We need a “Critique of Pure Conspiracy”
For all things which are reproved are made manifest by light,
for whatever does make manifest is light (Ephesians 5:13)
What is generally called “conspiracy theory” has undergone a revival of considerable proportions. Today everyone prides themselves on knowing that “all is not what it seems on the surface.” This is obvious from the declining trust in public institutions, science, politics, and education. Of course, there never was a time when all was just what it seemed on the surface. Still, there was indeed a time, and not so long ago, when propaganda systems enjoyed something closer to ubiquity due to the monopoly of broadcast technologies.
Now that everybody on your street (or at least your social media network) is a conspiracy theorist, one might reasonably ask why this hasn’t automatically translated into a free society. Part of the answer to this question is that there is a whole lot more to establishing, or regaining, a free society than just the dissemination of information. If there are elites who secretly control the world, they need to be fought, not just talked about. In fact, there are indications that they enjoy being talked about, and that it fortifies and celebrates their power.
However, while mere information is not sufficient, it is certainly necessary in both great quantity and reasonable quality. Today we certainly have the quantity, but much of what gets stuffed into that portmanteau phrase “conspiracy theory” is just plain bad. Perhaps that’s just the way the conspiratorial cookie crumbles, as the mocking skeptics claim. Or perhaps there is some sort of improvement in method which would at once validate and improve the quality of conspiracy theories. As quixotic as it might seem, I would like to explore the latter possibility.
Why can’t you Kant?
What if we had a meta-theory of conspiracy theories in general? It is one thing to support or debunk one or another notion, but are there some generic properties of conspiracy theory that make it vulnerable to skepticism? Nobody denies that conspiracies, in the dictionary definition of the term, exist. For example, “racketeering” is a phenomenon well known to forensic and legal science, and it always involves conspiracies in the most general sense. Yet in our times Conspiracy Theory (yes, often spelled in caps) has become a stereotype. It is not just a propensity to recognize that two or more persons are liable to combine towards secret and disreputable ends, but the claim that there is an all-inclusive Grand Conspiracy. It is this sort of all-inclusive theory which requires a meta-criticism, since such Grand Conspiracy notions strive not just to understand particular conspiracies, but rather to construct a Theory of Everything (a phrase which gives rise to the quaint acronym TOE).
Contrary to the skeptics, not only do I think that the investigation of conspiracies is a worthy endeavor, but I am not even against a TOE on principle. In pursuing a TOE, “conspiracy theory” is simply following the same procedure as any scientific paradigm. All paradigms seek to subsume larger and larger data sets into their theories, and at its ultimate limit this would be a TOE. However, I am wary of any claim that the TOE has been attained at a single bound, and this is what much of “conspiracy theory” sounds like. Rather, conspiracy theorists need to arrive at a rational apportionment of their tasks, so that the TOE, when finally arrived at, will be both complete and plausible.
For the historically literate, this notion of an intellectual division of labor has a philosophical precedent in the works of Immanuel Kant. Far from claiming his legacy, I am a severe critic of that sage of Koningsburg, yet in a notional sense, understanding the radically different ways in which our mind tries to figure out reality is just the right thing for lifting what we call “conspiracy theory” out of the abyss of speculation and into the light of what used to be called “science”, but we can still claim as wisdom.
The Analysis of Conspiracy Theory: High and Low
Fortunately, conspiracy theory can be pulled apart into that most simple of analyses, a binary pair. It is quite evident that some conspiracy theory deals with supernatural and paranormal phenomena, and this can be designated “high conspiracy”. Distinct from this are those conspiracies which involve human actors operating in combination using natural, physical, and social means to conspire. This can be termed “low conspiracy”.
It is frequently pointed out that the distinction between the supernatural and the natural is itself unnatural. I agree. Ultimately we live in a reality which is a continuum ranging from everyday entities like matchsticks and muffins and extending upward to auras and archangels. Some day when we get our Theory of Everything worked out I am sure it will all prove to be a seamless web, equally natural and (because it is so wonderful) supernatural. However, in the meantime we must face up to what Immanuel Kant termed “the epistemological problem.” That is to say, the limitations of our Earthly existence limits our knowledge in significant ways. The knowledge that we have of palpable things is going to be different from the knowledge we have of spirits, and gaining each sort of knowledge requires different methods of investigation.
This is especially relevant when it comes to the understanding of conspiracies. Conspiracies are, perforce, opaque things, realities towards which we are blind. Furthermore, this opacity is complicated by the fact that we are dealing with intelligent, willing entities (humans or spirits) who are actively trying to obstruct our attainment of an accurate understanding. So the task that confronts anyone trying to unravel any given conspiracy, let alone the Grand Conspiracy, is Herculean indeed. Therefore the first step in making this task manageable needs to be a separation of our two ways of knowing, human and spiritual, or what we have been calling low and high conspiracy theory.
These two departments of theory require very different rules of evidence. We cannot expect the kind of proof for high conspiracy which we demand of low conspiracy. High conspiracy rests on faith more than provable assumptions. Neither can we be so sloppy in our investigation of low conspiracy that we place our faith in every testimony. Hence our methodology in each department is not just different, but in a sense, opposite. When we investigate low conspiracy we must be skeptics, but when we turn to the contemplation of high conspiracy we may allow ourselves to be moved by faith and intuition. I fully expect that some day, in both this world and the next, these two departments will merge into a single Theory of Everything. However in the meantime they tend to interfere with each other, and any preemptory synthesis is likely to mangle the testimony of both.
High Conspiracy isn’t for everybody
Not everybody believes in the supernatural. This is tragic since there are a few things that everybody needs to believe in, notably, that God (as spirit) incarnated in the man Yehushua ben Yosef (as flesh). For me, that is the bottom line. However beyond a bare minimum of supernatural facts that everyone must assent to (conveniently summarized in a few creeds of the early church) I would assert that involvement in spiritual affairs is an option, not an obligation. Even the Apostle Paul, whom we can take as the paragon of a spiritual warrior, saw what I am calling “high conspiracy” as an advanced topic.
For we wrestle not with flesh and blood but against principalities,
against rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesisans 6:12)
Note that this was an insight which Paul had acquired by the time he wrote Ephesians, one of his latter “prison epistles” which implies that he already had a great deal of spiritual experiences, perhaps even what we would call experimentation, under his belt. Yet we know that Paul, prior to writing even his earliest epistles, had a vigorous ministry. While it would be wrong to say that Paul was ever blissfully ignorant of the forces of evil, still the idea of the political world’s domination by negative spiritual forces, or what we are calling “high conspiracy” was no doubt one of those insights which he had to work out step-by-step, “in fear and trembling.” Thus we can infer that such wisdom, from Paul’s testimony at least, was and is supplemental to the normal life and faith of believers, let alone non-believers. If it is too difficult or disturbing, it is best left alone.
I hasten to add that in my own world-view, as for many others, “high conspiracy” is an essential compliment to “low conspiracy” without which the data of my experience simply doesn’t add up. However, like left and right shoes, things which are complimentary are neither substitutes for, nor identical with, each other. Because they involve different methods of investigation, “high conspiracy” and “low conspiracy” need to be distinguished, and for some kinds of mentalities, the whole subject of “high conspiracy” should be avoided altogether. There is no need to scandalize non-believers, or to disturb believers who’s faith is weak. However, we should keep the window of high conspiracy open, waiting for a time when we have better proofs, a time when skeptics will be able to overcome their cognitive dissonance and walk into the integral world of meaning which for us grand theorists is already a grand delight.
How low can you go? Answer: Every man, woman, and child on deck!
For all things which are reproved are made manifest by light,
for whatever does make manifest is light (Ephesians 5:13)
It can be inferred from Ephesians 5:13, that everyone who is on God’s side should be shining their light in the darkness. With the small flashlights of our ordinary minds it is hard to light up the heavens, since only the truly anointed with their spiritual searchlights can search the sky. But our little flashlights should be able to clear up sundry mysteries on even the darkest night, provided we keep them pointed down. Within those small but intense circles of light we can arrive at substantial conclusions, not speculations.
Please don’t think that I am advocating a false, foot-shuffling, humility or recommending preoccupation with safe and trivial matters. Rather, I am sure you have already figured out that in the present context “high” has not been drawn from traditional usage, where “high conspiracy” once referred to courtly plots by princes and ambassadors (e.g., The Prisoner of Zenda), as opposed to the “low” of vulgar criminal gangs (e.g.,Ocean’s Eleven). Likewise, here “low” refers to all activities down here on the surface of planet Earth, even if it involves countesses and caviar, bracketing out the influence of both Heaven and Hell. Moreover, this “bracketing out” is a purely methodological principle, one which is not intended to deny the existence of transcendental realms. However, it is an essential measure, one which must be endured if we are to obtain initial clarity about any Earthly conspiracy.
In separating higher from lower, we not only avoid a lot of bad thinking, but we separate the Earthling from all claims to conscientious objector status in the war for the world. In the mind of a religious person, establishing the demonic origin of human malfeasance solidifies the assumption of evil, but to secular ears it sounds sufficiently like “the devil made them do it” to put legions of apathetic skeptics to sleep. None the less, the secularist will normally abhor all the evil things that the believer witnesses to on Earth, namely murder, theft, fraud, addiction, lies, hatred, rape, slander, scapegoating and much else. Yet in the mind of the secularist these evils are of purely human origin. Be that as it may, as humans pledged to any sort of benevolent ethic, and moreover citizens of a particular community, the righteous secularist (no doubt endowed with an unacknowledged common grace) is obligated to inquire and to blow the whistle if and when the moral order of society has been subverted by sinister forces.
Two sets of rules
While “high conspiracy” theory can be synthetic and inclusive, “low conspiracy” theory must be analytic and exclusive. Viewed from another angle, the latter must adhere to Popper’s principle of falsification. It must be possible for the conspirators to be found guilty rather than innocent. Hence, when the weight of data points to guilt, we can be satisfied that the outcome was evidence-based and not the formation of an appealing gestalt or some sort of confirmation bias.
With “high conspiracy” this kind of falsification is impossible, since we are taking an eagle eye’s view of the world as a whole, and the we are not at liberty (whatever progressives might think) to recreate the world. It is the whole puzzle with all the pieces locked in place. We can take the Book of Revelation as the best example. The scripture itself is God-breathed and outside of time, therefore the events will never change, although we may arrive at a deeper understanding of the events through interpretation. However, when we look at a particular event or epoch in secular history, we only are viewing one particular corner of the world-puzzle. This makes us less knowledgeable, our ignorant “low” as against an omniscient “high”…but it also gives us more freedom. It will be possible for us to move pieces of the puzzle around to different locations, keeping the outcome in doubt until just the right fit is found and the outcome is locked in.
This freedom and confidence derives from the very strictures imposed on our investigations. I can’t make an exhaustive list of these strictures, but there is no need to, since they correspond largely to what we assume whenever we deal with everyday, common-sense, reality. Generally speaking, all of our investigative procedures must conform to the constraints of time, space, and corporal existence. For example, the same entity cannot located in two places at the same time. Likewise, the causes of things must exist prior to their effects, albeit in various senses depending on whether we are dealing with efficient (mechanical) or teleological (planning) causes. The fact that low conspiracies must be embedded in time, space, and corporal existence means that it should be possible to establish a chain of evidence for the deeds of the conspirators.
No, I am not saying that in the ultimate scheme of things these unities of time, space and corporal existence are absolutes. Even without resorting to spiritual witnesses, consider physics, where quantum theory violates these strictures all the time. However, from the point of view of an investigator into low conspiracy, these violations of natural law lie on the other side of the division of labor. For example, suppose we have a book containing records of great import which suddenly disappear from their repository, hindering the investigation of the conspiracy. Of course, the book could have been translated into a different dimension through the agency of a demon or an angel. I don’t deny that such a thing might occur. However the investigator into low conspiracy would be in dereliction of their duty if this were their first assumption. Rather, such an investigator has an obligation to explore every possible explanation for the disappearance which does not violate the unities of time, space and corporal existence. If this avenue is pursued all the way to the bitter end, either the investigator will bag the conspiracy or the whole process will be revealed as a snark hunt. It may be that during the process of investigation certain anomalies will crop up with rare persistence. If so they should be noted and turned over to courts of high conspiracy theory. However, the work of the low conspiracy investigator is at an end.
One should always provide concrete examples. Our example of a Theory of Everything (TOE) is the Book of Revelations delivered to the Apostle John on the isle of Patmos. For an example of a limited conspiracy amenable to empirical investigation, pick anything smaller than the universe. In a future post I hope, God willing, to turn my attention to a really big (though low) conspiracy of the 20th century which still affects our intellectual climate today. However the contemporary political world is smaller, stupider, and especially more vulgar…even worse than the 20th century, if such a thing is possible. Unfortunately, if I had to pick the most celebrated conspiracy de jour t would have be the Muller investigation into the present administration’s alleged conspiratorial ties to Russia. It is hard to call this a limited investigation, since it seems to have no limits of time or subject, none the less it is “low” in the sense that we have been using here. Or is the Muller investigation itself a conspiracy? I will leave that question to the discretion of Senator Gowdy and his colleagues.
All I want to say is that people should avoid calling Special Prosecutor Muller the Antichrist. No doubt this will be tie in to a very satisfactory Theory of Everything for some aspiring investigator into high conspiracy. However the t, mptation should be resisted. Speaking personally, if it does indeed turn out that Robert Muller is the Antichrist at the end of time…I’m walking out of the theater and asking God for my money back.
There’s conspiracy low and conspiracy high
and often the twain shall meet.
If there neither were higher nor lower at all
it would indicate something akin to deceit.
Yet in spite of much evidence
lower and higher
the hawker of theory still sinks in the mire
(from “Counterindicators”-by M.R.S.)