“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you” is one of the most famous lines from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I propose a corollary: Just because they’re after you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.
In a pair of articles at Rorate Caeli (here and here), traditionalist Catholic historian Roberto de Mattei offers some illuminating observations about paranoid modes of thinking trending in some right-wing circles, such as the QAnon theory. These are usually criticized as “conspiracy theories,” but as De Mattei points out, that they posit malevolent left-wing conspiracies is not the problem. Left-wing ideas really do dominate the news media, the universities, the entertainment industry, corporate HR departments, and so on. Left-wing politicians and opinion makers really are extremely hostile to traditional moral and religious views, and in some cases threaten people’s freedom to express them. A transformative project like The Great Reset is not the product of right-wing fantasy – , for goodness’ sake. Left-wingers in government, the press, NGOs, etc. have common values and goals and work together to advance them. The “conspiring” here is not secret or hypothetical, but out in the open.
The problem is rather that the specific kinds of conspiracy theory De Mattei has in mind are epistemologically highly dubious. Now, one way a conspiracy theory might be epistemologically problematic has to do with the structure of the theory itself. For example, that a problem with the most extreme sorts of conspiracy theory is that they are like the most extreme sorts of philosophical skepticism, in being self-undermining. De Mattei’s focus, by contrast, is on the psychological mechanism by which such theories come to be adopted. :
The characteristic of false conspiracy theories is that they cannot offer any documentation or certainty. To compensate for their lack of proofs, they use the technique of narration, which takes hold of the emotions, more than reason, and seduces those, who by an act of faith, have already decided to believe the far-fetched, propelled by fear, anger and rancor.
De Mattei elaborates on the cognitive mechanism involved in , as follows:
Bad use of reason leads to the precedence of the imagination, a form of knowledge which does not follow logical steps, but [is] often determined by an emotional state. Reason is substituted by fantasy and demonstration is substituted by narration. To explain the significance of the term phantasia, Aristotle indicates its derivation from light (pháos). Just as luminous stimulus generate visual sensations, thus the mind produces internally “phantasms” (phantásmata) or images that don’t always correspond to reality. Every image that makes an impression on our mind therefore, must be verified by the light of reason, which is the highest faculty of the soul…
These ideas circulating in the blog-sphere appear seductive to many, but are expressed in the form of “narration”, more than argumentation. What renders them fallacious is not the conspiratorial theory underlying them, but the presumption of establishing a theory through arguments of a merely circumstantial nature… Those who sustain these theses then, often use “flash sophism”, which consists in having recourse to generic phrases and peremptory sentences, which do not convince the sage, but make an impression on the uneducated.
End quote. Let’s unpack what De Mattei is saying here. First, he appeals to the standard Aristotelian-Thomistic distinction between the imagination, the passions, and the intellect. The imagination is that faculty by which we form and entertain mental images or “phantasms,” which can be thought of as faint copies of what has been, or could be, experienced through the senses. Examples would be the images you call to mind of what your mother’s face looks like or what her voice sounds like, or of the smell or taste of the Christmas dinner you shared when you last saw her. The passions are affective states that incline us toward or away from various actions or objects – a flash of anger that inclines us to lash out at someone, a twinge of nostalgia that leads us to open up the photo album, the feeling of joy that follows the hearing of a favorite piece of music, and so on.
The imagination and the passions have their own principles of operation, and they are the kind typically emphasized by (and overgeneralized by) empiricist and associationist theories in psychology. For example, the appearance in consciousness of one image will naturally tend to trigger the appearance of other images which it has in the past been associated with. You hear mom’s voice on the answering machine, and the next thing you know, you “see” the image of her face with your mind’s eye. That in turn triggers warm feelings of affection and nostalgia. Those may in turn generate memories of childhood events, which in turn trigger other emotions. And so on. None of this is irrational or per se contrary to reason, but it is not rational either – that is to say, the progression from one image or passion to another is not a matter of logical inference or even, necessarily, of conceptual connections, but rather of contingent habituation.
The intellect, by contrast, is concerned precisely with abstract concepts, complete thoughts or propositions, and their logical interrelationships. To be sure, in human beings the intellect operates in tandem with the imagination and the passions. But the content of a concept, of a proposition, or of the string of propositions that make up an argument, outstrip anything that can even in principle be captured in imagery or in any affective state. What the intellect does differs in kind, and not merely in degree, from anything the imagination and the passions do.
Again, this is just standard Aristotelian-Thomistic psychology. And it is absolutely essential to understanding human nature and the moral life. We share the imagination and passions with non-human animals. But the intellect is what sets us apart from them, the angelic side of the mashup of angel and ape that is the human being. And it transforms and ennobles our imaginations and passions, imposing an overlay of conceptual and logical order on what would otherwise be an instinctive and habitual, but strictly unintelligent, play of images and passions.
Now, when a human mind is properly ordered, the imagination and passions conform themselves to the intellect. But when the intellect is instead pushed around by an excessively powerful imagination and/or passions, all sorts of irrationality and immorality can result. A person given to excessive anger will see offenses and bad motives where there are none, or see great offenses where there are really only small ones. A person given to excessive worry will foresee difficulties where there are none, or insurmountable difficulties where there are in fact perfectly manageable ones. And so on.
These are examples of how imagination and passion can distort rational judgment in the individual. But disordered habits of imagination and feeling can become so widespread that they come to characterize a whole society. An example would be the extreme sexual depravity that surrounds us today – indeed, in which contemporary human minds are veritably marinating, with the effect of rotting out their capacity for sober rational judgment ( that sexual vice has, of all vices, the greatest propensity to do). is the near omnipresence of online pornography, which habituates the user to highly disordered and unrealistic imaginative scenarios and passions. The depth of the disorder is evidenced by the fact that the very idea that there are two sexes and that the sexual act is of its nature oriented to procreative and unitive ends – blindingly obvious for all of previous human history to even the least educated of rational minds – has now come to be regarded by millions of people as a hateful lie, a mark of bigotry that must be shouted down or even censored. This is mass psychosis. (To quote Catch-22 again: “Insanity is contagious.”)
What does all this have to do with the kinds of epistemologically untethered conspiracy theories that De Mattei is criticizing? In a key insight, De Mattei says that such theories are rooted in a kind of “narration” rather than “argumentation.” What does he mean by this?
Think of the differences between a story and a line of philosophical argument. The parts of a story are not connected together in the way that the steps of an argument are. In an argument, one proposition is logically entailed by, or made probable by, another. That is not the way one event is related to another in a story. Of course, we might speak in a loose way of there being a logical progression of events in a good story, but what we mean by that is that the progression is well-plotted, or true to the characters’ motivations, or what have you. Ultimately, we judge the story by criteria of aesthetics and personal taste that differ from the dry and dispassionate logical criteria by which we evaluate an argument. And those criteria of aesthetics and personal taste have much to do with the affective reaction a story produces in us, and the pleasant or striking imagery it generates.
De Mattei’s point is that conspiracy theories of the kind he has in mind stand in need of dry and dispassionate logical evaluation, but in fact tend to be embraced for reasons similar to the kind that are operating when we are attracted to a good story or narrative. And this occurs because those drawn to such theories are excessively given to passion and imagination and allow these to dominate their intellects.
Of course, since even a person with overdeveloped passions and imagination is still a rational animal, his intellect is also engaged in evaluating the theory. But the problem is that, pushed around by his imagination and passions, his intellect is too easily satisfied with arguments that are actually far from logically compelling – with what De Mattei calls merely “circumstantial” evidence and with “generic phrases and peremptory sentences,” e.g. clichés about the motives of those in power, and the confident pronouncements of purported experts. Everything seems to “fit,” but only because the narrative is highly attractive given one’s passions and general background beliefs, not because the evidence and arguments are actually as powerful as is assumed. By means of the mechanisms whereby phantasms are generated and come to be associated, images of one sort (of real injustices occurring, of real and widespread expressions of hostility to one’s values, etc.) tend to prompt further images (e.g. of shadowy conspirators in smoke-filled rooms). The psychological ease with which one image tends to generate another in consciousness is mistaken for a logical connection between premises and conclusion.
A person who has fallen in love with such a narrative may even start to feel part of it himself, like a character in an action film who is going to assist in bringing the story to a climax. Before you know it, he’s drunk the QAnon Kool-Aid and is ready to throw the Georgia Senate elections in order to stick it to the RINOs, or to invade the Capitol building.
Conspiracy theorizing of this kind involves something like the Slippery Slope fallacy in reverse. In a Slippery Slope fallacy, one judges too hastily that some action or policy A will lead to some bad outcome Z, but without explaining how to fill in the causal gaps by which A would plausibly lead to Z. In paranoid thinking of the kind evident in extreme conspiracy theories, one starts with some genuinely bad phenomenon Z (say, bureaucratic resistance to policies that would help the working class and end pointless wars) and posits a bizarre cause A (for example, a conspiracy of cannibalistic Satan-worshipping pedophiles), without explaining why the series of causes leads back to A, specifically, as opposed to some less exotic principal cause. What the conspiracy theorist doesn’t realize is that even though the phenomenon Z is real and is bad, it doesn’t follow that he’s not reacting to it in a paranoid way.
The tendency De Mattei is describing is not a deterministic one. The point isn’t that passion and imagination become so powerful that the intellect is left utterly helpless. A sufficiently powerful intellect or will can resist the errors into which even deep-seated disordered fleshly desires might otherwise lead one, as the examples of Plato and St. Augustine show. Similarly, a person given to paranoid delusions can come to know that he is, and try to correct for it (a famous extreme case being that of John Nash). But given the pull of the passions and the imagination, a paranoid narrative can become addictive. And as the AA folks tell us, the first step is to admit the problem.
Narrative thinking not only reinforces crackpot conspiracy theories, but can also facilitate disorders of the passions and the imagination of the other kinds mentioned above. Indeed, narrative thinking is a major factor behind the now widespread acceptance and celebration of sexual desires and practices that have traditionally been considered aberrant. One concocts a story like the following: “These aren’t just weird desires and feelings. They reflect who I am, my identity. Those who criticize them are therefore trying to hurt me. Indeed, they are part of a long history of oppression of people like me. Our story is one of victimization, and the climax of the story must be liberation.” Repeat this little narrative to yourself over and over and you’ll almost believe it. Yell it in other people’s faces with enough worked-up outrage, and it starts to feel natural. Get other people to repeat it back to you and to share in the yelling, and you’re not only fully convinced, but have the makings of a pseudo-moralistic crusade. It helps if you’re part of a generation raised on social media, video games, cosplay, Critical Theory, and other insulations from objective reality. The narrative provides meaning in a world from which traditional meanings have disappeared, and license to violate norms that have collapsed with the disappearance of those traditional meanings.
This is true of “woke” thinking more generally. I discussed how Critical Race Theory and QAnon alike are contemporary manifestations of the same paranoid mindset that underlies the ancient Gnostic heresy. Now, Gnosticism is nothing if not a narrative-oriented rather than rational mode of discourse. And Critical Race Theory is explicitly and self-consciously so. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s on the subject devotes a chapter to surveying the ways that CRT writers deploy “narrative” and “storytelling” as rhetorical weapons – in particular, the spinning of “counterstories” and “alternative realities” as devices for undermining people’s confidence in the “narratives” CRT claims to be oppressive. All in the context of badmouthing rationalism, objectivity, etc. as masks for “white supremacy.” This is nothing less than the making of textbook logical fallacies (appeal to emotion, hasty generalization, the genetic fallacy, poisoning the well, begging the question, etc.) the methodological foundation of an entire academic industry. The whole thing is no less a sick fantasy world than the QAnon lunacy is. The difference is that QAnon doesn’t get shoved down your throat by the HR department, 10 million dollar corporate grants, New York Times bestseller status, etc.
All the same, QAnon is not harmless crankery, as the appalling events at the Capitol show. And it is, in any event, a waste of time and energy to try to ferret out hidden left-wing malevolence when what we ought really to worry about is the kind that is already being frankly expressed. From Catch-22 again:
“Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”
“Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help. “I hate them consciously.”
But let’s give the last word :
The existence of a conspiracy aiming at the destruction of the Church and Christian Civilization is in no need of new theories, since it has already been proven by history; neither does it need secrecy, since the Revolution now acts boldly, openly.