Friday, February 13, 2009

Brin on conspiracy theories

Science fiction writer David Brin offers some sympathetic criticism of my recent piece “The Trouble With Conspiracy Theories” (originally posted here, and reprinted at Brin suggests that:

there are ways that a tight-knit “inner conspiracy” of a few fanatics could control much larger groups who did not consciously think of themselves as committing a betrayal. (Suppose, for example, just half a dozen blackmailed/suborned men held the highest offices in a nation; they could then appoint fools and delusionally partisan rationalizers into lower positions, who could then achieve high levels of damage without the ever becoming aware that they were doing so. The same effect can be achieved through clever use of prodigious amounts of cash.)

It seems to me, however, that when we think through in detail how this proposed scenario of Brin’s would go, we’ll see that it is subject to the same problems I raised in my article. Those problems were essentially three: First, that while conspiracies of a small-scale nature do sometimes occur, the nature of modern bureaucracies makes it practically impossible for would-be conspirators secretly and effectively to engineer anything on the scale of a 9/11 “inside job” or JFK assassination scenario. Second, while liberal democratic societies are capable of great evil, the adversarial nature of their institutions and the diverse ends and belief systems of the people staffing these institutions make it practically impossible for would-be conspirators to organize enough relevant personnel to do evil of the specific sort involved in 9/11 “inside job” or JFK assassination scenarios. Third, the scale of deception posited in conspiracy scenarios of this scale is so all-encompassing that it effectively undermines the very evidential base that conspiracy theorists themselves must rely on to support their theories.

It does not seem to me that anything Brin says really deals with the third point. Whether or not a few conspirators work through unwitting stooges, in the standard 9/11 “inside job” or JFK assassination conspiracy scenario, they would have to manipulate the relevant sources of information to such an extent that all such information, including the information the conspiracy theorist himself must rely on, becomes suspect. This epistemological problem cannot be solved by positing only a few conspirators, because the problem derives, not from the number of alleged conspirators involved, but rather from the nearly unlimited powers of deception they are purported to have. (This is why I compared such conspiracy theories to the sorts of scenarios familiar from philosophical skepticism – Descartes’ “evil genius” scenario, Matrix-style “brain in a vat” scenarios, and so forth – which are so extreme that they threaten to undermine even the evidence that led to the skeptical doubts in the first place.)

Brin’s suggestion also doesn’t seem to address my first point, regarding bureaucracy. Even if it is only a few conspirators who know what is going on, they would still have to rely on a vast number of bureaucrats to do exactly what the conspirators want done, at exactly the right times, with none of them knowing or guessing at (even after the fact) the overall end their actions are intended to further – and all in (say) the short time frame between Bush’s inauguration and 9/11, and working through the usual bureaucratic incompetence and red tape. Here too, the problem isn’t really (or at least is not solely) the number of people involved in the conspiracy. It is rather the nature of the institutions they would have to work through, institutions the opposite of conducive to carrying out an operation of the scale imagined.

At best Brin’s proposed scenario might seem to counter my second point, about the adversarial nature of liberal democratic societies. The idea here would seem to be that if most of the people involved don’t even know what end they are serving, their disagreement with that end or fear of being caught promoting it would drop out as irrelevant. But we need to ask: How exactly would the small inner circle posited by Brin manipulate their stooges? For example, would they say to the relevant FBI personnel, “We know that these middle eastern guys seeking flight instruction might seem suspicious, but don’t worry – we’ve checked them out and they are harmless.” This might convince some of the relevant FBI personnel before the conspiracy is carried out. But all of them, and even after 9/11? And could the handful of conspirators also effectively manipulate all the right people in the FAA, American Airlines, United Airlines, the Air Force, the NYPD, the FDNY, the media, etc., with none of them figuring out what had been going on even after 9/11 occurred? Not likely, to say the least. And the idea of their successfully pulling off an act of deceptive manipulation of this scale only underlines the third problem I raised, viz. that the more omnipotent a conspiracy theorist makes his hypothetical conspirators, the more he destroys the possibility of having any real knowledge of the everyday social world at all – including knowledge of purported conspiracies themselves.


  1. Very good post Dr.Feser.

    Sorry for my following off-topic comment, but I'd like to ask you for recommended literature on contemporary philosophers defending substance dualism, or more specifically, contemporary defenses of substance dualism.

    I've read that Swinburne's "The evolution of the soul" is a good one; and John foster's Immaterial self is good too. (I'm going to order both of them soon)

    However, I'd like to know if there are contemporary secular philosophers who defend substance dualism, because some people say that only religious philosophers are dualists (secular ones would be materialists). However, I think it's possible to be a secular dualist.

    Thanks for the information.

  2. Hello Ben,

    For a secular defense of dualism, see Karl Popper's half of The Self and its Brain (a book he co-wrote with John Eccles). You'll find extensive references to other contemporary defenses of dualism in my book Philosophy of Mind.

  3. The counterknowledge link does not appear to be working.

  4. Hi Michael, the Counterknowledge site seems down at the moment -- I'm sure it will be back soon. Anyway, scroll down the main page of my site and you'll see the same article posted here. (Look for the guy with the tinfoil hat.)

  5. The conspiracy theory that I hate the most is the one where a guy named OBL masterminded an attack on the WTCs that undermined the billion dollar US defence forces from a cave in Afghanistan while on a liver dialysis machine.

    I mean how did he get the jet fuel(basically karoseen) to melt the steel colemns in the building.

    Oh, and how did he get that third building (WTC 7)to fall down which wasn't even hit by anything.

    DR Feser is much too kind, I just want to kick my TV when I see those conspiracy theorists on there.

  6. "the nature of modern bureaucracies makes it practically impossible for would-be conspirators secretly and effectively to engineer anything on the scale of a 9/11 “inside job” or JFK assassination scenario"

    Structure of modern beaucracies were built the conspirators. Cecil rhodes is an example, he had six wills, one of which was used to establish the council on foreign relations.Read "tragey and hope" by professor Caroll quigley, bill clinton's mentor.

    A similar group called the trilateral commission was founded in 1970 by David Rockefellar and ZEbigniew Brezinski. There are 300 members worldwide and about 85 in North america. Of those 85 members 10 have been assigned senior positions the new Obama administration. It was the same in JImmy carter and bill clinton's cabinets.REad TRilaterals over washington by patrick wood and anthony sutton.

    Groups like these are numerous and I hardly have the time or the space to explain to Dr. Feser the intrcacies of their machinations.

    But another example is the 911 Comission. Webster Tarpley in his book "9/11 synthetic Terror" goes in to great detail on the backgrounds of the 9/11 comission. They were all so dirty and people in glsss houses don't throw rocks.

    What we have is a large organized crime syndicate. Imagine the mafia got really big and infiltrated the police force and then the banks and then the media and then they just take over completely. Well, its kinda like that but its more like the masons got control of this institution, and communists got control of the democratic party and the Madoff crew got control of the Nasdaq and the SEC and Disney's run by the military industrial complex and sometimes they fight with each other but they know they got to keep the people in the dark so they keep to the script.

    Oh and then there's the illegal Federal REserve Bank a private bank that creates money out of thin air and charges the government interest on it.

    Then we have the "anchor men" who read of teleprompters. Oh I guess it would be real hard to manipulate thos teleprompters.

    Or the voting machines which all kinds of programmers testified were easily hacked.

    Oh and last but not least we have the Norad standing down on 911 because at the same time as the attacks were taking place there were drills taking place were planes were hijacked and flown into the world trade centre. The name of the drill was able danger and the story was published vanity fair.

    Dr feser if you don't want to see the truth nothing anyone will say will convince you. ANy kid knows if you hit a tree with an axe it falls over, it doesn't disintigrate into microscopic dust.

    Maybe you never took physics, or maybe you are a finger in the dike blocking the truth from coming out, who knows but your wrong on this issue.

  7. I haven't considered before the professor Feser's arguments against conspiracies. While I tend to think some so-called conspiracies are probably factual (an example would be the 9/11 conspiracy), I think professor Feser's arguments put relevant questions that makes conspiracy theories, a priori, unplausible.

    Probably, conspiracy theorists (some of them good philosophers, like David Ray Griffin) should to address these philosophical questions and problems.

    Probably, a new field of philosophy is going to born: The philosophy of conspiracy theories.


    A very good defense of dualism may be found in philosopher Uwe Meixner's book "Two sides of beign". It's not easy to get a copy of it, because it has been published by a german publisher. A review of it is available:

    Another review of Meixner's book:

    I agree with you that being "not religious" is compatible with dualism. In fact, I'm a secular (i.e. not religious) substance dualist.

    An example of a contemporary secular philosopher who defends substance dualism is Robert Almeder, Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University (see his book "Death and Personal Survival"). Hear an interview with him:

    Another one is Neal Grossman, Associate Professor of philosophy at University of Illinois at Chicago. An interview with him:

    But secular philosophers defenders of dualism are the exception, not the rule. Thus you should to read religious defenders of it too (see professor Feser's book Philosophy of Mind for excellent bibliography on dualism and other positions in contemporary philosophy of mind )

    Hope it helps.