[lit-ideas] Re: Five Years Ago

  • From: Eric Yost <eyost1132@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 07 Oct 2006 12:26:35 -0400

>>I'd love it if there were satisfactory answers given to the dozens of unanswered questions about 9/11.

This short essay addresses the issue somewhat. -EY

We the Sheeple? Why Conspiracy Theories Persist By Edward Feser 20 Sep 2006

Conspiracy theorists allege that the events of 9/11 are not adequately explained by the "official story" fingering Osama bin Laden and his network as the culprits. What really needs explaining, though, is not 9/11, but the existence of such conspiracy theorists themselves, whose by now well-known speculations about what "really happened" that day are - not to put too fine a point on it - so mind-numbingly stupid that it is mystifying how anyone with a functioning cerebrum could take them seriously even for a moment.

The problems with such theories have been pretty thoroughly exposed by now. Here is just a sample: If the aim of the conspirators was to motivate the American people to go to war, why wouldn't the crashing of airplanes into the World Trade Center suffice? What was the point of secretly placing explosives throughout the towers - no small task - and thereby risking exposure? If the government was really willing and able to orchestrate such a massive conspiracy here at home, why couldn't or wouldn't it also carry out the far easier task of planting evidence of WMD in faraway Iraq? If the cell phone calls made from the hijacked planes were faked, how did the government find people capable of so perfectly mimicking the voices of the victims, and how did they acquire the detailed knowledge of their personal lives that would enable the hoaxers to deceive so many of the victims' loved ones and friends? If it was really a cruise missile that hit the Pentagon, why do so many eyewitnesses report having seen an airplane crashing into it? If it was also really a missile, and not an airplane, that crashed in Pennsylvania, then why did eyewitnesses report seeing an airplane in that case too? And what really happened to the airplanes in question and their passengers? If even a third rate burglary like the one committed at the Watergate hotel couldn't be kept secret, why hasn't someone, anyone involved in this massive plot, or with knowledge of those who were involved, come forward to reveal what he knows? And so on and on.

Of course, conspiracy theorists have tried to provide answers to some of these difficulties for their case, but the "answers" are even more ridiculously far-fetched and unfounded than the original theories themselves. Nor do they have any good answer to the central problem with all 9/11 conspiracy theories, which is this: Everything that happened that day has a ready explanation in terms of bin Ladenist aggression together with two implacable forces of nature: government incompetence and the laws of physics. (Check out the recent book Debunking 9/11 Myths, or this useful website, if you really have any doubts.) There is simply no need to posit a government conspiracy in order to explain the evidence. Meanwhile, the conspiracy theories themselves face all sorts of difficulties, as we have seen. So why even bother with them in the first place? Haven't these people (a few of whom are philosophy professors and scientists) ever heard of Occam's razor? Haven't the less learned among them - mouth-breathers of the sort who, while they could never understand a word of Noam Chomsky's serious scientific and philosophical work, still think he's "cool" and enjoy reading about him in the liner notes of Rage Against the Machine albums - at least seen this?

The standard view of pop psychologists is that the reason people are attracted to conspiracy theories is that such theories provide reassurance that catastrophic events never happen for trivial reasons. Hence (it is said) the reason so many people think Oswald didn't act alone in the Kennedy assassination is that they just don't want to believe that JFK was murdered by some lone nutcase; it had to be part of something bigger and more meaningful. Similarly, we are told, 9/11 conspiracy theorists are just sensitive souls who can't face the awful truth that a guy in a cave somewhere was able to bring down the twin towers and set the Pentagon ablaze.

I think this sort of explanation is, in the present case anyway, pretty obviously false. Al-Qaeda, not to mention the global Islamist movement of which it is a part, is far more than a guy in a cave. It is (or at any rate was in 2001, before being seriously degraded by American military action and anti-terrorism measures) a vast and well-funded international network led by intelligent and sinister ideologues with a flair for the dramatic, and who see themselves as part of a centuries-old jihadist tradition. If you want a grand conspiracy led by James-Bond-movie-style bad guys, look no further. And yet the 9/11 conspiracy theorists will hear none of it. The reason they reject the "official story," then, cannot be because they'd rather believe that something big was behind 9/11, because the "official story" just is that something big was behind 9/11.

Furthermore, people inclined to believe in conspiratorial explanations tend to do so even when there really isn't anything to be "explained" in the first place. For example, the conspiracy at the heart of The Da Vinci Code wasn't posited to account for some catastrophic event à la the JFK assassination or 9/11; it's just a plot device for a bad novel (albeit one inspired by crackpot "scholarship"). Yet thousands seem hell-bent on believing that something like it must really be true of the Catholic Church.

A clue to the real attraction of conspiracy theories, I would suggest, lies in the rhetoric of theorists themselves, which is filled with self-congratulatory descriptions of those who accept such theories as "willing to think," "educated," "independent-minded," and so forth, and with invective against the "uninformed" and "unthinking" "sheeple" who "blindly follow authority." The world of the conspiracy theorist is Manichean: either you are intelligent, well-informed, and honest, and therefore question all authority and received opinion; or you accept what popular opinion or an authority says and therefore must be stupid, dishonest, and ignorant. There is no third option.

The Enlightenment Connection

Crude as this dichotomy is, anyone familiar with the intellectual and cultural history of the last several hundred years might hear in it at least an echo of the rhetoric of the Enlightenment, and of much of the philosophical and political thought that has followed in its wake. The core of the Enlightenment narrative - you might call it the "official story" - is that the Western world languished for centuries in a superstitious and authoritarian darkness, in thrall to a corrupt and power-hungry Church which stifled free inquiry. Then came Science, whose brave practitioners "spoke truth to power," liberating us from the dead hand of ecclesiastical authority and exposing the falsity of its outmoded dogmas. Ever since, all has been progress, freedom, smiles and good cheer.

Now this is, as magicians Penn and Teller have elegantly summed up 9/11 conspiracy theories, bullshit, a historical urban legend on par with Washington and the cherry tree. The picture of the Middle Ages accepted by most people, including most "educated" people, is in fact little more than an ideologically driven construct, a holdover from the Reformation and Enlightenment eras and the various anti-Catholic propagandists active therein. (See here for a few examples of widely accepted myths about the Middle Ages, and here and here for a more accurate picture of the medieval world.)

Still, the standard Enlightenment narrative has had a powerful influence on the way modern people understand the relationship between authority, tradition, and common sense on the one hand, and science and rationality on the other. We tend reflexively to assume that the popular or received wisdom, especially if associated with some "official" source or long-standing institution, is always ripe for challenge, and also that if some independent thinker or writer takes an unconventional position, however extreme or counterintuitive, then there simply must be something right in it, or least worth listening to. "Innovator" and "iconoclast" are among our favorite terms of approbation, and "questioning authority" and "thinking outside the box" are applauded even by many self-described conservatives. By contrast, "unoriginal" and "conventional" are treated as if they were synonyms for "unintelligent" and "unthinking."

The picture of science that has gone along with this tends, accordingly, to portray it as in the business of overthrowing long-standing opinions and common sense in general. We used to think the earth was at the center of the solar system, but Copernicus showed that the sun is; Einstein revealed that whether two events are simultaneous is, contrary to common sense, relative to who is observing them; and so forth. The history of science, as popularly understood, is thus a story of daring individuals constantly challenging current orthodoxies and authorities, and constantly being proved right.

Now as the philosopher David Stove has argued, the modern tendency toward hyper-skepticism seems largely to be the result of a massive overgeneralization from a mere handful of cases where common sense turned out to be mistaken. Another philosopher, Michael Levin, has given it a name: the "skim milk" fallacy, the fallacy of assuming, in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, that "things are seldom what they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream," so that common sense can in general be presumed to be mistaken. To be sure, where phenomena remote from everyday human experience are concerned - the large-scale structure of spacetime, the microscopic realm of molecules, atoms, and so forth - it is perhaps not surprising that human beings should for long periods of time have gotten things wrong. But where everyday matters are concerned - where opinions touch on our basic understanding of human nature and the facts about ordinary social interaction - it is very likely that they would not, in general, get things wrong. Biological and cultural evolution would ensure that serious mistakes concerning such matters would before too long be weeded out. The detailed reasons for this are complex, but when spelled out they provide the basis for a general defense of tradition and common sense of the sort associated with thinkers like Burke and Hayek.

Moreover, the popular image of scientific practice described above simply doesn't correspond to reality. Thomas Kuhn certainly had his deficiencies as a philosopher, but he was a good historian of science, and his famous description of "normal science" - on which ordinary scientific practice is in fact very conservative, with scientists working within and developing a general theoretical picture of the world that they have inherited from their teachers and rarely think to challenge - is surely correct. Indeed, it has to be correct, since it is really just not possible to treat authority, tradition, and common sense as if they were in general and in principle likely to be wrong. For in forming our beliefs we must always start somewhere, and have nowhere else to start except the general picture of the world we have inherited from our parents, society, and people who due to special experience or study have more knowledge of a subject matter than we do. Of course, we can and do often criticize some particular part of this picture, but the very criteria we appeal to in order to do so typically derive from other parts of it. What we cannot coherently do is question the inherited picture as a whole, or regard it as if there were a general presumption against it.

Even very radical shifts in worldview typically presuppose a deep level of continuity between the view that was abandoned and the one that comes to be adopted. Hence the Protestant who converts to Catholicism (or vice versa) does so on the basis of religious premises both traditions have in common. Hence the secularist who rejects Christianity as a whole typically does so on the basis of scientific and moral principles that developed out of the Christian tradition itself. (See here, here, and here.) And hence the conspiracy theorist who claims to believe that the government and the media are in thrall to some purportedly sinister force or other (the military-industrial complex, the Mossad, or whatever) invariably bases his theory precisely on materials drawn from these sources (such as newspaper accounts and television news broadcasts, and even the Warren Commission and 9/11 Commission reports, which JFK assassination buffs and 9/11 fantasists, respectively, comb for evidence to support their case).

The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

This is, in fact, part of why the medievals had the respect for authority that they did. They by no means believed in following authority "blindly" - indeed, Thomas Aquinas regarded the argument from authority as the weakest of all arguments. But they did think that the fact that some authority has said something gave us at least some reason to think it is true, even if that reason might often be overridden by other, better reasons to conclude otherwise. That is to say, they acknowledged that it is simply a necessary feature of the human condition that our starting point in coming to know about the world must always be what we have inherited from some authority or other - parents, church, scholars, government, or whomever. Such authorities might not always have the last word, but they cannot fail to have the first word. And to reject the mindless view that authority as such is always to be questioned is not to embrace the equally mindless view that authority is always to be trusted. It is rather just to take the sensible middle ground position that authority has an unavoidable and necessary place in our lives (intellectual and otherwise) even if it is something fallible that we often need to be cautious about.

At some level, everyone knows this, even if some people pretend to think otherwise. The secularist who chides religious believers for having faith in what the Church teaches will also tell them, in the very next breath and with no sense of irony, to shut up and trust the experts where scientific matters are concerned. That there are philosophers and theologians who can present powerful and sophisticated justifications of religious belief is taken to be no defense of the average believer - he ought to "think for himself," says the secularist. And yet while the average secularist couldn't give you an interesting explanation or defense of quantum mechanics, relativity theory, or evolution if his life depended on it, the fact that there are experts who can do so is taken by him to justify his own faith in their findings. As the philosopher Christopher Martin has noted, the real difference between medieval and modern people is not that the former believe in the need for authority and the latter don't - in fact both medievals and moderns believe in it and act accordingly - but rather that the former admitted that they believed in it, while the latter pretend they don't.

This pretense of contempt for authority per se is by no means a mere foible. It can lead to very serious intellectual errors, as it does in the work of such apostles of the "hermeneutics of suspicion" as Marx and Nietzsche. For the former, all moral, legal, religious, and cultural beliefs, practices, and institutions are "really" mere expressions of the interests of the dominant economic class within a society; for the latter (and especially for such contemporary Nietzscheans as Michel Foucault), they are "really" just expressions of a more general "will to power." As such, they are to be regarded with distrust, and indeed (on at least some interpretations of these doctrines) as having no objective validity whatsoever. Authority, tradition, and common sense come to be regarded as something to be constantly unmasked and undercut rather than consulted as necessary, though fallible, sources of wisdom. Indeed, they come to be regarded as something positively hateful and oppressive, from which we must always feel alienated.

Such doctrines are notoriously difficult to formulate in a way that is both coherent and interesting. If interpreted as universal claims, they undercut themselves - Marxism and Nietzscheanism themselves turn out to be just two more masks for some sinister interest or other, with no objective validity. If instead they are not interpreted as universal claims - that is, if it is held that either Marxism or Nietzscheanism alone constitutes objective truth and ought not to be regarded with suspicion - then they seem arbitrary and question-begging.

If, to avoid these problems, they are softened into the more modest claim that people often believe in or promote various moral, religious, or political ideas out of self-interest, then they become trivial. Everybody has always known that. And from the fact that someone somewhere might have a selfish motivation for believing or promoting some claim, it simply doesn't follow that that claim is false or even doubtful. To think otherwise is to commit the ad hominem fallacy of "poisoning the well." If our believing that the earth is round benefits globe manufacturers, it would be stupid to conclude from this that it must really be flat after all. Similarly, if our believing that 9/11 was caused by a bunch of jihadist fanatics acting without help from any government conspiracy somehow benefits the Bush administration, that is simply no reason whatsoever for doubting that it really was so caused.

I would suggest, then, that the post-Enlightenment pretense of hostility to authority, tradition, and common sense as such, and especially the extreme form of it represented by the likes of Marx and Nietzsche, is what really underlies the popularity of conspiracy theories, particularly those involving 9/11. The absurd idea that to be intelligent, scientific, and intellectually honest requires a distrust for all authority per se and a contempt for the opinions of the average person, has so deeply permeated the modern Western consciousness that conspiratorial thinking has for many people come to seem the rational default position. And it also explains why even mainstream outlets like Time and Vanity Fair, while by no means endorsing the views of the conspiracy theorists, have tended to treat them with kid gloves, as if they were harmless and well-meaning eccentrics instead of shrill and hate-filled crackpots. The belief that extremism in the attack on authority is no vice has a powerful appeal even for suit-wearing journalists and media executives (especially if they are liberals), even if they have too much sense to follow it out consistently.

Yet no civilization can be healthy which nurtures such delusions, for they strike at the very heart of a society's core institutions - family, religion, schools, political institutions, and so forth - and replace the (sometimes critical) allegiance we should feel for them with a corrosive skepticism. Conspiracy theories are only the most extreme symptom of this disease. Less dramatic, but in the long run more dangerous, is the relentless tendency of the Western intelligentsia to denigrate the Western past and present, massively exaggerating the vices of their own civilization and the virtues of its competitors, and putting the worst possible spin on the motives and policies of its current leaders while minimizing or excusing the crimes of its enemies. This would be dangerous under the best of circumstances. It is doubly so while we are at war with enemies who know no such self-doubt and self-hatred.

Edward Feser (edwardfeser@xxxxxxxxxxx) is the author of Philosophy of Mind: A Short Introduction (soon to be reissued in a revised edition) and editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Hayek. He is a regular contributor to the blogs Right Reason and The Conservative Philosopher.

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