Friday, July 06, 2007


I've been wondering recently about conspiracies -- not, I hasten to say, about how to organise one or even how to spot one, but about how easy it is to convince oneself that one is afoot. It must have something to do with a combination of a lack of knowledge about a situation and a set of assumptions about other people's likely motives. Well, that's as far as I had got. Other people, fortunately, have thought more about it. And in a philosophical way! Hooray for philosophy!

For starters, look at Brian Keeley's 'Of conspiracy theories' JPhil 96, 1999, 109-26 (available online here or via JSTOR here; Keeley has some other online papers, some of which are follow-ups to this, available here.)

There is plenty more to read, including a volume of essays: Conspiracy theories: the philosophical debate edited by David Coady. Also, Pete Mandik's nicely-titled paper 'Shit happens'.

A lot of this discussion centres around the proper way in which one ought to criticize conspiracy theorising. What, in other words, are the epistemological shortfalls of this kind of approach? Is the difficulty with conspiracy theories generated particularly by the assumption that the agents whose intentions and actions they purport to illuminate are acting in a manner designed to keep those very actions and intentions secret? Or is the problem with conspiracy theories largely similar to the general problems of any post hoc explanation of historical events in terms of the intentions and beliefs of a set of agents?

I'm not sure. I do wonder, however, about the pressures which lead people to posit conspiracy theories in the first place. So it seems to me worth asking why conspiracy theories arise and how they take hold. I imagine it comes about from a combination of beliefs such as:
  1. this particular event E promoted the interests of group X;
  2. group X was able to influence the occurrence of event E;
  3. group X had reasons not to declare that they influenced the occurrence of event E (perhaps because of 1...);
  4. event E would not have occurred except as a result of some intentional influence on the part of some group or other;
  5. conspiracies occur.
In any given proposed conspiracy, it seems to me that each of 1-4 will be subject to some plausible doubt. (I shall assume that 5 is true.) What will carry the day and generate the suspicion of a conspiracy is the combination of 1-4. And the combination of all 4, once it has generated this suspicion, will -- I think -- further suggest that each of 1-4 is itself individually more plausible than it is. For example, if a conspiracy theorist is challenged to defend 4, they might well point to 1, 2, and 3. Or if asked to defend 3 they might point to 1, 2, and 4. The more each is considered in the light of the general suspicion, the more each seems to be independently plausible. And this in turn makes the overall general suspicion more and more plausible.


RJR said...

Indeed, hurray for philosophy!
If you were to change the tense of the verbs in your first four items to the future, then you would have a dangerous variant: event E will promote the interests of group X, group X will be able to influence the occurrence of event E, etc. So we'd better get our own conspiracy in place first...

stc said...

But one could believe all of 1-4, and still reject 5. One wouldn't have to believe in conspiracies to believe that an event fitting all of 1-4 occurred. That's just politics, not conspiracy theory :)

JIW said...

stc: Certainly. The point is, I suppose, that there is indeed a yawning gap between the truth of each of 1-4 and the conclusion that 'even E was the result of a conspiracy by group X'. But it seems very tempting nevertheless to make that invalid inference.