On Conspiracy Theory

on December 13, 2007

Of course conspiracies exist. Human beings just *love* to conspire together. It comes as naturally to us as breathing and is as instinctive as two six-year-olds cooking up a secret plan and agreeing not to share it with the five-year-old next door.

I’m more than half convinced that language was invented to make it easier for proto-humans to keep secrets — which is something you can’t do nearly as well when everybody communicates by yelling “oonk, oonk, oonk” across the clearing. Even such basic items as clothing and houses may have originally been devised to enhance the game of “what am I hiding” long before they were put to any more practical purposes. Conspiracy has been a great driver of cultural evolution.

On the other hand, there’s one major problem with conspiracies — and that is gossip. Human beings love to be let in on secrets, but they aren’t all that good at actually keeping them concealed, especially not in the long run. Secrets are a form of social currency, and the rewards to be gained by spreading them around are almost always greater than the rewards for keeping them buried.

So even though I accept the notion that conspiracies happen on a regular basis, I’m pretty skeptical of the stories about vast, complicated, multi-generational conspiracies that are peddled by many conspiracy theorists. Those scenarios just don’t seem to reflect human nature.

There’s also an overwhelming element of wish-fulfillment in the image of the conspirator as someone endowed with a superhuman ability to plan impeccably, foresee all contingencies, and keep the whole thing under wraps indefinitely. I simply can’t buy that. Not in the real world.

Face it — real world humans are basically fuck-ups. It often amazes me that the human race is even able to get out of bed in the morning and tie its own shoelaces. And Murphy’s Law — the dictum that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, and generally at the worst possible moment — surely applies to conspiracies if it applies anywhere at all.

So if we accept that conspiracies do exist — but also admit that any plot beyond the ability of your average six-year-old to plan and carry out is unavoidably going to turn into seven different kinds of cock-up — then how do we explain the really big and successful ones? The Kennedy Assassination. 9/11. Stuff like that.

I don’t have a good answer to that question, but I do have a couple of guesses. The one I’m most inclined to go with is that in cases like those, there has been an effective after-the-fact strategy of muddying the waters — of camouflaging the unavoidable leakage of genuine answers with a haze of false answers, partial answers, counterexamples invented to discredit real answers, general mud-slinging against anyone who gets close to the truth, and the occasional timely application of blackmail or murder.

That’s the sort of thing humans truly are good at.

There’s a further problem, however — though it emerges as an issue only on a far more philosophical level. If we accept that the true facts of a situation such as the Kennedy Assassination are forever unknowable, we are left with no way of proving that there actually is any ultimate truth out there at all. We may want to believe that there is a single factual answer to every question, which we might learn if we could only find the right person and beat it out of them. But we can’t prove that there is.

For all practical purposes, the answer to “Who shot Kennedy?” has become as metaphysical as, say, the luminiferous ether. And once we acknowledge that, it can begin to seem as though our normal sense of living in a hard, crisp material reality, where solid scientific truth exists independent of fallible human knowledge, has been supported all along by nothing more solid than faith.

Faith can be an admirable thing. Faith in the new and untried is necessary for all progress and invention. But faith in the old and shopworn quickly becomes an intellectual dead weight — one we’re far better off leaving behind by ridding ourselves of whatever conceptual baggage is weighing us down. On that basis, it may be time to stop clinging to the idea of a single, fully determinate reality and explore instead the notion that we exist in a quantum realm of multiple potential realities that is never going to collapse into a single, definitive truth.

Put it this way: Here in 2007, we find ourselves inhabiting a present that could have been reached from any one of a number of different pasts — say, for example, alternate histories in which Kennedy was killed by the Mob, the CIA, pro- or anti-Castro Cubans, Texas oilmen, the John Birch Society, the Soviets, the Corsican Mafia, or any of a number of other unlikely suspects. But it no longer makes any difference. We are where we are, we have to deal with the conditions what prevails, and how we got here isn’t all that relevant. What matters is getting on with business.

I’m not sure how I feel about that as an answer. Deep down, I’m probably as fond of certainty as any other refugee from the late 20th century. But I suppose I can live with it.

And at the very least, suggesting that everything that could have happened actually did happen — all at the same time and in overlapping layers of reality — is definitely a way of freeing ourselves from the trap of historical determinism.


A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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