Forcing out the Conspiracy Theorist

It is, among a wide variety of people, a known fact that I like walking. When I worked as a PA to a Close Protection Firm in London I would often wind down a threatening afternoon of telling thickset men that they wouldn’t be paid for another twenty-four hours with a leisurely stroll back to Marylebone. Some of my best thinking is done ‘on the trot’ and today was no exception.

Regular readers of this increasingly infrequent blog will note that I’ve mentioned twice now my thesis reading on the topic of ‘forcing.’ It took until this morning to realise that this wasn’t ‘hopeful future knowledge’ but rather ‘useful current knowledge.’ Forcing, it seems, is exactly what my Kaikoura Paper is somewhat about, and it finally gives me a concrete link to Noam Chomsky’s work on Institutional Analysis.

Epistemology is faced with a huge problem, that of the Sceptic/Skeptic. Skeptics try to deny that we have knowledge about the world. They challenge the foundations of knowledge by questioning whether we can take any basic claim as a given and they challenge the set of basic claims by arguing that we live in a demon-haunted world, or that we are brains in a vat. The thing is, the Sceptics do have a point; seeing that we are subject to illusions and mistakes in reasoning there is always the possibility that things aren’t the way we take them to be. This being the case, it becomes hard to justify our beliefs and come to knowledge, unless you can find a way to escape scepticism (or, like some, embrace scepticism and challenge the notion of ‘knowledge’ instead (which is a matter for another time)).

Forcing is one of the ways that Mainstream and Formal Epistemologies use to try and defeat the Sceptic. Forcing, in a general sense, is the attempt to make the logically possibly worlds of ‘brains in vats’ and ‘Descartes’ Evil Demon’ irrelevant.

Take the world as you and I see it. If we were in the same room then you would, like I, perceived a 12” radio control Dalek. Now, it’s a possibility that this perceived Dalek doesn’t actually exist, that some evil scientist is manipulating our brains to create the perception of the Dalek. The scientist’s manipulation is so good (for, let us imagine, we are all brains in a vat) that there will be no circumstance under which we would reasonably deny that there is, in fact, a Dalek in the room. Given this logical possibility we should become very fallible in regards to our perception of the Dalek, and thus, really, about all the other perceptions we have. The Sceptic seems to win.

Thus enters forcing. Given that we cannot distinguish between the world of the evil scientist and the world were there really is a 12” radio control Dalek should we really entertain the notion of the evil scientist manipulating our vat-brains? It does seem an unreasonable assertion. Different varieties of Mainstream and Formal Epistemologies suggest ways in which we can justify forcing out logically possibly worlds such as the ‘brains in a vat’ and ‘Descartes’ Evil Demon.’ Perhaps we go for similarity; worlds that are radically dissimilar to our experiences we force out as being unlikely (we don’t believe in evil demons, so a world that rests upon that claim seems very unlike ours, so ignore it) or perhaps we focus on the coherence of our postulated worlds (a world where we are all brains in vats might be a world where all the evil scientists are brains in vats, ad nauseam). Whatever the case, forcing is designed to be, at least, a partial reply to the Sceptic.

Brian L. Keeley, in ‘Of Conspiracy Theories’ and Lee Basham in ‘Malevolent Global Conspiracy’ are, in some sense, putting forward forcing solutions to the kind of scepticism they think belief in Conspiracy Theories entails. For Keeley the belief in Conspiracy Theories entails a public trust scepticism, which means we can’t trust history, the testimony of others and so forth. Keeley forces out such scepticism by arguing that as Conspiracy Theories are unwarranted we aren’t even required to make that first step on the sceptical slippery slope. Basham agrees with Keeley but also admits that as we know Conspiracies have occurred this means that some Conspiracy Theories are true and thus we might have to take some steps towards public trust scepticism. Luckily we can argue, or so Basham believes, for a decreasing public trust scepticism via the openness of our society. Because we are getting better at detecting Conspiracies we should expect fewer and fewer Conspiracy Theories.

Noam Chomsky, I think (I need to have a proper read through ‘Manufacturing Consent’) also advocates a forcing position in regards to the Conspiracy Theorist/Sceptic. Chomsky’s notion is that the kind of thing we take to be a scepticism-causing Conspiracy Theory is, in fact, just the way organisations work. We can force out scepticism by showing that an institutional analysis makes sense of any conspiratorial reading of a given event.

I’m not completely convinced that we have to answer the Sceptic; I’m somewhat swayed by the idea that the price of knowledge is high, so high that we might not have much of it at all (I am also partial to the idea that we’ve been operating with the wrong definition of knowledge for quite some time now; that, too, is a matter for another time). I think this is especially true of social data. Still, Keeley and Basham’s projects can be construed as iterations of a forcing perspective and that may well be the subject of a paper early next year.


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.

2 comments:

  1. As a skeptic, I’ve thought, unlike other skeptics, that the authentic skeptic would need to be skeptical of his own skepticism.

    I take the Montaigne-Pyrrhonist perspective, that having conditional faith in the probable is often necessary, as long as one keeps his eyes open to the possibility of revelation.

  2. Surely, though, the authentic skeptic is simply the person commited to asking ‘Why do you hold that belief?’ Certainly, the notion of the skeptic comes out of worries to do with Foundationalism, and if the non-skeptic can find a foundation that the skeptic can’t, realisitically, go ‘But why that?’ then the skeptic should be happy, but, overall, skepticism is just a series of moves you commit.

    Still, I see what you are saying. I’m an anti-reductionist (for purely epistemological, not ontological, grounds) but I’m also a fallibilist about it; I think I have (very) good grounds for my beliefs but I’m open to belief revision. I’m all for fallibilism, especially since you can be quite committed to a set of beliefs (theism, foundationalism, et al) but still admit that there are possible defeaters against your strong commitment.

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