagree with me are wrong? Fuck no; I’m a primate with a couple nice neckties just like the rest of you. Does that mean I throw my hands up and float in a kind of humble agnosticism about everything? Clearly not, because that’s not how the Great Wiki works. I plant a flag and do my best to defend the truth as I imperfectly perceive it, because that’s how the ball gets moved forward even if I’m wrong about everything.
Even if I’m wrong about everything, will the Great Wiki not sort it all out? It could just work, but its functioning clearly depends on at least some people being right, at least some of the time, somewhere. Why not try straightforwardly to join that happy band? Of course, I do think that that’s what nearly everyone is trying. Even I. Few indeed set out consciously thinking, “Now I will argue for evil.”
Drifting in the wind is nearly the last thing most people imagine of me. Maybe it’s because I learned to argue in the company of Ayn Rand fans, and on forums dominated by atheism, Christianity, and the burning desire to move total strangers from the one into the other, or vice versa. As the old songwriter said, it’s a wonder I can think at all. I rarely write about either Rand or atheism these days, and it’s probably for the best in both cases. (For the record, Yudkowsky’s take on Rand is one of the best I’ve seen.)
I often think that what keeps me blogging, and writing more generally, is that something wasn’t placed quite rightly when I was made. Often I can’t understand why basically everyone thinks X, while I helplessly think Y. Sure, I’d love it if more people thought Y, but is it ever going to happen? Maybe it will; maybe it won’t. That’s not why I write, even if it does seem that way. Moving people from one box to another is hard work and rarely succeeds anyway. What fascinates me, ultimately, is the reality of difference. That’s what drew me to get a degree in intellectual history. It still astonishes me that people can think in such different ways from my own. I express what I believe in part of course because I’m a paid advocate — every side has them — but I did so before I got paid for it, too. The reason why? So that I could experience that sense of difference. For consolation, I can only hope that the Great Wiki watches over us all.
Which though is the ultimate authority? The virtues bid fair to overthrow the Great Wiki altogether. Clearly, for all wrong X, the virtues prevail — we ought to surrender when we’re wrong, and doing so is noble and beautiful. Indeed, it’s the only decent thing that a wrong person can do. And clearly for all right X, the Great Wiki demands our allegiance; in these cases, it needs us even more than we need it. But what if we don’t know? What if we feel certain, yet mistrust the feeling of certainty itself?
Both the virtues and the Great Wiki have their evil twins. The evil twin of the Great Wiki could be termed a forensic Hegelianism, in which the important thing is to fight, not for what is good or against what is bad, but for the sake of fighting itself: My intellectual country, right or wrong. The Great Wiki is going to sort it all out anyway, and it’s not at all likely to crown my ideas the victor. I might as well get my kicks while I still can. In Hegel’s esteem, the Persian civilization was not destined to bring about the full actualization of Mind and the End of History. But it wasn’t so bad, for all that. Life could be good as a Persian. The danger of the Great Wiki is complacency of just this type — complacency beneath a veneer of strenuous action.
The evil twin of the virtues is cultishness. The desire to surrender like a leaf, and to be wafted wherever rationality takes us, meets its doom whenever a sufficiently strong personality, association, or ideology impresses on us the idea that rationality coincides with all those arguments that support it.
This is a serious danger, as plenty of bad arguments can appear quite rational indeed. Rarely are these advanced in bad faith, either, and very few have been made clearly for the sake of creating a closed system of thought and ensnaring people within it. The art of discovering rational arguments has as its product not merely rational arguments, but also arguments that look rational, that are presented in good faith, and that are entirely incorrect, either because of bad data or bad inference therefrom.
Annoyingly, para-rational arguments still inspire. Again, the danger is of complacency; again, it’s beneath a veneer of strenuous action. Few are as energetic as missionaries. Few combine pity and annoyance quite as well as missionaries for an idea that we have already rejected.
 Yes, yes, Euthyphro. If you see the parallel, you can probably stop reading right about here.