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Conspiracy theories as a response to uncertainty


Interview with Tomas Sodeika


The uncertainty has escalated significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, compounded by the heightened threat of war expansion. Concurrently, we observe the proliferation of conspiracy theories in sub-societies on social media. Additionally, there are emerging efforts to understand and address the phenomenon of contemporary conspiracy theories. At this juncture, I am pleased to address Tomas Sodeika, who is not only a professor in the Department of Science and Theoretical Philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy of Vilnius University, but also trains psychotherapists at the Institute of Humanistic and Existential Psychotherapy and practices philosophical counselling himself.

Goda Tikniūtė: What do you think is the role of uncertainty in developing of conspiracy theories?

Tomas Sodeika: All human life hangs in uncertainty, as we can never know for sure why we were born into this world or why we were born to those particular parents at that particular time. Another critical question is the end of our life, and its unpredictability makes our life uncontrollable and unplannable. What we can do here is only accept our radical uncertainty, which is an uncomfortable state when a human being feels bad and tries to do something about it. They attempt to find an explanation for the uncomfortable reality. They are trying to find an explanation for an inconvenient reality. This process resembles the type of rationalisation that some psychoanalysts describe as a defence mechanism.

From this perspective, all narratives, including science, are nothing but attempts to decrease this uncertainty. This is the goal of conspiracy theory, too. The aim of psychoanalysis, in this case, is to decode the genesis of trauma that triggered this rationalisation as a defence mechanism.

Rationalising narratives vary in their relatedness to reality. Similar to defence mechanisms that can be categorised as neurotic, borderline, or psychotic, they likely form a continuum. The extreme expression of a narrative detaching from reality is delusion, and conspiracy theory comes quite close to it, doesn't it?

Although conspiracy theory often appears like delusion, it is actually an endeavour to alleviate the pain derived from uncertainty by creating a rational, structured narrative. Conspiracy theories are based on the idea of some secret activity by a single person or a group of people, and its secrecy fosters an intrigue of disclosure. In this way, conspiracy theories localise evil somewhere else.

For example, in the COVID narrative; in the face of pandemic, we all became vulnerable and helpless. Uncertainty increased enormously, leading us to seek an anaesthetic, a palliative interpretation. Palliative, as in explaining that the virus was created by Chinese scientists, doesn't make the virus less dangerous; it just decreases anxiety by localising evil, spotting the guilty, allowing the observer to perceive more control over the situation.

The difference between conspiracy theory and delusion is that delusional thinking isolates a person because their beliefs are so bizarre that hardly anyone could relate to them. In contrast, conspiracy theories are kind of contagious. Communication reinforces the belief in conspiracy theory, and the induction phenomenon is enhanced by virtual reality sub-societies in social media - echo chambers, social bubbles.

In the face of pandemic, we all became vulnerable and helpless. Uncertainty increased enormously, leading us to seek an anaesthetic, a palliative interpretation. Image by Wix AI.
In the face of pandemic, we all became vulnerable and helpless. Uncertainty increased enormously, leading us to seek an anaesthetic, a palliative interpretation. Image by Wix AI.

So how can we tell if interpretation is trustworthy?

Problematic aspect of conspiracy theory is that there are no arguments or criteria that would help us identify it as a misinterpretation or a trustworthy interpretation. Likewise, any fair interpretation can be disqualified by labelling it as a conspiracy theory. The only way out of this situation would be to develop something we could call good taste. I suppose it's something you feel when you listen to some delusional interpretation in your psychiatrist's practice - the feeling of whether it's trustworthy or not. All the warranties available to us are illusory from a philosophical point of view, which complicates the lives of psychiatrists and psychotherapists. There are more success warranties in algorithms developed in other areas of medicine. From a philosophical perspective, all warranties are illusory. Uncertainty becomes even more crucial here - it is up to you to decide whether the interpretational narrative is trustworthy or a conspiracy theory, as there is no such algorithm. Psychiatry and psychotherapy are in a much more complicated position than natural sciences, where the scientist is an observer, and the object is on the scene. Rationalisation efforts are similar to the effort to be in the position of an observer. The position of an observer excludes any dangers. Theatre nowadays is being modernised by erasing the boundary between observer and actor - the action of the play is being transferred to the auditorium. So, there is no safe place in the auditorium anymore, and this applies to the fields of psychiatry and psychotherapy as well. Mental health specialists are themselves the subjects of evaluation.

Conspiracy theories cannot be discussed separately from World War II antisemitic propaganda, which, together with other factors, led to the hatred and dehumanisation of Jewish people and the emergence of the Holocaust. Can you see any threats to our society emerging from contemporary conspiracy theories? Can such potential threats be mitigated, as we cannot substantially decrease the level of uncertainty? What could be the antidote to this poison? What could we as mental health specialists do for this sake?

It seems to me that the threats posed by modern conspiracy theories are primarily due to the fact that the persuasiveness of the content of these theories is enhanced by modern communication media. The basis of this persuasiveness is not so much a logical necessity, but rather a necessity analogous to the necessity we are dealing with in the field of aesthetic experience. his means that the persuasiveness of a theory does not depend so much on its empirical grounding or on the quality of its logical arguments, but rather on a matter of taste. And taste, in this case, depends on what we usually call "fashion". Of course, fashion cannot be controlled in any way. However, as practice shows, it is possible to cultivate or correct taste within certain limits. It seems to me that it is this paradigm of cultivation or correction that could guide the efforts of mental health specialists to respond to the threats posed by contemporary conspiracy theories.

Thank you for the conversation!


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