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We Are All Conspiracy Theorists Now

The collapse of trust in mainstream authorities is discussed as if it is only one of many troubling data points. It's not. People are still underestimating the gravity of the interlocking trends that get summarized in this way.

For instance, when trust in mainstream authorities is sufficiently low, one implication is that conspiracy theories become true, even if you personally trust the mainstream authorities, even if you're a rational Bayesian, even if you're the type of person who is resolved to be above conspiracy theories.

Let's say you're an optimally rational person, with the utmost respect for science and logic and empirical reality. An optimally rational person has certain beliefs, and they are committed to updating their beliefs upon receiving new information, according to Bayes' Rule. In layman's terms, Bayes' Rule explains how one should integrate new information with one's past beliefs to update one's beliefs in the way that is best calibrated to reality. You don't need to understand the math to follow along.

How does a Bayesian update their beliefs after hearing a new conspiracy theory? Perhaps you wish to answer this question in your head right now.

For my part, I just watched the Netflix documentary about Flat Earth theorists the other night. I spent the next day puzzling over what exactly is the rational response to a film like that. The film certainly didn't convince me that the Earth is flat, but can I really say in all honesty that the documentary conveyed to me absolutely no new information corroborating a Flat Earth model of the world?

One could say that. Perhaps you want to say that the rational response to conspiracy theory documentaries is to not update your beliefs whatsoever. The whole documentary is clearly bunk, so I should assign zero credence to the thesis that the Earth is flat. This would be a little strange, in my view, because how many people understand astronomy deeply enough with first-hand familiarity to possess this kind of prior confidence? Ultimately most of us, even highly smart and educated non-astronomers, have to admit that our beliefs about the celestial zones are generally borrowed from other people and textbooks we've never quite adversarially validated. If I'm confronted with a few hundred new people insisting otherwise, I surely don't have to trust them, but giving them a credence of absolute zero seems strange given that my belief in the round Earth pretty much comes from a bunch of other people telling me Earth is round.

Personally I become even more suspicious of assigning zero credence because, introspectively, I sense that the part of me that wants to declare zero credence for Flat Earth theory is the part of me that wants to signal my education, to signal my scientific bona fides, to be liked by prestigious social scientists, etc. But I digress. Let's grant that you can assign Flat Earth zero credence if you want.

If you assign Flat Earth a zero likelihood of being correct, then how do you explain the emergence of a large and thriving Flat Earth community? Whether you say they're innocent, mistaken people who happen to have converged on a false theory, or you say they are evil liars trying to manipulate the public for dishonorable motives — whatever you say — your position will ultimately reduce to seeing at least the leaders as an organized cabal of individuals consciously peddling false narratives for some benefit to themselves. Even if you think they all started out innocently mistaken, once they fail to quit their propaganda campaigns after hearing all the rational refutations, then the persistence of Flat Earth theory cannot avoid taking the shape of a conspiracy to undermine the truth. So even if you assign zero credence to the Flat Earth conspiracy theory, the very persistence of Flat Earth theory (and other conspiracy theories) will force you to adopt conspiracy theories about all these sinister groups. Indeed, you see this already toward entities such as Alex Jones, Cambridge Analytica, Putin/Russia, etc.: Intelligent and educated people who loathe the proliferation of conspiracy theories irresistibly agree, in their panic, to blame any readily available scapegoat actor(s), via the same socio-psychological processes that generate all the classic conspiracy theories.

If I'm being honest, my sense is that after watching a feature-length documentary about a fairly large number of not-stupid people arguing strongly in favor of an idea I am only just hearing about — I feel like I have to update my beliefs at least slightly in favor of the new model. I mean, all the information presented in that 2-hour long experience? All these new people I learned about? All the new arguments from Flat Earthers I never even heard of before then? At least until I review and evaluate those new arguments, they must marginally move my needle — even if it's only 1 out of a million notches on my belief scale.

In part, this is a paradoxical result of Flat Earth possessing about zero credence in my mind to begin with. When a theory starts with such low probability, almost any new corroborating information should bump up its credence somewhat.

So that was my subjective intuition, to update my belief one tiny notch in favor of the Flat Earth model — I would have an impressively unpopular opinion to signal my eccentric independence at some cocktail party, but I could relax in my continued trust of NASA…

Then it occurred to me that if this documentary forces me to update my belief even slightly in favor of Flat Earth, then a sequel documentary would force me to increase my credence further, and then… What if the Flat Earthers start generating Deep Fakes, such that there are soon hundreds of perfectly life-like scientists on Youtube reporting results from new astronomical studies corroborating Flat Earth theory? What if the Flat Earthers get their hands on the next iteration of GPT-2 and every day brings new scientific publications corroborating Flat Earth theory? I've never read a scientific publication in Astronomy; am I suddenly going to start, in order to separate the fake ones from the reliable ones? Impossible, especially if one generalizes this to all the other trendy conspiracy theories as well.

If you watch a conspiracy documentary and update your beliefs even one iota in favor of the conspiracy theory, then it seems that before the 21st century is over your belief in at least one conspiracy theory will have to reach full confidence. The only way you can forestall that fate is to draw an arbitrary line at some point in this process, but this line will be extra-rational by definition.

Leading conspiracy theorists today could very well represent individuals who subjectively locate themselves in this historical experience — they see that this developing problem is already locked in, so they say let's get to the front of this train now! One could even say that Flat Earth theorists are in the avant-garde of hyper-rationalist culture entrepreneurs. Respectable scientists who go on stages insisting, with moral fervor, that NASA is credible — are these not the pious purveyors of received authority, who choose to wring their hands morally instead of updating their cultural activity in a way that's optimized to play and survive the horrifying empirical process unfolding before them? Perhaps Flat Earth theorists are the truly hard-nosed rationalists, the ones who see which way the wind is really blowing, and who update not only their beliefs but their entire menu of strategic options accordingly.

It's no use to say that you will draw your line now, in order to avoid capture by some hyper-evolved conspiracy theory in the future. If you do this, you are instituting an extra-rational prohibition of new information — effectively plugging your ears, surely a crime to rationalism. Even worse, you would be joining a cabal of elites consciously peddling false narratives to control the minds of the masses.

The Devil Is in the Denial

The religious, who possess only tacit knowledge of the pragmatic truths inhering in religion, should be forgiven their occasional intellectual backwardness, for the same reason we forgive the idiocy of someone who recently suffered brain damage in a car accident. The religious today are still in a state of cognitive whiplash from the scientific revolution.

A great deal of what the devout feel is no longer expressible in terms they can justify, but this is because science updates fast and wisdom updates slowly. Wisdom is a crystal leftover from that which goes fast and fails. The scientific revolution is a supernova that is still exploding; religion, as encoded wisdom, will never "keep up with" what is explosive, even if — for all we know — it turns out to be vindicated after the dust has settled.

In their whiplash, those who insist on the truth of religion despite modernity are often guilty of misdirection. Rather than give science all of its due and admit the consequences, the religious often insist despite their rational conscience (telling themselves this is the meaning of "faith"). It seems to me that if, despite everything, there remain honest religious people today, then they would have to admit that the epistemic character of their own religiosity is itself an utter mystery. Obviously, it was never justified by science but now it no longer even enjoys the social conditions for its traditional functioning as an extra-rational social-pyschological structure. It's hard for me to see how religious experience today could be something other than the experience of making no sense, which does not mean there do not still exist real religious people or that one should not be religious—it only means that if a religious person today makes too much sense, I doubt them. One may believe in God, but this belief is weak indeed if one cannot also admit that God is dead. These cognitively aligned religious types, these blessed souls who make good sense to themselves, it is as if they have closed their eyes to the empirical phenomena that can be summarized as the murder of God, which would mean their faith is little more than willfully out of date information.

Mary punching the devil in the face (13th century). Credit: ChurchPop, Public Domain via the British Library.

Insisting that God is not dead in a world in which God has been killed, tends to manifest as a neurotic dissimulation of unstated instrumental motives (and it often is). The religious are correct to be religious, I believe, but they tend to dissimulate on the grounds that only the human folly of overzealous science has made them wrong, and so it is just and true for them to ignore human follies as if they have not occurred, even if those follies have in fact taken over many national majorities the world over. The stubborn dedication of the devout is impressive but unfortunate, because it contributes to the impression that science is "right" and religion is "wrong," at best a dubious symbolic game that's not exactly up front about its real cognitive-emotional character, probably serving some ulterior purposes. Faith that does not confront the death of God is a signal that falls beneath the noise-gates of all modern communication.

The devil is winning, and the religious are failing to update, because the religious are too devout to let themselves be as wrong as they truly are. Allowing oneself to be wrong is a necessary precondition for updating; coming to terms with the degree to which science has rendered religion wrong, is a precondition for religion to determine how its truth might once again be correctly expressed.

Early Christian Communism with Roman Montero

Roman Montero (@PantaKoina) is the author of "All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians." We had a long conversation about religion and communism (duh), Christianity, Protestantism, Catholicism, rationality, love, and marriage.

Roman's book can be found on Amazon here. Roman also wrote a short synopsis of the book available on Libcom.org. You can also find a video recording of our conversation here.

Religion is an extra-rational condition for the possibility of rationality

G.K. Chesterton happily understood in advance what the Frankfurt School theorists only observed with great horror after the fact. Namely, that without an authority such as the Catholic Church, placed above the orbit of merely rational calculation and willing to enforce ethical standards over its head, human reason will not last very long. This is because the freedom of human beings to think is itself extra-rational; if you want to install and protect the capacity for humans to think freely and rationally, you cannot avoid taking recourse to extra-rational measures, or dark defences.

The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defence of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first. The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify: these were all only dark defences erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable, more supernatural than all — the authority of a man to think. (Orthodoxy)

At times, Chesterton sounds exacty like the Frankfurt School, e.g. “There is a thought that stops thought.” But unlike secular critiques of capitalist culture, Chesterton is willing to make the ethical inference that we are rationally compelled to endorse extra-rational measures in order to forestall the collapse of the world.

There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. (Orthodoxy)

Of course, nearly all secular social justice activists believe in the necessity of dark defences, which explains why there is so much motivated reasoning and bad faith alongside so much public moralizing. The various forms of subtle dishonesty intrinsic to modern social justice discourses are merely the paltry, diluted, late-stage Protestant version of Catholic authority: the right to enforce extra-rational measures, in the service of some greater good. What postmodern political culture teaches us, today, is that true non-religious secular culture is essentially impossible. The choice is only between varieties of disingenuous Protestantism — implicitly dissimulated, various, and competing — or one true Church, true only in the tautological sense that it is invested with the authority to define what is True beneath and beyond all that is true.

Utilitarianism incentivizes suffering, or victim culture as a child of rationalism

Insofar as people live according to its suggestions, Utilitarianism strangely incentivizes suffering. In a society where utilitarianism operates as the governing philosophy, the accommodation you receive from others will be a function of your propensity to suffer. If a society is maximizing its net utility, then it will effectively care more about solving the problems of those who suffer the most. Does this not select for people who suffer more? Does it not make extreme suffering a viable pathway to survival? Especially if technological change makes it impossible to survive through economic competition, the propensity to suffer could become increasingly adaptive for some groups.

I am not referring to merely strategic exaggerations of suffering (although there will be plenty of that, too, of course). More deeply, individuals who genuinely suffer more from one unit of negative stimuli, would fare better than those who genuinely suffer less from that unit, at least within one of multiple equilibria, in one pocket of society. Everyone can exaggerate, but the truly sensitive would exaggerate more convincingly. Moderate sufferers wither away from redistributive neglect while lacking the steeliness necessary for productivity, dying young and having no kids, while only the super-sufferers have what it takes to win a basic income and other survival-support, living longer and having more kids. Victim culture is a child of modern rationalism, a perverse but inevitable life-path within an economic system that finds its chief ethical defenses in utilitarian or consequentialist frameworks.

A Talk on "Immediate Collective Liberation"

This is the audio from a talk I gave to Plan C London on January 19, 2016. You can find the slides for this talk at the following links: PDF or HTML.

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