Spinoza on the Essence of Conspiracies

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Came across this in the first part of Spinoza’s Ethics .   Somehow, he anticipated the nature of conspiracy theories by centuries. Ooops, they have always been with us. Instead, he is the earliest of which I know who laid bare the nature of their non-thinking arguments. “Reduction to ingnorance,” I like that.   In this passage, he was refuting the notion that everything that happens, happens for a reason, or an end, similar to the reasons or ends that humans would imagine.   That is, things don’t “just happen,” there is always a reason explaining them.   This is how conspiracy theories work:

Why weren’t those telephone calls from cell phones on the record..?” [Taken from the website Petition to Investigate 9/11.]

It couldn’t just be an error, or system foul-up out of all the thousands from that building that day…if, in fact, the report that they are missing is correct in the first place.   It must be because…And how do you explain the fact that the impact happened on a beautiful day when visibility was so great..? JFK was killed by several people – must be so – one person couldn’t have done it, and there are those reports of…

And so, Spinoza (my italics):

We must not omit to notice that the followers of this doctrine, anxious to display their talent in assigning final causes, have imported a new method of argument in proof of their theory–namely, a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance; thus showing that they have no other method of exhibiting their doctrine. For example, if a stone falls from a roof onto someone’s head, and kills him, they will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God’s will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance?  Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. [Here, Spinoza perfectly captures that knowing tone of the conspiracy theorist…] “But why,” they will insist, “was the wind blowing, and why was the man at that very time walking that way?”  If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather being previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist:  “But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?”  So they will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God–in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance.

Pynchon addressed this tendency of people to try and make sense of the world by creating nonsense because they can’t accept the non-sense of the world in Gravity’s Rainbow. It was all due to the Mother Conspiracy.  Mom’s are to blame for everything.  Or you can fret about the ultimate conspiracy, God.

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5 Responses to Spinoza on the Essence of Conspiracies

  1. kvond says:

    Spinoza did of course wear a ring with the word “caute” on it “be careful”. And he was observant enough to not sign his name to his Theologico-Political Treatise during the time of great political strife and intrege, nor to publish it in common language Dutch which surely would have brought his arrest. Ignorance for Spinoza does cut too ways. We must not fill in the gaps with all kinds of imaginary projections, but too, we must tread carefully in our relative darkness.

  2. What a great post!

    I often have this thought when people go on about some amazing coincidence — like meeting a friend from home in a foreign city : ‘these things happen for a reason‘ they say.

    But I think we should all be more forgiving to e.g. victims of the Monte Carlo fallacy. We have as a species evolved with a tendency to perceive patterns in series of events, and such a faculty is generally more useful than not.

    • lichanos says:

      Agree that from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense. But as you say, people don’t let it rest there. As I grow older, my view has become: Live long enough in one place and odd things happen. It’s happened too many times for me to be surprised anymore.

  3. On this point, try and look up a book called The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making by Scott Plous. Chapter 14 ‘The Perception of Randomness’ is just brilliant and the whole book is a model of clear writing.

    Back to Baruch or (as I prefer) Bento, I do like the way that in the passage you quote he effortlessly dissolves the Problem of Evil — no benevolent (or malicious) God, no problem.

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