Thursday, January 21, 2021

Narrative thinking and conspiracy theories

“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 – it has its own official website, 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.

Disordered minds

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, I have argued 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.  He writes:

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 his other article, 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 (as Aquinas warns that sexual vice has, of all vices, the greatest propensity to do).  A major contributor to this 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.”)

Narrative thinking

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. 

Gnostic narratives

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.  In an earlier post 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 widely read primer 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 to De Mattei:

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.

Related posts:

The Gnostic heresy’s political successors

The Bizarro world of left-wing politics

The trouble with conspiracy theories

Brin on conspiracy theories

Epstein on conspiracies


  1. Didn't gnosticism begin when Adam and Eve took to themselves the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?

  2. Ed, please consider writing a book on this topic. Seriously. You have some great material here, it’s in desperate need today, and the situation (conspiratorial thinking) will only get worse. A short work from a Catholic perspective could help convince many to focus on the problems at hand instead of wasting time, resources, and effort on these blasted conspiracy theories.

    1. I think he already has like 5 books in the works lol. But yeah the timing seems perfect for a book like that.

  3. .
    It's just Great Pumpkin Fideism and it's Wheel Of Circularity type verbal algorithms applied to politics.

  4. De Mattei writes "every disaster that befalls man is a punishment." Where does the Catholic Church teach that The Black Plague, The Great Spanish Flu Pandemic and earthquakes, hurricanes and floods are punishments from God?

    1. The idea that "every disaster that befalls man is a punishment" is not only disproven by the entire Book of Job, it's also a base and crude superstition.

    2. It may not be a direct punishment, as Luke 13:1 - 5 indicates. But in a sense they can all be indirect punishments. They are a result of original sin after all and remind us that we need to order our lives towards God. Often when a loved one does it reminds of us of our own mortality.

      But God providentially punishes us out of love, never out of hatred. His ultimate goal for all of us is the beatific vision. Hebrews 12:6.

    3. Every disaster is a general punishment inasmuch as all suffering and death is a punishment for the sin we've inherited from Adam. Specific afflictions are not always punishments, as when the apostles asked of the blind man whose sin caused his malady, only to hear that it was no one's sin.

    4. @Scott & ccmnxc,

      Generally though, suffering as a result of original sin isn't really punishment as much as it is a consequence of sin which God allows in order to show us the difference between good and evil and to make us appreciate good all the more. Just like a child burning his hand on a stove which shows him practically that doing that is bad.

      As for God punishing our of love, that would be more like discipline, rather than punishment. And don't forget Hebrews 12:10 - He doesn't discipline us like human fathers who may go overboard.

  5. Great article! One aspect of the current situation would also be the herding tendency: people will go along with the stupidest things merely because they don't want to be called out by the mob.

    Journalism (so called) is now just dramatic acting; everything is now a "bombshell". They barely have room for anything resembling a fact in the swamp of framing devices engineered to advance the narrative.

    People nowadays will tell you the most imbecilic things with the upmost seriousness and urgency. In the words of Screwtape: "ah, how we lead them around by their butts."

  6. For a more balanced interpretation of the Third Secret of Fatima, Google "Fatima third secret university of Dayton," and read what then-Cardinal Ratzinger had to say about it.

  7. I have a question about phantasms. There are some people - I am one of them - who have no conscious experience of them at all. (This state has recently been named "aphantasia".)

    Now many of us "aphants" do experience vivid sensory dreams (again, I do), so it would seem that we have some sort of phantasms, but locked away somehow from waking conscious experience. But some aphants report dreaming completely verbally.

    How am I to understand the Thomistic view that the human intellect must always turn to phantasms in the course of thinking? How can the intellect turn to something without being aware of it?

    1. Phantasms don't have to be visual though; they can easily be auditory / verbal or even of the other senses. The intellect can just as well turn to auditory or other types of phantasms if it lacks visual ones.

      But even beyond that, human beings communicate mostly through language and their bodies, which are material "instruments" through which the intellect also operates since we are embodied beings by nature - so even if someone was an aphantasic with literally no phantasms of any kind during waking consciousness, their intellect would still make use of material helpers such as language or subconscious processing to help itself out.

      The intellect isn't the complete soul by itself; it's one of the immaterial powers along with the will and the material ones, which are all together rooted in the soul. And if circumstances make it necessary, the other powers of the soul can help out the intellect if need be - I suspect it's likely that aphantasics are helped out by subconscious processing more, which is what the intellect uses in their case.

    2. The philosophical "phantasm" isn't like seeing things in a dream, so there may be confusion in using the word "phantasm" in two different meanings.

      Ideas are universal in aspect, but we can only think about them by abstracting them from singulars. We have to speak or think the word "triangle", for instance, or call to mind a specific triangular shape, in order to think "triangle." There is just no other way to do it. The "phantasm" is the specific singular (word or otherwise) through which the intellect gains access to the concept. If we could think without phantasms, then we could think without language, which I submit is impossible.

  8. Two things I would like to add:
    1) QAnon is the dumbest thing ever and only a few very special people take it seriously. It's almost 100 % a meme in right-wing circles, and until recently I've had friends who thought QAnon was simply a joke, and were absolutely mesmerized by the fact that people actually believed in it. QAnon is not a good representation for a "right-wing conspiracy theory", but rather for how sometimes people fall for hoaxes, schemes, and scams. It started on the highly dubious platform 4chan, iirc, and I wouldn't take anything from there seriously.

    2) There should be a distinction between the looney conspiracy theories like QAnon (or Area 51, or what have you), and actually developed theories and hypotheseis, which are just pejorated by Leftists and the elites as "conspiracy theories", but which in the past have proved to be true. Saying for example that Covid 19 came from China, is merely stating a fact that can be proved by rational thinking and scientific methods. Now, Left-wing media will say this basic statement is an "alt-right conspiracy theory in support of Trump". It's not a conspiracy theory, at all. When one talks about conspiracy theories, making this distinction is highly necessary, at least in our day and time. While in the past, you would immediately think of people wearing tin foil hats against brain controlling radio waves emitted by the lizard people, now every theory or fact that is against mainstream political correctness, is a "conspiracy theory", because this denomer serves to discredit whatever they want.

    - John

    1. John,

      Saying for example that Covid 19 came from China, is merely stating a fact that can be proved by rational thinking and scientific methods. Now, Left-wing media will say this basic statement is an "alt-right conspiracy theory in support of Trump".

      Which left-wing media said that?

      I mean, I've heard that 'China created the virus to infect Americans' called a conspiracy theory (and correctly so), but I have heard what you describe.

  9. Laudator Temporis ActiJanuary 22, 2021 at 2:39 AM

    "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."

    As long as Dr Feser confines himself to defending "the Church and Christian civilization," this blog will survive for some time to come. If Dr Feser strays onto racial matters (shall we say), the blog will not survive for some time to come. So racial matters seem more dangerous to the Woke than "Catholicism and Christian civilization."

    1. And what is that supposed to show? I'm pretty sure that if he starts defending pedophilia or cannibalism that would not be very helpful as well.

      Positions do not become better or more worthy or more credible because of how much anger they bring to one's political opponents.

  10. Roberto de Mattei certainly brings some sense to the discussion about conspiracies, which in the United States has reached incredible levels, dragging some Catholics down. Not only has de Mattei touched on fake conspiracies, he also puts forward the Catholic position regarding the "end times". His fine example contrasts with Vigano and his end times Protestant nonsense. He would do well do read de Mattei's rejection of millenarianism, a belief held by many Protestants. Vigano has "Catholicised" this notion by insinuating that the era of peace spoken of at Fatima is the Second Coming. In this way he hopes to maintain his "sons of light" coalition with Papacy-hating Protestant extremists.

    Trads in the US are indeed being negatively affected by the crisis of a political culture which is not theirs. Because the Church is incompatible with the WASP entity, many conservative Catholics are in depression. Peter Kwasniewski says of the modern Papacy (which he calls post-Vatican I but which is gloriously post-Tridentine): "In many ways we are more threatened today by the spirit of Vatican I [than Vatican II!], which it will take a mighty exorcism to drive away", and the liturgical reforms of Pius X and Pius XII were "atrocious". Openly Lutheran interpretations of the Papacy have appeared in publication like The Remnant. It goes on.

    The "Reset" whose website this post refers to, does seem to be another example of a fake conspiracy, not because it's a secret, but because many in the Trump camp (with Vigano tagging along) insist it involves things which are crazy. For example, many claim vaccinations are a reset plan to halve the world's population. Other bizarre claims are made. It's as well not to forget that the U.N. was a transformative project, as was the Marshall Plan, Davos etc. The intentions of all these projects are secularist and mostly negative. However, that doesn't mean they have succeeded. PC fanatics have plans too, which are far from secret, but despite all their advances, they have no guarantee of ultimate success.

    The world isn't the U.S. or Western Europe, or even the broader West itself (the Americas, the Philippines, Australia etc). The world is also Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia, China, India, Muslim countries. In all these places everything that Kamala Harris stands for is laughed at if not burned at the stake. Our crises are the senilities of rich, decadent peoples.

    Frankly, I think US Catholics ought to look at the bright side. Most Western countries outside the Catholic Americas have endured migratory waves of people almost impossible to integrate into a Catholic culture. The US, with Biden's victory, looks set to continue being "invaded" by millions and millions of some of the most Catholic people on earth. Has their identification with the WASP identity of the 1776 Report reached such extremes that they would prefer to dump the Papacy and their own country as it is constituted just because of the OLD news that Biden is a silly liberal Catholic in the Kennedy tradition, and the Pope is a modernist? There's nothing earthshakingly new about this. We've seen leftists on the rampage in the past too. What's new is the WASPs setting off on their Great Trek. Should Catholics join them? The world goes on. Biden and Pope Francis will be gone soon. Think about Making Mexico Great Again.

  11. I believe based on the existing circumstantial evidence it is likely the election was stolen and Uncle Bad Touch biden is not the legitimate President. I don't want to hear from idiots who pushed Russian Collusion Delusion for four years telling me my belief is unreasonable. I think given the circumstantial evidence it is pretty reasonable. I wish I didn't think it was true. Granted it is harder to think we live in a country where a vast number of people are so stupid as to vote against their own interests by voting for Uncle Bad Touch's totalitarian regime which is in full on pro-censorship mode and blatant disregard for political norms and wishes to harm voters who voted against them. It is not impossible to think that but it is IMHO harder to believe Uncle Bad Touch really got more votes than Obummer. Thus that and for dozens of other reasons don't believe this election was fair.

    What I need going forward is assurances I am wrong and assurances that future elections will be fair and secure. Because out of the 75 million people who voted for Orange One (luv him BTW) about 80% or more think this election was stolen.

    That is an objective threat to the stability of our nation. Yer not gonna persuade me or my fellows with threats or name calling or rank hypocrisy and double standards and cancel culture. If anything we will be more entrenched in our belief. The Q nonsense are a fringe. They are only in front because the media made it that way. Last I checked all summer Q weirdos where not burning down cities and having news media call them "mostly peaceful". I am not sure how this mob invaded the Capital when ANTIFA and BLM where prevented from invading the Whitehouse? Somebody let this happen? That is not a conspiracy theory that is a valid suspicion. I hate conspiracy theories as they are for the weak minded. But I am all for suspicion.

    When the Demorats reach out to us Trump voters in a sincere effort to work with us I will give them a fair hearing. But demanding my total submission isn't reaching out. It is provocation. In a word "F-word Off!".

    I don't need to believe Trump is being helped by invisible alien Lizard people or Pence is a clone or Uncle Bad Touch is now really Trump in a mask (or whatever the Q weirds tell themselves to keep them from suicide) to honestly believe this election was compromised big time by assholes taking advantage of the pandemic.

    I don't need to believe the Q weirdness is some great existential threat to our democracy since it is a fact they are not burning cities. ANTIFA and BLM are doing that and did that during the night of the Inauguration. I do believe somebody let the crowd in. It wasn't the Orange One. He had nothing to gain from this riot. The capital police are controlled by a leftist Mayor who refused to help the President when the Whitehouse was almost invaded. A mayor who refused National Guard help before the Orange One's rally. Yeh that looks suspicious. One need not postulate secret Alien lizard people to think that might be true.

    Anyway I reject Q weirdness and I believe it likely the election was stole. Even if I didn't believe the later the fact remains the people in power now hate the 1st amendment and support censorship and poliicial and social repression. American is falling into darkness. God help our nation.

    There that is my rant for the day.

    PS I mean it the Russian Collision Delusion crowd and "f-word" off I won't hear you.

    1. Well, Son of Yaky,
      Trump couldn't get his own appointed judges, including those on the Supreme Court, to rule the election was stolen. Even Barr said it wasn't stolen. But live on in your delusion.

    2. Hey Yakey, you are Willie from The Simpsons after all!

    3. Frankly, we don't care what you think or what you say you need. And you are so removed from reality we have no intention of attempting to work with you. The world doesn't revolve around you. You're about to learn this the hard way.

    4. @Unknown

      Stop kissing up you flatterer you.


      So what? Muller's report said they couldn't prove Russian collusion and then they had to make up something else to impeach him. Yet Hillary and Pelosi are still banging on about it? Best get then their meds.


      Frankly, we don't care what you think or what you say you need either. And you are so removed from reality & filled with double standards and hypocrisy I have no intention of attempting to work with you or yours either. The world doesn't revolve around you hypocrite. You're about to learn this the hard way as well.

      Well that wasn't hard.

    5. Fine then. We have the luxury of not having to care what your attitudes are. We have the power to marginalize you and will do so. And we will take you no more seriously than moon landing deniers or anti-vaxxers. Good luck with that.

    6. Ya still here ya daft pearl clutching hypocrite?

      >We have the power to marginalize you and will do so.

      There are 75 million of us. Go for it. You just proved the left are totalitarians and violent. Just like yer buddies in ANTIFA and BLM.

      You proved yer the ones full of hate. That is what ye are and that is all ye are I am afraid.

    7. This Son of Yakov dude seems a real lune.

  12. I very much doubt that the people who vandalized the Capitol on 1/6 were QAnon believers, for two reasons.

    1) One part of QAnon's fantasy was a counter-conspiracy in the US military who were going to prevent Biden's inauguration, on the grounds that he's a foreign agent, and take power until honest elections could be held. Now, if you believed that, why would you try to frighten Congress as it was counting the electoral votes? You'd be expecting the Army to do it for you.

    2) The one person in the Capitol whom I know was actually inciting people to riot there (as opposed to just walking in to see the place) was John Sullivan, who certainly is not a Trump supporter. In fact, he's a Black Lives Matter member, and under indictment for inciting a riot at a BLM protest. That makes it more likely than not that all the criminal actions that day weren't done by anyone on the Right, but by people like Sullivan.

    Similarly, one need not believe QAnon to believe that Trump was defrauded in Georgia, observe that the Senate runoffs were being conducted exactly as the presidential election was, and conclude that the runoffs would be fraudulent as well.

    So, granting that QAnon's was a paranoid fantasy, it can't be shown that it had any significant effect on the Right's behavior in 2020. There's no comparison to the grip that critical race theory has on the Democratic Party - which is pervasive, and has already led many elected officials to abandon their plain duty to the public to keep order.

    1. The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. It was a mix of fringe Trump supporters, Q weirdos, and Antifa/BLM infiltrators and some random types who went there for the Luz.

      OTOH some investigations claim this attack was planed months ago by some fringe Militias in which case cannot blame Trump if this was already in the works independent of him...just saying.;-)

      Cheer bro.

    2. Indeed. Q is a fringe movement that is popular with some Boomer-era right-wingers, and is pretty unknown outside of that (barring left-wingers hyperventilating about it).

    3. Cantus,

      Since there is at least one QAnon member of Congress, your attempts to diminish their prevalence seem contrary to fact.

    4. When you think about it, how much difference is there really between the fantasies of QAnon and the people who think they are actually fighting real Nazis/Fascists; or the people that spent 4 years on unhinged conspiracy theories that Trump was a Russian asset; or the people that think biology and sex don't exist--and those wackos have PhDs, M.D.s, and the majority of the government. Yeah, plenty of crackpots to go around.

    5. Well, when you think of it, how much difference is there really between the QAnon crackpots and the people who think they are actually fighting real fascists; or the people who spent 4 years on unhinged conspiracy theories that Trump was a Russian asset; or the people who think that biology and sex don’t exist? And those people have Ph.D.s, M.D.s, and the majority of the government. Yeah, plenty of crackpots to go around.

    6. T N,
      When you think about it, how much difference is there really between the fantasies of QAnon and the people who think they are actually fighting real Nazis/

      Which is absurd, of course.


      While Trump had fascist tendencies, full-blown fascism is an exaggeration.

      or the people that spent 4 years on unhinged conspiracy theories that Trump was a Russian asset;

      Certainly, "asset" goes to far.

      or the people that think biology and sex don't exist--and those wackos have PhDs, M.D.s, and the majority of the government.

      No such people exist with any level of prominence. Disagreeing with your ignorance regarding the complexities of biology and sex is not denial thereof of the reality.

      Yeah, plenty of crackpots to go around.

      The sun rises, the sun sets.

  13. Very good essay overall, but I don't think all of this can be explained by disordered passions. There's what Thomists would call the "wound of ignorance": the fact that our intellects themselves don't work like they should, not just that they are led astray by emotion. Moderns would call this the unwillingness to critically examine prior beliefs and assumptions.

    1. Agreed - And I think Ed would also concure. Catholic, in particular, are more hopeful about the possibility of the human intellect to extricate itself from error, although grace is needed to fully rise above our human condition.

      The problem is the intellect needs to see the human condition as it really is. And a truly honest analysis of the human condition reveals what the church has been teaching for milenia - original sin. That is a difficult pill to swallow.

      We, as a race, have developed some really bad ways to cope with this reality. Scape goating is one way. Sometimes this tendency gets so bad in various cultures, that it leads to a whole sale demonization of specific groups, against all reason or intellectual counter evidence, or based on merely circumstantial evidence, as De Mattei says.

      But I think it would be a mistake to through narrative thinking out the window whole sale. In fact, I think narrative is the primary way in which we find our identity. That, in my opinion, is why God chose to reveal himself in human history, though the family history of Abraham and Sarah and their decendants, culminating in Jesus. That narrative is the vehicle by which we conveys to us those truths he wants to impart.

      More thoughts in a bit.

  14. How do I know that I am not following mere phantasm, passion, and narrative when I am reading Dr Feser's Scholastic Metaphysics, etc? How do I know when I have rationally grasped a proof, rather than acceding to it for illusory reasons accompanies by my false sense that I have been convinced on solely intellectual grounds? (I know this opens up huge theological rifts, but I am asking what Ed would recommend from a practical standpoint for lay readers to avoid this from happening. What if my catholic beliefs are a result of this image-passion-narrative delusionary process?)

    1. What IF they are? Are you joking?

  15. On the subject of conspiracy theories I would like to mention a theory which is a favourite among Catholics, namely the Freemasons. I have always had a problem with the Freemasonic conspiracy theory. If the Masons are secret then how do we know about them? And if we know about them, how are they secret? A good book to read would be 'The Craft' by John Dickie 978-1473658196 (Aug 2020).
    This book draws a reasonable picture of Freemasonry as a social movement entirely explicable in ordinary sociological and psychological terms including the fact that it has split up over time into several distinct organisations and that its theoretical underpinning (and imagery) is inconsistent and expedient.
    As the author points out, a Masonic Hall is typically a conspicuous building near the town centre with the words 'Masonic Hall' not just painted across the front, but engraved. Not exactly the sinister occult cabal with paranormal influence of Catholic discourse. I am open to having my mind changed by evidence of sufficient quality but I am sorry to say that in the Catholic circles in which I move, it is considered heresy to question the powerful evil influence of the masonic conspiracy.

    1. Hank,

      Today it's basically a beer drinking club. A few hundred years ago, those concerns were more relevant. People like Taylor Marshall make more out of it than it is.

    2. I don't believe in Freemason conspiracy theories. It might have been a thing centuries ago to a lesser degree but it is not a thing now. The few Freemasons I met are stogy old types who wear a ring and have a few secret rituals and raise money for charity and have a bar at their club house.

      Basically just Knight of Columbus but with dozens of more degrees than a mere four.


    3. Surely it's obvious the main problem the Church has with freemasonry is its doctrines. These are not a secret.

      The lodges were essentially clubs for the promotion of Enlightenment notions, and counter-Enlightenment ideas of the romanticist-conservative type. Processes like the French revolution and its conservative "antidote" mirrored what was going on in the lodges. Edmund Burke is a good exponent of Scottish rite masonry, as de Maistre was of the Lyonais circle of Martinists, to whose ideas he was faithful till the end. He only reproached them for not trusting the Church hierarchy as a vehicle for their ideas. But they were more perceptive on this point.

      Both the rationalist and romanticist masonic milieux shared the fundamental basis of the Enlightenment, which the Church has never accepted.

    4. Hank,

      The point is not whether the existence of the Freemasonry is a secret or not, but rather what they have planned and executed in secret.

      The KGB also had a name and address, but that did not make its secretive operations less sinister.

      That being said, Freemasonry is indeed no longer a problem and some Catholics do exaggerate the role of what is left of it.

  16. I think that for some Christians the problem with Freemasonry is that its underpinnings are deistic rather than theistic.

  17. Thank you for this useful post. I am given to narrative thinking, so I am resolved to be more vigilant against it in the future.

    Regarding the Q-Anon theory, I see some comments above suggesting it is believed in only by a small fringe. My experience is that it is quite normalized, especially among younger working class people. (I've seen WWG1WGA graffiti at work.) Even if all the details are not typically believed in or followed closely, the substantial points, that our elites are controlled through pedophilia blackmail videos and that Trump was hated by them because he was not, are close to "common knowledge" and taken as probably being close enough to the truth to be a good working theory.

    That the election was stolen from Trump, is considered beyond question.

    It is a little hard to hear you continue to characterize the protest at the capitol as "appalling". If, for example, that many people had been actually rioting, there would be much more damage. And if it had been an insurrection, the blood would be so thick in DC that the fog would be red. So, by and large, I conclude that it was neither of those things. But then it was just a protest. And what's so bad about a protest?

    What, exactly, should a large group of voters, who think that an election has been stolen from them, do, especially when it seems like the people responsible for investigating such matters are neglecting their duty? Not protest? Meekly submit forms according to regulations? Vote their way out?

    The widely-held perception, right or wrong, that our votes are not being fairly counted, is absolutely an existential threat to America. The ballot is supposed to be the ironclad protection against needing to use the bullet. The ballot is a national point of pride, and one of our primary exports to other nations. A perceived unfair election would cause civil unrest in any nation, and America is not supposed to be just "any nation" but an exemplar in this regard.

    All in all, I think the protesters at the capitol showed remarkable restraint. Criticizing unpopular things is easy enough, but what should they have done differently?

    1. It is a little hard to hear you continue to characterize the protest at the capitol as "appalling". If, for example, that many people had been actually rioting, there would be much more damage. And if it had been an insurrection, the blood would be so thick in DC that the fog would be red. So, by and large, I conclude that it was neither of those things. But then it was just a protest.

      There was a guy with zip ties intent on finding and cuffing representatives. The overall intention was to prevent the counting of the electoral votes. That it was undertaken incompetently does not prevent it from being an insurrection.

      What, exactly, should a large group of voters, who think that an election has been stolen from them, do, especially when it seems like the people responsible for investigating such matters are neglecting their duty? Not protest? Meekly submit forms according to regulations? Vote their way out?

      Provide actual evidence of fraud to the judiciary.

      However, I am curious about how "the people responsible for investigating such matters are neglecting their duty". Please describe a step the officials in Georgia should have taken that they did not.

      A perceived unfair election would cause civil unrest in any nation, and America is not supposed to be just "any nation" but an exemplar in this regard.

      Perhaps we should lay the blame at the feet of those creating a false perception?

    2. Protest is fine, storming the capitol and attacking officers not so much:

  18. Dear Professor Feser: With respect, I submit that thoughtful people with knowledgeable backgrounds who take conspiracy theory subjects like Q seriously, and without prejudice, deserve neither your contempt nor your condescension. Much of your analysis of conspiracy theory material is, quite ironically, Postmodern. And your persistent use of the Q-sters as your rhetorical whipping boy alienates people you might persuade better. I have some observations, critiques, and suggestions for improvement.

    First: people who carefully scrutinize and discuss conspiracy theories without prejudice are neither insane nor dangerous, as a rule. You academics lecture about us from behind your lecterns, but rarely talk with us, or submit to the scrutiny you give. Please stop talking about people you won’t allow to speak up in their own defense. That’s Gossip and Calumny, you know.

    Second: Ironically, you accept the Gnostic media Narrative on what Q was/is, and its alleged influence, and who “those people” are. Why? Do you have any objective reason to believe anything at all the media tells you about it, or any other conspiracy theory?

    Further: You have shared your thoughts and those of fellow academics on the psychology of conspiracy theorists. But anyone who psychoanalyzes can be psychoanalyzed in return. So let’s talk about the psychology of those who condescend to, badmouth, and shun others with terms like “lunatics” “nuts” “weirdness,” and “conspiracy theorists.”

    To do so fairly, we must start with terminology. Your essays critique “Conspiracy Theorists.” But what are you then? My first thought was "conspiracy denier," but that's too loaded. So, I propose "Conspiracy Disparager" as fair and objective, and will use it henceforth in my analysis and arguments.

    Now one factor common to most conspiracy disparagers is that they are either members of what Curtis Yarvin so poetically and usefully calls “the cathedral” or have aspirations of or pretensions towards membership.

    “The cathedral” is shorthand for “big media plus academia plus government.” An expansive definition includes large foundations & NGOs, Big 5 media & public figures, and our permanent government’s public and secret wings. It’s not a conspiracy–Yarvin rejects that–but rather an inter-institutional, self-reinforcing culture. (Authoritative explanation here:

    You by necessity have spent most of your life inside the cathedral. You mostly consult or use cathedral media, language, and presuppositions. These are tendencies that encourage conformity and conceit in all cathedral members/aspirants. So much so that, even as smart as you are, it took you decades to figure out that there had to be a God, and then to notice that materialists, naturalists, and postmodernists had taken over just about every part of academia, including your own. Though you now realize the Narratives the cathedral operates by are often shaky and unreliable, your conclusion seems to be that you should continue to affirm central cathedral Narratives anyway. (Cont’d...)

  19. (...finish) Statistically speaking, chances are high you have known, and certainly known of, more than one victim who made the mistake of challenging the cathedral and got ruined one way or another for it. That’s a pretty powerful psychological motivation to reject ideas and people out of hand, regardless of their validity. Would you agree, or am I unfair?

    Also: as a member of the cathedral, you seem not to have noticed that your analyses of "conspiracy theorists" is riddled with the presuppositions and Deconstructive methods you disparage, in two clear ways:

    A) Your sources are usually cathedral sources, while you simultaneously disparage the ubiquity of Gnostic circularity in that cathedral. You visibly accept a Narrative about what conspiracy theories are, and what conspiracy theorists are like, both in general and in specific, without talking much to the subjects of your analysis or allowing them to speak in their own defense.

    B) You have (correct me if I missed it) failed to provide a clear and robust definition of what a “conspiracy theory” is or even what a “Qanon follower” is. You merely assumed it was bad and wrong, and proceeded from there to Deconstruct and Psychoanalyze.

    I submit you have to date, in all your essays, failed to produce a meaningful definition of “conspiracy theory” because of both A and B. I can think of no C. Can you?

    As proof an objective take is possible, I propose a definition of “conspiracy theory” that can be used robustly and in virtually any context, and will fit most of what we see printed from the cathedral on the matter:

    Conspiracy Theory (Noun):
    1: An analysis and interpretation of an event or series of events that posits multiple actors working in collusion to deceive others about an important matter as the primary causal factor.
    2: A pejorative term meant to dismiss the above type of theory without argument. (E.G., "The belief that Epstein didn’t kill himself is just a nutty conspiracy theory.")

    I submit that these definitions are fair to you and your cohorts if you use them on any essay you have written to date. If not, please provide better.

    In sum: your essays on conspiracy theories are demonstrably Postmodern. You have: 1) failed to adequately define your terms, 2) failed to use them consistently, 3) started with your conclusion that your opponent was wrong and proceeded as if you had already demonstrated it, 4) offered only psychoanalysis, deconstruction, and your own Narratives, 5) use sources that you often admit are untrustworthy, 6) your arguments can be used directly against you and your chosen peers, or, 7) turned on their heads and used against you and your chosen sources.

    If I am wrong, could you please make an essay in your series by answering these objections and critiques? Starting, please, with objection #1 and #2, which are the most important?

    I’ll end on this: I purposely wrote this to be punchy, in the spirit of polemics you publicly embrace. Also, with all due respect, you deserve it. FWIW, I was also an atheist for decades and turned Catholic in 2008. Through the Graces of Our Lady, in my case. I’m honestly glad you de-brainwashed yourself from the cathedral’s materialist/gnostic Narratives and found your way to the Logos. I pray you will accept the above as a bit of intellectual tough love.

    God bless you and Ave Maria!

    1. @Max: I admit I sympathize with some of the points you raise. At the same time, you've hardly got Feser by the short and curlies at this point. Fr Hunwicke wrote the following recently on his blog:

      [C.S.] Lewis gives to Jules an anecdote which is documented as true of the actual [H.G.] Wells:

      "'And as I said to the Archbishop, you may not know, my lord,', said I 'that modern research shows the temple at Jerusalem to have been about the size of an English village church.'"

      Noticing in passing that this peasant does not know how to address, either formally or informally, an Archbishop, we observe that he is a victim of the But-Modern-Research-shows mode of debunking the past; and, moreover, that he considers the architecturally small dimensions of the Jerusalem Temple somehow to undermine 'religion'. Brilliantly, Lewis subverts Jules/Wells ex ore Feverstone:

      "'God!' said Feverstone to himself where he stood silent on the Fringes of the group."

      A few minutes later, Jules observes:

      "The whole question of our sex-life. What I always say is, that once you get the whole thing out into the open, you don't have any more trouble. It's all this Victorian secrecy which does the harm. Making a mystery of it. I want every boy and girl in the country--"

      With elegant economy, Lewis ridicules this nonsense:

      "'God' said Feverstone to himself."

      In other words, we don't need Lewis or anybody else to explain what nonsense this is, when even a crook like Feverstone despises it.

      Now the problem is, of course, there are lots of 'crooks' who unlike Feverstone don't despise it (whatever the 'it' in question might be), and anyway, someone's despising something, or something's/someone's being despised (cf. Is 53:3), is obviously no sure criterion of its real worth (or rather worthlessness).

    2. I think Feser's analogy between certain forms of philosophical skepticism and certain conspiracy theories is interesting but probably pretty weak. He provides a summary narrative about why they are both self-undermining, but the narrative is arguably at the level of the imagination and rooted in the passions. IOW, "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." And if that is so, then as Feser's anti-skepticism and anti-conspiracy-theory narrative unfolds it might just as well undermine itself, if it's not very careful. (I certainly couldn't blame an intelligent conspiracy theorist for thinking that it's merely question-begging and self-undermining.)

      And indeed, it would be foolishness to hold historical and practical reasoning (in the domain of contingent things) to the standards of demonstrative science (omnis scientia de necessariis est). This is a rather fundamental Aristotelian/Thomistic/et-alia-istic point which would seem to undermine the whole critique of conspiracy theories as being rooted in "narrative thinking."

  20. How's this for a non-theoretical conspiracy narrative?

  21. Hello Edward,

    Thank you for this. I wrote about this some time ago. You may find this piece interesting:

    "Within this eschatological view of politics, truth claims are no longer approached as facts to be adjudicated by applying old-fashioned rules of logic and evidence, but rather as tests of loyalty – spiritual loyalty. This produces, in the end, a kind of intellectual and spiritual blackmail: i.e. if you doubt or even question this specific truth claim, it must because you are not, in the end, a very good Christian.

    A logician or epistemologist would point out that intellectual humility demands that we admit that we do not know, with anything like certitude, that there was enough fraud to overturn the election result. It’s logically possible that there was, of course. However, the evidence we have is just too scattershot, much of it is weak, some of it is clearly false, and even the best of it has not yet been sufficiently scrutinized or tested under courtroom conditions. As such, there’s a lot of room for debate about just how to move forward.

    The true believer, however, will insist that we can have moral certitude, because the left has shown that they are evil, the “children of darkness,” and will stop at nothing. Trump, on the other hand, is fighting on behalf of the “children of light,” and God has willed his victory.

    Given this, there’s not really any need to scrutinize the evidence, or to be troubled when this or that fraud claim falls apart (as too many of them have) or when even Trump’s own judicial appointees dismiss his lawsuits with scathing denunciations.

    “Have faith,” Trumpists urge the wavering. To lose faith is to be a Doubting Thomas. And nobody wants to be a Doubting Thomas."

  22. These conspiracy theory narratives are but counter-narratives to posit a different reality from the constant, ubiquitous narratives that the powers-that-shouldn't-be trumpet to us continually from the steeples and minarets of the mass media they own. Without them, we would have no defense at all against these powerful mental prisons being woven around us in every moment. So, thank goodness they exist. These counter-narratives should not be taken as Truth but they can grant us a foothold to begin the process of doubting the "official" narratives which are, of course, merely narratives created by officials to protect officials.