↑ comment by Vaniver ·
2021-03-12T18:03:38.853Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
As an aside--Vervaeke says,
Now Plato was traumatized by the death of Socrates. It's deeply disturbing to him. Why I think that is because he keeps coming back to it and trying to understand. He wanted to understand how is it that the city he loved, the city he belonged to--Athens--could have killed this man that he admired and loved so deeply. How is it that his beloved Athens killed his beloved Socrates?
So where Socrates had this dilemma given to him by the gods, Plato has this dilemma given to him by the death of Socrates. Plato wanted to understand how people could be so foolish.
My hot take before this series was that Socrates probably had it coming, tho I think the previous episode gave me a much more positive impression of Socrates. [There's a thing Vervaeke will do a lot in this series, where he tries to distance "talking about X the actual historical figure" (about which there might be a lot of controversy) and "talking about X as understood by the intellectual history" (about which there might be much less controversy). You might not think you have good enough records of Jesus's existence to be confident about what actually happened with Jesus or whether he even existed, but you should think you have good enough records of Christian theology's thoughts about Jesus to be confident about the history of ideas. Here I'm both noting that "I wasn't there", hence the 'probably', but also am floating a hypothesis that hinges on the facts on the ground.]
A few years ago, it seemed to me like one of the big problems with LessWrong was that the generativity and selectivity were unbalanced. There wasn't much new material posted on LW, and various commenters said "well, the thing we should do is be even harsher to authors, so that they produce better stuff!", and when I went around asking the authors what it would take for them to write more on LW, they said "well, putting up with harsh comments is a huge drawback to posting on LW, so I don't."
Now, it would have been one thing if it were the top writers criticizing things--if, say, Eliezer or Scott or whoever had said "actually, I don't really want my posts to be seen next to low-quality posts by <authors>" or had been skewering the flaws in those posts/comments. [Indeed, many great Sequences posts begin by quoting a reaction in the comments to a previous post and then dissecting why the reaction is wrong.] But instead, the commenter most frequently complained about by the former authors was a person who did not themselves write posts.
Now, the specific person I had been thinking of had been around for a long time. In fact, when they first started posting, their comments reminded me of my comments from a few years earlier, and so I marked them as someone to watch. But whereas I acculturated to LW (and I remember uprooting a few deep habits to do so!), I didn't see it happen with them, and then realized that when I had been around, there had been lots of old LWers to acculturate to, whereas now the 'typical comment' was this sort of criticism, instead of the old LW spirit.
"Oh," I said in a flash of insight. "This is why they executed Socrates."
That is, imagine you're responsible for some Athenian institution; you have the strong belief that the survival of your society depends on how much people buy into the Athenian institutions, and how much they buy into a status-allocation structure whereby the people who sweat and build receive lots of credit, and the people who idly criticize receive little credit. From this viewpoint, Socrates looks like someone who has found a clever exploit [LW · GW]; a tactic wherein one can win any fight by only attacking and never defending. One can place immense burdens on any positive action ("Oh, so this is annoying? How would you define annoying?") while not accepting any burdens of their own ("I'm just asking questions."). One of Socrates's innovations is a sort of shamelessness--if someone responds with "only a fool doesn't understand what 'annoying' means!", Socrates is happy to respond with "indeed, I am a fool, so can you explain it to me?", whereas someone more cooperative would bow to what Everybody Knows [LW · GW].
Now, one Socrates is good to have around, in the same way that one court jester is good to have around. Dilbert did a lot to improve the corporate culture of the US, as people started asking themselves "oh wait, am I the pointy-haired boss in this scenario?", or employees found it easier to coordinate around mocking particular sorts of bad behavior. This commenter, in a healthy community of lots of authors and lots of rewarding discussion, likely would have been a good addition to the soup. But "corrupting the youth" is serious--existentially serious! If it looks like a whole generation wants to grow up to be jesters instead of kings and knights and counsellors, then the very polis itself is at risk. [And, like, risk of murder and enslavement; existential questions are big deals!] If it looked like the next generation of LWers were going to acculturate to being this sort of nonconstructive critic, well, that seemed like reason to ban that commenter, or shut down LW to make it a monument instead of a ghost town.
Note that this doesn't even require that Socrates himself is 'doing it wrong' or is unbalanced or so on--it just matters that people imitating Socrates are discouraging builders and not themselves building anything. [My guess is that Socrates was in fact 'unbalanced,' in the way that you should expect pioneers to be by default; in part, I remember thinking he had a principled stance against writing.]
Once I read a book which began by noting that Socrates/Plato/Aristotle might not have been the first philosophers / people to ask their questions or give their answers. But they were the first that successfully started the philosophical tradition that made its way to us. This proposes the flip side: you can imagine some other city, in Greece or elsewhere, wherein the social credit allocation system is hacked by a Socratic cancer, and then the society implodes, and it didn't start a philosophical tradition that made it to us.
Again, did this actually happen? Idk, maybe Socrates just got on the wrong side of a corrupt gangster or w/e, and then next generation was fine / improved by Socrates, or if this had actually been happening Socrates would have become a meta-contrarian, continuing to lead them towards The Good. [I do think 'internalizing Socrates' (in the way Vervaeke will talk about) is a good idea! I'm less sure about emulating Socrates.]
But, like, there's a claim I saw and wished I had saved the citation of, where a university professor teaching an ethics class or w/e gets their students to design policies that achieve ends, and finds that the students (especially more 'woke' ones) have very sharp critical instincts, can see all of the ways in which policies are unfair or problematic or so on, and then are very reluctant to design policies themselves, and are missing the skills to do anything that they can't poke holes in (or, indeed, missing the acceptance that sometimes tradeoffs require accepting that the plan will have problems). In creative fields, this is sometimes called the Taste Gap, where doing well is hard in part because you can recognize good work before you can do it, and so the experience of making art is the experience of repeatedly producing disappointing work.
In order to get the anagogic ascent, you need both the criticism of Socrates and the courage to keep on producing disappointing work (and thus a system that rewards those in balanced ways).