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Author Information: Luca Tateo, Aalborg University & Federal University of Bahia, luca@hum.aau.dk.

Tateo, Luca. “Ethics, Cogenetic Logic, and the Foundation of Meaning.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 1-8.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44i

Mural entitled “Paseo de Humanidad” on the Mexican side of the US border wall in the city of Heroica Nogales, in Sonora. Art by Alberto Morackis, Alfred Quiróz and Guadalupe Serrano.
Image by Jonathan McIntosh, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay is in reply to: Miika Vähämaa (2018) Challenges to Groups as Epistemic Communities: Liminality of Common Sense and Increasing Variability of Word Meanings, Social Epistemology, 32:3, 164-174, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458352

In his interesting essay, Vähämaa (2018) discusses two issues that I find particularly relevant. The first one concerns the foundation of meaning in language, which in the era of connectivism (Siemens, 2005) and post-truth (Keyes, 2004) becomes problematic. The second issue is the appreciation of epistemic virtues in a collective context: how the group can enhance the epistemic skill of the individual?

I will try to explain why these problems are relevant and why it is worth developing Vähämaa’s (2018) reflection in the specific direction of group and person as complementary epistemic and ethic agents (Fricker, 2007). First, I will discuss the foundations of meaning in different theories of language. Then, I will discuss the problems related to the stability and liminality of meaning in the society of “popularity”. Finally I will propose the idea that the range of contemporary epistemic virtues should be integrated by an ethical grounding of meaning and a co-genetic foundation of meaning.

The Foundation of Meaning in Language

The theories about the origins of human language can be grouped in four main categories, based on the elements characterizing the ontogenesis and glottogenesis.

Sociogenesis Hypothesis (SH): it is the idea that language is a conventional product, that historically originates from coordinated social activities and it is ontogenetically internalized through individual participation to social interactions. The characteristic authors in SH are Wundt, Wittgenstein and Vygotsky (2012).

Praxogenesis Hypothesis (PH): it is the idea that language historically originates from praxis and coordinated actions. Ontogenetically, the language emerges from senso-motory coordination (e.g. gaze coordination). It is for instance the position of Mead, the idea of linguistic primes in Smedslund (Vähämaa, 2018) and the language as action theory of Austin (1975).

Phylogenesis Hypothesis (PhH): it is the idea that humans have been provided by evolution with an innate “language device”, emerging from the evolutionary preference for forming social groups of hunters and collective long-duration spring care (Bouchard, 2013). Ontogenetically, language predisposition is wired in the brain and develops in the maturation in social groups. This position is represented by evolutionary psychology and by innatism such as Chomsky’s linguistics.

Structure Hypothesis (StH): it is the idea that human language is a more or less logic system, in which the elements are determined by reciprocal systemic relationships, partly conventional and partly ontic (Thao, 2012). This hypothesis is not really concerned with ontogenesis, rather with formal features of symbolic systems of distinctions. It is for instance the classical idea of Saussure and of the structuralists like Derrida.

According to Vähämaa (2018), every theory of meaning has to deal today with the problem of a terrific change in the way common sense knowledge is produced, circulated and modified in collective activities. Meaning needs some stability in order to be of collective utility. Moreover, meaning needs some validation to become stable.

The PhH solves this problem with a simple idea: if humans have survived and evolved, their evolutionary strategy about meaning is successful. In a natural “hostile” environment, our ancestors must have find the way to communicate in such a way that a danger would be understood in the same way by all the group members and under different conditions, including when the danger is not actually present, like in bonfire tales or myths.

The PhH becomes problematic when we consider the post-truth era. What would be the evolutionary advantage to deconstruct the environmental foundations of meaning, even in a virtual environment? For instance, what would be the evolutionary advantage of the common sense belief that global warming is not a reality, considered that this false belief could bring mankind to the extinction?

StH leads to the view of meaning as a configuration of formal conditions. Thus, stability is guaranteed by structural relations of the linguistic system, rather than by the contribution of groups or individuals as epistemic agents. StH cannot account for the rapidity and liminality of meaning that Vähämaa (2018) attributes to common sense nowadays. SH and PH share the idea that meaning emerges from what people do together, and that stability is both the condition and the product of the fact that we establish contexts of meaningful actions, ways of doing things in a habitual way.

The problem is today the fact that our accelerated Western capitalistic societies have multiplied the ways of doing and the number of groups in society, decoupling the habitual from the common sense meaning. New habits, new words, personal actions and meanings are built, disseminated and destroyed in short time. So, if “Our lives, with regard to language and knowledge, are fundamentally bound to social groups” (Vähämaa, 2018, p. 169) what does it happen to language and to knowledge when social groups multiply, segregate and disappear in a short time?

From Common Sense to the Bubble

The grounding of meaning in the group as epistemic agent has received a serious stroke in the era of connectivism and post-truth. The idea of connectivism is that knowledge is distributed among the different agents of a collective network (Siemens, 2005). Knowledge does not reside into the “mind” or into a “memory”, but is rather produced in bits and pieces, that the epistemic agent is required to search, and to assemble through the contribution of the collective effort of the group’s members.

Thus, depending on the configuration of the network, different information will be connected, and different pictures of the world will emerge. The meaning of the words will be different if, for instance, the network of information is aggregated by different groups in combination with, for instance, specific algorithms. The configuration of groups, mediated by social media, as in the case of contemporary politics (Lewandowsky, Ecker & Cook, 2017), leads to the reproduction of “bubbles” of people that share the very same views, and are exposed to the very same opinions, selected by an algorithm that will show only the content compliant with their previous content preferences.

The result is that the group loses a great deal of its epistemic capability, which Vähämaa (2018) suggests as a foundation of meaning. The meaning of words that will be preferred in this kind of epistemic bubble is the result of two operations of selection that are based on popularity. First, the meaning will be aggregated by consensual agents, rather than dialectic ones. Meaning will always convergent rather than controversial.

Second, between alternative meanings, the most “popular” will be chosen, rather than the most reliable. The epistemic bubble of connectivism originates from a misunderstanding. The idea is that a collectivity has more epistemic force than the individual alone, to the extent that any belief is scrutinized democratically and that if every agent can contribute with its own bit, the knowledge will be more reliable, because it is the result of a constant and massive peer-review. Unfortunately, the events show us a different picture.

Post-truth is actually a massive action of epistemic injustice (Fricker, 2007), to the extent that the reliability of the other as epistemic agent is based on criteria of similarity, rather than on dialectic. One is reliable as long as it is located within my own bubble. Everything outside is “fake news”. The algorithmic selection of information contributes to reinforce the polarization. Thus, no hybridization becomes possible, the common sense (Vähämaa, 2018) is reduced to the common bubble. How can the epistemic community still be a source of meaning in the connectivist era?

Meaning and Common Sense

SH and PH about language point to a very important historical source: the philosopher Giambattista Vico (Danesi, 1993; Tateo, 2015). Vico can be considered the scholar of the common sense and the imagination (Tateo, 2015). Knowledge is built as product of human experience and crystallized into the language of a given civilization. Civilization is the set of interpretations and solutions that different groups have found to respond to the common existential events, such as birth, death, mating, natural phenomena, etc.

According to Vico, all the human beings share a fate of mortal existence and rely on each other to get along. This is the notion of common sense: the profound sense of humanity that we all share and that constitutes the ground for human ethical choices, wisdom and collective living. Humans rely on imagination, before reason, to project themselves into others and into the world, in order to understand them both. Imagination is the first step towards the understanding of the Otherness.

When humans loose contact with this sensus communis, the shared sense of humanity, and start building their meaning on egoism or on pure rationality, civilizations then slip into barbarism. Imagination gives thus access to the intersubjectivity, the capability of feeling the other, while common sense constitutes the wisdom of developing ethical beliefs that will not harm the other. Vico ideas are echoed and made present by the critical theory:

“We have no doubt (…) that freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking. We believe we have perceived with equal clarity, however, that the very concept of that thinking (…) already contains the germ of the regression which is taking place everywhere today. If enlightenment does not [engage in] reflection on this regressive moment, it seals its own fate (…) In the mysterious willingness of the technologically educated masses to fall under the spell of any despotism, in its self-destructive affinity to nationalist paranoia (…) the weakness of contemporary theoretical understanding is evident.” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002, xvi)

Common sense is the basis for the wisdom, that allows to question the foundational nature of the bubble. It is the basis to understand that every meaning is not only defined in a positive way, but is also defined by its complementary opposite (Tateo, 2016).

When one uses the semantic prime “we” (Vähämaa, 2018), one immediately produces a system of meaning that implies the existence of a “non-we”, one is producing otherness. In return, the meaning of “we” can only be clearly defined through the clarification of who is “non-we”. Meaning is always cogenetic (Tateo, 2015). Without the capability to understand that by saying “we” people construct a cogenetic complex of meaning, the group is reduced to a self confirming, self reinforcing collective, in which the sense of being a valid epistemic agent is actually faked, because it is nothing but an act of epistemic arrogance.

How we can solve the problem of the epistemic bubble and give to the relationship between group and person a real epistemic value? How we can overcome the dangerous overlapping between sense of being functional in the group and false beliefs based on popularity?

Complementarity Between Meaning and Sense

My idea is that we must look in that complex space between the “meaning”, understood as a collectively shared complex of socially constructed significations, and the “sense”, understood as the very personal elaboration of meaning which is based on the person’s uniqueness (Vygotsky, 2012; Wertsck, 2000). Meaning and sense feed into each other, like common sense and imagination. Imagination is the psychic function that enables the person to feel into the other, and thus to establish the ethical and affective ground for the common sense wisdom. It is the empathic movement on which Kant will later on look for a logic foundation.

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” (Kant 1993, p. 36. 4:429)

I would further claim that maybe they feed into each other: the logic foundation is made possible by the synthetic power of empathic imagination. Meaning and sense feed into each other. On the one hand, the collective is the origin of internalized psychic activities (SH), and thus the basis for the sense elaborated about one’s own unique life experience. On the other hand, the personal sense constitutes the basis for the externalization of the meaning into the arena of the collective activities, constantly innovating the meaning of the words.

So, personal sense can be a strong antidote to the prevailing force of the meaning produced for instance in the epistemic bubble. My sense of what is “ought”, “empathic”, “human” and “ethic”, in other words my wisdom, can help me to develop a critical stance towards meanings that are build in a self-feeding uncritical way.

Can the dialectic, complementary and cogenetic relationship between sense and meaning become the ground for a better epistemic performance, and for an appreciation of the liminal meaning produced in contemporary societies? In the last section, I will try to provide arguments in favor of this idea.

Ethical Grounding of Meaning

If connectivistic and post-truth societies produce meanings that are based on popularity check, rather than on epistemic appreciation, we risk to have a situation in which any belief is the contingent result of a collective epistemic agent which replicates its patterns into bubbles. One will just listen to messages that confirm her own preferences and belief and reject the different ones as unreliable. Inside the bubble there is no way to check the meaning, because the meaning is not cogenetic, it is consensual.

For instance, if I read and share a post on social media, claiming that migrants are the main criminal population, despite my initial position toward the news, there is the possibility that within my group I will start to see only posts confirming the initial fact. The fact can be proven wrong, for instance by the press, but the belief will be hard to change, as the meaning of “migrant” in my bubble is likely to continue being that of “criminal”. The collectivity will share an epistemically unjust position, to the extent that it will attribute a lessened epistemic capability to those who are not part of the group itself. How can one avoid that the group is scaffolding the “bad” epistemic skills, rather than empowering the individual (Vähämaa, 2018)?

The solution I propose is to develop an epistemic virtue based on two main principles: the ethical grounding of meaning and the cogenetic logic. The ethical grounding of meaning is directly related to the articulation between common sense and wisdom in the sense of Vico (Tateo, 2015). In a post-truth world in which we cannot appreciate the epistemic foundation of meaning, we must rely on a different epistemic virtue in order to become critical toward messages. Ethical grounding, based on the personal sense of humanity, is not of course epistemic test of reliability, but it is an alarm bell to become legitimately suspicious toward meanings. The second element of the new epistemic virtue is cogenetic logic (Tateo, 2016).

Meaning is grounded in the building of every belief as a complementary system between “A” and “non-A”. This implies that any meaning is constructed through the relationship with its complementary opposite. The truth emerges in a double dialectic movement (Silva Filho, 2014): through Socratic dialogue and through cogenetic logic. In conclusion, let me try to provide a practical example of this epistemic virtue.

The way to start to discriminate potentially fake news or the tendentious interpretations of facts would be essentially based on an ethic foundation. As in Vico’s wisdom of common sense, I would base my epistemic scrutiny on the imaginative work that allows me to access the other and on the cogenetic logic that assumes every meaning is defined by its relationship with the opposite.

Let’s imagine that we are exposed to a post on social media, in which someone states that a caravan of migrants, which is travelling from Honduras across Central America toward the USA border, is actually made of criminals sent by hostile foreign governments to destabilize the country right before elections. The same post claims that it is a conspiracy and that all the press coverage is fake news.

Finally the post presents some “debunking” pictures showing some athletic young Latino men, with their faces covered by scarves, to demonstrate that the caravan is not made by families with children, but is made by “soldiers” in good shape and who don’t look poor and desperate as the “mainstream” media claim. I do not know whether such a post has ever been made, but I just assembled elements of very common discourses circulating in the social media.

The task is no to assess the nature of this message, its meaning and its reliability. I could rely on the group as a ground for assessing statements, to scrutinize their truth and justification. However, due to the “bubble” effect, I may fall into a simple tautological confirmation, due to the configuration of the network of my relations. I would probably find only posts confirming the statements and delegitimizing the opposite positions. In this case, the fact that the group will empower my epistemic confidence is a very dangerous element.

I could limit my search for alternative positions to establish a dialogue. However, I could not be able, alone, to find information that can help me to assess the statement with respect to its degree of bias. How can I exert my skepticism in a context of post-truth? I propose some initial epistemic moves, based on a common sense approach to the meaning-making.

1) I must be skeptical of every message which uses a violent, aggressive, discriminatory language, and that such kind of message is “fake” by default.

2) I must be skeptical of every message that treats as criminals or is against whole social groups, even on the basis of real isolated events, because this interpretation is biased by default.

3) I must be skeptical of every message that attacks or targets persons for their characteristics rather than discussing ideas or behaviors.

Appreciating the hypothetical post about the caravan by the three rules above mentioned, one will immediately see that it violates all of them. Thus, no matter what is the information collected by my epistemic bubble, I have justified reasons to be skeptical towards it. The foundation of the meaning of the message will not be neither in the group nor in the person. It will be based on the ethical position of common sense’s wisdom.

Contact details: luca@hum.aau.dk

References

Austin, J. L. (1975). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bouchard, D. (2013). The nature and origin of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Danesi, M. (1993). Vico, metaphor, and the origin of language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford University Press.

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kant, I. (1993) [1785]. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Ellington, James W. (3rd ed.). Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett.

Keyes, R. (2004). The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. New York: St. Martin’s.

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K., & Cook, J. (2017). Beyond misinformation: Understanding and coping with the “post-truth” era. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(4), 353-369.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1) http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

Silva Filho, W. J. (2014). Davidson: Dialog, dialectic, interpretation. Utopía y praxis latinoamericana, 7(19).

Tateo, L. (2015). Giambattista Vico and the psychological imagination. Culture & Psychology, 21(2), 145-161.

Tateo, L. (2016). Toward a cogenetic cultural psychology. Culture & Psychology, 22(3), 433-447.

Thao, T. D. (2012). Investigations into the origin of language and consciousness. New York: Springer.

Vähämaa, M. (2018). Challenges to Groups as Epistemic Communities: Liminality of Common Sense and Increasing Variability of Word Meanings, Social Epistemology, 32:3, 164-174, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458352

Vygotsky, L. S. (2012). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Wertsck, J. V. (2000). Vygotsky’s Two Minds on the Nature of Meaning. In C. D. Lee & P. Smagorinsky (eds), Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research: Constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry (pp. 19-30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Bucharest, m.dentith@episto.org.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43y

Image by David Grant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Sometimes, when it is hard to review a book, it is tempting to turn in some kind of personal reflection, one demonstrates why the reviewer felt disconnected from the text they were reviewing. This review of Bernard N. Wills Believing Weird Things – which I received three months ago, and have spent quite a bit of time thinking about in the interim – is just such a review-cum-reflection, because I am not sure what this book is about, nor who its intended audience is.

According to the blurb on the back Believing Weird Things is a response to Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things (Henry Holt and Company, 1997). Shermer’s book is one I know all too well, having read and reread it when I started work on my PhD. At the time the book was less than ten years old, and Shermer and his cohort of Skeptics (spelt with a ‘K’ to denote that particular brand of sceptical thought popular among (largely) non-philosophers in the U.S.) were considered to be the first and final word on the rationality (more properly, the supposed irrationality) of belief in conspiracy theories.

Given I was working on a dissertation on the topic, getting to grips with the arguments against belief in such theories seemed crucial, especially given my long and sustained interest in the what you might call the contra-philosophy of Skepticism, the work of Charles Fort.

Times for the Fortean

Fort (who Wills mentions in passing) was a cantankerous collector and publisher of strange and inconvenient phenomena. His Book of the Damned (Boni and Liveright, 1919) is an early 20th Century litany of things which seemed to fall outside the systemic study of the world. From rains of frogs, to cities floating in the sky, Fort presented the strange and the wonderful, often without comment. When he did dare to theorise about the phenomena he cataloged, he often contradicted his previous theories in favour of new ones. Scholars of Fort think his lack of a system was quite deliberate: Fort’s damned data was meant to be immune to scientific study.

Fort was hardly a known figure in his day, but his work has gained fans and adherents, who call themselves Forteans and engage in the study of Forteana. Forteans collect and share damned data, from haunted physics laboratories, to falls of angel hair. Often they theorise about what might cause these phenomena, but they also often don’t dispute other interpretations of the same ‘damned data.’

John Keel, one of the U.S.’s most famous Forteans (and who, if he did not invent the term ‘Men in Black’ at least popularised their existence), had a multitude of theories about the origin of UFOs and monsters in the backwoods of the U.S., which he liberally sprinkled throughout his works. If you challenged Keel on what you thought was an inconsistency of thought he would brush it off (or get angry at the suggestion he was meant to consistent in the first place).

I was a fan of Forteana without being a Fortean: I fail the Fortean test of tolerating competing hypotheses, preferring to stipulate terms whilst encouraging others to join my side of the debate. But I love reading Forteana (it is a great source of examples for the social epistemologist), and thinking about alternative interpretations. So, whilst I do not think UAP (unexpected aerial phenomena – the new term for UFO) are creatures from another dimension, I do like thinking about the assumptions which drive such theories.

Note here that I say ‘theories’ quite deliberately: any student of Forteana will quickly become aware that modern Forteans (contra Fort himself) are typically very systematic about their beliefs. It is just that often the Fortean is happy to be a systemic pluralist, happily accepting competing or complimentary systems as equally possible.

Weird and Weirder

Which brings me back to Believing Weird Things. The first section concerns beliefs people like Shermer might find weird but Wills argues are reasonable in the context under which they developed. Wills’ interest here is wide, taking in astrology, fairies, and why he is not a Rastafarian. Along the way he contextualises those supposedly weird beliefs and shows how, at certain times or in certain places, they were the product of a systemic study of the world.

Wills points out that a fault of Skepticism is a lack of appreciation for history: often what we now consider rational was once flimflam (plate tectonics), and what was systemic and rational (astrology) is today’s quackery. As Wills writes:

The Ancients do not seem to me to be thinking badly so much as thinking in an alien context and under different assumptions that are too basic to admit evaluation in the ordinary empirical sense (which is not to say they admit of no evaluation whatsoever). Further, there are many things in Aristotle and the Hebrew Bible which strike me as true even though the question of ‘testing’ them scientifically and ‘skeptically’ is pretty much meaningless. In short, the weird beliefs I study are at minimum intelligible, sometimes plausible and occasionally true. [4]

Indeed, the very idea which underpins Shermer’s account, ‘magical thinking,’ seems to fail the skeptical test: why, like Shermer, would you think it is some hardwired function rather than culturally situated? But more importantly, how is magical thinking any different from any other kind of thinking?

This last point is important because, as others have argued (including myself) many beliefs people think are problematic are, when looked at in context with other beliefs, either not particularly problematic, or no more problematic than the beliefs we assume are produced rationally. The Psychology of Religion back in the early 20th Century is a good example of this: when psychologists worried about religious belief started looking at the similarities in belief formation between the religious and the non-religious, they started to find the same kind of ‘errors’ in irreligious people as well.

In the same respect, the work in social psychology on belief in conspiracy theories seems to be suffering the same kind of problem today: it’s not clear that conspiracy theorists are any less (or more) rational than the rest of us. Rather, often what marks out the difference in belief are the different assumptions about how the world is, or how it works. Indeed, as Wills writes:

Many weird ideas are only weird from a certain assumed perspective. This is important because this assumed perspective is often one of epistemic and social privilege. We tend to associate weird ideas with weird people we look down upon from some place of superior social status. [10]

The first section of Believing Weird Things is, then, possibly the best defence of a kind of Fortean philosophy one could hope for. Yet that is also an unfair judgement, because thinking of Believing Weird Things as a Fortean text is just my imposition: Fort is mentioned exactly once, and only in a footnote. I am only calling this a tentatively Fortean text because I am not sure who the book’s audience is. Ostensibly – at least according to the blurb – it is meant to be a direct reply to Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. But if it is, then it is twenty years late: Why People Believe Weird Things was published in 1997.

Not just that, but whilst Believing Weird Things deals with a set of interesting issues Shermer did not cover (yet ought to have), almost everything which makes up the reply to Why People Believe Weird Things is to be found in the Introduction alone. Now, I’d happily set the Introduction as a reading in a Critical Thinking class or elementary Epistemology class. However, I could not see much use in setting the book as a whole.

What’s Normal Anyway?

Which brings us to the second half of Believing Weird Things. Having set out why some weird beliefs are not that weird when thought about in context, Wills sets out his reasons for thinking that beliefs which aren’t – in some sense – considered weird ought to be. The choice of topics here is interesting, covering Islamophobia, white privilege, violence and the proper attitude towards tolerance and toleration in our polities.

But it invites the question (again) of who his intended audience is meant to be? For example, I also think Islamophobia, racism, and violence are deeply weird, and it worries me that some people still think they are sensible responses. But if Wills is setting out to persuade the other half of the debate, the racists, the bigots, and the fans of violence, then I do not think he will have much luck, as his discussions never seem to get much further than “Here are my reckons!”

And some of those reckons really need more arguments in favour of them.

For example, Wills brings out the old canard that religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are one and the same (presented as ‘religious faith’ and ‘scientific faith’). Not just that, but, in chapter 6, he talks about the things ‘discovered’ by religion. These are presented as being en par with discoveries in the sciences. Yet aren’t the things discovered by religion (‘humans beings must suffer before they learn. … existence is suffering’ [48]) really the ‘discoveries’ of, say, philosophers working in a religious system? And aren’t many of these discoveries just stipulations, or religious edicts?

This issue is compounded by Wills specification that the process of discovery for religious faith is hermeneutics: the interpretation of religious texts. But that invites even more questions: if you think the gods are responsible for both the world and certain texts in the world you could imagine hermeneutic inquiry to be somehow equivalent to scientific inquiry, but if you are either doubtful of the gods, or doubtful about the integrity of the gods’ prophets, then there is much room to doubt there is much of a connection at all between ‘faith’ in science and faith in scripture.

Another example: in chapter 8, Wills states:

Flat-Earthers are one thing but Birthers, say, are quite another: some ideas do not come from a good place and are not just absurd but pernicious. [67]

Now, there is an argument to be had about the merits (or lack thereof) of the Flat Earth theory and the thesis Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. Some might even claim that the Flat Earth theory is worse, given that belief might entail thinking a lot of very disparate institutions, located globally, are in on a massive cover-up. The idea Barack Obama is secretly Kenyan has little effect on those of us outside the U.S. electoral system.

None of this is to say there aren’t decent arguments to be had about these topics. It is, instead, to say that often these positions are stipulated. As such, the audience for Believing Weird Things seems to be people who agree with Wills, rather than an attempt by Wills to change hearts and minds.

How to Engage With Weird Beliefs

Which is not to say that the second half of the book lacks merit; it just lacks meat. The chapters on Islamophobia (chapter 8) and racism (chapter 9) are good: the contextualisation of both Islamophobia and the nature of conflicts in the Middle East are well expressed. But they are not particularly novel (especially if you read the work of left-wing commentators). But even if the chapters are agreeable to someone of a left-wing persuasion, all too often the chapters just end: the chapter on violence (chapter 10), for example, has no clear conclusion other than that violence is bad.

Similarly confused is the chapter on tolerance (chapter 11). But the worst offender is the chapter on the death of Conservatism (chapter 14). This could have been an interesting argument about the present state of today’s politics. But the chapter ends abruptly, and with it, the book. There is no conclusion, no tying together of threads. There’s hardly even any mention of Shermer or skepticism in the second half of Believing Weird Things.

Which brings us back to the question: who is this book for? If the book were just the first half it could be seen as both a reply to Shermer and a hesitant stab at a Fortean philosophy. But the second half of the book comes across more as the author’s rumination on some pertinent social issues of the day, and none of that content seems to advance far beyond ‘Here are my thoughts…’

Which, unfortunately, is also the character of this review: in trying to work out who the book is for I find my thoughts as inconclusive as the text itself. None of this is to say that Believing Weird Things is a bad or terrible book. Rather, it is just a collection of the author’s ruminations. So, unless you happen to be a fan of Wills, there is little to this text which substantially advances the debate over belief in anything.

Contact details: m.dentith@episto.org

References

Fort, Charles. The Book of the Damned, Boni and Liveright, 1919

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things, Henry Holt and Company, 1997

Wills, Bernard N. Believing Weird Things, Minkowski Institute Press, 2018

Author Information: Claus-Christian Carbon, University of Bamberg, ccc@experimental-psychology.com

Carbon, Claus-Christian. “A Conspiracy Theory is Not a Theory About a Conspiracy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 22-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Yb

See also:

  • Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Expertise and Conspiracy Theories.” Social Epistemology 32, no. 3 (2018), 196-208.

The power, creation, imagery, and proliferation of conspiracy theories are fascinating avenues to explore in the construction of public knowledge and the manipulation of the public for nefarious purposes. Their role in constituting our pop cultural imaginary and as central images in political propaganda are fertile ground for research.
Image by Neil Moralee via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The simplest and most natural definition of a conspiracy theory is a theory about a conspiracy. Although this definition seems appealing due to its simplicity and straightforwardness, the problem is that most narratives about conspiracies do not fulfill the necessary requirements of being a theory. In everyday speech, mere descriptions, explanations, or even beliefs are often termed as “theories”—such repeated usage of this technical term is not useful in the context of scientific activities.

Here, a theory does not aim to explain one specific event in time, e.g. the moon landing of 1969 or the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, but aims at explaining a phenomenon on a very general level; e.g. that things with mass as such gravitate toward one another—independently of the specific natures of such entities. Such an epistemological status is rarely achieved by conspiracy theories, especially the ones about specific events in time. Even more general claims that so-called chemtrails (i.e. long-lasting condensation trails) are initiated by omnipotent organizations across the planet, across time zones and altitudes, is at most a hypothesis – a rather narrow one – that specifically addresses one phenomenon but lacks the capability to make predictions about other phenomena.

Narratives that Shape Our Minds

So-called conspiracy theories have had a great impact on human history, on the social interaction between groups, the attitude towards minorities, and the trust in state institutions. There is very good reason to include “conspiracy theories” into the canon of influential narratives and so it is just logical to direct a lot of scientific effort into explaining and understand how they operate, how people believe in them and how humans pile up knowledge on the basis of these narratives.

A short view on publications registered by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science documents 605 records with “conspiracy theories” as the topic (effective date 7 May 2018). These contributions were mostly covered by psychological (n=91) and political (n=70) science articles, with a steep increase in recent years from about 2013 on, probably due to a special issue (“Research Topic”) in the journal Frontiers of Psychology organized in the years 2012 and 2013 by Viren Swami and Christopher Charles French.

As we have repeatedly argued (e.g., Raab, Carbon, & Muth, 2017), conspiracy theories are a very common phenomenon. Most people believe in at least some of them (Goertzel, 1994), which already indicates that believers in them do not belong to a minority group, but that it is more or less the conditio humana to include such narratives in the everyday belief system.

So first of all, we can state that most of such beliefs are neither pathological nor rare (see Raab, Ortlieb, Guthmann, Auer, & Carbon, 2013), but are largely caused by “good”[1] narratives triggered by context factors (Sapountzis & Condor, 2013) such as a distrusted society. The wide acceptance of many conspiracy theories can further explained by adaptation effects that bias the standard beliefs (Raab, Auer, Ortlieb, & Carbon, 2013). This view is not undisputed, as many authors identify specific pathological personality traits such as paranoia (Grzesiak-Feldman & Ejsmont, 2008; Pipes, 1997) which cause, enable or at least proliferate the belief in conspiracy theories.

In fact, in science we mostly encounter the pathological and pejorative view on conspiracy theories and their believers. This negative connotation, and hence the prejudice toward conspiracy theories, makes it hard to solidly test the stated facts, ideas or relationships proposed by such explanatory structures (Rankin, 2017). As especially conspiracy theories of so-called “type I” – where authorities (“the system”) are blamed of conspiracies (Wagner-Egger & Bangerter, 2007)—, such a prejudice can potentially jeopardize the democratic system (Bale, 2007).

Some of the conspiracies which are described in conspiracy theories that are taking place at top state levels could indeed be threatening people’s freedom, democracy and even people’s lives, especially if they turned out to be “true” (e.g. the case of the whistleblower and previously alleged conspiracist Edward Snowden, see Van Puyvelde, Coulthart, & Hossain, 2017).

Understanding What a Theory Genuinely Is

In the present paper, I will focus on another, yet highly important, point which is hardly addressed at all: Is the term “conspiracy theories” an adequate term at all? In fact, the suggestion of a conspiracy theory being a “theory about a conspiracy” (Dentith, 2014, p.30) is indeed the simplest and seemingly most straightforward definition of “conspiracy theory”. Although appealing and allegedly logical, the term conspiracy theory as such is ill-defined. Actually a “conspiracy theory” refers to a narrative which attributes an event to a group of conspirators. As such it is clear that it is justified to associate such a narrative with the term “conspiracy”, but does a conspiracy theory has the epistemological status of a theory?

The simplest definition of a “theory” is that it represents a bundle of hypotheses which can explain a wide range of phenomena. Theories have to integrate the contained hypotheses is a concise, coherent, and systematic way. They have to go beyond the mere piling up of several statements or unlinked hypotheses. The application of theories allows events or entities which are not explicitly described in the sum of the hypotheses to be generalized and hence to be predicted.

For instance, one of the most influential physical theories, the theory of special relativity (German original description “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper”), contains two hypotheses (Einstein, 1905) on whose basis in addition to already existing theories, we can predict important issues which are not explicitly stated in the theory. Most are well aware that mass and energy are equivalent. Whether we are analyzing the energy of a tossed ball or a static car, we can use the very same theory. Whether the ball is red or whether it is a blue ball thrown by Napoleon Bonaparte does not matter—we just need to refer to the mass of the ball, in fact we are only interested in the mass as such; the ball does not play a role anymore. Other theories show similar predictive power: for instance, they can predict (more or less precisely) events in the future, the location of various types of material in a magnetic field or the trajectory of objects of different speed due to gravitational power.

Most conspiracy theories, however, refer to one single historical event. Looking through the “most enduring conspiracy theories” compiled in 2009 by TIME magazine on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it is instantly clear that they have explanatory power for just the specific events on which they are based, e.g. the “JFK assassination” in 1963, the “9/11 cover-up” in 2001, the “moon landings were faked” idea from 1969 or the “Paul is dead” storyline about Paul McCartney’s alleged secret death in 1966. In fact, such theories are just singular explanations, mostly ignoring counter-facts, alternative explanations and already given replies (Votsis, 2004).

But what, then, is the epistemological status of such narratives? Clearly, they aim to explain – and sometimes the explanations are indeed compelling, even coherent. What they mostly cannot demonstrate, though, is the ability to predict other events in other contexts. If these narratives belong to this class of explanatory stories, we should be less liberal in calling them “theories”. Unfortunately, it was Karl Popper himself who coined the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1940s (Popper, 1949)—the same Popper who was advocating very strict criteria for scientific theories and in so became one of the most influential philosophers of science (Suppe, 1977). This imprecise terminology diluted the genuine meaning of (scientific) theories.

Stay Rigorous

From a language pragmatics perspective, it seems odd to abandon the term conspiracy theory as it is a widely introduced and frequently used term in everyday language around the globe. Substitutions like conspiracy narratives, conspiracy stories or conspiracy explanations would fit much better, but acceptance of such terms might be quite low. Nevertheless, we should at least bear in mind that most narratives of this kind cannot qualify as theories and so cannot lead to a wider research program; although their contents and implications are often far-reaching, potentially important for society and hence, in some cases, also worthy of checking.

Contact details: ccc@experimental-psychology.com

References

Bale, J. M. (2007). Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice, 41(1), 45-60. doi:10.1080/00313220601118751

Dentith, M. R. X. (2014). The philosophy of conspiracy theories. New York: Palgrave.

Einstein, A. (1905). Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper [On the electrodynamics of moving bodies]. Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 17, 891-921.

Goertzel, T. (1994). Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology, 15(4), 731-742.

Grzesiak-Feldman, M., & Ejsmont, A. (2008). Paranoia and conspiracy thinking of Jews, Arabs, Germans and russians in a Polish sample. Psychological Reports, 102(3), 884.

Pipes, D. (1997). Conspiracy: How the paranoid style flourishes and where it comes from. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Popper, K. R. (1949). Prediction and prophecy and their significance for social theory. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Philosophy, Amsterdam.

Raab, M. H., Auer, N., Ortlieb, S. A., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). The Sarrazin effect: The presence of absurd statements in conspiracy theories makes canonical information less plausible. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(453), 1-8.

Raab, M. H., Carbon, C. C., & Muth, C. (2017). Am Anfang war die Verschwörungstheorie [In the beginning, there was the conspiracy theory]. Berlin: Springer.

Raab, M. H., Ortlieb, S. A., Guthmann, K., Auer, N., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). Thirty shades of truth: conspiracy theories as stories of individuation, not of pathological delusion. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(406).

Rankin, J. E. (2017). The conspiracy theory meme as a tool of cultural hegemony: A critical discourse analysis. (PhD), Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA.

Sapountzis, A., & Condor, S. (2013). Conspiracy accounts as intergroup theories: Challenging dominant understandings of social power and political legitimacy. Political Psychology. doi:10.1111/pops.12015

Suppe, F. (Ed.) (1977). The structure of scientific theories (2nd ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Van Puyvelde, D., Coulthart, S., & Hossain, M. S. (2017). Beyond the buzzword: Big data and national security decision-making. International Affairs, 93(6), 1397-1416. doi:10.1093/ia/iix184

Votsis, I. (2004). The epistemological status of scientific theories: An investigation of the structural realist account. (PhD), London School of Economics and Political Science, London. Retrieved from Z:\PAPER\Votsis2004.pdf

Wagner-Egger, P., & Bangerter, A. (2007). The truth lies elsewhere: Correlates of belief in conspiracy theories. Revue Internationale De Psychologie Sociale-International Review of Social Psychology, 20(4), 31-61.

[1] It is important to stress that a “good narrative” in this context means “an appealing story” in which people are interested; by no means does the author want to allow confusion by suggesting the meaning as being “positive”, “proper”, “adequate” or “true”.

Author Information: Patrick Stokes, Deakin University, patrick.stokes@deakin.edu.au

Stokes, Patrick. “Reluctance and Suspicion: Reply to Basham and Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 48-58.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3qM

Please refer to:

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Image credit: Thomas Huang, via flickr

I am grateful to both Matthew Dentith and Lee Basham for their thoughtful and generous replies to my barging into their discussion of particularism and generalism about conspiracy theory. An over-long reply is a rather poor way to repay that generosity, but here goes.

Conspiracy Theory vs. Conspiracy Narrative

A central part of my argument in Stokes is that there is a gap between how epistemologists use the term “conspiracy theory” and how the term is popularly used.[1] My concern is that by defining “conspiracy theory” so broadly, epistemologists end up losing sight of the recognizable cultural practice of conspiracy theorizing. It’s well established by this point in the debate that there is no prima facie reason to reject conspiracy theories on the basis of their formal explanatory structure alone. But that level of abstraction is not, so to speak, where we live, and nor is it the level on which social critiques of conspiracy theory operate.

Dentith and Basham respond to this concern in different ways. Dentith argues that some of my worries about conspiracy theory are really concerns about certain types of conspiracy narrative. The problem is not the simple act of forming (or asserting) explanations of observed events that involve two or more actors conspiring in secret, but the deployment of particular narratives about specific conspiracies; for instance, the “Jewish World Conspiracy” narrative (or overlapping narratives, perhaps) promulgated by figures as diverse as the Tsarist Okhrana, Henry Ford, Nesta Webster, Adolf Hitler, and David Duke. “To theorise about a conspiracy—to wit, to engage in conspiracy theorising—is a different task from hooking into an existing conspiracy narrative to press a point,” and accordingly, the two should be evaluated separately.[2]

At first blush, such a distinction maps neatly onto my own concern to differentiate conspiracy explanation as a formal category from conspiracy theory as a recognizable social practice and cultural formation. And in terms of the debate between generalism and particularism, adopting this distinction would seems to leave open the possibility of maintaining particularism about conspiracy theorizing while adopting a generalism about certain conspiracy narratives—something very like the “defeasible generalism” or “reluctant particularism” I endorsed.

In practice, however, it’s not clear how clear a line we can draw between conspiracy theory and conspiracy narrative as Dentith construes these terms. Dentith invites us to “imagine someone in a room, dispassionately coming up with conspiracy theories, and then getting her lackeys to see if they have any merit.”[3] But if this conspiracy theorist is anything like most conspiracy theorists, her theories, however dispassionate, are going to draw upon existing conspiracy theory tropes and narrative structures. It is remarkable how strongly the same tropes recur in otherwise disconnected conspiracy theories: for instance, the near-ubiquity of “false flag” explanations. Say Dentith’s speculator sees reports of a mass shooting event, and wonders: “Perhaps this shooting is a false flag designed to prepare the ground for disarming the population.” That is not a stand-alone explanation, but one embedded in a tradition of “the government is coming take your guns” anxieties. It sits within a long, ongoing, evolving, recognizable history of interpretation. These day, it re-emerges, fully-formed, within minutes of any major mass shooting, regardless of context or location.

Of course, one could reply here that there’s no reason to think conspiracies won’t tend to resemble each other: the similarity of conspiracy narratives may simply reflect the finite repertoire of strategies available to conspirators. Moreover, conspiracy theories generally posit fairly powerful actors, which in turn limits the pool of possible perpetrators, so we’d expect to see recurring villains in these explanations. In short, there are only so many possible conspirators, and only so many possible ways for them to conspire effectively. Even so, in considering any individual act of conspiracy theorizing it’s difficult to see how we could differentiate between what is genuinely original (even if isomorphic with other conspiracy theories) and what borrows its form—and a large part of its sanction—from existing conspiracy narratives.

However, let’s assume that Dentith’s lackey-dispatching idle speculator is somehow oblivious to conspiracy theorizing as a social practice—perhaps she, in a nod to Frank Jackson’s “Mary,” has been raised in an environment where she has never been exposed to any existing conspiracy theories or conspiracy tropes.[4] Her conspiracy theories are, let’s stipulate, self-standing and sui generis alternatives to “official” explanations of given events. Does that entitle all her theories to be considered in a particularist way?

Accusation and Reluctance

This question connects us to what I described as “reluctance,” which should attach to both conspiracy theorizing and to indulging in particular conspiracy narratives. Dentith’s conspiracy theorist spins her theories “dispassionately.” But then, what motivates them? Dentith tells us that the question of whether mass shootings are a government plot designed to curb gun rights is “a perfectly interesting question” and that “entertaining that notion is something someone, somewhere should engage in.”[5] It’s not clear however where the “should” emerges from here. Of course, one can “dispassionately” speculate about anything. I could, for instance, walk into any room and try to calculate the probability that anyone in that room is plotting to kill me. Despite being a fairly anxious sort I’d probably do so calmly, because I am not actually entertaining the prospect that some of these people want to do me in. I’m just idly playing with the idea. But it is far from clear why I should speculate like this, and likewise it is far from clear why I should speculate whether mass shooting events were hoaxed by the government.

Ok, we might think, but surely such speculation is both harmless enough on its own terms and potentially exposes genuine plots, however unlikely? After all, insists Dentith, “you can theorise about conspiracy theories without making accusations.”[6] Dentith here specifies that “the threshold for accusation here [must be] something higher than simply saying “They are up to something…’”[7] But just how far can we go down that path before we’re making accusations? We can certainly avoid blaming anyone specific by offering explanations so under-described they barely seem to warrant the name “theory” (“Things are not as they seem,” “I’ll bet they are behind this” etc.). But this doesn’t get us very far. It’s not clear how far you can go with suggesting a mass casualty event was really a false flag exercise without impugning someone. We might try to find a redoubt here between accusation and non-accusation to hide in; we might want to call that redoubt “expressing suspicion” or, more commonly, “just asking questions” (less charitably known as “JAQing off”). But just asking questions that call someone’s innocence into question is not a morally neutral act. Dentith’s dispassionate speculator may not be doing very much practical harm, but she is nonetheless engaging in a practice with a moral cost. My walking into a room and idly wondering if you’re planning to kill me may not cause you much upset—mostly because I wouldn’t mention doing so, as that would make things pretty awkward—but I’ve still entertained the idea you might be a murderer, and thereby done you a passing wrong. There are of course circumstances where that’s a warranted suspicion or even a necessary prudential response; but those circumstances are, precisely because they violate the background trust intrinsic to human sociality (more on this below), abnormal, even when pervasive and persistent.

For Dentith, distinguishing between conspiracy theorizing and conspiracy narrative does allow us to avoid certain narratives that are discredited or problematic. But the motivation here remains, on his telling, fundamentally epistemological rather than ethical:

After all, if the evidence is “This looks like a redressed version of a Jewish banking conspiracy narrative,” then the appropriate evidential response is to ask “Hasn’t this been debunked?” Because if it has, then we will have evidence to mount against the new version. If it has not, then we need to investigate the claim further.”[8]

That may well be a perfectly valid evidential response. But we do not apply our evidential reasoning in a vacuum, but do so from within historically conditioned and epistemically finite situations, in a world already freighted with moral and political meanings. We do not step out of the world when we think and reflect; our thinking, reflecting, and suspecting are all actions we perform and so subject to moral inspection. In that context, an at least equally appropriate response is:

Entertaining theories about a global Jewish world conspiracy is a well-recognized anti-Semitic practice, and I will not engage in such a practice by taking this theory seriously enough to investigate it.

It remains logically possible such a theory is true, but not only are we not morally or rationally obliged to entertain every theory, we are morally obliged to reject some theories even at the risk of occasionally being wrong. Basham claims it is a virtue of particularism that it “directly confronts theories that are unwarranted (Jews are trying to destroy Western civilization),” but as he presents particularism here, it doesn’t look like this is the sort of confrontation he has in mind.[9]

Generalism and Ethics

Unlike Dentith, Basham evidently doesn’t want to buy into a distinction between conspiracy theory as a cultural phenomenon and conspiracy theory as a particular form of explanation. He instead defends a thoroughgoing particularism without even the evidentiary heuristics Dentith wants to develop, insisting that conspiracy theories “should be evaluated solely case by case, on the basis of evidence, without any epistemic mal-biasing.”[1] Basham claims that my “reluctant particularism” or “defeasible generalism” is an unstable binary: it either collapses into generalism (given that generalists preserve some sliver of defeasibility) or is simply particularism.

Here’s the argument Basham attributes to me:

1) Epistemic generalism is true; epistemic issues are “off the table” except in extremely rare cases (traditional generalism);
2) Many popular conspiracy theories cause harm;
3) If a theory causes harm, it is morally suspect (consequentialism);
4) Particularism claims we should evaluate conspiracy theories on the evidential warrant of each;
5) Unwarranted conspiracy theories are popularly believed for long periods of time without evidence (the “unreasoning masses” gambit);

So, Particularism is not the correct approach to conspiracy theorizing.[2]

Basham also adds what he takes to be a missing premise here:

6) Our default analysis of conspiracy theories should not be in terms of evidential merit, but in terms of how they promote or undermine our political projects; those that undermine these should be rejected, those that promote these should be promoted.[3]

I don’t recognize my position in this argument, though I’ve no doubt this is down to imprecision on my part and not Basham’s. I do assert premises 2) and 3). Premise 5), as defined here, doesn’t really amount to an “unreasoning masses” gambit: conspiracy theorists rarely form a mass and are not necessarily irrational. For instance, with respect to my example of deaths from improperly/untreated AIDS in South Africa, it is of course no part of my original claim that the 330,000+ people who died necessarily believed in the conspiracy theory themselves, let alone that they were irrational; it is enough that the government (or even senior figures in the government) believed it and acted accordingly in framing their policy responses to the HIV epidemic.[4]

Premise 6) casts what is an essentially moral claim—show reticence in suspecting or accusing others of malfeasance—in political terms. Basham takes my view to be a version of the Public Trust Approach (PTA). But PTA is still an argument about the epistemic reliability of institutions; it’s “trust” in the sense of “I trust this ladder to bear my weight,” not trust in the sense of “I trust the people in this room not to kill me.” The latter is not merely predictive (“I’m 98% sure you’re not planning to kill me right now”) but an expression of a moral relation: I’m in your hands, and the fact I am so enjoins you not to act against me. This is not to deny that conspiracy theory can have dramatically corrosive effects on the body politic; indeed we’re arguably seeing that right now amidst the apparently tectonic shifts occurring in the relationship between media, politics, and citizenry. Nonetheless my point is primarily a scaled-up moral one rather than a scaled-down political one.

This brings us to the central point of disagreement here, which is premise 1). At least as phrased here, 1) seems to separate moral and epistemic issues that are in fact coimbricated right from the outset. That there is nothing prima facie epistemically false about conspiracy explanations simply as such is, to reiterate, now well established. But, as noted above, we never form our views in a moral vacuum, and that will (or should) have implications for the sort of theories we are prepared to entertain. In discussing my “reluctant particularism,” Basham notes that:

If “reluctant” means we will not immediately embrace a theory, but seek significant evidence for or against, then this is simply the particularist position. We have the same “reluctance” towards any scientific theory. This reluctance doesn’t view the theory as prima facie false. Saying a theory is not yet warranted is not to say it probably never will be, just because of the sort of theory it is.[5]

Quite right. But the comparison with science only goes so far, for we do not stand in a moral relation to the objects of scientific inquiry, at least as regards the purely scientific questions we pose of them; we do not do wrong by subatomic particles or nebulae by postulating theories about them that turn out to be false. Levelling a false accusation has a moral cost to it that proposing a flawed hypothesis in physics or chemistry, in itself at least, does not.

The Payoffs of Particularism

Basham takes it that when I discuss the moral cost of conspiracy accusation in this way, “the ‘immoral’ is a simple consequentialism.”[6] Consequences matter, and that is why I noted them in the case of AIDs denialism[7] in South Africa, but the claim is not fundamentally or solely a consequentialist one. If I publish a blog insisting without anything like credible evidence that Prince Philip had MI6 murder Diana, I’ve still wronged Prince Philip even if he never finds out or doesn’t care or suffers no other unwelcome effects of my accusation. But let’s dwell on consequences for a moment, as that is where Basham launches a defense of particularism.

Basham claims that particularism about conspiracy theory, characterized by “evidence-dissemination and open debate,” has in practice yielded various dividends, both in terms of confirming some conspiracy theories and refuting others. Two things need to be noted in response. The first is that all of the conspiracy theories Basham claims to have been defeated are alive and well: it will come as cold comfort to CDC employees harassed by anti-vaccination activists outside their workplace to hear that “The anti-vaccination movement has been profoundly undermined” and even less comfort to parents in places like the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, where vaccination levels, thanks to denialism, remain dangerously below herd immunity level.[8] The President of the United States has publically supported the idea of a link between vaccines and autism, and has reportedly discussed appointing antivax activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to chair a commission into the subject.[9] If this is a movement that has been profoundly undermined, one shudders to think what it looks like in rude health. It may also be true that, as Basham claims, “Many of the tenets of the 9/11 truth movement have been abandoned by its own members,”[10] but that movement has likewise hardly vanished; as Alex Jones has recently demonstrated, you can still go on TV and publically call 9/11 an inside job and Sandy Hook a hoax and still have the President-Elect of the United States call you to thank you and your viewers for their support.[11]

Secondly, Basham claims that particularism has made it possible for certain conspiracy theories to be confirmed. Specifically, he claims that “the Iraq war is now widely recognized in the West to be an act of political conspiracy on the part of the US and other Western governments, particularly those of Bush and Blair.”[12] But both “political conspiracy” and “widely recognized” (note that Basham does not simply say “widely believed”) are ambiguous here. If the claim is that the West unjustly pursued self-interested motives in invading Iraq under the cover of overblown WMD threats, that seems clearly true, but doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of a conspiracy. One can act in self-interested ways without conspiring with others.[13] If the claim is rather that Bush, Blair, and other actors actively and explicitly colluded to fake intelligence about WMDs to provide a false justification for invading Iraq, then this is far from a “widely recognized” fact.

The Chilcot Report, for instance, is comprehensively damning about the UK Government’s decision to go to war, yet even it stops short of alleging a conspiracy, unless we think that a grotesque combination of motivated willful ignorance, hubris, and negligence somehow meets the definition of conspiracy used by epistemologists. Of course, it may yet emerge someday that there was a conspiracy: a phone transcript might yet surface of Bush telling Blair “Let’s milk this 9/11 thing by pretending Iraq has WMD and then invading to take their oil.” But I’d be willing to bet that if that does happen, it won’t emerge from the ranks of those now popularly referred to as conspiracy theorists. It will come, as it usually does, from whistleblowers and journalists. (Until recently, I’d have included Wikileaks in that list…)

That in no way invalidates the important point made, by Pigden and others, that the pejorative use of the term “conspiracy theory” makes it easier for political actors to deflect attention from legitimate questions. But then, if we want to stop the term being used to shut down proper scrutiny, we need to be honest about why the term has the pejorative connotations it has: the tradition to which the term is characteristically applied, and the attitudes, tropes, and patterns of argumentation employed by that tradition.

The Tracy Affair

I raised the case of James Tracy as an instance of morally reprehensible behavior licensed by conspiracy theory. I think this case illustrates a very specific problem: the way conspiracy theories tend to (and note I do not say any more than “tend to”) cause conspiracy theorists to make purely defensive accusations. Basham insists however that while Tracy’s actions were “misguided” as well as “immoral and imprudent,” the Tracy affair has “no epistemic relevance to how we should approach conspiracy theories as such.”[14] The “as such” clause here makes a degree of sense if, like Basham, one is committed to a purely epistemological analysis of conspiracy theory. But only a degree. The behavior in this case is not simply a matter of insensitivity or imprudence grafted onto an otherwise unrelated belief system. It’s a direct result of trying to defend that belief system from disconfirmation.

Imagine you meet someone who tells you their child has been killed. What would need to be the case for you to begin to suspect that they are lying not merely about the death of that child, but about the child’s very existence? Now imagine how strong those suspicions would need to be for you to demand that the person you’re talking prove, to your satisfaction, that their child had existed. The evidentiary bar here would have to be very high indeed.

But now imagine that the story of the dead child (call this story or set of propositions x) is flatly incompossible with another set of beliefs you happen to hold (call this set c). You have four options:

1) Accept x is true and accept c is false;
2) Reject x and insist c is true;
3) Accept x is true but try to find a way to make this fact compossible with the truth of c;
4) Remain agnostic as to which, if either, of x and c is true.

In this case, the more committed you are to c, the stronger the reasons you’ll have for rejecting 1) and 4). That leaves you with either 3)—which is hard work and may turn out not to be possible in a given case—or 2). In this case, Tracy’s c was the belief that Sandy Hook was staged, and he took option 2). It strains credulity, to say the least, to claim that Tracy simply noticed, independently of his antecedent commitment to Sandy Hook being a hoax, problems with the Pozeners’ story and accused them on that basis. He accused them because their story contradicted an interpretation of the events of 14 December 2014 that he accepted. Moreover, such an accusation of deceit is easier to make, because more parsimonious, if one is already committed to the existence of a conspiracy not simply to commit the act, but to hide the truth. That doesn’t mean such accusations are always and necessarily a feature of conspiracy theorizing.

Again, my claim goes to the typical features of conspiracy theory as a social phenomenon rather than a specific form of explanation. And it is frequent enough to be a particularly salient feature of the phenomenon. Tracy, after all, is not the only person to confront Sandy Hook parents and witnesses and accuse them of being crisis actors. Nor is Sandy Hook Trutherism the only form of conspiracy theory that generates this class of accusations.[15] When journalist Alison Parker and her cameraman Adam Ward were shot dead on live television in August 2015, Parker’s boyfriend Chris Hurst found his grief compounded by conspiracy theorists insisting that Parker was a crisis actor, that she was not dead, that Hurst too was a crisis actor, that they had never had a relationship, and so on.[16] Again, this doubt is motivated not by any evidence that would be compelling independently of a conspiracy theory, but solely by a pre-existing disposition to believe the shooting was staged and that Parker and Ward (and by extension Hurst) must therefore be crisis actors—a claim made by, among others, James Tracy’s blog.[17]

As I understand it, Dentith’s current project seeks to develop heuristics for determinging when a conspiracy theory claim is and is not worthy of being taken seriously enough to investigate it—in other words, something like the non-absolutist particularism I’m endorsing and Basham rejects. If we’re developing heuristics for when we should and should not investigate conspiracy claims, then

Does taking this theory seriously enough to investigate it require me to dismiss grieving parents as frauds, under conditions in which there exist no compelling theory-independent reasons to think they are? If so, don’t take this theory seriously enough to investigate it.

— isn’t a bad start.

A Final Word on Trust

One thing that this discussion has made clear to me is that radically different foundational views of the role of trust are in play here. In my initial reply I only alluded to this parenthetically, and it is clear that more needs to be said, if only to clarify what underlies the divergences. A fuller working out of this point will need to wait for another occasion. For now, it’s worth simply noting where the underlying views of the normativity of trust differ.

The philosophical literature on conspiracy theory largely embeds a calculative view of trust. When most philosophers ask “How much should we trust our society’s sources of information?” they are asking a question about reliability: “On past performance, how much confidence should we have that these institutions are telling the truth and/or acting in a way consistent with their stated commitments to acting in our interests?” There is, as Dentith notes, no way of determining in advance just how conspired the world really is.[18] But nonetheless, it is not unconspired—conspiracies occur, and most philosophers working on this topic take conspiracy to be a more pervasive feature of social and political life than we usually assume, and think we should calibrate our suspicions accordingly.

David Coady, for instance, explicitly endorses a sort of Aristotelian account of trust, according to which “the intellectual virtue of realism is a golden mean between the intellectual vices of paranoia and naivety.”[19] Thus, our phronetic judgement should aim to be just suspicious enough. Alasdair MacIntyre[20] has offered a similar account of ideal trust as a mean between excessive suspicion and credulity, arrived at through a long process of moral training: learning who to trust, and when, and how much.[21]

Yet trust as an interpersonal and moral phenomenon is not simply a matter of calculating and responding to reliability. For one thing, it involves mutual responsiveness to need, taking the fact the other person knows I am reliant on them to be a reason for them to act consistent with my interests.[22]

We know that not everyone is trustworthy in that sense. Basham tells us that “Human life is conspiratorial. We can face this, embrace it, but if we deny it, we empower it in the worst way.”[23] People lie, cheat, and steal, and sometimes they conspire in order to do so. But human life is also predicated on foundational, non-calculative trust. When I walk into a room I don’t mentally calculate the odds of you trying to kill me, not because I’ve previously assured myself that the odds too low to worry about, but because of that default background trust that is a condition for social life. As K.E. Løgstrup put it, trust is both conceptually and ontogenetically primary, distrust secondary; without that foundational trust the sphere of human life falls apart.[24] Accordingly, our judgments of what to believe of other people are guided by heuristics that are not merely epistemic in character, but also ethical. Giving “the benefit of the doubt” is not, or not typically, merely a judgement about the reliability of the other party, but an expression of that normative default attitude towards others.

This picture of foundational trust sits awkwardly, to say the least, with the standing vigilance required to maintain a democratic polity. There are always good reasons to be suspicious of power of all forms, both overt and covert, explicit and intrinsic. The work of identifying and uncovering power relations is indispensable, and it seems to involve a relentless and remorseless hermeneutics of suspicion. That tension—between foundational trust and vigilance—is a real and seemingly permanent feature of political and social life. What I have called “reluctance” here is an expression of that tension, an awareness of being caught between the duty to view others as good faith interlocutors and the duty to uncover wrong-doing. The sort of generalized, eager suspicion involved in entertaining and advancing conspiracy theories abandons that reluctance, and thereby misses that central dimension of human sociality. In a world full of untrustworthy people, the demand of trust remains.

Or, to quote the US President who presided over the Gulf of Tonkin conspiracy, himself misquoting W.H. Auden: “We must love each other, or we must die.”

References

Basham, Lee. “Between Two Generalisms: A Reply to Stokes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 4-12.

Coady, David. “An Introduction to the Philosophical Debate about Conspiracy Theories.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 1-12. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006a.

Coady, David. “Conspiracy Theories and Official Stories.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited David Coady, 115-127. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006b.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “In Defence of Particularism: A Reply to Stokes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11 (2016): 27-33.

Jackson, Frank. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” Philosophical Quarterly 32 (April 1982): 127-36.

Jones, Karen. “Trustworthiness.” Ethics 123, no. 1 (2012): 61-85.

Løgstrup, Knud Ejler. The Ethical Demand. Translated by Theodor I. Jensen, Gary Puckering, and Eric Watkins. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Human Nature and Human Dependence: What Might a Thomist Learn from Reading Løgstrup?” In Concern for the Other: Perspectives on the Ethics of K. E. Løgstrup, edited by Svend Andersen and Kees van Kooten Niekerk, 147-166. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Pigden, Charles. “‘Popper Revisited,’ or What Is Wrong With Conspiracy Theories?” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25, no. 1 (1995): 3-34.

Stokes, Patrick. “Between Generalism and Particularism about Conspiracy Theory: A Response to Basham and Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 34-39.

Stokes, Patrick. “Spontaneity and Perfection: MacIntyre vs. Løgstrup.” In What is Ethically Demanded? K. E. Løgstrup’s Philosophy of Moral, edited by Hans Fink and Robert Stern, 275-299. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.

[1] Ibid., 5.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 10-11.

[4] Hence I don’t see how my paper “implies the existence of popular conspiracy theory at work in the populace and then infers that this belief must be efficacious in apparent medication refusal” (Basham 2016, 10 n.23).

[5] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 6.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Basham (2016, 10) is right to note that denialism per se is not the same thing as conspiracy theory. But AIDS denialism of various forms, much like other familiar forms of denialism—climate, vaccination etc.—does end up embedding conspiracy explanations either on the level of core theory or on the level of auxiliary hypotheses meant to sandbag the theory against disconfirmation. If I insist the world isn’t warming due to human activity, or that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, and yet the knowledge-generating mechanisms of society (academia, government research bodies, public health authorities etc.) keep insisting the contrary, I am forced to conclude the people who populate these mechanisms are collectively deluded, incompetent, or corrupt. The denialists just mentioned tend, with dispiriting regularity, to plump for the last option, even if they are not logically required to.

[8] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 8.

[9] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-11/donald-trump-appoints-vaccine-sceptic/8174560

[10] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 8-9.

[11] http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/trump-thanked-alex-jones-231329

[12] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 10.

[13] Consider the category of ‘quasi-conspiracies’: if all actors in a given context know that if they all act in certain ways the outcome will be better for all of them, and know that all the other actors know this too, they can act in a way that looks co-ordinated but in fact involves no actual collusion (Pigden 1995, 32 n.30; Coady 2006a, 5-6). Hence when an apprehended criminal gang all refuse to confess, this isn’t strictly a ‘conspiracy of silence’: they all just know if they each keep their mouth shut, they’ll all be better off than if any one of them spills the beans.

[14] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 12.

[15] As I write this, local media is reporting that a conspiracy theorist phoned a Melbourne hospital posing as a friend of a patient injured in a mass-casualty event, apparently hoping to prove the event was staged and the injured woman’s story was fake. http://www.news.com.au/national/victoria/news/australian-actor-impersonated-family-of-bourke-st-victims-in-calls-to-hospitals/news-story/d9be5da3a809ddf7bdaa58a96a54fc4e

[16] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/13/what-do-you-say-to-a-roanoke-truther.html This ‘the bereaved aren’t visibly upset enough in public so they must be lying’ trope is a depressingly recurrent one that extends far beyond conspiracy theory. Australians a few years older than myself will recall Lindy Chamberlain being accused of seeming too composed to be the grieving mother of a baby taken by a wild dingo she claimed to be. Chamberlain was convicted of murder, imprisoned, and subsequently exonerated when new evidence emerged; in 2012 a coroner found that a dingo had, in fact, taken baby Azaria. So much for the wisdom of crowds.

[17] http://memoryholeblog.com/2015/08/30/crisis-actors-alison-parker-and-adam-ward/ (Warning: on my most recent attempt to access this page [9 February 2017], Safari returned a malware warning)

[18] Denith, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories.

[19] Coady, “Conspiracy Theories and Official Stories,” 126.

[20] MacIntyre, “Human Nature and Human Dependence.”

[21] On MacIntyre’s Aristotelian account of trust, which he offers in opposition to Løgstrup’s view of trust as foundational, see Stokes 2017.

[22] Jones, “Trustworthiness.”

[23] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 13.

[24] Løgstrup, The Ethical Demand.