The Intellectual Dark Web and Enlightened Discourse

A free, unimpeded, discourse is essential for creative exploration of ideas. Traditional sources of intellectual discourse have proven to be limited, even stultifying. This is due, in part, to the closing of minds on college campuses, lack of intellectual diversity in such environments, and increasing siloing of disciplines. Additionally, the purpose of theory is increasingly misconstrued. Far from being the ultimate way of understanding and explaining reality, theory has greater or lesser instrumental value. To develop a theory means to abstract from the specific to the general. Something is lost (the concrete) while something is gained (the abstract). The real value in is the process, which is in the service of the concrete, not the abstract. I believe it was Carl Jung (1875–1961) who warned us to ‘beware of wisdom you did not earn.’ The process can be likened to alchemical transmutation — transforming base metals (experience) into gold (concepts extracted from experience). In psychology, there is a concept known as the Dunning-Krueger Effect, a cognitive bias in which people think they know more than they actually do. This stems from both inability to recognize one’s lack of ability (in low-ability people) as well as the assumption that what is easy for high-ability people must also be easy for those of low-ability.

A great deal of those who teach in academia have little to no experience working outside of academia. Indeed, it is possible for professors to have spent their entire adult lives on college campuses. College campuses have seen a general overall decrease in intellectual diversity in the core faculties. It has become all too common for professors to support ideological proteges. As Jonathan Haidt has shown, liberal arts departments have always leaned left as people interested in ideas tend toward liberalism.[1] However, such departments do not merely lean left nowadays. They tilt far left. Haidt has shown the most dramatic figures for departments such as sociology while stating that the STEM fields are less affected by this trend of recent years. Much of the innovative work on college campuses is in the particulars of domains. For example, these is a great deal of innovative work being done in the history of Colonial Latin America. However, this is of little to no interest or relevance to those who are not specialists in the field. True and meaningful intellectual discourse is unlikely to be found on college campuses.

The media has also failed to produce much in terms of true and meaningful intellectual discourse. They have influenced large public conversations as news outlets can rely on viewer counts in the millions, though this trend may not continue into the future. New media, on YouTube and various other online platforms has risen to challenge traditional media outlets. The access costs have declined precipitously. One no longer needs a camera crew to film ‘breaking’ news. Nor does one need a news network or cable companies. In days of old, one would be lucky to get a few minutes on a major news network to discuss anything. Now, one can create an online platform and engage with important ideas at depths unimaginable within the confines of the ridiculous time constraints of traditional media. In terms of quality of content and viewer engagement, Joe Rogan’s podcast kicks the crap out of CNN. One of the most viewed confrontations between old and new media has got to be the debate between Toronto psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson and journalist Cathy Newman. In short, Peterson not only won that debate (easily) but Newman revealed her own limitations through her inability to engage with Peterson’s ideas and the inability of traditional media outlets to encourage genuine dialogue.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54

https://quillette.com/2018/02/15/the-peterson-principle-intellectual-complexity-and-journalistic-incompetence/

People with a genuine interest in ideas, in contrast to the ‘intellectual-yet-idiots’ critiqued by Nassim Taleb[2], have had to look beyond old forms of discourse in order to engage with ideas at a deep and dynamic level. Earlier this year, economist Eric Weinstein coined the term ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ to refer to an ‘alternative sense-making collective,’ a group of people dedicated to free speech and creative exploration of various topics. Members of this Intellectual Dark Web differ considerably on politics. Biologist Bret Weinstein is left-libertarian and supported Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders while political commentator Ben Shapiro is an anti-Trump conservative. Shapiro, Dave Rubin, and Joe Rogan all have shows where they interview people from a wide variety of backgrounds and from all over the political spectrum.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cr0OX6ai4Qw

On the Joe Rogan Podcast, Jordan Peterson referred to the rise in popularity of podcasts and YouTube as new Gutenberg Revolution. Just as the Gutenberg printing press allowed for a proliferation of knowledge in Renaissance Europe, so too the Social Media/Podcast aspects of our Digital Revolution has made it possible for a greater number of people to engage with creative explorations of ideas through dynamic conversations. These conversations often last for 2–3 hours. Joe Rogan’s podcasts have millions of views as do the various debates between Jordan Peterson and neuroscientist Sam Harris. On these new platforms, such figures can engage with ideas at far greater depth and authenticity than people ever could on CNN. Fox, or MSNBC.

Another innovation promoted, though not invented by the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) is ‘steelmanning.’ Instead of making an opponent’s arguments appear weaker by caricaturing them (strawmanning), members of the IDW are interested in presenting their opponent’s ideas in the strongest possible way before critiquing them. This can be seen most clearly in the recent discussions between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris (moderated by Bret Weinstein). Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris had to state each other’s ideas in such a way that the other would more or less agree with them. This serves as a robust foundation for genuine dialogue and true exploration. Steelmanning is influenced, at least in part, by the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881).

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, important antecedent to the Intellectual Dark Web

Dostoyevsky lived at a time when Enlightenment and industrial ideas were flooding into traditional Russian society during the nineteenth century. A devout Orthodox Christian, Dostoyevsky had to grapple with atheistic arguments from the West. Rather than caricature them, he made what have been argued are the strongest possible arguments for atheism in his The Brothers Karamazov, then proceeded to critique them. Dostoyevsky’s were not propaganda because he was interested in a true exploration of ideas and did not create his works to fit a prefab political agenda. Thus, he was a true artist (if we are to apply a psychological definition of art as exploration through a medium, in this case words).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-Z9EZE8kpo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtkwF5qA6uE

Is the IDW perfect? Of course not. But, it is the most important intellectual ‘movement’ (if one can call it that) since that of the Renaissance humanists of the Quattrocento. This alternative sense-making collective gained greater prominence in the public sphere after journalist Bari Weiss wrote an opinion piece about it in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/opinion/intellectual-dark-web.html). So far, the IDW has proved to be essential to deep and meaningful intellectual discourse. They set the bar quite high in 2018 and it is incumbent upon members of this alternative sense-making collective to live up to their ideals as we move toward 2019.

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[1] This latter point is supported by the psychological research of Jordan Peterson.

[2] https://medium.com/incerto/the-intellectual-yet-idiot-13211e2d0577

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Relevant Websites:

Joe Rogan: https://www.joerogan.com/

Jordan Peterson: https://jordanbpeterson.com/

Sam Harris: https://samharris.org/

Eric Weinstein: https://www.ineteconomics.org/research/experts/eweinstein

Christina Hoff Sommers: https://www.aei.org/scholar/christina-hoff-sommers/

Camille Paglia: http://time.com/author/camille-paglia/

Bret Weinstein: https://bretweinstein.net/

Heather Heying: http://heatherheying.com/

Dave Rubin: https://www.rubinreport.com/

Tim Pool: https://www.timcast.com/

Ben Shapiro: https://www.dailywire.com/authors/ben-shapiro

Bari Weiss: https://www.nytimes.com/by/bari-weiss

Gad Saad: https://www.concordia.ca/jmsb/faculty/gad-saad.html

Claire Lehmann: https://quillette.com/author/clairelehmann/