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It turns out one of my favorite philosophers has some real insights on conspiracies. (It’s weird and awesome because he never actually talks about them!) In my last post, I explored William James’ observations on how we sometimes have to choose between (1) believing something that might be true but isn’t confirmed yet, thereby taking a risk of believing an error, and (2) not believing it, thereby avoiding any risk of error but instead taking a risk of missing out on that possible truth.
Although James is talking about the choice whether to have religious beliefs when the evidence has not yet cleared up the matter, this is also a good description of our choice of what to do with various theories about what’s going on in the world. There may be some truth to some of the detailed claims about the evils of the people running the world, or at least some truth to some related claims, for example that they’re even more evil or more organized than we yet know. We can believe some or all of those claims, perhaps being in error, or not believe them, perhaps missing out on some truth.
But that was just the first piece of advice, and there’s one more. We also have a responsibility to believe that those same jerks do not control everything, and that we have the ability to make things better.
There are some powerful jerks out there who are screwing up the world.
We do not know for certain that the jerks who are screwing up the world are so powerful that we cannot effectively resist their folly.
We have an obligation to strongly resist their destructive actions.
It is nigh impossible for many of us to strongly resist if we think we have no hope of making a real difference.
So the belief that we can make a real difference is one that may be true, and one we also need to believe.
That is justification enough for believing it.
But wait–there’s more!
If it’s true that we can make a real difference, how are we ever going to know without trying? But if we need to believe it in order even to try, then the only way to learn is to believe.
Some people think we shouldn’t believe anything we don’t have decisive evidence for. But some truths can only be tested by believing and acting. A rule that tells us we should only believe what we have decisive evidence for is a rule that will prevent us from ever knowing one of those truths. As James observes, “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.”
But wait–there’s still more!
It may very well be that whether we actually can make a real difference depends on whether we believe we can. It may be that we can only make a difference if we are sufficiently vigorous in our resistance of evil, and that our very belief that we can make a difference is what makes us sufficiently vigorous in our resistance of evil. This might be one of those situations where the facts depend on what we do, and what we do depends on what we choose to believe–like my belief that I can still finish a one-mile run in under seven minutes.
When this is how things stand–even when this is simply how things might stand–our responsibility is not solely to the evidence, which is not even fully there yet anyway. Our responsibility is also to this priority: Be good, and do whatever is in your power to make the world a better place.
The lesson for anyone worried about the jerks who have big plans to screw up the world (or shall we say to “Greatly Reset” it?) is this:
Do not despair. We still have it in our power to make some real difference by resisting their folly. Don’t doubt that power–you have a responsibility to believe in it! Doubt rather that the bad guys’ power is absolute!
William James’ insights are reasonable and edifying, and I am both delighted and entertained to find that they apply to conspiracy theories! However, he was originally talking about the rationality of religious belief. I introduce his work in videos like these two below, from his talks “The Will To Believe” and “The Sentiment of Rationality.” (Also on Rumble.)