A Short Piece Featured In The Map Is Indestructible by O.G. Rose
On Personally Experiencing Our Lack of Omniscience, the Impossibility of Particularizing General Conceivability Structures in Large Systems, and the Existential Consequences
It is impossible to escape having a worldview or philosophy: the battle is keeping it from becoming an ideology that “does our thinking for us” and/or “that makes the world a worse place.” Worldviews are structured like stories, but problematically, so are conspiracies, philosophies, ideologies, and the like. We cannot from identifying structures alone defend our minds from falsities, but that means we have to do a lot of investigation that cannot promise us any fruitful results.
“Conspiracy” is a particularly tricky term, for there’s the sense of a conspiracy meaning “a secret plot” (possibly true or fake) and a sense of the term meaning “an arrangement of coincidences, happenstances, fragments of data, etc. in a manner to make the appearance of a scheme or plot that isn’t actually real.” The term “conspiracy” in the second sense is more like a work of fiction generated by a fiction writer, but problematically, there have been “true conspiracies” in history (say the government’s stalking of Earnest Hemmingway). Also, no one who believes in a conspiracy theory thinks it’s a “conspiracy theory,” per se: these people think it’s a truth. And since a conspiracy has the same structure as a truth, we cannot from the form alone conclude the conspiracy is in fact false (after all, it could be true). Instead, we would have to research all the facts and details of the theory, but who has the time? Additionally, even if we could investigate a single conspiracy theory, there could be hundreds more, each requiring a “Pynchon Risk” (as discussed in “The Map Is Indestructible” by O.G. Rose). We need mechanisms to sort what conspiracies/truths/plots/etc. to investigate and which to forsake, and yet no mechanism we generate could be epistemologically justified (after all, what right to do we have to say anything isn’t worth investigating without first investigating it?). And yet if we don’t want to be overwhelmed by the internet we have no choice.
Humanity has always known it wasn’t omnipotent or omnipresent: from the mere facts of existence at the start, we could personally experience our inability to pick up a large bolder or be in multiple places at once. Those experiences in their hard facticity — not abstraction — have presented themselves to us since the beginning of time. But today we are experiencing directly and personally the limits of our minds and our lack of omniscience, which though we’ve always known we’ve had, it has not been until now with the internet that we have personally experienced our mental limitations. And so now another dimension of our “fallenness” has been personalized to us, adding to our existential anxiety. Knowing abstractly that we weren’t omniscient was much easier to live with then now, when in having infinite information available to us, we feel like we ought to take it all in and find we cannot. Another limitation has become vivid, adding another emotional burden, the natural response to which is either despair or trying to learn everything. Neither option will prove fruitful.
There have always been conspiracies, but until today, the ideas of them struggled to spread and strike the minds of average people. Do note that the “best” conspiracy theories are “internally consistent,” meaning they entail no internal contradictions, the mere fact of which makes them “possible” and even “plausible.” Considering this, we will feel intellectually unjustified to outright dismiss them, and in having their ideas personified to us, we will feel emotions due to these theories that will make us feel obligated to investigate. But again, we can’t investigate everything, and many of these conspiracies will prove to be “Pynchon Risks,” possibilities that once we start investigating, there is no guarantee we will ever be able to escape them (Made in Abyss comes to mind).
Wittgenstein reflected in his book On Certainty that ‘it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted.’¹ ‘We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.’² We must assume x or y is true even if at the end of the day it is impossible for us to investigate x and y. If we don’t assume, we have to investigate everything, and that is impossible, and for centuries we were able to live with this reality without it being personified and emotionally experienced. But the internet has changed that, and now we suffer a significant existential anxiety. In response, we can try to cover our inescapable limitations by considering every possible idea we come across, and thus the explosion of conspiracies in modern America. But maybe they aren’t conspiracies; maybe there’s truth to them. Knowing for sure would take investigation and a level of investigation none of us have the capacities to carry out. But we feel we should…
In some ways, the term “conspiracy” is nearly useless, especially if we are trying to use it not according to the first definition (“a secret plot”) but the second (“an arrangement of ideas that look plausible but aren’t true”). This is because we can only “say for sure” something is a conspiracy retrospectively, after we’ve investigated it (which might not even be possible). If we call something a conspiracy that we haven’t explored, we’re likely dismissing it without justification (as can happen with description in general, as discussed in “On Description” by O.G. Rose), and yet, to belabor the point, we can’t investigate everything, so we have to dismiss some ideas and not others. But how do we determine which to dismiss and which to investigate? Keep in mind that many conspiracies involve grave evils and threats that, if true, could cause unimaginable suffering: what right do we have to dismiss these conspiracies when so much is at stake? And yet incorporating threats is a way that conspiracies can manipulate us.
Since worldviews, philosophies, conspiracies, stories, etc. all have the same structure — which I will henceforth call a “conceivability structure” or CS (in other works, I call them “maps”) — and since we can’t investigate everything, how can we keep our “views of the world” from becoming ideologies that “do our thinking for us” and/or “take over our lives?” Again, investigation won’t be enough, and we can’t from the onset simply look at the “structure” or “form” of a network of ideas and know which to ignore and which to explore.
As discussed in “Deconstructing Coming Life” by O.G. Rose, David Hume argued convincingly that we must engage in the full “philosophical journey” to avoid the pitfall of “autonomous rationality,” of thinking that we can “totally” understand the world in rational terms and justify our worldview rationally “all the way down.” What we learn from Hume is that a worldview that resides exclusively in the mind becomes an ideology that “lives through us instead of with us” — it is of the utmost importance we avoid letting this happen. And a way we can is to understand the world through multiples avenues of apprehension: emotional, mental, kinetic, social, etc. If we believe social interactions are means to truth, then we cannot form an ideology that ignores social realities in favor of our idealistic visions; if we believe emotional truths can be as meaningful as truths learned through experience, then we will not be able to readily disregard emotions in favor of experience without first taking emotions seriously; and so on. By believing in multiple avenues of apprehension, we can strike a balance where we don’t become “a head on a stick” or “a mindless heart,” per se.
If we only mentally consider a CS, we will never be able to define it distinctly as a story, ideology, truth, or conspiracy, for the CS will always plausibly “be” all of these things (like a “Schrödinger’s Cat” in a box that can never be opened). An example may help communicate the point: if we believed the government was secretly downloading all of our information, we could easily create an “internally consistent model” in which the government would have good reason to do this (and so it would seem plausible that they might be doing this), but in this state, our model would be a “story/truth/conspiracy/etc.” — it would be a CS in general without clarity on which particular CS it was. The only way to particularize the general CS would be to physically investigate the government and test our model with reality: experiential apprehension would be required. But what if it wasn’t possible to physically investigate the CS? Then we would be stuck in a situation where a general CS could never be particularized, dooming us to a perpetual existential anxiety. And in a globalized world of large governments and/or States, I fear that is exactly the situation we find ourselves in.
The internet makes it possible for us to have more ideas thrown into our heads easily then ever before, and every idea necessarily carries with it a feeling that it “might” be true. Mentally, most of the ideas we hear we can put together, identify if there are any “internal contradictions,” and then proceed to tell if it is “plausible.” Problematically though, it’s not hard to come up with a CS that is plausible and lacks any essential contradictions. I can do it right now, completely improvised:
The United Nations is pushing the use of genetic engineering to produce food because it secretly knows that Global Warming is much worse than it lets us think, and the UN knows that we will soon need to produce food without a natural environment at all.
Does this sound plausible? I think it does. Are there any “internal contradictions” in the idea? None. So how could anyone dismiss my idea, which I just made up, without investigating it? After all, even though I improvised the idea on the spot, it could nevertheless be true or at least partially true.
If there is incentive to create and improvise CSs, perhaps for status, clickbait, etc., then it is likely there will be an extreme multiplication of CSs. And I think today that not only does the internet make that multiplication possible, it also does indeed create the incentive to realize that possibility.
As discussed in “The Creative Concord,” alluding to Hayek, if a thousand people are looking at a text in Arabic, and one person knows the language, everyone can know what the text says. Cumulative knowledge always exceeds individual knowledge, and thanks to the internet, if one person discovers something, humanity can discover it with them. The freedom of each individual can benefit every individual. Problematically, there is a negative side to this reality: thanks to the internet, when one person generates or discovers a “plausible-sounding” conspiracy, everyone can learn about it too. And the fact the conspiracy is “plausible” means everyone will have to feel “epistemically immoral” to outright dismiss it. Many will thus be compelled to “enter” the conspiracy (“the abyss,” per se), and once inside, there may never be a “good reason enough” to come back out.
Where for Hayek there was a “market test” to keep bad products or ideas from spreading (even though they could spread), the only test for ideas on the internet is the rationality of the users themselves. But given the “essential incompleteness” of rationality (as discussed in “The Conflict of Mind”), human rationality has not proven effective at stopping bad ideas from spreading. A “market test” might be possible, but due to CS, a “rationality test” seems much weaker.
Every time a CS is created, we can feel an “epistemic responsibility” to investigate it, which is utterly impossible, and yet real suffering and injustice could be on the line. And so the limits of our omniscience, personified and emotional, become existentially overwhelming, a circumstance in which totalitarianism can grow in appeal (as discussed in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose).
Today, the internet multiples CSs, and simultaneously the government, corporations, and the like are growing in size: we suffer Globalization, large States, and the internet all at once. If I encounter a conspiracy while living in Bedford, Virginia that there could be a drug cartel in Lynchburg, I can drive in my car and “physically” investigate the conspiracy myself, thus working to keep my worldview from becoming an ideology through multiple apprehensions. But If I am told the Chinese are stealing America’s private information, there is no way for me to (easily) check and balance my “mental apprehension” of this idea with other kinds of apprehension, and thus it is impossible for me to singularize the general CS (into a truth, falsity, etc. from a truth/falsity/etc.). Stuck with the general CS, not able to tell “with good reason” if it is a conspiracy, story, truth, or fiction, I am stuck emotionally and personally experiencing the “plausibility” of the CS, which is only intensified for the worse by the fact that if China is stealing my private information, that could be a real problem. But now that the idea is in my head, there is nothing I can do. I have to live with it; I have to live with the general CS without any hope of particularizing it into something I know what to do with. Maybe I’ll eventually forget about it; maybe I won’t.
But wait, can’t I fly to China and physically investigate the CS? Indeed, it seems like I can, and I will possibly feel a moral obligation to do just that, an obligation that will intensify my anxiety. And indeed, it is “theoretically possible” for me to investigate the CS, but not “practically possible,” for even if I flew to China, how in the world could I infiltrate the CCP? Perhaps I’m a secret agent and could pull it off, but who would believe me, and regardless, that would only solve anxiety for a single person: the general public would not be saved from the problem at all (even if I told them, for believing me would only be a mental apprehension, which they already have in knowing about the CS at all). The very fact though that trying to infiltrate the CCP is not entirely impossible, only practically impossible, will only worsen my anxiety
Worse yet, there is a long tradition in political, social, and economic thought of associating growing size and power with an increased probability for corruption. In other words, it is more likely a large State or corporation will be corrupt than a small State or business. This in mind, recognize that it is more possible for me to investigate a CS involving a small entity than a large one, and yet if it is true that “power corrupts” and size correlates with power, the likelihood of me needing to investigate a small entity is less than my need to investigate a large system. And yet it is large systems about which CSs will be produced that can only be apprehended mentally: CSs involving large systems will be “practically” impossible to consider through multiple apprehensions. Hence, as systems grow, they “self-protect” and barricade themselves behind an unresolvable intellectual dilemma, and the more unresolvable the dilemma becomes, the more likely there is a need to solve it.
Small systems are more vulnerable than large systems, yet large systems are more likely to be corrupt. Indeed, it is theoretically possible that everyone running a large system is moral and upright, but even if they were, in a large system, it would be impossible to know this was the case, and so an existential anxiety would still prove present. Suffering this anxiety, there’s no telling what the general public could do to rid themselves of it, even if they would be better to learn to tolerate it.
As systems grow, the likelihood of corruption increases alongside the impossibility of knowing “for sure” if that corruption is fictious or true. And yet we have to be “practically certain” (or confident) about something if we are to function (considering Wittgenstein) — so what shall we choose? To be “practically certain” in a way that will keep us from stopping corruption because we are afraid of being part of a conspiracy, or shall we live in a way where we try to stop corruption and risk being an evangelist for a conspiracy?
¹Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. New York: First Harper Torchbook Edition, 1972: 44e.
²Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. New York: First Harper Torchbook Edition, 1972: 44e.