Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On Conspiracy Theories

A few days ago, a Facebook friend posted a video which calls into question the events surrounding the Sandy Hook School shooting.  I watched it, and decided the subject was best left alone.  I wasn't going to talk about it, blog about it, or reference it in any conversation on my part.

Then a congregation member saw the video and pointedly asked me if I had seen it, if I would watch it, and what my thoughts were.

Perhaps this response is a bit chicken-$*!#.  I mean, I could jump right out there and say that such conspiracy theories are invented by crazy people who have too much time.  I could go the other direction and say that such a thing wouldn't surprise me in the least as governments and people love power and will do anything to get it.  But perhaps another direction should be taken.  Perhaps one should seek understanding before jumping to conclusions.

William of Occam gave a tremendous gift to philosophy and science when he penned the tenet which has now become known as Occam's Razor.  For the purposes of this blog post, I will state it as such:

All things considered, the simplest explanation is the best explanation.

Case in point: I walk into my office one morning to find the light is on.  No one else is in the office.  I was the last person out the night before.  I don't remember turning the light off.  The simplest explanation is that I forgot to turn out the lights. 

Of course, I could assume and believe that someone came in the middle of the afternoon or night and turned the light on to confuse me.  I could try to build a case for such an ordeal.  I could interview anyone and everyone who has keys to the office and see if they turned on the light.  I could try to find out if someone broke in and turned the light on.  But in each of these cases, I am having to answer a whole lot of extraneous questions and do a whole lot of extra work when the simplest answer is probably the best answer. 

If a particular theory or understanding of events leads to a lot more questions that have to be answered instead of leading to a satisfactory answer, go with a simpler theory.  That's Occam's Razor in a nut-shell, and an important principle to try to understand the world by. 

Therefore, the next question is: does Occam's Razor render all conspiracy theories mute?

In some ways; however, there is that little snippet that I purposely kept in the definition that some omit: All things considered. 

Here is where the problem lies.  Is it possible for us to consider all things? 

The answer, as I have come to see it is, no.  We cannot consider all things for oftentimes we are left without critical pieces of information.  And if the information is not there, our minds will fill in the blanks.

Perhaps you think I have gone off the deep end with that statement.  But rest assured, I haven't, and I can offer you proof that even you have a blind spot and that your mind fills in the blanks.  There is a simple experiment you can do that will show this.

It's called the Blind Spot Experiment.  Try it yourself. 

If you actually did the experiment, you will find two interesting things:

1. There are things right before your eyes that you cannot see.
2. Your brain fills in the blanks (if you did the test, you will notice the shapes disappeared and not the paper itself!)

The implications are exactly as I stated before.  We do not see everything.  We cannot consider everything, and our brains will fill in the blanks so that we come up with a cohesive picture.

Now, if we apply this knowledge to conspiracy theories, we begin to see an answer as to why they proliferate.

In the instance of the Sandy Hook School shooting, there are some things we can consider, and some things that we cannot consider that our brains will seek to piece together.

For instance:

1. We know that initial reports differed greatly from the final reports of the incident.  If you go to Youtube and watch some of the initial reports, you will see that the story changed drastically.  Our brains ask: why?

2. We were not privy to any images of dead children, body bags, blood, bullet holes, carnage, etc.  Because we didn't see it, we are relying upon those who did.  The ultimate question is: are the sources to be trusted?  The brain demands an answer.

3. The sources who tell us about what went on at Sandy Hook are generally government sources and media sources.  Again, all things considered, are these sources seen as reliable, or is there some doubt as to their veracity.  The brain wants an answer.

If no answers are forthcoming and blanks are left, the brain naturally fills them in.  It will take other pieces of connected and perhaps related information and plug them in to form a coherent story.  Even if that story has questions, if that story seems to offer a more satisfying, coherent picture, the brain will stick with that story.

It's the way our brains work, folks!  And much of it has to do with whether or not we trust our sources of information.

For those of you who are Christian, such is even the case with those who question the veracity of our central tenet: the resurrection of Jesus.  One of the main arguments brought against the truth of the resurrection is that Jesus' followers staged the resurrection as a conspiracy to keep Jesus' teachings alive as well as the movement started under His leadership. 

Of course, if you read enough (A good book is Gary Habermas/Michael Licona's The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus), you will see the conspiracy theorists raise more questions that must be dealt with thereby failing Occam's Razor.  However, even with Habermas' book and the case he makes, the real issue boils down to just how much you trust the sources of information.

It is very true that in our society and in this day and age, there is more than a bit of questioning about who one can trust for good information.  We know not all information is presented.  We know some information is intentionally kept from us.  We know our brains can't handle the amount of information that gets thrown at us on a daily basis.  We know some people have ulterior motives.  We know some intentionally leave out information and only present us with the information they want us to hear.  We know we have blind spots and that others have blind spots as well. 

So, what is the truth?  What is reality?  How can we know certain things happened as reported when even our own brains might be deceiving us?

Well, yours truly makes sure he listens, observes, watches, and engages with people and opinions and pictures from all across the spectrum.  Yours truly knows he has a blind spot and that it is usually people who disagree with him who see what he misses.  (O.K. enough of the third person stuff.)  I engage stuff no matter how outlandish it is, and then I ask myself, "Is this reality?  Is this something I want to hear and believe in because it gels with my worldview?  Is this the simplest explanation?  Does this gel with something I feel and believe, or does it gel because it is real?"  Sometimes, I have to take a lot of time to wade through all this stuff.  Sometimes, I have to do an awful lot of thinking, and listening, and researching before I can come to a conclusion.  Sometimes, I have to admit, I don't know the answer because I don't have all the information and until that time when that information becomes available, I must reserve judgment. 

This is the way I operate.  This is how I function in a world, which as I say in the tidbit about myself, "tries to cover up the truth."  And so, I keep on searching for that elusive thing called truth, no matter where it might lead.

7 comments:

Kathy said...

Maybe you can find it. I just used all my brains to try to find, on the web, a quote I remember from my youth -- I think it was from Leo XIII -- "It is not hard to find the Truth. One must be diligent and unbiased."

Kathy said...


This should answer a few questions.
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_11041963_pacem_en.html

Kevin Haug said...

The only problem, and it is a big one, Kathy, is the commentary about being unbiased. It is a known truth that we cannot be unbiased. Our bias is so strong, it colors everything that we see. Our bias is so strong, it fills in our blind spots even when there is nothing there. You cannot escape bias.

This is why I, unlike many others, haven't blocked you or unfriend you or others. This is why I engaged Gary and sought to talk through things with him even though I disagreed with many of the things he said. This is why I welcome those who challenge me and criticize me even though I may think their criticism is unfounded and irrational. I may be wrong in my assessment, and such folks may very well be helping me fill in my blind spots. They may very well be helping me break through my own bias and lead me to see things differently.

Now, as you have probably discovered, as did Gary, I think, you've got to be on your game when you come at me. You've got to have your facts and figures straight, and you've got to be willing to do much more than name calling to break through with me.

I've got to hand it to you that you are as stubborn as I am. You keep trying when many others give up. I'm intrigued by this even though I don't agree with you most of the time. I, unlike some, am willing to see where this takes me and if there is a lesson to be learned and growth for me to experience from you. Who knows? I have the patience to find out.

Kathy said...

What a great comment. Although I have never met you, I think you are a "big man."

Here is our difference: Anthropology, your view of human nature.

Martin Luther had a very dark view of human nature. He saw man as bad and without (complete) free will.

The Catholic Church teaches something quite different.

Here is my definition of "unbiased": A person who looks at the world from God's point of view. For example, God sees the person in the womb. A pro-choicer does not.

I believe a person can overcome bias.

And you are right: I do not give up. It is not because I am stubborn; it is because I believe in Truth.

Kevin Haug said...

Martin Luther's view of human nature wasn't dark, as I understand it. He viewed all people as born of a fallen, sinful nature: original sin. Yet, he believed we are all both saint and sinner. He believed without God's work in us, we were/are unable to accomplish good.

At first glance, that sounds like Luther was absolving us of the responsibility of doing good works; however it's more nuanced than that. If I am capable of doing all sorts of good things--including saving myself, then what is the need for Christ? If I can freely overcome my sinful nature, why the need for the cross? If I can save myself and make myself fit for heaven, why the need for a Savior at all?

Luther's thoughts on free will come squarely down on the logical conclusion that if we can save ourselves by our own free will, we have no need for God, for Christ, for the redeeming act of the cross. Yet, if it is God who works in us to redeem us; if it is God who brings us to faith; if it is God who brings good works to fruition, then all salvation rests on God and not on us.

So what are we responsible for? We have the response ability to commit our lives to serving Christ with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We have the response ability to combat the sinful part of ourselves. We have the response ability to seek to see things from God's perspective.

And yet, we must constantly remind ourselves that we cannot fully do this. We are arrogant to think we can fully grasp God's perspective. We are left striving as best as we can to grasp that perspective, knowing we will never achieve it. This is the Truth--that we are on a never ending search for that Truth until it is finally revealed to us when we stand before God at the end of our earthly journies. We are able to grasp bits and pieces of it. We are able to have moments of clarity--as you and I both share in the issue of abortion; yet, such moments only lead us to a deeper hunger and longing for the Truth--for Christ. We should never feel completely satisfied for we haven't arrived.

This is Luther's thought. I have come to realize how profound it is. I know you don't think so, but hey, I don't begrudge it.

Kathy said...

This takes us back to the issue of "perfection." I am kinda busy today, but I will take this up when I have some time.

This can be explained. This is why I do not give up.

Kathy said...

This is a very important discussion, and I am not going to leave it alone. In 1972, Tim Lull told me that he thought the entire Reformation was a huge "misunderstanding." That was his word. He was and is right.

In this thread, you and I are talking past each other. On my blog, I have the opportunity to ATTEMPT to clear this up.

I will try. What else can I do?