On Epistemic Black Holes. How Self-Sealing Belief Systems Develop and Evolve

Here are excerpts from a preprint of a 2023 philosophy paper:

* Here’s a sample of some extremely implausible and unfounded beliefs that are endorsed by many apparently sane and rational people even in the age of modern science: the Moon landing never happened but was staged in a Hollywood studio; extraterrestrial visitors have abducted people in their sleep and conducted sexual experiments on them; the 9/11 attacks were an inside job carried out by the Bush administration; all living creatures were created in their present form a couple of thousands years ago; the world is secretly run by a small clique of Satan-worshipping pedophiles (or by a super-race of extraterrestrial lizard beings); the vaccines against COVID-19 contain nano-tech microchips invented by Bill Gates in a plan for mind control and world domination; and the Earth is a flat disc surrounded by a wall of ice known as ‘Antarctica’.

* The analogy between belief systems and black holes was originally introduced by Stephen Law, who talked about “a bubble of belief that, while seductively easy to enter, can then be almost impossible to think your way out of again.”

* Epistemic black holes can also be regarded as special cases of ‘unfalsifiable’ theories…

* “conspiracy theories” refer to a class of unfounded and implausible theories that are held in the absence of good evidence. Examples include the belief that the moon landing was staged in a Hollywood studio, that 9/11 was an inside job perpetrated by the Bush administration, or that the Sandy Hook school shooting was staged with paid actors as part of a gun control campaign. It also includes broader conspiratorial worldviews that explain all or most historical events as resulting from the intentions of a small cadre of invisible actors, such as the Elders of Zion, the Rothschilds, or the Illuminati…

* If you postulate the existence of intelligent agents working behind the scenes to cover up the evidence for their existence, then you have some reason to expect an absence of evidence for your theory, and even the discovery of (false) counterevidence.

* according to Hannah Arendt, the story of a global Jewish conspiracy benefited from the built-in and self-sealing notion that, the “more consistently a discussion of the Jewish question was avoided by all parties and organs of public opinion,” the more believers became convinced that “Jews were the true representatives of the powers that be” …

* If the Protocols had been an authentic document and if the Elders of Zion as portrayed there really existed, we would expect them to dissimulate the evidence for their secret plans. And if the Jews really controlled all the other parties behind the scenes, we would expect those parties to remain suspiciously silent on (or dismissive of) the “Jewish question.” In the 1905 introduction to the Protocols, the reader is warned not to be fooled by the absence of witnesses to corroborate the reality of the organization and their evil plans. In fact, such an absence of evidence is exactly what we should expect: “were it possible to prove this world-wide conspiracy by means of letters or by declarations of witnesses, […] the “mysteries of iniquity,” would by this very fact, be violated. To prove itself, it has to remain unmolested till the day of its incarnation in the “son of perdition” […].”

* Even today, a full century after having been debunked, the Protocols are still being regularly reprinted, disseminated and discussed as an authentic document, now predominantly in the Islamic world, but also elsewhere.
A similar self-sealing logic can be observed with many other popular conspiracy theories. When the 9/11 Commission, set up by the U.S. Congress, published its final 585-page report in 2004, reviewing half a million documents and detailing the responsibility of Al Qaeda and the failures of U.S. intelligence agencies in excruciating detail, conspiracy theorists were hardly impressed. After all, if the U.S. government had itself staged the attack as a false flag operation, in order to create a pretext for invading Iraq and Afghanistan, we would expect them to fabricate a sham report full of false evidence and distortions.
An initially credible conspiracy hypothesis about a specific historical event (such as the murder of John F. Kennedy) may degenerate into an epistemic black hole when it ends up attributing superhuman powers and intelligence to some unseen conspirators working behind the scenes.

* …important strands within the world religions of Islam and Christianity conceive of God as secretly working behind the scenes, even covering up the evidence for his own existence. In the Bible, for instance, God is sometimes portrayed as deliberately hiding from human beings, as in this complaint from the Book of Isaiah: “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself” (Isaiah 45:15). Many Christians believe that, after creating the universe, God has (mostly) retreated from the world. This conception of God, which is known as deus absconditus or the problem of divine hiddenness (Schellenberg, 2006), is a recurring theme in the Christian tradition (Philipse, 2012, pp. 302-309). God seems to be not just invisible to the human senses—which is understandable given that he is immaterial and bodiless—but remains elusive even to those who actively seek him. Events that are apparently at odds with the notion of a hidden divine plan are often explained away by arguing that “God moves in mysterious ways”…

* Theologians and ordinary believers have developed different justifications for divine hiddenness, the most dominant of which is that it is a test of faith (Murray, 1993; Schellenberg, 2006). If God revealed himself for all the world to see, it would be too easy to believe in his existence. By keeping out of sight and leaving the evidence for his existence inconclusive or ambiguous, God can separate the unbelievers and doubters from those with true faith. Similar ideas can be found in the Quran, where God explains at some point that, though he generally supports the community of righteous believers in their fight against the infidels, he will not always grant them victory on the battlefield. Rather, he will allow for some occasional defeats and setbacks, in order to test the strength of their faith. A related response to the problem of divine hiddenness is that God wants to give us morally significant free will, and that revealing himself in any manifest way would take away that freedom (Swinburne, 2004). Whatever the rationale for divine hiddenness, what it comes down to is a form of divine deception (Nieminen, Boudry, Ryökäs, & Mustonen, 2017): God could clearly reveal himself to us, or at least leave evidence for his existence, but he decided to stay out of sight and even cover up his tracks.
In light of these features, a number of authors have recently pointed out the epistemological similarities between theism and conspiracy theories (Edis, 2019; Keeley, 2007). As these authors admit, however, monotheism cannot strictly speaking be regarded as a conspiracy theory because, by definition, God is a unified and single agent who has no-one to conspire with. Indeed, as Keeley (2007) has argued, God has “no need to conspire with anybody to bring about Providence according to His wishes” (Keeley, 2007, p. 140), because he is by definition all-powerful and all-knowing. Only fallible humans need to collaborate with others to carry out elaborate and complex forms of deception.

* Once you adopt the hypothesis that an invisible (omnipotent) supernatural being is covering up the evidence for his own existence, it might become very hard to reason your way out of such a belief system.

* Freudian psychoanalysis has the same self-sealing quality as popular conspiracy theories about history or the witchcraft belief system in early modern Europe, in which absence of evidence or apparent counterevidence could always be interpreted in the theory’s own terms. When Freud was unable to find traces of a pathological complex or unconscious desire to account for a patient’s behavior, he was undeterred and treated this as a token of unconscious resistance. Since the unconscious was motivated to hide and disguise its dark secrets, it was not surprising to find an apparent lack of evidence. According to the same logic of deception, apparent refutations of the theory could be explained away with equal ease. In his clinical practice, Freud worked on the assumption that his patients harbored a secret and unconscious desire to disprove his own explanations, so as to avoid having to confront their own repressed desires. If a patient dismissed his psychoanalytic interpretations of their symptoms or dreams, he interpreted this as evidence of “resistance” or “denial”, as predicted by the theory (Cioffi, 1998). If the patient ceded to Freud and accepted his latest explanation, of course this also counted in favor of the theory, namely as an instance of resistance overcome through therapeutic pressure.

* Because of their self-sealing character, epistemic black holes are extremely resilient against external challenges in the form of counterevidence or skeptical questions. This strong resilience, however, comes at a steep cost: the belief systems suffers from a problem of arbitrariness, in the sense that the available evidence is always congruent with many different versions, and there is no rational way to adjudicate between them.

* the conceptual core structure of psychoanalysis provides a sort of empty shell into which any number of rival theoretical notions can be inserted. In particular, while Freud’s original theory centered around the Oedipus complex and the notion of infantile sexual desires, later theorists have developed the theory in widely divergent (and often incompatible) directions. Otto Rank’s version of psychoanalysis reduces virtually every psychological complex to the repressed birth trauma, Alfred Adler unearthed inferiority complexes everywhere, Melanie Klein introduced the notion of unconscious breast envy as a counterweight to penis envy, Carl Jung developed the theory of unconscious archetypes (anima, persona, shadow), and so forth (Macmillan, 1997).
In the absence of any evidential constraints for fixing the parameters of conspiracy explanations, the psychoanalytic movement has often been beset by irresolvable theoretical disputes and schisms. In the words of Frederick Crews (1998, p. xxx), the epistemological structure of psychoanalysis renders the development of the psychoanalytic movement “drastically centrifugal, spinning off ever more numerous, mutually excommunicating schools and cliques” (see also Gordin, 2012, p. 202).

* In the aftermath of the Second World War, however, Jews abruptly disappear from conspiracist literature (with the notable exception of Soviet Russia under Stalin). This had nothing to do with novel evidence, but with the almost universal abhorrence of Nazism. Most conspiracy theorists, even the ones who had promoted antisemitic conspiracies before the war, started to abandon or downplay the Jewish element and settled for other suitable culprits such as the CIA or FBI, a choice that reflected the ascent of the United States as the new global superpower. Other favorite targets became the United Nations and the Bilderberg group, a transnational organization of political leaders and other elites which holds annual conferences since 1954 and which, owing to its notorious privacy and secrecy, was an ideal target for conspiracy theorists. In short, this shift from Jews to other perpetrators did not reflect any novel evidence, but was driven by “changing social and political circumstances” (Byford, 2011, p. 97).

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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