#24: Conspiracy Thinking is Not Critical Thinking

This seems to be the age of conspiracy theories. What is a conspiracy theory? It is the belief that specific, if not all, major problems in the world are caused by a conspiracy of powerful people that secretly pull the strings behind your back. A select few have allegedly seen through this scheme, and are now desperately trying to enlighten the world about the truth they have just uncovered. It is, if you want to say it in post-modern terms, the grand narrative of all grand narratives. The one tale to explain it all.

If you listen to people believing such theories, they will all tell you that they are critical thinkers, thinking for themselves, researching the truth, for themselves, coming to uncomfortable conclusions that set them up against the rest of the world that is still falling prey to the conspirators.

On a certain level, this does seem like a familiar description of critical thinking. Has not every revolutionary been someone who has stood up against the world, against established opinion? Is not the basis of all social criticism the assumption that, to quote Marx in his 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, while philosophers have explained the world, the point is to change it? Does he not call for a ruthless criticism of everything existing, as in his letter to Ruge? Does not Kant call to dare to think on your own – Sapere aude? Are there not enough calls in philosophy, media criticism, and activism to question the order of things?

The key aspect of criticism here, though, is that criticism never ends, it never stands still, it never stops. It is not a tool to unveil some big conspiracy, to find the big answers for all or at least for major problems – it is an ongoing practice, a state of mind, something that should be immanent, meaning embedded into our ways of thinking, and into our structures. This is the definition of science, where every step may lead somewhere new, but never somewhere finite. There is always something new around the corner if you keep looking.

This is what makes true criticism, true science, so frustrating for many if not most people, apparently. In order to live, we seek stability, but in order to advance, we need change. If scientific answers keep changing depending on new data and new theoretic insights, that leaves many people displeased, especially if the expectation towards science is that it provides answers, that it provides closure. A scientific answer is always temporary.

What is even more frustrating, even religion does not provide closure here. That may seem to be a perplexing statement. Is not religion about finite answers, about eternal truths, about stability in your life? Not quite. Yes, religion talks about eternal truths – but they are only available for eternals themselves. The key definition of the divine is that it is not accessible to us mortals. God (or divinity) is that which is always greater than our understanding; greater even than our possible understanding. This is not an “god of the gaps” argument, it is the one consistent definition of the divine throughout all religious schools of thought. God is the sublime which dwarves us, which overshadows us, which we can never reach, but should always strive towards; it is the eternal truth, and the purpose of religion – quite like science – is to reach that truth while expecting human fallibility and imperfection. Every religion contains the tension between the struggle for meaning in life, the promise that meaning is out there, and the strongest of all caveats that we will never understand it in our physical lifetime, but that we need to keep trying, and we need to keep failing, and that this is ok – for if we were to understand this, we would be like God. Our religious knowledge is only temporary.

The belief in having gained some grand, even final insight is the core of conspiracy thinking, of misunderstood science, and misunderstood religion. A true scientist, just as a true religious believer, knows that doubt (in your own ability to finally understand everything) and faith (in the need for the search for truth, and the belief in the existence of truth) belong together. The true attitude characteristic of both science and religion is humility. Everything else is pretension.

Conspiracy theories do not function like this. They misapply critical thought and apply magical thinking. They see truth in patterns that they create themselves, they see devils at work, and their guiding question is always “cui bono” – who benefits, which leads to witch hunts, scapegoating, and a magical belief in potions, false prophets, and false promises to let the initiates see the truth, finally.

This is not critical thinking, but the opposite: the uncritical acceptance of a final truth. Science and religion believe that “the truth is out there,” but they know that we will never know the complete picture and will have to have faith in the procedures that lead us on the right path (which is why, on The X-Files, Mulder is lost without Scully, and vice versa). Conspiracists believe they know the final truth, stop criticizing it once they believe they have gained it, and need everybody to believe the same. This is not criticism, it is humbug.

#1: Holidays

pa_101_003

How do we each year get caught up in a frenzy over holidays?

Whose holiday, what kind of holiday, how to fill the time, whether and what to give to whom – and in the end, all we want to do, is to rest – but then, it’s back to work.

The idea should be simple (I know, it never is, and the idea of simplicity is always kind of utopian): The time which is marked in the Gregorian calendar as the end of the year roughly coincides with the darkest days in the year. If you find a way to bring some light into the darkness, this makes these days palatable.

Also, if you are ending your calendar at that time, it makes sense to take a breath and get the sense of being able to start over in the new year, after contemplating on your successes and failures, and spending time with those you care about. You may even finish some work that needs finishing, but do it in the comfort of holiday cheer around you.

You need no religion for that. It doesn’t necessarily hurt either.

Actually, in times like these, the story of taking in a small family in need of a home, can be instructive in how we position ourselves collectively, as a species, towards questions of home.

There are refugees needing welcoming homes right now. Are we not supposed to take care of others? Sadly, not everyone values family – even though that should be the basic connection that should be taken for granted. You should be able to feel at home, at home. You should also be able to think beyond your immediate circle and see as fellow human beings those who need help. That does not need to mean you need to do big things. But you could at least endorse the principle of caring humanity, and call out those that don’t support that, as who they are.

Our planet, our very home, needs us to take more care of it. Are we not supposed to be stewards of the land, rather than rapacious exploiters? We need the earth to live, and we do need materials, and other lives to live on. I am not a vegetarian, and I am aware of that. But do we not need to make sure that what we leave behind can sustain not just the present but also future generations, even if they are not your own?

In the end, the holidays could indeed be about home.

Again, you need no religion for that. But maybe, looking at a nativity scene, and just seeing a family in need of a good home, surely doesn’t hurt.