There’s an old friend of mine with whom I spent many pleasant hours debating conspiracy theories over the last few years. I’ve mentioned him before, though never by name — he doesn’t talk to me anymore for some reason, so I have to play out some of the lines of debate without his input. I know, that’s not fair, but I’m not doing this to triumph in a debate, just to think through some of the interesting questions that were sparked by our conversation, for as long as they keep my interest.
My friend always started out a debate (and he was normally the one to get them started) with the assumption that he was right, was reasonable, and had the truth on his side, and that he could prove it.
The evidence always turned out to be of very poor quality, or to be employed in a way that showed lack of understanding of the evidence, as far as I could tell. I would walk him through it, explaining why this seemed to be the case. (And I’m pretty sure this wasn’t me being nitpicky — he really only had terrible evidence and bad arguments, which he even seemed tacitly to admit after each discussion, as we’ll see.)
It was endless, and however often he convinced me to be patient and give him another chance, it turned out that again his prize argument fell to pieces at a touch. It was amazing to me, not only that no matter how hard he tried or how many attempts he made he could come up with not a single good argument, but even more so that as this played out over months of discussion, the complete lack of proof, for convictions he was absolutely sure he would have no difficulty proving, bothered him not at all. It did not lessen his confidence in his conclusions by one iota.
This inexhaustible self-certainty took on two different forms. First and most obviously, at the beginning of every new conversation he believed once again that he could absolutely prove what he was claiming as true, past experience apparently completely forgotten or disregarded. No matter how many times he faceplanted, he would start over again with nothing but utter self-confidence. To me, that alone is simply marvellous.
But the other aspect was most visible at the end of each conversation, after his shiniest new piece of evidence had turned out again to be the most foolish of fool’s gold. He wouldn’t ever explicitly admit that the argument was bad, though sometimes he would admit it by implication (“how was I supposed to know that that quote in the picture came from a ten year old article that was completely unrelated to Covid?”).
But once he had clearly lost the day, he switched to full-on attack mode, as predictable as a coo-coo clock. Well sure, this argument is based on faulty premises, but so are all the counterarguments! Sure, my position evidently appears to be built on a tower of irrationalities, but you’ll never convince me that it’s the slightest bit worse than any conceivable alternative! I’ve got my evidence and you’ve got yours, I’ve got my anecdotes and you’ve got yours, I’ve got my narrative and you’ve got yours, I’ve got my media and you’ve got yours, I’ve got my scientists and you’ve got yours, and who could ever possibly know which side is right? He would manage to convince himself, in the blink of an eye, that everybody everywhere always is every bit as irrational as he was then, and that he’s not doing anything wrong or unusual, nothing but what is absolutely necessary, in thinking so unreasonably.
I believe it was CS Lewis who said once, in a very different context, that if you have to sacrifice rationality itself in order for your argument to succeed, then at the very least you can’t claim to have won the argument reasonably.
Where I differ with my friend is that while I’m also happy to admit that we’re both probably too ignorant to defend our views with any real depth, I don’t fatalistically accept that as the end of the story. From his view, if he’s irrational then that can only possibly mean that everyone else must be even more irrational. Any other possibility was straightforwardly inconceivable. This was simply one more way for him to avoid allowing any sliver of doubt or hesitation to interfere with the certainty that he had to profess so loudly and fervently. If he allowed any possibility that he could be wrong, then the moral certitude that came with his conspiracy theories would be flipped back around on himself, as he well knew.
His picture of the world, in the end, was a map of many different communities, each one trapped in its own little intellectual bubble, unable to escape, all without any real access to the truth. When he discovers, in those moments, that underneath it all that is what he really believes about the world, and in the moment before he’s managed to forget and pretend to himself once again that he really does believe in truth, which always happens to coincide with whatever he wants to believe — in those moments, he must think of himself as a grim, clear-eyed realist. It’s an ugly universe, but doubtless only someone as strong as I am could possibly recognize it for what it is.
But we can never throw up our hands and claim at all intelligently that it’s impossible ever to have any access to the truth. If you find yourself in that situation, you’ve made a terribly wrong turn somewhere. It’s possible to admit “I haven’t ever yet found a way of accessing the truth,” which is really all a person is ever actually claiming when they think they’re making the former claim. It’s possible to assert “I’ve never met anyone else who had access to the truth as far as I know,” which might just mean that you met someone who did but you weren’t yet able to understand when they tried to explain it to you.
But whatever we might claim, there is always a possibility of truth. There’s always a hope for truth. Any people who deny this have not actually seen the grim (or joyous) reality, as they’ll try to claim to anyone who will listen, but have only been the victim of a most pitiable self-delusion for which there can never be a rational ground.