This is the website/blog of Philosopher Stephen Law. Stephen is retired, formerly Reader in philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. He is editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK, and has published books including The Philosophy Gym, The Complete Philosophy Files, and Believing Bullshit.
For school talks/ media: stephenlaw4schools.blogspot.co.uk
Subscribe to this blog
Follow by Email
Search This Blog
Are some conspiracy theories true?
(From my latest book: What Am I Doing With My Life?)
Are Some Conspiracy Theories True?
Many people believe that the condensation
trails made by airliners are actual plumes of chemicals – 'chemtrails' –
created by secret government programme. Surprisingly large numbers believe the Moon
landings were faked by NASA and the US government. Many believe the destruction
of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was an 'inside job' by the US government and
involved a controlled demolition. Other popular conspiracy theories are that
2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was faked to promote gun control,
that the pharmaceutical industry has covered up the fact that some vaccinations
cause autism, that an alien spaceship crashed at Roswell and is currently
stored in a place called Area 51, and that the Kennedy assassination was a
conspiracy involving multiple shooters.
Why are we
drawn to conspiracy theories? Research suggests a combination of three things.
First, we want to understand how the
world works. Conspiracy theories offer us narratives that explain events in
an easy-to-understand way: powerful secret plotters are orchestrating them.
Second, we want to feel secure and in
control. Conspiracy theories often offer us fairly a simple recipe for
taking back control: we must overthrow those powerful secret plotters. Third,
conspiracy theories enhance our own
self-image: as a conspiracy theorist, you enter into a world of like-minded
insiders who see can how things really
are – unlike the poor, deluded saps on the outside.
To call a
belief a 'conspiracy theory' is often a way of dismissing it out of hand. The
'conspiracy theorist' is assumed to be paranoid and unhinged. Despite
their popularity, all the conspiracy theories outlined above are widely
considered to be nonsense.
'conspiracy theory' is used a various way. Some use 'conspiracy theory' so
that by definition a conspiracy theory is either false or at least not
well-supported by evidence. In the unlikely event that one of the above
theories was shown to be true, it would cease to be a 'conspiracy
theory'. Some use 'conspiracy theory' in an even more restricted way, so that
only theories that are completely cranky qualify.
others, myself included, say that what makes a theory a 'conspiracy theory' is
just its content, irrespective of how reasonable or unreasonable it might
happen to be. By a 'conspiracy theory', I mean a theory that posits a major
conspiracy – a secret plot by some influential body and group to do something
illegal, harmful or at least frowned upon – whether
or not the theory is true or well supported. So, on my use of the term, a
conspiracy theory could turn out to be both
reasonable and true (even if most aren't).
every now and then a conspiracy theory is shown to be true. For example, Watergate was a secret conspiracy within
the US Republican Party – including President Nixon – to bug Democrat offices
and later cover it up (this exciting story became the focus of a film called All The President's Men). Iran–Contra was a secret conspiracy by senior officials under Reagan
to sell arms to Iran, despite that being illegal, and then to use the profits
to fund the right-wing Contra rebel groups in Nicaragua. Again, this conspiracy
theory is true.
conspiracy theories are false and poorly supported. In fact, just a little
common sense can often reveal that a conspiracy theory is unlikely to be true.
example the theory that 9/11 was an inside job. The main evidence for this
theory is that various features of the event are supposedly otherwise difficult
to explain, such as the way the Twin Towers came down after the planes hit
them. They came straight down, just like in a controlled demolition. But now
consider how elaborate and huge the conspiracy would have to be. Many thousands
of people would need to be in on it, including the teams that placed the
explosives undetected inside the towers, the pilots who killed themselves (why
would they do that?), or, if the aircraft were remote controlled, the various
teams required on the ground, including at airports. The chances of such an
elaborate plot failing or being exposed by a slip up or someone spilling the
beans would be huge. If the aim of 9/11 was to legitimise going to war in Iraq
and Afghanistan, say, then why have the planes being flown by Saudis? But, perhaps
most problematic of all, why choose such
an extraordinarily risky and elaborate method of justifying going to war when
far, far simpler and less risky ways of achieving that same result were
available? While it's possible
9/11 was an inside job – just as it's possible
there are fairies at the bottom of the garden – the evidence in each case
points strongly against it.
while 9/11 probably wasn't an 'inside job', so-called 'false flag' operations
aren't entirely mythical. A 'false flag' operation involves mounting an attack
on yourself or your allies while disguised as the enemy. 9/11 conspiracy
theorists typically believe 9/11 was a false flag operation: a US attack on the
US disguised to look like an attack by foreigners.
the US military have planned such false flag attacks in the past. In the 1960s, the
US Joint Chiefs of Staff signed off a plot to commit hijackings and bombings
and plant misleading evidence that the attacks were mounted by Castro's Cuba.
Operation Northwoods, as it was known, was designed to justify a US invasion of
Cuba to change the regime. The attacks never took place, but, under a different
president, they might have done.
II began with a false flag operation. In 1939, before the German invasion of
Poland, Nazi soldiers and intelligence officers dressed in Polish military
uniforms carried out attacks against German targets, leaving behind dead
'Polish' soldiers who were actually concentration camp victims. These attacks
were then used by Hitler to justify his invasion.
conspiracy theories can turn out to
be true. One or two have turned out
to be true. Of course it's important we control our tendency to see conspiracies
everywhere – a tendency that in some folk has clearly run completely out of
control. But let's not forget that, occasionally, conspiracies happen.
What is Humanism? “Humanism” is a word that has had and continues to have a number of meanings. The focus here is on kind of atheistic world-view espoused by those who organize and campaign under that banner in the UK and abroad. We should acknowledge that there remain other uses of term. In one of the loosest senses of the expression, a “Humanist” is someone whose world-view gives special importance to human concerns, values and dignity. If that is what a Humanist is, then of course most of us qualify as Humanists, including many religious theists. But the fact remains that, around the world, those who organize under the label “Humanism” tend to sign up to a narrower, atheistic view. What does Humanism, understood in this narrower way, involve? The boundaries of the concept remain somewhat vague and ambiguous. However, most of those who organize under the banner of Humanism would accept the following minimal seven-point characterization of their world-view.
(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen
Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o