- Introduction:Conspiracy Theories
There has been a lively philosophical debate about the nature of conspiracy theories and their epistemic status going on for some years now. This debate has shed light, not only on conspiracy theories themselves, but also, in the process, on a variety of issues in social epistemology, political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion.
Conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists have a bad reputation. When asked to identify typical examples of conspiracy theories, most people come up with theories which are clearly irrational (or at least which they think of as irrational). Some will refer to theories involving conspirators who are virtually omnipotent or omniscient. Others will cite theories involving alleged conspiracies that have been going on for so long or which involve so many people, that it is implausible to suppose they could remain undetected (by anyone other than the conspiracy theorists who believe in them). Still others mention theories involving conspirators who seem to have no motive to conspire (unless perhaps the desire to do evil for its own sake can be thought of as a motive).
Such conspiracy theories are irrational, but it's not clear whether we should conclude that conspiracy theories are universally or even typically irrational. On the face of it, thinking of irrational conspiracy theories as paradigms of conspiracy theories is like thinking of astrology as a paradigm of a theory of celestial motion. The subject matter of a theory does not usually determine whether belief in the theory is irrational. Roughly speaking, contributors to this issue can be divided into those who accept the association between conspiracy theories and irrationality and go on to elaborate the nature of this irrationality, and those who argue that conspiracy theories (and conspiracy theorists) do not deserve their reputation for irrationality.
In the opening essay, Brian L. Keeley, whose 1999 article "Of Conspiracy Theories" started the recent flurry of philosophical interest in the subject, extends his original analysis to theological issues. Keeley argues that there are interesting epistemic similarities (and differences) between secular conspiracy theories and explanations of worldly events which postulate the activities of supernatural agents. This leads him to defend agnosticism about the existence of God against several authors who have argued that such agnosticism is logically untenable. The rough idea is that some critics of agnosticism and some critics of secular conspiracy theories have unreasonably tried to apply epistemic standards which may be appropriate in the natural sciences, but which are not appropriate when the object of investigation can be presumed to take an interest in the investigation's outcome. When you are searching for something which, if it exists, would be both powerful and unwilling to be discovered, you should expect [End Page 131] evidence of its existence to be hard to come by. Indeed, you should expect there to be plenty of readily available evidence that it does not in fact exist.
The next essay is about "fundamentalist beliefs", rather than conspiracy theories as such. Michael Baurmann argues that in certain social conditions, especially those in which there is a high degree of mistrust towards other groups, belief in objectively irrational "fundamentalisms" can be subjectively rational. Although belief in conspiracy theories is often rejected as a form of fundamentalism, in certain societies belief in conspiracy theories can be objectively as well as subjectively rational.
In the next essay, Steve Clarke challenges the widespread view that conspiracy theories have flourished on the internet. It has often been argued that the difficulty of assessing the reliability of information to be found on the internet has led to a proliferation of conspiracy theorising. In fact, Clarke argues, the openness of the internet has tended to inhibit the development of conspiracy theories. Clarke's discussion is illustrated with a case study, "the controlled demolition theory" of the collapses at the World Trade Center. Clarke's analysis of the errors of this particular conspiracy theory is philosophically insightful and sophisticated. Readers must determine for themselves whether these errors are characteristic of conspiracy theories in general. As Clarke recognises, the alternatives to controlled demolition theory (and in particular what Clarke calls "the Al Qaeda theory") also postulate conspiracy, and hence they are also...