Whence conspiracy?

Watch a flock of birds sometime, and you will notice something peculiar: the flock seems to move with a certain amount of cohesion that seems to bely the limited cognitive capacity of the creatures involved. The flock tends to move in one overall direction, because the birds in the flock each follow the bird in front of them. Any smartass with some background in philosophy can describe this as an example of emergence– that is, a bunch of little parts follow some simple rules, and you see some complex behavior on a larger scale that isn’t organized by any single part. The birds don’t decide all at once to go in some particular direction, and they don’t get together and come to a decision. It just happens as a result of many birds engaging in similar behavior.

Humans also do this. However, since humans are cognitively much more complex than other animals, and tend to co-operate in huge numbers, the emergent patterns are much more difficult to understand than those of, say, a flock of birds or a school of fish. If you spend some time talking to Dark Enlightenment types about the “Cathedral,” their understanding of it boils down to something like this.We have a group of people who all believe in similar, or at least related, concepts (equality, democracy, etc.). When so many people are focused on propounding this kind of thing, it is a natural consequence that opposing ideas are very promptly snuffed out.

And yet, the Cathedral is typically dismissed as a “conspiracy.” I used to be confused by this, because there are plenty of people who understand things like the feminist concept of patriarchy to a high degree of nuance, and understand why it is not a conspiracy theory. Such people (as you can see by means of a cursory viewing of various feminist websites) will, for example, dismiss research into cognitive differences between men and women as the product of sexist bias (“patriarchy”) on the part of the researchers. But for all that, they can’t understand the idea that the Cathedral doesn’t involve anyone ‘conspiring’ with anyone else. It took a long time for me to understand that there is a deeply rooted (and easily missed) fallacy at work here, in addition to a simple cognitive bias.

The first problem is a recondite case of circular argumentation. The patriarchy is seen as a nuanced and intricate concept based on a lot of hard work done by feminists. But the Cathedral? That’s a conspiracy theory. The idea that the Cathedral may be a similar concept simply does not occur, because the Cathedral is a product of that crazy Dark Enlightenment stuff, and we know the Dark Enlightenment people are crazy because of the crazy things they believe in… like the Cathedral. In other news, I’m the king of tautologies because I’m the king of tautologies. This seems like a very obvious error, but the cognitive bias at work here makes it an easy mistake

The second problem is a comparatively simple case of confirmation bias. Those Dark Enlightenment weirdos are always on about the universities and how leftist they are. So the Dark Enlightenment people clearly believe that the university professors are involved in a conspiracy! The idea that, for example, humanities and social science departments may be echo chambers for people with a particular set of related opinions, does not occur, because the anti-conspiracy types never bother to look deeply enough into DE thinking to get that. Of course, if one does accept the echo chamber nature of universities, then the rest follows naturally; universities are institutions with a great deal of social and intellectual clout, so they play a huge role in shaping culture and public opinion. But understanding all of that takes too much thinking – tossing it in the “conspiracy” bin is easy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s