Nathaniel Hale 1775

Conspiracy Theories and the Arbitrary

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I was inspired to write a short essay after having a discussion with a person who thought I should consider the idea of a governmental conspiracy concerning the September 11th attacks. I am open to any suggestions on content, style, grammar, clarity, etc...

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I recently had someone tell me that I should consider the possibility that the 9-11 was an inside job. He did not go so far as to positively assert it, only saying that it should be considered because there are “unanswered questions”. The problem with this is that to consider the possibility is to admit into one's thinking the arbitrary.

The fundamental means of all knowledge is inductive; that is to say it is gathered from the objects of the senses, which are taken for granted. Now when we try to determine if a claim is right or wrong, we are looking at the facts, then the immediate inferences, then the inferences from those inferences, up to the claim or theory. We ask if it is right to draw these inferences from this set of facts, working our way up, validating each level based upon our knowledge.

Now, these conspiracy theorists say things like, “this is the first time steel buildings have collapsed from fire”, “someone found thermite”, “isn't it odd that they managed to hijack four airplanes simultaneously”, or “there are many unanswered questions.” None of these things have relevant positive implications, taken alone or together. You can not gather them up, no matter how cleverly, and logically establish the claim of a vast conspiracy.

To establish such a claim one has to provide evidence of a connection between the supposed cause and the effect. In other words, you have to show that members of the government were in fact purposely involved in blowing up the World Trade Center buildings. That they conspired and then acted upon their plans as a matter of government policy. None of the “evidence” put forward by conspiracy theorists does this in anyway. You can not find thermite, if they did in fact find thermite, and then infer from that, that its source is a secretive group of government conspirators.

This leads to something more fundamental; that is, how does one deal with an arbitrary assertion. In short, you dismiss it directly. You do not admit it as being even possible (I use “possible” now in the epistemological sense). There are no known facts from which one could properly infer such a conspiracy and so you reject it out of hand. This is not to say that it is either true or false, it implies neither. What it does imply is that it has no cognitive standing whatsoever. There is nothing to consider!

You have only certain supposed facts and then the proposed conclusion. All the intermediate logical processes are skipped over. Since such an immense claim as a conspiracy is not self-evident (even if it were true and validated) then when one considers it one is considering the logical steps from the facts to the conclusion, determining if such steps are in fact valid. When these middle steps are absent, there literally is nothing to discuss, and thus the conclusion is meaningless. So it is not up to me to consider any arbitrary assertion, they who assert it have to prove it!

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Pardon me for not commenting on your essay (which I find rather good, by the way), but I just want to note for the record that I am a comspiracy theorist, though solely for the entertainment value. I offer

by my son't production company. (The "Indigo Girls guy" at the very end is the writer/director of the Renaissance Faire I'm acting in this summer.)

"Two-prop helicopters, man!"

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The conspiracy view of history is only another form of mysticism.

I know of a few conspiracy theorists who are not mystical in other areas--or at least, on first glance--but nevertheless, in the area of prime motivations behind history and Man's actions, they are mystics. They say: "Just read the news and history books; you'll find that everything wrong with the U.S. and the world comes from the conspiracy of the Freemasons, the Bilderbergers, the Trilateral Commission, I.G. Farben and the Council on Foreign Relations." Of course, anyone can read conspiracies into anything in history. But conspiracy theorists expect you to draw direct conclusions from "Maybe so...'s": "Maybe the Masons were behind this", or "Maybe the government was behind this" or "You can tell something was covered up".

They want you to conclude conspiracies without direct evidence. If that isn't mysticism, nothing is.

It's only a theory (I'm not trying to be funny here), but I suspect these conspiracy theorists are motivated by one main thing: the desire for an excuse to coast, intellectually, through life. After all, if the problems of the world can be blamed on a conspiracy, then all you have to do is expose the conspirators and bring them to justice, and then everything will be fine. You will not have to think through the axioms of philosophy and intellectual freedom, nor check your own premises when questions arise.

But freedom requires that men continually check their own premises, and some men find that too overwhelming a task--or too frightening.

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It's only a theory (I'm not trying to be funny here), but I suspect these conspiracy theorists are motivated by one main thing: the desire for an excuse to coast, intellectually, through life.

I think it is more likely that they are motivated by anxiety.

Most people are second-handers who are not in control of their lives. They get pushed every which way by cultural influences and peer pressure coming from outside of them and they are afraid. Such people do not realize that their anxiety comes from their failure to lead a self-directed, independent life. They just know something is terribly wrong especially, as is usually the case, things are not going the way they want them to.

Free-floating anxiety is hard to bear, so anxious people erect one or more neurotic defenses against it. A very common one is externalization (here): projecting one's own feelings about oneself into the outer world. I think most people invent or believe conspiracy theories as a defense against, and in order to explain, their enormous, overwhelming fear of what other people might do to them.

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Free-floating anxiety is hard to bear, so anxious people erect one or more neurotic defenses against it. A very common one is externalization (here): projecting one's own feelings about oneself into the outer world. I think most people invent or believe conspiracy theories as a defense against, and in order to explain, their enormous, overwhelming fear of what other people might do to them.

I've actually experienced an instance of externalization, where someone without formal education in philosophy called me a fraud after I disagreed with his interpretation of Hobbes' views. :) I think he panicked because his own credibility was at stake.

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Free-floating anxiety is hard to bear, so anxious people erect one or more neurotic defenses against it. A very common one is externalization (here): projecting one's own feelings about oneself into the outer world.

The above I can understand. But when the Wikipedia article you refer to goes here:

The concept of "externalized cognition" stands for the phenomenological manifestation of "communicative signs, behavior or material artifacts" (Kuchka 2001:60), and it includes the entire spectrum of human arts and actions and even emotions at a more latent and subconscious level or explicitly. It is at the core of the modern anthropological pursuit, an emergent property of human activity in this planet, past and present. We are within it and depend on it to communicate and organize. It is composed of incredibly complex textual, visual, auditory, sensual, tactile, olfactory, mental and spiritual informational substances and it is tremendously variable in form and substance; involving the existence of direct continuities and breaks between traditions over time and also possible broader relations and similarities, cross-culturally and throughout history and back into prehistory and what are strictly archaeological and paleoanthropological types of information sets. A cognition can be externalized and captured by archaeologists with such unusual techniques as 'palynology': The differences in frequencies of domestic versus wild pollens overtime can be extracted using cores in ancient silt deposits under the bottoms of lakes, reflecting relatively accurately the degree of human occupation in the particular area in question.

it stomps boldly and blitheringly into territory that no doubt makes Richard Mitchell spin in his grave.

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Free-floating anxiety is hard to bear, so anxious people erect one or more neurotic defenses against it. A very common one is externalization (here): projecting one's own feelings about oneself into the outer world.

The above I can understand. But when the Wikipedia article you refer to goes here:

.....

it stomps boldly and blitheringly into territory that no doubt makes Richard Mitchell spin in his grave.

No doubt. :)

I was referring to the defense mechanism mentioned in the first paragraph.

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I agree with you, Betsy, that conspiracy theorists use their theory as a defense mechanism against anxiety. I would also say that they very likely use their conspiracy theories to provide an excuse(s) for the state their life is in, existentially and/or spiritually. In other words, though the real reason they didn't take the road to achieve their values is because they defaulted on the responsibility of thought required for that pursuit, they would rather have it be true that they were derailed by the Masons, the Bilderbergers, a "shadow" government, etc., etc. (just like Hitler, as I've heard, blamed the Jews for his failure to become an artist).

I also want to say I like the title of this thread, because conspiracy theories are arbitrary. They have no direct connection to concrete reality, even though, as I said earlier, their proponents always state that one need merely read the newspapers to discover their truth. But a reader will never find any direct connections between facts and any conspiracy, even if one follows the advice of many a conspiracy theorist: "Follow the money".

A more advisable approach to understanding history and the news, as probably all of us here know, would be: "Follow the ideas" behind the events.

I also want to re-state my assertion that conspiracy theories are simply another manifestation of mysticism, just like a belief in UFO's, Bigfoot, communication with the dead, Chupa-Cabra's, etc. It's no surprise that conspiracy theories are often discussed on Art Bell and George Norry's Coast-to-Coast AM, a late-night talk radio program which started off over a decade ago presenting libertarian :) topics and has ended up being a repository for call-in's about UFO sightings, Area 51, Rozwell, ghosts, and--of course!--global warming. (The recent film The Day After Tomorrow was inspired by Art Bell and Whitley Streiber's "non-fiction" book, The Coming Global Super-Storm.)

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