Abstract: We have always loved good stories, says Aristotle Array to reconnect us with conspiracy theorists. The problem, I retorted, is that today we no longer know how to differentiate the real good stories from the fake ones, under the pressure of relativism and a certain weakening of the level of education.
“I don’t understand why people get so excited about fake conspiracies, when there are so many real ones”, Julien Assange
Let’s be doubtful
Aristotle Array, opening a philosophical dossier on conspiracy theories, attempts to distinguish it from doubtionism, the simple propensity to doubt an official discourse. Commendable effort. The scholar indeed has the impression today of bathing in a predominantly conspiratorial society. If she wants to cling to it, she must stop making conspiracy an extremism. Otherwise, she herself becomes abnormal. To refuse to see conspiracies anywhere is madness!!
So let’s restore some propriety to conspiracy theories by renaming it doubtionism, as Array does. He gives the example of an Italian friend who “sincerely doubts that the Americans landed on the Moon in 1969”. How could they achieve such a feat with 60s technology? Everyone hears the argument favorably. Array only dismisses it with the counter-argument of the impossible conspiracy, because it would have implicated the 400,000 people working at NASA and the media. Impossible to silence such a number of potential informers.
Doubtful or stupid?
Array kindly sees his friend as a simple doubter, when most educated people would have considered him stupid. Does Array really need to present its counter-argument to come to mind spontaneously? For the children watching the scene, certainly. But for an adult? Doubtionism does not highlight a better contemporary critical mind, but an eloquent weakening of the level of education, paradoxically compensated by a reinforced confidence in one’s level of knowledge. What does the friend actually know about the technological possibilities of the 1960s? He is content to judge them by the yardstick of those of today, the detail of which is probably just as vague to him. There is so much to know that we know nothing, apart from some superficial generalities.
This is not the only deception that Array uses to reconnect its conspiratorial readership with scholars. And that undermines his effort. I have more confidence in Gérald Bronner, sociologist author of ‘The Democracy of the Credulous’, who puts conspiracy on the account of our cognitive biases. More guilt-free. These biases turn everyone into potential conspirators. Not slipping is taking control of these blind micro-robots, a task that reinforces our adult identity instead of threatening it.
The good stories
Bronner is quoted by Array but he is not convinced. Biases wouldn’t be enough to make people who aren’t initially conspiratorial —that’s failing to see the fundamental character, as a micromechanism, of a bias. Array wants to add the appeal of good stories. Unfortunately it adds too much a little further. He summons Luc Boltanski and his ‘Riddles and Conspiracies’ (2013): Western culture, by wanting to appropriate History, has also normalized it, leading to a reactionary surge of the attraction for the novel, the riddles, the fantastic. A fondness for good stories? Yes, but also a clear separation, in the minds of our ancestors, between reality and fantasy. This is what is erased today. Because we no longer learn to control our confirmation biases. Bronner is doing better deep down.
The Man of Resentment
Briefly, the conspiracy theorist is then critiqued, with Max Scheler and his ‘The Man of Resentment’ (1912): the declassed Westerner is “a semi-intellectual, supernumerary, anomic, excluding himself from the vision of social work and voluntarily standing on the margins”. Array sees in the paranoia of the declassed the breeding ground of the populist far-right. Once again, this is a superficial observation and not the micromechanism. How can such a finding be explained when the conditions of comfort and integration are today much better than in the post-war period? The ruins of the Western world should have been the theater of every man for himself, but on the contrary they generated a powerful collectivism, which is reversed today in a popular egocentrism, in the midst of a profusion of social advantages.
The micromechanism to grasp is the pendulum swing between individualism and collectivism. The more one has strengthened, the more the pendulum swings back in the other direction. Towards the individual now. Confirmation bias, in the service of the individual, takes advantage of this. Conspiracy is becoming the norm. But isn’t the philosophy to rise above the norm?
Conspiracy, the key
Finally Array praises conspiracy as a unifying key to us. The CIA, the Illuminati, all these occult forces have the enormous advantage of having unlimited, almost divine means. We don’t like unfinished stories, residual mysteries, uncertainty. The occult forces make it possible to end the story, to unify it. Nothing new. We had invented the God of Thunder to unify all these bizarre climatic phenomena that drenched, deafened, thundered. Is the Illuminati hypothesis more modern or more obscurantist?
Array’s article is badly structured. He lists and mixes the causes without articulating them. Culture sometimes kills the structure, or hides it, certainly. Horizontality of the storyteller, which lacks the verticality of the analyst. No moral to draw. Array wants to make the conspiracy theorist more comfortable in his skin, without making it less cramped. It ends with a nice note: “Good tales make good friends”. Win over a conspiracy theorist with a different tale? Fortunately, the following authors, in this Philosophie Magazine file, know that this is impossible. Only hope: that his own tale forces him to swallow something so huge that at the end of this Fake News Big Food… he explodes. False reality completely disintegrates or grows even bigger.
How about we do a little Bayesianism?
The real modernity of the reading of events is not reported: it is to integrate uncertainty into our identity. Do not weaken our identity with mystery but on the contrary strengthen it with the necessary tools. For example Bayesianism, which graduates from agnosticism to almost absolute certainty. Each new data item specifies the position of the cursor. Nothing is ever certain, especially not the mysterious plot, but our doubt becomes clearer. This is where a modern identity can be strengthened. This requires an educational effort and not its disintegration. And especially because of the Great Inversion of information flows.
There thus persists an enormous distance between vain conspiracy, mixing tales and reality, born in boredom and hungry for spectacle, and structured, precise doubt, which strengthens our hold on reality, makes it more collective because it is closer to the real in itself.