Conspiracy theories postulate (1) causal explanations of (2) historical events in terms of (3) intentional states of multiple agents (the conspirators) who, among other things, (4) intended the historical events in question to occur and (5) keep their intentions and actions secret. Each of the five elements of the definition of conspiracy theories gives rise to distinct problems for the believability of any given conspiracy theory. Iâ€™m especially interested here in problems arising in connection with the last three elements of the definition.
To set the stage for the problems that the third, fourth, and fifth elements raise for conspiracy theories as explanations, Iâ€™d like to briefly review points that can be raised against folk psychologyâ€™s usefulness for predictions.
I assume here a symmetrical relationship between prediction and explanation whereby whatâ€™s cited in the explanation of an event that has already occurred can just as well have served to predict the event prior to its occurrence and vice versa. Thus, whatever skepticism may be raised about the predictive power of folk psychology has a basis that can also be a basis for skepticism about the explanatory power of folk psychology.
Morton (1996) raises various problems for the view that the function of folk psychology is to serve as a predictive device. Part of his case concerns two features of intentional states that make them especially ill-suited as bases for the prediction of human behavior. Morton discusses these features under the labels of â€œholismâ€? and â€œentanglementâ€?.
Mortonâ€™s worry about holism is that if one were to predict an action of an agent in terms of beliefs and desires, one cannot do it in terms of a single belief-desire pair but must instead advert to whole systems of belief and desire. Thus, to adapt an example of Mortonâ€™s, a prediction that a person will leave the building through the front door cannot be based simply on an attribution to her of a desire to leave and a belief that the front door is the only exit, since one must also rule out the possibility that, for example, she believes the front door to be connected to a trigger for a bomb.
We see that things are even more complicated when we consider what Morton calls â€œentanglement,â€? namely, the fact that so many of our intentional states are about the intentional states of others.
Given the relationship between prediction and explanation, holism and entanglement raise problems for intentional explanation as well as for intentional prediction. If someone does leave the building, explaining her leaving in terms of her having a desire to leave will require attributing a whole host of other desires as well as beliefs. And if she leaves the building with friends, entanglement requires us to cite the many beliefs and desires of each of her friends, many of which will be beliefs and desires about the beliefs and desires of the other friends (not to mention people outside of the circle of friends).
Due to the holism of intentional explanation, even when a single agent is involved, the attribution of a single belief-desire pair will be consistent with a wide range of competing intentional explanations that differ with respect to what other beliefs and desires are attributed. Any given attribution of a belief-desire pair is thus highly likely to simply be post hoc. We already know that the event happened, and distinct competing intentional explanations may seem equally plausible with no real basis for choosing between them. Things certainly get no easier when multiple agents and the concomitant occasions for entanglement are thrown into the mix. Further, due to holism and entanglement, for any belief-desire pair attributed, there are equally plausible explanations that donâ€™t attribute that belief-desire pair.
In ordinary cases of intentional explanation, one sort of thing that can sometimes be appealed to for the elimination of alternate hypotheses is the testimony of agents whose actions are the explananda. We can gain support for various hypotheses concerning what the agents were thinking by asking them what they were thinking. Of course, the utility of such testimony depends largely on a presupposition of veracity. And thus does the fifth element of the definition of conspriracy theory present its special problem, since the aforementioned supposition of truthful testimony is completely out of place when the agents in question are hypothesized to be engaged in various acts of deception.