Jane’s taking the week off, so here’s a 3000 word preview from near the middle of Neoreaction a Basilisk, which will have a Kickstarter in May
And to be clear, the vicious little shit qualities of your garden variety neoreactionary are clearly part of the point, at least for Nick Land. In part 4d of “The Dark Enlightenment” he constructs an extended metaphor around the word “cracker,” in its sense “as a slur targeting poor southern whites of predominantly Celtic ancestry,” describing them as “grit in the clockwork of progress,” and as Qabbalistic forces of “schism or secession” based on the power of cracks “to widen, deepen, and spread.” His meaning is clear: racist hicks are awesome forces of abstract horror. He tacitly reiterates this in “Phyl-Undhu,” which notes, in a variety of ways, that strong tribal affiliations and hostility to outsiders is likely the soundest survival tactic in most practical eschatons.
He may well be right in this, although one gets the sense that he’s rather glad not to be a part of that American culture; elsewhere in the labyrinthine Part 4 of “The Dark Enlightenment” he remarks fondly about how “there is no part of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, or very many other East Asian cities where it is impossible to wander, safely, late at night. Women, whether young or old, on their own or with small children, can be comfortably oblivious to the details of space and time, at least insofar as the threat of assault is concerned.” Instead, it always seems as though he views the bulk of neoreactionaries as a sort of petri dish in which he can observe the spasming collapse of the technosingularity. Perhaps they are a suitable microcosm. But in this regard, at least, Moldbug has a point. In the “Gentle Introducion,” he praises the 18th century loyalist Massachusetts judge Peter Oliver, essentially suggesting that reactionaries like him are better than revolutionaries like John Adams because Oliver “is a man you could have a beer with.” And he notes, “you can’t actually have a beer with Peter Oliver, but you can read his book.” The truth is that, despite Land’s evident fascination with them, the bulk of neoreactionaries are not people one would want to have a beer with, and there’s not a great case for reading their books either.
But if I might be so bold as to suggest, there are other ways of saying “no” at this point in the argument that don’t require hanging out with banal edgelords who get off trying to see how close to saying “Hitler was right” you can actually get without losing the ability to semi-credibly say “but I’m not a Nazi or anything” afterwards. Indeed, when it comes to recasting philosophy as horror it is safe to say that the sort of immediate lurch to the most dramatic form of negation to hand is in most regards the least interesting. The obvious truth of horror philosophy is that there’s an aesthetic; one based on a tightrope balance between the initial “yes” that one is fleeing from and the eventual “yes” that interrupts the series of “nos.” Tzvetan Todorov, in theorizing the genre of the Fantastic, describes a specific iteration; an extended ambiguity between the possibility that the protagonist is mad and the possibility of the supernatural. The story balances between the horrors of madness and the Other, drawing out the act of settling on one of the two available “yeses.” But the specific chasms on either side are in the end less important than the awful and sustained gravity of them. That’s the point of the horror story. And by just taking as hard a negation as possible, which is what the bulk of actual neoreaction amounts to, one largely fails at this aesthetic.
Let’s return to the Basilisk, shall we? After all, it meets Todorov’s definition perfectly. The person tormented by it is either in the thrall of a force reaching back through time or they are suffering from a fundamental error of reasoning. The former is clearly supernatural, the latter madness. More than that, however, Yudkowsky’s explicit valuation of “rationality” firmly allies him with the essential qualities of a protagonist in a Todorov-style Fantastic tale. The fundamental horror of the “supernatural vs madness” tension is that both represent the failure of reason, madness in the form of its disintegration, the supernatural in the form of its inadequacy. That neither would happen was always the fundamental promise of Yudkowsky’s system: Bayes’s theorem was supposed to save us from error and the unknown. And so the intrusion of the Fantastic in the form of Roko’s Basilisk represents an unusually poignant threat.
But in looking at Yudkowsky this way a different sort of concern becomes clear; one that helps to clarify the connection between him and Moldbug. When read in terms of Todorov, Yudkowsky becomes visible as an attempt to escape a form of irrationality. In some ways this is obvious; his two main blogging projects, after all, were calledOvercoming Bias and Less Wrong. He has always positioned himself as a vanquisher of error. But unlike Moldbug, who is very explicit about the error he seeks to vanquish, Yudkowsky is nominally vaguer. His major works tend to start with the human bias towards optimism, which is a fair enough target; as I said, let us assume that we are fucked. But this is only a starting point, and he obviously goes much further. Indeed, in a very fundamental sense it is simply error itself he is afraid of, in much the same way that Land is afraid of the radically unknown.
But there’s another angle that must be considered. Just as we approached the premises of Roko’s Basilisk with an eye towards understanding what purpose they served, let us approach the question of what sort of error Yudkowsky is fleeing from a pragmatic standpoint. As with most things regarding Yudkowsky, it is worth recalling that he is an autodidact who was manifestly ill-suited to the American education system. I will admit that I was merely the bright kid who annoyed his teachers a fair amount, but I can still speak with some authority and say that the overwhelmingly characteristic experience of this state of affairs is the experience of being furiously, impotently aware that someone with power over you is massively and fundamentally wrong about something.
Indeed, Yudkowsky writes a compelling account of this experience inHarry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, one of the more blatant moments of using Harry as an authorial mouthpiece. At one point, Professor McGonagall expresses concern based on the way Harry acts that he might have been abused, which Harry angrily refutes, offering the following alternative explanation for why he is the way he is: “I’m too smart, Professor. I’ve got nothing to say to normal children. Adults don’t respect me enough to really talk to me. And frankly, even if they did, they wouldn’t sound as smart as Richard Feynman, so I might as well read something Richard Feynman wrote instead. I’m isolated, Professor McGonagall. I’ve been isolated my whole life. Maybe that has some of the same effects as being locked in a cellar. And I’m too intelligent to look up to my parents the way that children are designed to do. My parents love me, but they don’t feel obliged to respond to reason, and sometimes I feel like they’re the children – children who won’t listen and have absolute authority over my whole existence. I try not to be too bitter about it, but I also try to be honest with myself, so, yes, I’m bitter. And I also have an anger management problem, but I’m working on it. That’s all.”
Yes, it’s clear that Yudkowsky is at times one of the most singularly punchable people in the entire history of the species; and to be fair,Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is unequivocal about the fact that Harry is. But there’s something genuinely moving about this passage, and moreover that something is a fundamental part of Yudkowsky’s appeal. Indeed, it’s in some ways the most basic similarity between him and Moldbug: they are both animated by an entirely sympathetic anger that people with power are making stupid, elementary errors. But what’s really important is how this sheds light on what exactly Yudkowsky is fleeing from, and in turn on why the Basilisk is the monster lurking at the heart of his intellectual labyrinth. Yudkowsky isn’t just running from error; he’s running from the idea of authority. The real horror of the Basilisk is that the AI at the end of the universe is just another third grade teacher who doesn’t care if you understand the material, just if you apply the rote method being taught.
As many have noted, Roko’s Basilisk shares numerous structural similarities to the 17th century argument Pascal’s Wager, which is generally described as an argument for why you should believe in god, but can also fairly be called a philosophical horror story about mathematics. Its historical significance is based on the way in which it’s situated not just in Pascal’s religious philosophy but in his work as one of the pioneers of the field of probability, which he worked on with Pierre de Fermat, following the 16th century work of Gerolamo Cardano. But what is key is the particular vision of god that Pascal had to turn to in order to spring his trap. Probability had proven tremendously effective at banishing the peculiar gods of gamblers’ superstitions; a feat gestured to in the very name Pascal’s Wager, but in doing so it opened the door to a singularly nasty view of god that amounts to the theological equivalent of the men with guns who kick down your door at 3am. The similarities to Yudkowsky’s form of rationality, based as it is in a more contemporary theory of probability than Pascal’s prototypical one, are pronounced, right down to the authoritarian horror of the god we are rationally obliged to bow to.
Moldbug junkies requiring further hits of blue pill after exhausting all fourteen parts of the Open Letter and all eleven existent parts of theGentle Introduction generally turn to the seven-part “How Dawkins Got Pwned.” The initial thesis of this work is that atheist public intellectual Richard Dawkins is in fact a “Christian atheist.” This may seem like a fairly obvious claim, not least because Dawkins has described himself both as a “secular Christian” and as a “cultural Christian,” but it is more interesting than it sounds for two reasons. First, Moldbug actually made the claim a few months before Dawkins did, a fact that is surely coincidence, but nevertheless does count as a moment of actual insight on Moldbug’s part. Second, Moldbug, in a passage quoted at length by Land in “The Dark Enlightenment,” narrows his taxonomy down further, proclaiming that “Dawkins is not just a Christian atheist. He is a Protestant atheist. And he is not just a Protestant atheist. He is a Calvinist atheist. And he is not just a Calvinist atheist. He is an Anglo-Calvinist atheist. In other words, he can be also described as a Puritan atheist, a Dissenter atheist, a Nonconformist atheist, an Evangelical atheist, etc, etc.,” going on to further tag him as a Ranter, Leveller, Digger, Quaker, and Fifth Monarchist. Moldbug’s usual problems with the genetic fallacy abound here, but there’s something to it: Dawkins may disbelieve god in the general case, but he’s fixated on disbelieving a very specific cultural and intellectual tradition.
A similar line of thought can be applied to Yudkowsky’s near-flawless recreation of Pascal’s Wager, and leads to the same broad theological attributions, namely the European Protestant tradition. And indeed, there is a degree to which this marks the fundamental schism between Moldbug and Yudkowsky, who actually gets called out by name in the course of “How Dawkins Got Pwned,” and even explicitly accuses of the same error as Dawkins in a blogpost titled “Interstitial comments on Dawkins.” And that error, to be clear, is being a Puritan/Dissentist/Nonconformist, a group Moldbug bluntly describes as “freaks” whose influence in the present day should be regarded as “a sign of imminent apocalypse” and whose defeat following the death of Oliver Cromwell was “frankly, a damned good riddance.” Indeed, Moldbug’s chosen political affiliation, the Jacobites, were explicitly a reaction against the values of the Puritans when they reemerged a generation later in the form of the Glorious Revolution.
Given all of this, then, there is an interesting moment in the Open Letterthat is helpful in unveiling a different sort of negation for Moldbug. In the fourth part, after proclaiming himself a Jacobite, he quotes the Jacobite thinker Samuel Johnson’s quip that “the first Whig was the Devil.” Moldbug proposes to unpack that, saying, “What does it mean that the “Devil was the first Whig?” What do you think of when you think of the Devil? I always think of Mick Jagger. Surely we can agree that the Devil rode a tank, held a general’s rank, when the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank. What Dr. Johnson is proposing is that the Adversary clapped at the Putney Debates, that he smeared his face and shook his tomahawk on the Dartmouth, that he leered and cackled as he swore the Tennis Court Oath. Not that it’s a short song, but I don’t recall these bits.”
Even for Moldbug, this is weak. That Samuel Johnson was not thinking of Mick Jagger when he made his 1778 remark is reasonably obvious, but within the realm of poetic license. That he was also not thinking of the Tennis Court Oath, sworn by members of the Third Estate in the earliest days of the French Revolution in 1789, looks perhaps more like sloppiness. But the really big oversight is the fact that when Samuel Johnson, one of the great Milton scholars of his or any other age, said that the Devil was the first Whig he almost certainly just meant it as an allusion to Paradise Lost, a point hammered home in the relevant passage of The Life of Johnson when Boswell replies by quoting Satan’s famous declaration that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
It is not that Moldbug is unaware of Milton. Indeed, he obligingly quotes the “reign in hell” bit at the end of Part Four. But he completely avoids actually engaging with this meaning, using Johnson as a frame, with the bulk Part Four consisting of a typically Moldbuggian ramble about how America is secretly communist and all that, only swerving back to Johnson at his conclusion to proclaim that “all the principles of Whigs, even those which seem austere and noble, are consistent with the objective of seizing power.” This is not, to be clear, a case of misunderstanding Johnson, nor even of Milton. The claim that Milton’s Satan espouses a basically liberal view of the world is a common reading of Paradise Lost, as is the observation that Satan is a figure of greed and vanity. Aside from the bits about communism Moldbug is basically on point about Johnson’s meaning.
No, the problem is that Moldbug doesn’t understand the fact that Johnson’s comment is a vicious barb lobbed at Milton, who was a republican and Cromwell supporter of exactly the sort that Moldbug hates. In suggesting that it is Satan who best represents the Whiggish view and not, as one would expect given Milton’s posthumous adoption by the Whigs, the God whose ways Milton seeks to justify to men, Johnson is in effect saying that Milton’s magnum opus collapses under its own weight. In fact, this is one of the most venerable rabbit holes in literary criticism, occupying generations of Milton scholars. At its most elemental level the problem is this: Paradise Lost repeatedly asserts that God is right and Satan is evil, and yet Satan is self-evidently the best character in it.
To be fair, this is simply not the sort of problem Moldbug is interested in. He’s not a literary scholar, and if he’s going to dive into old books it’s going to be arcane political pamphlets, not theological poetry, and especially not theological poetry from a fucking Dissenter. The trouble, bluntly, is that he should be interested in it, because Paradise Lost is a much harder and richer problem than the ones Moldbug likes to tackle. Indeed, to use his parlance, it’s a problem that would have pwned him.