SocraticGadfly: Conspiracy theories are the new Gnosticism: What might that mean for modern politics and society?

September 27, 2019

Conspiracy theories are the new Gnosticism:
What might that mean for modern politics and society?

The psychology of conspiracy thinkers appears complex.

On the surface, it might seem simple. More and more social psychology research ties acceptance of conspiracy thinking to perceived loss of control over life.

But that itself can’t be the sum of it. Many people who lose a greater amount of control over life than they previously had do not buy into conspiracy thinking. For example, 95 percent of people who have strokes (very conservative estimate, surely more like 99.5 percent) don’t claim their stroke (if they even use that word) was caused by chemtrails.

Per the medieval Western Church pondering the mystery of salvation, “Cur alii, non alii”?

So, the psychology is more complex than “loss of control.”

But, acceptance of conspiracy theories is also about more than psychology. Trying to reduce the likelihood of acceptance of conspiracy theories to loss of control is like Orwell’s tale from India about the blind men describing an elephant. Even outside of that, limiting the discussion to psychology would be like men with severe astigmatism trying to describe it or something.

Movement skeptics or Skeptics™ folks might say that conspiracy thinking is anti-scientific. Well, partially true with anti-science conspiracy theories such as the chemtrails above or faked moon landings, but not even fully true there. And science, other than social sciences, isn’t involved at all with politics or history conspiracy theories.

But philosophy is.

Logic, basically classic informal logic and the classical logical fallacies, are obviously in play, even if Massimo Pigliucci says we should stop calling people on fallacies, even when they’re committing what would be considered classical fallacies by any disinterested observer.

(Based on that, I look at the difference between specific actual conspiracies and conspiracy theories in this blog post.)

But, other areas of philosophy are involved, too. One is epistemology. Another is philosophy of language, specifically on agreeing on language used to describe and to “frame” an event. And, in some cases, it and epistemology may overlap here.

Then there’s the role of the Internet.

The ramp-up of misinformation in general, and conspiracy thinking in particular, has been fueled by the Net in general and social media in particular. That's even more the case, I think, with disinformation, which is deliberate, per the distinctions the author has at the link. The question is, is this something desired by conspiracy theory promoters? Are a higher percentage of them, than of the general public, anarchists in some way? If so, which came first, believing conspiracy theories or anarchist tendencies?

And, is conspiracy thinking, or at least promotion of it, an addictive behavior inside the addictive behavior of being online in general and being online with devices and/or social media in particular? (There's ironies here. I'm including this in a blog post that could be just for "the machine," and the author wrote this piece which could also just be for "the machine.")

Beyond THAT, though, those theories still get no closer to the cur alii, non alii than we have been so far.

One author at Psychology Today postulates a second reason. (I’m taking understanding and certainly as ultimately a subset of control and thus nut a second reason.)

And that is the positive self-image angle.

David Ludden doesn’t use the word, but … I just thought of it.

Conspiracy theorists are Gnostics. They believe they have secret, esoteric knowledge. And that does help their self image.

Beyond that, the rise of the social media has made it much easier for people to self-sort. For instance, there’s several sub-conspiracy theories within the JFK assassination conspiracy theory world, as in, LBJ did it, or the Mob did it, or Castro did it, or the “deep state” did it, etc. Facebook groups, and probably even more, sub-Reddits, are among leading avenues for allowing these to grow.

Not to underestimate the power of the spoken word, and the ease of making videos now, YouTube is probably No. 3. Especially now that it’s becoming easy to fake videos.

Now, the parallelism with Gnosticism may not seem complete. For example, where is the difference between “adepts” and “learners” or “auditors”?

Well, with things like “closed” or “secret” Facebook groups, sub-Reddits, it’s right there. You may have to have demonstrated a certain amount of knowledge on “open” Facebook, Twitter, Reddit larger groups, etc., before you gain admission to one of these groups. And, since it’s a group run by a leader, you’re always at danger of expulsion.

The psycho-history angle also has parallels.

This, then, actually ties back to real live Gnosticism. Gnosticism arose in the late Hellenistic era, but took off when? Under the Roman Empire, certainly the most powerful nation state west of China both in external power and in internal control of its citizenry before modern times. And, east of its borderlands, the Parthians semi-organized, and then the Sassanids more organized, an empire of sorts of their own An America where, ostensibly democratic fronts, people worry about the big brother of big government, big business or both, is very real.

The loss of control ties with an attempt to regain control, even if the area of control has to be massively circumscribed.

That said, to the degree we do take knowledge and certainty itself as a third issue, that links back to philosophy, namely, epistemology.

That’s more insight, but still not total insight on the cur alii, non alii.

And Undark seems to have another piece of the puzzle, from neuroscience. 

People who understand much about our hominid ancestors know that they are believed to have had a penchant for two things: agency imputation and pattern detection. It’s also believed that the most evolutionarily successful hominids were those that overdid it to some degree, because the price of a false positive was far less than that of a false negative.

According to two researchers, one Dutch, one American, Elizabeth Preston says that conspiracy theorists are likely to have a high level of false positives on pattern detection. The Dutch researcher, with a Dutch colleague, adds that many conspiracy theorists may also imbibe in another early hominid issue: xenophobia toward outgroups. Given that issues like that are how more conservative people allegedly differ from more liberal people, per the Big Five personality scale (I think the claims are overblown), this could be seen as a partial additional explainer of some politically conservative conspiracy thinking.

Also, per David Hume reminding us that the reason need always follow the passions, conspiracy theories are always emotionally driven. That's even more the case than with traditional motivated reasoning.

This ties, in this case, to the regaining of control, and with it, the gaining of a sense of power. Asking people to surrender psychological power is as difficult as asking them to surrender physical power. Tie this, then, into the world of modern democratic and semi-democratic politics. Conspiracy thinking can control, and can be used by leaders to control, political behaviors.

But, that's not the biggie. The biggie, here in the US is getting people to accept that our nation's population has doubled since Eisenhower era America and that the world population is headed toward 8 billion.

So, let's let James Tiberias Kirk weigh in:

 That's right, there are about a million things in this universe we can have and about a million (really, more like a billion) we can't.

It IS no fun facing that.

But, being in the reality-based world involves accepting just that fact.

So, how do we get conspiracy theorists to stop this? Probably not easy.

A better question is, how do we stop potential conspiracy theorists from becoming actual ones?

My thought is that that, on the level of our daily friends, rather than trying to refute the conspiracy theory that's tempting them, to instead point out many other things in their daily lives that they don't control, and then, ask them if this really upsets them.

After that, maybe a transition to the idea that "some" people (while making clear that you're not marking them up) believe in conspiracy theories due to a perceived loss of control. And then, if they're willing to talk more about the particular conspiracy theory, only at that point, tackle that issue.

Ditto for the purely Gnostic issues of insider, esoteric knowledge. Point out the many things that they do actually know, some of which may not be known to very many people. Encourage them to maybe brag on that a bit more in their daily lives — while not sounding like a Cliff Clavin.

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