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The Consolations of Free Thought
To understand the world as it is, not as we want it to be
2020 has sunk the final nail in the coffin of the “End of History” myth. We are witnessing the worst global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu, and the West’s response has exposed deep structural weaknesses in our civilization. One symptom of this rot is the fact that the norms of free intellectual inquiry seem to have passed out of fashion. Optimistic Y=2K liberalism in America has given way to Right and Left identitarianism. Today, intellectuals can tell you in all seriousness that who you are matters more than what you know or do.
Standing athwart history
In this, I am against the spirit of the age. Though I don’t expect to change the direction the world lurches, I myself cannot change. I am what I am. And for good and for ill, that has always been someone with an almost pathological need for truth and data, the rawer the better. I simply cannot recalculate the value of an idea according to the identity or eminence of its originator.
Ideas which are true, the goal toward which science fitfully stumbles, differ from the ephemeral things of our social existence. Sports and politics, ratios and retweets are the foam of the present. Money so arduously accumulated will be spent without a trace. Individual humans are born, flourish, grow old, and die. Permanence lies elsewhere. Truth binds us across the centuries and spans national borders.
Reality stands apart from our gloss on it. A stone-faced witness to our coming and our passing. To seek truth is to grasp at something eternal, something that will persist long after us. It is neither spent nor dissipated.
This anxious craving for truth, be it in the end ugly or divine, has propelled me for the two decades I’ve been writing on the internet. It motivated me as a voracious and meandering reader during my childhood. My catholic tastes in intellectual inquiry are both a matter of happenstance and disposition. In the 1980’s my immigrant parents adopted the norms of the place and time where they landed. It was still socially acceptable, if slightly odd, to leave an 8-year-old wandering the stacks of the public library for entire weekends. This is where I discovered the world on my own, guided by my own inclinations and caprice.
The dual blessings of a restless mind and an unsupervised childhood though can conspire to leave a man a bewildered stranger in this age. Suddenly ideas are disdained as disposable instruments in political games. For me, they can only ever be the goal of my journey.
Fools Rush In
In the early 2000’s, a lack of concern for shibboleths or taboos wasn’t particularly brave or rare. John Brockman published a book of essays in 2006 titled “What is your dangerous idea?” I suspect such a collection would be unthinkable today, its very premise triggering. Instead of a frisson, it would risk its contributors’ cancellation. If such a book appeared, it would be a sham, the essays timid and cautious out of concern for the contributors’ reputations. A social-media-driven world of ideas metes out strong tribal sanctions against wrongthink. It does not, as it turns out, always “get better.” The pre-social-media world was much more forgiving of deviationism. Information may want to be free, but the masses do not. They want confirmation of what they already know to be true. They want comfort. They want Voxplainers on how they are right.
Perhaps this is being too generous. The internet is a place where “everyone” watches livestreams of the likes of Khloe Khardasian. But who actually has time for the great thinkers of the past, say Xunzi or Schopenhauer? The information superhighway is choking with trash trucks. But if you look, gold glistens right there on the street as the hordes rush past, bound for their must-see outrage du jour.
In Defense Of Heresy
But every time has its nonconformists and oddballs who can’t resist skewering the emptiness of the day's sacred orthodoxies and base passions. Diogenes famously mocked Alexander the Great to his face, earning the conqueror’s admiration for both his courage and lack of concern for social convention.
Not every era is so indulgent of heterodoxy. Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century Dominican friar whose refusal to recant his strikingly modern views led Roman authorities to execute him, is now memorialized in Rome as a martyr for free thought. Being correct did nothing to save his life, but it preserved the example of his courage for posterity. There were no doubt many who silently agreed with him, but what did their private misgivings bequeath us?
We may not be at 16th-century-Rome level passions, but a shadow is passing over the West. Thought itself is now considered a form of aggression. Old maxims about how free speech is essential for a healthy democracy fall flat among citizens unembarrassed by mantras as empty as “silence is violence.” It is now clear that the freedoms many of us hold dear were so stirringly defended out of habit, not conviction. The populace take their cues from the elite’s most recent slogan, not from any deeply held principle.
Now that our elites have abandoned the principled defense of free speech, the strongest enforcements of thought control occur through bottom-up social norms and sanction, not top-down impositions. The will of the people is now made manifest. Overnight, friends and kin become sworn enemies over matters of politics. Few among us are Brunos, but many nurture a spark of stubborn resistance to the dogmas imposed upon us from on high and jealousy policed from below.
A modern tolerance of heresy is the reason Western civilization stands alone in its creativity, innovation, and individualism. The West more or less created the modern scientific world. Contrast this with the Chinese, who over 5,000 years of history have favored social harmony above all. A great civilization, but one denied the richness of its Galileos, Spinozas, or Darwins. An empire brought low by uncouth barbarians in gunboats, their fatal technology the fruit of once heretical science.
Ultimately, the West owes its rise to countless generations of heretics and free-thinking innovators in its midst, many of them only fully appreciated by successive ages.
The Examined Heresies
My attachment to heretics past likely owes to my own peculiar life trajectory, which for all practical purposes began with my childhood in 1980’s America. My mother tells a story of picking me up after a day spent at the library. Did you spend the dollar? Did you get a Happy Meal? she asked over her shoulder from the front seat. No, I answered, nose in a new book. Well, she worried, then what did you eat for lunch? I ate books! I answered, exasperated.
As lucky as I was at age five to be plucked out of a third-world autocracy whose religion I found absurd, I was luckier still to land in a rust-belt American capital city with an excellent public library. My childhood spanned the golden hour of America’s fading sun. It was sunset in America, but that has become clear only with hindsight.
The accident of timing continued to smile on me as I finished college and resumed what I trusted would be unsupervised learning forevermore (nevermind that I eventually gave in and went to graduate school). In my mid-20’s, the strange and freeing new format of blogging became possible and I found a tailor-made avocation to complement my wide-ranging curiosity. I could read non-stop in whatever field currently obsessed me, and now I added a compulsive habit of publishing my reflections as soon as I’d digested a book or paper.
And almost as important to me, alongside my blog grew a thoughtful community of fellow readers: scientists, historians and thinkers who contributed reliably bracing and vibrant discussion threads. The halcyon days of blogging and smart commenters were not to last, with the rise of social media, and the migration of bloggers to mainstream media. But the memory of that vibrancy tells me how sharply we’ve veered off course.
Now that I’ve spent probably half a working life never straying from my blogging habits for longer than a month or two at my busiest, I can look back and compare different eras and configurations. The most rewarding spans for me, no matter how maddeningly busy personally, were when I was lucky enough to blog something approaching half-time or more. Often I was working full-time too, but those hours stolen to distill what I read and engage with thoughtful people contributed to make these times my most fulfilled.
A New Thing We Do
I can’t roll back the internet to those golden days when Twitter was peopled by the technorati 1%. And I can’t summon my same level of confidence in the robustness of the American experiment or faith in the health of academia that with retrospect I see contributed a reassuring bassline to the cheerful buzz of those simpler, less-online days. But I can make an active choice to once again foreground my reading, comment on papers and preprints, call out ill-informed thinkpieces, blog the occasional deep dive and engage in (and let’s be honest, probably most importantly: be a preemptively forbidding bouncer to) the high-quality discussions of my comments section. I can now add podcasting to my output, a format I’ve come to deeply enjoy over the few hundred episodes I’ve recorded at my other sites.
This archipelago of free-thinkers I see coalescing on Substack gives me a modicum of hope. And so I humbly propose to contribute one more tiny island of open discussion, difficult but important conversations, deeper reflection, the odd dangerous idea and yes, unsupervised (and rigorously uncensored) learning. God knows in waters this shallow, we weird souls in search of actual truth need as many little refuges as can be built.
I hope you’ll join me. Your engagement over my nearly two decades of blogging (and a few podcasting), your incisive comments, your inside tips, your reading suggestions, your subtweets, your friendly needling and your friendships have kept me honest and made me a very lucky heretic indeed. I hope I can continue to repay your generosity with a steady drip of food for thought.
Nuts and bolts:
I will release a new Unsupervised Learning podcast approximately weekly. These will remain gated for subscribers only (with the comment section permanently safe behind the paywall) for 2 weeks, after which I’ll temporarily release the podcast audio more widely.
I look forward to returning to occasional deep-dive premium blog posts. These (and their discussion) will appear only behind the paywall, not on gnxp.com, my long-time blog. I expect to write one or two of these per month.
For what it’s worth, I’ll still be blogging regular content at Gene Expression. Which has always been, and remains free. 18 ½ years of archives, baby. “Resurface” to your heart’s content whenever the spirit moves you.