Back in March, Rachel Maddow was on the Daily Show and said something about conspiracy theories that I think is quite profound:
CONSPIRACY IS EASIER TO UNDERSTAND THAN COMPLEXITY.
Thought of this way, a conspiracy theory is simply another way to avoid the hard work of grappling with an issue’s complexity, its true field of connections. A conspiracy theory is a form of pseudo-complexity.
And conspiracy literally means “to breath together,” suggesting the action, not of a material field, but of a spiritual field—a field of autonomous actors moving the world.
This strikes me as hinting at a link between conspiracy and too-simplistic notions of the self. There are groups of people—theologians and devotees of Ayn Rand are among them—who treat the self as a straightforward and purposeful actor, autonomous and free, and capable of contra-causal actions on matter. In doing this, they tend to simply ignore the contingent and complicated field out of which the self actually emerges—the field of neurons interacting with the larger fields of culture and nature.
Theologians and Randians, positing a straightforward (and unexplained) existential actor in the world, are thus similar to conspiracy theorists positing a simple group of conspirators as explanation for historical phenomena: both replace dynamic entities interacting in a complex field with a singular and autonomous actor or small collection of actors, in perfect possession of themselves, acting at will.
I make this observation not to dismiss all conspiracy theories out-of-hand, nor to diss the self and free will as illusions, but to note (as push-back against those who don’t tend to note it) that all things, great and small, are layered and puzzling, and therefore interesting. We don’t need false and simplistic theories to make things interesting; we need true explanations. And the truth tends to be complex and interesting.
Speaking of the tensions between oversimplification and complexity, this brief TED clip is excellent.