"Never let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy." (Mark Twain)
I'd like to begin addressing present day philosophical questions at random. And one that's had me thinking a lot lately is this,
What causes conspiracies?
As always, I like to start by defining the key word:
con·spir·a·cy (noun): the act of conspiring together; a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.
con·spire (verb): to join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or an act which becomes unlawful as a result of the secret agreement, scheme; to act in harmony toward a common end.
Does Area 51 exist?
Who's really behind mass shootings?
What's really going on at the Denver International Airport?
Who really assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Does Big Foot exist?
Who really assassinated President John F. Kennedy?
Do UFOs exist?
Is the volcano at Yellowstone really going to erupt and wipe out the nation?
If we learned anything from the movie, National Treasure, it's that there are exciting, juicy secrets everywhere. But are they sitting on your front porch like some would have us believe? With the pandemic we're currently facing, there are countless conspiracies circulating through media, from the origins of the virus and whom it infects, and even about the virus itself. Maybe you've even joked with friends about them yourself? Conspiracy theories flourish in times of crisis. Why? Because they tend to surround big events that require big explanations, while small explanations leave us feeling unsatisfied. There's a desire to believe that there must be something more to the events that shape our lives, culture, and politics rather than accident or happenstance, or even as a means of self-defense.
"Conspiracy theory is the ultimate refuge of the powerless. If you cannot change you own life, it must be that some greater force controls the world." (Roger Cohen)
My initial thought pattern as I was driving to the gym one morning was to assess why I don't classify myself with conspiracies. As interesting as I may fancy myself, the conclusion I came to was that if there were an anti-conspiracy group, I'd more likely fit there. The first conspiracy that popped into my head was that of privacy and security. Using that as my subject of conspiracy, I had a hard time wrapping my head around why people seem so concerned. I admit that I can be simple-minded at times, but I have never once worried that the government or some stranger was recording my conversations or hacking into my computer to spy on me. Why? Because first, I realize the size of department and infrastructure that it would take to monitor that sort of security would be far too large to hide on a national scale (despite what television shows might make us want to believe). And second, I have absolutely nothing of interest to the government or anyone else. I can guarantee you that no one is interested in my daily routine, bank statements or search engine histories, unless perhaps they have a psychological disorder. But I have nothing to hide. Surely people have better things to do?
So then I began thinking, are people who worry about their privacy being invaded afraid of someone finding something out? Well if the show, Scandal, is any form of authority, then absolutely. But that led me to start thinking of the difference between possibility and probability. Is my being spied on by uninvited parties possible? Yes. But it is probable? No. Are my chances of contracting the Coronavirus if I leave my home possible? Yes. But are they probable? Well that's where raw statistics (if anyone can find such a thing) and media might have us believing different truths. There are many determining factors that might play into your interpretation of the various "truths" circulating the media, such as your upbringing, where you currently reside, your political, social and religious affiliations, etc. But how does the media play into conspiracies? Well I can tell you they sell a better story than the truth most of the time. So how are we to know which sources to trust?
Eventually, all of this led me to believing that fundamentally the cause of conspiracies is the ability (or inability) to distinguish a justified belief from opinion, also known as epistemology. Plato’s epistemology was an attempt to understand what it was to know, and how knowledge (unlike mere true opinion) is good for the knower. Locke’s epistemology was an attempt to understand the operations of human understanding, Kant’s epistemology was an attempt to understand the conditions of the possibility of human understanding, and Russell’s epistemology was an attempt to understand how modern science could be justified by appeal to sensory experience. Much recent work in formal epistemology is an attempt to understand how our degrees of confidence are rationally constrained by our evidence, and much recent work in feminist epistemology is an attempt to understand the ways in which interests affect our evidence, and affect our rational constraints more generally. (Source)
e·pis·te·mol·o·gy (noun): the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.
An article from Harvard says, "Many millions of people hold conspiracy theories; they believe that powerful people have worked together in order to withhold the truth about some important practice or some terrible event. A recent example is the belief, widespread in some parts of the world, that the attacks of 9/11 were carried out not by Al Qaeda, but by Israel or the United States. Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories may create serious risks, including risks of violence, and the existence of such theories raises significant challenges for policy and law. The first challenge is to understand the mechanisms by which conspiracy theories prosper; the second challenge is to understand how such theories might be undermined. Such theories typically spread as a result of identifiable cognitive blunders, operating in conjunction with informational and reputational influences. A distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is their self-sealing quality. Conspiracy theorists are not likely to be persuaded by an attempt to dispel their theories; they may even characterize that very attempt as further proof of the conspiracy. Because those who hold conspiracy theories typically suffer from a crippled epistemology, in accordance with which it is rational to hold such theories, the best response consists in cognitive infiltration of extremist groups."
"Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." (Napoleon Bonaparte)
But what good is a philosophical perspective if you can't utilize it? Or what real benefit does pondering the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence provide? Well in summary of this post, I would have you think on the following: Does the crisis we all face have you looking for a more satisfying explanation? Are you prone to indulging in the belief that there must be something more going on? Do you look to understand and see situations as they are, or do you rely on the opinions of others to influence you? More than anything, it is my wish that we would become better thinkers and discerners, seekers of truth who live in reality but hope for a better one.
“Thinking – the talking of the soul with itself.” (Plato)