Timothy Snyder: Political ideas matter

Ezra Klein interviewed Tim Snyder (you can get Snyder’s book The Road to Unfreedom from the Vancouver-based Massy Books) on this recent podcast episode: “Timothy Snyder on the Myths That Blinded the West to Putin’s Plans” (March 15, 2022).

They discuss Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine as a clear illustration of why political ideas matter.

If ideas don’t matter, how would that affect our behavior?

“The politics of inevitability,” Snyder says,

“assures you that whatever the good things are, they’re being brought about automatically by some invisible hand, right? The market is like Mom. You know, it’s going to take care of you with that invisible hand. And you don’t have to think about what the values might be, what you actually desire. You lose the habit, right? You never perform the mental gymnastics of stretching to figure out what a better world might actually be because you think you’re on track to that better world no matter what happens.”

Political ideas that once felt “thrilling” eventually devolve into a “tedium of implementation, conflict, regulation, et cetera” because we are no longer creating but merely maintaining the nations and institutions. Our belief in historical inevitability justifies the tedium. We assure ourselves that we have to work to maintain things the way they are because it is inevitable that they are this way.

People today tend to say that “ideas don’t matter.” This is not to say that we don’t have political ideas, because of course people have their own strong myths about race, language, nationalism, etc. But we tend to overlook these ideas and discount their importance, and in so doing, “we are excusing ourselves from thinking about the future.” And: “the worse we get at talking about ideas, the harder it is for us to imagine the future as being anything else but like the present” — or, alternatively, “the present with some kind of catastrophe.”

How we behave and think when we believe the future can’t be changed

Politically, a belief in inevitability can be convince us to do unethical and dysfunctional things, like, for example, the US invading Iraq in 2003. A belief that “democracy arises because of natural forces” will suggest to you — contrary to all real-world examples — that you can smash a country and democracy will immediately sprout forth from the scorched earth.

Philosophically, too, there are consequences. If an outcome is guaranteed, we don’t need values nor reason. Those are about desiring a particular future and strategizing how to arrive there. If we don’t believe there are real options and different possible outcomes, nothing prompts us to examine our own desires and strategies, nor to recognize that other people may have their own ways of thinking, feeling, and planning. Values and reasons are obsolete appendages, or maybe outright fantasies, if we cannot change the future.

People do have different values

So regarding Russia’s current war against Ukraine, Snyder explains, Putin “doesn’t care about the things that we think people ought to care about. You know, he doesn’t care about the Russian economy. I don’t think he even cares about Russian interests, perhaps not even the survival of the Russian state.” In the US, discourse tends to assume geopolitical motivations, but Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “can’t be motivated geopolitically” since he’s actually hurting Russia. (China may very well someday dominate Russia, and Russia’s behavior right now isn’t helping.)

Instead: “He cares about how he’s going to be remembered after he’s dead. He cares about an image of an eternal Russia.” These are Putin’s values, and they are different values than other people have. Putin wants to achieve political unity, but not through what others might mean when we say “unity,” e.g., listening to different perspectives, empathizing with others, building solidarity, collaborating in the midst of differences, etc. Putin, instead, wants the kind of unity achieved through “charismatic acts of violence.” He is trying to dominate and annex another country.

Ukraine, for its part, Snyder says, right now is not focused on a Russian-style project of reinterpreting the past. Instead, thy are actively fighting in the present and envisioning the future, going about “being a civic nation and having a nation which is based upon asserting its own existence day to day.” Their national identity isn’t about when and whether they speak Russian or Ukrainian, but “being there…helping one another out…having some kind of a common cause,” with President Zelensky as the emblem because he has chosen to stay and fight the invasion. It is legible from an outside perspective, too. People in North America (for example) understand what it means to be Ukrainian today not because of what language the Ukrainians speak but because of “universally recognizable” moral choices by the people and their leader.

War, brought to us courtesy fossil fuels

What is Russia’s war on Ukraine about, if not competing narratives about history?

Snyder offers an alternative interpretation: It’s about oil. This is “the kind of war we will have if we become the kind of world which is dependent upon the natural gas and the oil and the people who are able to control the profits from them.” This is the sort of war that “global warming is going to bring to us” if we do not restructure the way we get energy. “If we’re going to have a future,” Snyder says, “we’re going have to start thinking about different ways that things could turn out.”

We can’t represent the idea of representation

A mime actor with a doll-like painted face in a big frilly collar.
Mime (or, more precisely, an image of one) by pendleburyannette from Pixabay

The late Robert Germany published Mimetic Contagion: Art and Artifice in Terence’s Eunuch several years ago. One section that drew my interest is Chapter 3, “Lifelike Likeness: Mimetic Contagion in the Philosophical Tradition.”

“The Greek word mimēsis is plainly connected to the word mimos,” he says, the latter referring to “lowbrow theatrical entertainment” as well as “the actor who plays in such a show.”

What he means by “mimetic contagion” is that an artwork is powerful: it has an “ability to generate likeness in the viewer,” that is, the artwork looks real (i.e. it resembles something that exists or could exist in the world), and it inspires people to try to interact with it and eventually to reproduce the image or otherwise imitate the idea in their lives.

Furthermore, people copy the copy, and the power persists in these copies, be they second- or third-generation or beyond. These copies begin to remind us of the idea of representation. We can think not only about how to create and enjoy a particular piece of art, but about art itself. “When what they see and imitate is itself a work of mimetic art,” Germany says, “their behaviour serves as an icon not only of the object they see, but of the unrepresentable mode of existence of that object.”

The ancients had superstitions and ethical concerns about art as imitation. Germany points out several discussions. One is by “Xenophon’s Socrates, in his conversations with the three artists in Memorabilia 3.10.” Another, by Plato in the Republic at the end of Book 2 and the beginning of Book 3. “Whatever is imitated will eventually be naturalized and settle into character and second nature,” he summarizes; “fundamentally mimesis is likening oneself to another…but if we liken ourselves to madmen ultimately the madness will be our own, and we shall find ourselves actors no more.” (395d and 396a) This was an ancient concern about stage performers who portray villains. He also points out a discussion in Book 10 of the Republic at 596b–99a. And he mentions Aristotle, who “discusses the ethical effect of art on its viewers in book 8 of the Politics (1340a)” and “implies that perception somehow involves a physical change in the observer into conformity with the sensed object” as in the De anima (424a 17–24). “Seeing is thus becoming” for Aristotle, who insists that “the very act of perception is a partial corruption of the boundary between subject and object.”

Sometimes philosophers used the word mimesis to mean “world-reflecting,” that is, representing the world as it is — Plato does this in the Republic — and other times as “world-creating,” meaning something more like fiction as Aristotle does in the Poetics. Of the latter meaning, Germany writes: “When the world is refashioned in accordance with an artwork it can no longer be clear what the boundaries of the artwork are, since by drawing the viewer into recapitulation of its own ethos or action, it effectively exceeds its frame. Its fiction now includes the viewer…” The fiction is “a replacement” for “the ‘real’ world.” Thus, “the two facets of mimesis, world-reflecting and world-creating, are fundamentally linked.”

According to the Socratic dialogue Timaeus, Germany explains, “the Demiurge gazed on the ideal world and made this world in imitation,” and we are supposed “to take note of the order in our bodies and the cosmos and to live our lives in imitation of that order…It is mimetic contagion all the way down.” (You may want to see my 2020 post on this blog, “Turtles All The Way Down: Finding Truth in Emptiness.”)

How, though, do we represent what it means to represent? All we have are examples of artistic representation. “Indeed, an actor may copy a drunk and a painter may copy a flower, but how do either of them represent mimesis itself?” This is the “radical unrepresentability” of the idea of mimesis. Plato’s cave may be our best bet for representing the idea of the generation of images that are based upon something else; here, Germany refers to Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman (1985), which makes this argument.

Representation is a process, not an object. To understand how it works, we have to observe it happen. Maybe, Germany says, it can be “represented transitively, in the contagious passage from one imitation to the next.”

Book cover for Mimetic Contagion

Robert Germany. Mimetic Contagion: Art and Artifice in Terence’s Eunuch. Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Chapter 3, pp. 72–94.

Epistemologies: ‘Objectivity’ and perspective

Journalists often pursue the goal of “objectivity.” Of course, language isn’t neutral, and any human writer or reader inevitably has our own personal perspective. Even deciding which facts to mention requires personal judgment.

There are many facts, but not all facts are equal,” Brian Klaas wrote recently in the Washington Post.

“There was a tornado in Kentucky last week. There wasn’t a tornado in Minnesota. Only one is worth reporting. Reporters and editors make decisions about which facts to cover — and then it’s up to them to provide the reader with an appropriate sense of scale.”

Ezra Klein wrote in Why We’re Polarized (2020):

“The news is supposed to be a mirror held up to the world, but the world is far too vast to fit in our mirror. The fundamental thing the media does all day, every day, is decide what to cover—decide, that is, what is newsworthy.”

Someone holds a small triangular mirror in their thumb and forefinger. Their face is reflected in it, but their eyes are closed.
Image by Simedblack on Pixabay

“Neutral,” by the way, may be “boring and visionless, and that just loses them [media professionals] an audience,” Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote in The Left Hand of God (2006).

So, for example, as Peter Levine pointed out in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (2013), journalists may cover elections differently. “Who is going to win?” is a common guiding question. It reflects “one definition of news. It encourages not only regular polling, but also close coverage of the mechanics and strategies of political campaigns.” But a journalist might instead choose to “depict the public’s ‘struggle to find a middle ground’ by giving prominent attention to civil discussions among nonaligned citizens.”

In Nicole Hemmer’s 2016 book Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, she discusses “objectivity” as a kind of epistemology.

“Some have argued that ‘objectivity’ describes a set of professional practices rather than a coherent worldview, but this understates the power of objectivity as a concept. Objectivity was more than a set of professional values—it was a claim about the best way to understand the world. In midcentury, American journalists who were invested in the ideal of objectivity claimed the trueness of their stories could best be evaluated by how well they adhered to standards of disinterestedness, accuracy, factuality, fairness, and, less overtly but no less importantly, their deference to official information and institutional authority.”

Here, then, Hemmer says, is “a different way of weighing evidence”; you observe that you and someone else are on different ideological sides. You acknowledge that this other person has “a different network of authorities, a different conception of fact and accuracy, and a different way of evaluating truth-claims.”

(I wrote more about Hemmer’s book for Medium.)

“Everyone has a frame through which we think, interpret, and speak,” wrote Lewis Raven Wallace in The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity. “Once we are conscious of these frames, we can choose our stories and the values they reflect.”

Here’s where Wallace goes with that. Journalists who have marginalized identities should indeed feel permitted to write about issues affecting their own communities. “Oppressed people’s voices can no longer be excluded,” he says, “on the false pretense that we are biased in favor of our own humanity, that we are too close to the story.”

Today, more easily than ever before, “people can just skip stories they don’t want to hear, go only to website that reflect their own worldview.” The challenge implicitly posed to journalists, as Wallace sees it, is to help determine “how journalists can become people who don’t just impart facts, but who interact, engage, and ultimately bring meaning and shape to information.”

“While journalists are never neutral purveyors of ‘just the facts,’” he points out, “some will focus more on organizing facts while others will focus more on interpreting them or extrapolating solutions from them, and others will focus on building communities surrounding them.”

Weighing René Descartes’ Influence in a World Without Him

A conversation with Arturo Serrano on the core questions of ethics and political theory and why he kills off Descartes in his new novel

Arturo Serrano’s first novel in English imagines that the Mayflower was lost at sea in 1620, the English Separatists were disheartened, and the United States were never born. In this alternate history, rival empires split up the world, and those caught in the middle fight to bring an end to all empires. The novel is called To Climates Unknown and will be released next month. Full disclosure: Arturo Serrano and I are married. Here, for readers of this philosophy blog, I ask him why he chose to put a young René Descartes as a character in his novel.
—Tucker Lieberman

Part 2 of your novel is called “Setback.” This is a chapter imagining René Descartes as a young man in the early 17th century: as a curious, precocious 14-year-old student, then as a 23-year-old plagued by existential dread and confusion, and finally as a 25-year-old who comes face-to-face with an enemy. What inspired you to imagine Descartes as a character in To Climates Unknown?

Arturo Serrano

When I was first researching events in the 17th century to get an idea of what world I would be jumping into, I focused on a particular week in September 1620 that contains the main four events I altered: the return of Danish sailor Jens Munk, the return of Japanese diplomat Hasekura Tsunenaga, the start of the Mayflower’s journey, and the plot to assassinate Chinese Emperor Taichang.

As it happens, that window of time in 1620 contains another key event: the Battle of White Mountain, which had major consequences for the balance of power between Catholics and Protestants. René Descartes was present at that battle, as a soldier in the army of the Holy Roman Emperor. So from the start I knew I wanted to do something with Descartes.

However, I was holding myself to using just one point of divergence from our timeline, and I wasn’t able to find a plausible chain of consequences that would affect that battle. So I let that event go as it went in our timeline, but chose to mess with Descartes at some later point.

Another reason why I kill Descartes is to help me better explore a world without America. It is not enough to remove the particular people in a particular region who founded America, because America is an idea, not a nation. Without that concrete historical event, it’s still entirely possible that someone else would have founded another country on the same principles. So I realized I had to remove the principles entirely, along with the purported nation. The principles are the theories of British liberalism, which are a development from the tradition of modern philosophy. There are other events in my book that negate the preeminent role of Britain in world politics, but to make sure modern liberalism never emerges in that area of the world, the most efficient method was to remove the root of all modern thought.

You portray Descartes as a ruminative character. Do you empathize with him? Is he someone you might have liked to have met?

Both the Meditations on First Philosophy and the Discourse on the Method are written as first-person testimonials. You get a very close impression of how his mind worked and which of the ongoing discussions surrounding the Wars of Religion were obsessing him. You can tell he’s struggling to communicate the importance of skepticism in terms that would be acceptable to an era when your life or death depended on a profession of faith.

More than meeting him in his time, I would have liked to invite him to ours and show him all the ways he won.

The rector at the Jesuit Collège Royal Henry-Le-Grand at La Flèche discusses an abstract question with the young René Descartes. They ask: If God foresees a certain future and then chooses to alter that future, does the originally envisioned future have any kind of reality in God’s mind? Is this question, in this exact form or similar form, one that ever interested you independently before you began writing this book?

That was not one of the original themes, but it became essential as I researched the 17th century. There was an intense discussion going on about determinism vs. human freedom. On the Protestant side, you had Calvinists vs. Arminians, and on the Catholic side, you had Jansenists vs. Jesuits. The starting question was whether human beings got a say in their salvation, but it turned out to have deeper ramifications that involved God’s absolute sovereignty and, ultimately, whether events in human history are fixed beforehand or shaped by our choices.

One author I found fascinating in this debate was Spanish priest Luis de Molina, who tried really hard to find a way to reconcile human freedom with divine foreknowledge. What makes him relevant to the whole conception of my novel was his work on the reality of counterfactuals, imagined scenarios that do not match our world. Since the whole business of writing an alternate history is to treat a counterfactual as a possible reality, you can see how Molina’s theories were crucial to the novel.

What do you see as some of the direct or indirect effects of Descartes’ philosophy in our world? Or, from a different angle: How might our world be different if he had not written anything?

Because we live in a Cartesian world, it’s hard to imagine what it looked like before he appeared. Descartes introduced the notion that we should not believe what we don’t know for a fact to be true. Without that first principle, you can’t have serious science, or the entire legal theory of freedom of conscience and religious tolerance. Descartes did his best to challenge, without exposing his neck too much, the authoritarian nature of dogma.

In Catholic theology, a dogma is a belief defined as mandatory. Not mandatory like an axiom, which is considered self-evident and thus doesn’t need much demonstration, but mandatory like a law, in the sense that the Church is ordering you to assent to this belief. Descartes opposed that and gave us tools to evaluate beliefs without regard to authority.

This is a truly radical notion, that truth ought to suffice on its own without compulsion. If an idea survives examination and questioning and debate, it deserves to be believed. Later developments in the philosophy of science have added refinements to this guideline, and thus now we accept that all scientific truths are provisional until we reach better ones, but the whole attitude of rejecting authority as a justification for belief starts with Descartes. That is a huge break from the ipse dixit approach that prevailed in Medieval philosophy, and it is the key reason why Medieval philosophy ends when Descartes shows up.

A big theme in To Climates Unknown is imperial power, colonization, and the march to war. What role can philosophers play, if any, in promoting peace?

Philosophy deals with the questions that matter. You can actually differentiate between branches of philosophy by looking at the core question each asks. The core question of ethics is “What do I do?” But then you look at political theory, and its core question is “What do we do?” This illustrates the point that political theory grows from ethical theory; it is one part of the whole discipline of ethics.

So all political questions are ultimately ethical questions. The way you treat other human beings depends on what you believe about human beings. The way you treat their rights and their lives depends on what you believe about rights and lives (even if you’re not aware of what beliefs you’re operating from). When you choose war, when you choose that the deliberate application of violence is favorable to your interests, you’re making a moral calculation, and the role of philosophers in helping put an end to wars is to show the true weights involved in that calculation.

The part of your book about René Descartes begins with two epigraphs: “Things that appear unrelated actually have some sort of natural link” (Cicero, On Divination) and “It is beneath God’s majesty to know how many gnats are born every second” (Saint Jerome, Commentaries on the Minor Prophets). Why did you choose these?

This chapter follows immediately after one where I show how the last descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers become lost to history. Since the plot is no longer going to be about the Pilgrims, I use those quotes to reassure the reader that the completely different characters and scenarios I’m about to use do have a connection to what I’ve told so far and do belong to the same overall story, even if what I do to Descartes renders him an irrelevant figure in history—a gnat, so to speak.

Book cover: To Climates Unknown by Arturo Serrano
To Climates Unknown

Who do you hope will read To Climates Unknown and what do you hope they will experience or take away?

My first version of this novel was written in Spanish. My choice to make the final version in English stems from the function I hope this book serves. Questioning America’s role in the world is an exercise we’ve done hundreds of times in the rest of the world, but one Americans themselves haven’t done enough. The mere postulation of this timeline is a challenge to the creed of Manifest Destiny (yet another incarnation of Calvinist determinism).

There is a brand of American conservatism that insists America is a nation in the traditional sense as opposed to an idea. Such a position leads to a lot of nasty xenophobic implications, and it needs constant questioning. Of all countries currently in existence, America is the one with the least claim to being a “nation.” If there’s any basis in reality to the hyperinflated story of American Exceptionalism, one has to recognize that what makes America special is not an ethnic origin or a religion or a language. America is not a particular group of people, but a set of principles that are completely opposed to the nation state. And that set of principles is not exclusive to an ethnic origin or a religion or a language. My novel ends with the emergence of a political entity much like America, but woven from more diverse threads.

Belief in American Exceptionalism has been weaponized to cause serious harm, but there is a spark of truth in that idea. The positioning of “All are created equal” as a self-evident axiom of collective life is the kind of principle that breaks away with all nationalisms and tribal identities. It is a guiding idea that America has forgotten and badly needs to be reminded of.

To Climates Unknown is available for preorder and will be released on November 25, 2021, the 400th anniversary of the mythical first Thanksgiving. You can also engage on Goodreads.

Moll Flanders and the Gettier problem

Moll Flanders is an early 18th-century novel written by Daniel Defoe. Moll is a fictional character whose famous conundrum is her discovery that she has accidentally married her own biological brother.

The “Gettier problem” is an epistemological question raised by Edmund Gettier in a 1963 paper, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, in which he questioned a traditional definition of knowledge—a justified true belief—as insufficient. Gettier died earlier this year in 2021. I have described the philosophical problem in a separate article. To present it generally: Gettier pointed out that, when we have reason to believe a certain proposition, sometimes we formulate a vague statement about it, and the vague statement may well turn out to be true, but for a different reason than we originally assumed. For example, if I say, “Don’t worry about the utility bill on the table; it’ll be affordable, and it isn’t due until the end of the month,” and I say this because I am thinking about the electric bill, whereas the utility bill on the table is actually the phone bill, then arguably my statement about the utility bill on the table is not an example of my own “knowledge.” My statement, which was justified for the electric bill, might also be true for the phone bill: that bill, too, is affordable and isn’t due until the end of the month, and therefore we don’t need to worry about the bill. But I was “correct” only due to a happy coincidence. Although I presented a justified true belief, something went awry in my justification, and therefore I didn’t know what I was talking about. This distinction between knowledge and non-knowledge feels intuitive. But why? By what definition of knowledge can I be described as not having known? This is the Gettier problem. It is a problem for the definition of knowledge.

In this blog post, I propose that Moll Flanders suffers the Gettier problem.

Moll’s problem

In Defoe’s 1722 novel, the narrator, Moll, is born to an inmate of London’s Newgate Prison. Moll grows up not knowing her biological mother. Raised by someone else, she is poor and becomes a household servant. Eventually, Moll begins to enjoy a fairly happy life with her third husband. She is pregnant with her third child by him when she realizes that her husband’s mother is her own long-lost biological mother. Moll has, therefore, married her own brother.

This is how Moll tells her story. For emphasis, I have put the family terms mother-in-law, mother, daughter, husband, brother in bold type. At the end, I have also emphasized Moll’s insistence that this is a new discovery for her: she had “known nothing” of her husband’s preexisting family relationship to her.

“We lived here all together, my mother-in-law, at my entreaty, continuing in the house, for she was too kind a mother to be parted with; my husband likewise continued the same as at first, and I thought myself the happiest creature alive, when an odd and surprising event put an end to all that felicity in a moment, and rendered my condition the most uncomfortable, if not the most miserable, in the world.

My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman—I may call her old woman, for her son was above thirty…

…with a great deal of good-humoured confidence she told me she was one of the second sort of inhabitants [of Newgate] herself.

my mother, smiling, said, ‘You need not think a thing strange, daughter…’

Here she went on with her own story so long, and in so particular a manner, that I began to be very uneasy; but coming to one particular that required telling her name, I thought I should have sunk down in the place.

…this was certainly no more or less than my own mother, and I had now had two children, and was big with another by my own brother, and lay with him still every night.

I was now the most unhappy of all women in the world. Oh! had the story never been told me, all had been well; it had been no crime to have lain with my husband, since as to his being my relation I had known nothing of it.

—Daniel Defoe, ‘Moll Flanders’

It seems that Moll frets that her marriage may be invalid. Her marriage is, she says, a “crime.” She acknowledges that she is committing “open avowed incest and whoredom” despite maintaining “the appearance of an honest wife.” In Moll’s estimation, it isn’t possible for the same woman to have biologically mothered both Moll and Moll’s husband; the same woman can’t be her “mother” and “mother-in-law.” She means this at least legally, as she eventually tells her husband that she is “not your lawful wife” and their children are “not legal children.” If this woman indeed gave birth to a girl and a boy, a subsequent “marriage” between those two siblings would be invalid and no marriage at all. She may mean it religiously and in a broader ontological way, too.

Here is the situation, quite simply:

Before the big revelation, Moll and her mother-in-law sometimes call each other “mother” and “daughter.” These are terms of endearment, and they are also, in a sense, true, since to be a mother-in-law or a daughter-in-law is to be a specific type of mother or daughter. Thus, for Moll to say “My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman” is a justified true belief.

After the revelation that her mother-in-law is the same person who gave birth to her, Moll reflects that “this was certainly no more or less than my own mother.” This relationship of “mother” takes on new meaning. Though it did not bother her before, it bothers her now. She insists: “I had known nothing of it.”

In other words, when Moll says, “My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman,” implying but crucially omitting the detail of “mother-in-law,” she did not know what she was talking about. The woman is not Moll’s mother-in-law, because Moll’s marriage is invalid. The woman is only Moll’s mother. Moll’s original statement remains true only if we shift the meaning of the phrase “my mother” and alter the reasoning behind its use.

Moll’s justified true belief wasn’t knowledge. This is the Gettier problem.

How much effort should you expend debunking a conspiracy theory?

When someone gives you obvious misinformation, you are in a no-win situation.

You need to reject the information as false and possibly harmful. You need to tell the person you aren’t interested in joining their cult. You may feel ethically obligated to try to persuade that person, too, to abandon their idea, just as they believe it is important to persuade you to adopt it.

The problem is that, if it is even possible for you to demonstrate the nonsense and persuade the person to take another path, you’ll be working on that a very long time. Your day (and possibly your week or month) will be significantly disrupted. If the claim is something like “Aliens killed Julius Caesar,” how would you begin to explain why you don’t believe that? And why would you pause your important business to do so? On the other hand, if you blow it off and keep walking, the conspiracy theorist will believe they have “won.” It may not matter if they are pleased with themselves, but it does matter if they are emboldened to continue to misinform others. If their theory is harmful (racist, anti-science, etc.), this may be an undesirable outcome. if you have a real opportunity to educate them, you may want to seize it, difficult and annoying though this task may be.

Lily Simpson compares this interaction with misinformation to a farmer’s confrontation with a plague of locusts. You want to combat the locusts, but stomping one at a time is a losing strategy. The misinformer can pump out strings of nonsense words much faster than you can search and grab onto reality anchors.

Understanding the opponent

When Menachem Kaiser traveled to Poland to investigate the property that his grandfather had lost during World War II, he spoke to the treasure hunters of Nazi-era relics, and his initial inclination was to be quietly polite toward these people who were telling him about supposed Nazi time machines.

“Even to justify why I wan’t taking them seriously is in effect to take them seriously; I did believe and still do believe that it is a valid position not to engage the crazy. What would be the purpose? To methodically demonstrate the dubiousness of Nazi time travel? The conclusions we would eventually reach are the conclusions we have immediately reached.”

Menachem Kaiser, Plunder, Chapter 8

Not a single falsehood, but a structure of falsehoods

But here’s another level of the risk posed by nonsense ideas. A conspiracy theory is not a single, small piece of misinformation. When nurtured, it develops into a whole worldview.

Last year, I blogged for Episyllogism about this point, which a recent UCLA study had explored. Kaiser also mentions the general idea in Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure.

It turns out, Kaiser says, that Project Riese, which he was investigating, “is the epicenter, the catalyst, the cauldron for all sorts of fantastic, absurd, lunatic beliefs about the Nazis. Pull on any thread and very quickly you get to ancient civilizations; aliens; ancient alien civilizations; UFOs; Roswell…” These are not “standalone delusions,” but rather “systems of beliefs.” For example, if you believe the Nazis developed antigravity, eventually you have to assert a supporting worldview; for example, you might say that, since that time, world powers have concealed the Nazis’ scientific breakthrough and have successfully taught everyone (including today’s scientists) a fake version of physics. A conspiracy theory framework usually features “a special blend of skepticism and unskepticism, of irrationality and hyperrationality.”

These are not ‘standalone delusions,’ but rather ‘systems of beliefs.’

Though Kaiser’s first inclination was to dismiss the conspiracy theories as nonsense, he decided to research them to understand them better. When he learned, for example, that the false belief in “Die Glocke, the Nazis’ bell-shaped device that could manipulate time and gravity” was promoted by Igor Witkowski, he decided to speak to Witkowski to learn more. The people who say they believe these things “aren’t trolling”; in Kaiser’s assessment, they really believe.

And yet. And yet. He circled back to his starting point.

“To indulge the theories, even via mockery, is to grant them a power,” he concludes. This is a problem with Nazi-related conspiracy theories especially because they tend to be antisemitic: at least by downplaying the moral weight of the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews, if not by going further and suggesting that the Jews were responsible for secret cabals and cover-ups. Sometimes what is most needed is not to explore the illogic of the conspiracy theory but rather to object to it on ethical grounds. It would be “much more fun,” Kaiser says, “to discuss Nazi flying saucers. But there is a cost to laughing at what should be condemned.”

Condemning misinformation implies that you are asking the misinformer to stop speaking that way.

An expressivist theory of ethical disagreement

In Fall 2001, at Brown University, for a philosophy course taught by James Dreier, I wrote a short paper about expressivism. In metaethics, “expressivism” is a theory that maintains that ethical pronouncements express attitudes, not facts. For many people, the expressivist theory is counterintuitive because ethical discourse does appear to make truth claims.

Allan Gibbard defended expressivism in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Harvard University Press, 1990, especially Chapter 5, “Normative Logic”), and Dreier reformulated, generalized, and expanded Gibbard’s theory to account for why people often speak of normative judgments as true or false (“Transforming Expressivism,” Nous, 1999).

In my own analysis at the time, I thought special attention should be paid to the moment at which norms are mapped onto propositions. The content of the specific norms and propositions would determine, in my view at the time, whether the Gibbard/Dreier theory could properly be called “expressivist.”

Transforming expressivism: Worlds in which a statement is true

If I say to you, “For goodness sake! Don’t do X. That’s terrible!,” what information am I giving you? Gibbard’s answer: The content of my statement is the set of factual-normative worlds in which my statement is true.


w1: the world in which John is a priest
n1: a complete set of norms according to which it is wrong for priests to drink

In the factual-normative world <w1, n1>, it is wrong for John to drink. There are other possible factual-normative worlds, too, in which it is (or would be) wrong for John to drink. The set of these worlds, according to Gibbard, is the content of the statement “It is wrong for John to drink.”


Sodium chloride is the chemical name for table salt. You know this—if you had forgotten, I just reminded you of it—but imagine someone who does not know it or has forgotten it. They might be alarmed at the idea of putting “sodium chloride” on the table although they accept the norm of using “salt.” Since the terms represent the same substance, these normative judgments are always contradictory. Expressivism, when using “possible world” semantics, fails to account for the contradictory judgments of “don’t eat it” and “eat it.” (The expressivist, for their part, probably doesn’t believe that their ethical expressions are propositions at all and thus does not believe that their expressions can contradict each other.)

To account for the apparent contradiction, Dreier wanted to reorganize Gibbard’s sets of possible worlds (which, again, are the contents of normative statements) into subsets based on a shared norm. The contents of normative statements are “incomplete propositions” or “propositional functions” that can be true or false relative to a set of norms. The statement It is right/wrong to do X is true or false depending on what else is true or false. The set of norms maps itself to some other more detailed proposition that can be more simply true or false.

Indexical theory

The statement “Megan ought to fight” sounds normative. According to indexical theory, as Gibbard pointed out, it really means that a certain set of norms requires Megan to fight. It’s basically descriptive, although it becomes normative insofar as it implies that you endorse the norm you describe.

There are, of course, other sets of norms that do not require Megan to fight. So indexical theory can account for moral disagreement. Conversational context often assumes or creates a shared normative system, relative to which normative propositions can be true or false. When I wrote my paper, I suggested other possibilities for explaining disagreement. The normative statement could express additional information like “we have reason to adopt or obey that set of norms” or “we act as if that set of norms were true.” This is information about which people can disagree.

Indexical theory is a type of cognitivism. However, Dreier thought indexical theory was, on the whole, similar to a noncognitivist expressivist theory (i.e. one in which ethical expressions represent noncognitive attitudes rather than propositions).

My suggestion

Suppose we focus on the speaker’s attitudes rather than their beliefs about external facts. Using a previous example, when an expressivist says “it is wrong to put sodium chloride on beans and right to put salt on beans,” their own ignorance of chemical labels explains why they hold this self-contradictory belief, and this factual ignorance determines their attitude.

In my paper, I pointed out that it is reasonable not to ingest chemicals labeled with unrecognized names. If you don’t recognize the term “sodium chloride,” you inhabit a factual-normative world in which it can, for you, simultaneously be wrong to put one mysterious substance on food (when you don’t recognize the label “sodium chloride”) and right to put another substance on food (when you recognize the label “salt”). This has to do with knowledge, intent, and caution. We are speaking of someone’s feelings and attitudes, not objectively describing chemicals. There is no contradiction.

I suggested another example with a more obviously ethical application: deciding to donate to charity. An individual donor has different knowledge and comfort levels about how different charities operate. One might propose that it can be right or wrong to donate to a specific charity depending on the donor’s knowledge and feelings about that charity; this is not a contradiction of the form donate and don’t donate.

Am I using an expressivist-compatible propositional theory to explain normative logic (as Dreier suggested), or am I ditching propositional theory altogether and claiming that ethical statements shouldn’t be considered as propositions at all? I left that question open in my short class paper 20 years ago. Perhaps someone today has an idea of where to take this.

What would it take for someone to decide to get the COVID vaccine?

When we are speakers, we may ask: How can I present my argument in a better way? Other times, as seekers, we need to ask what we can do to search, listen, and judge correctly.

A focus group of vaccine-hesitant Trump-Republicans

In mid-March 2021, Frank Luntz and Brian C. Castrucci held a focus group by videoconference with “19 vaccine-hesitant Trump Republicans” from “diverse economic backgrounds.” In the United States, fewer than half of white Republicans have already gotten the vaccine or told pollsters that they definitely will accept the vaccine when it is offered to them, so these “vaccine-hesitant” people are representative of a large demographic within the Republican Party. Luntz and Castrucci wanted to know what “ideas and messages” could possibly persuade these people to be vaccinated.

All participants agreed that the virus was real. To the extent that they were disposed to listen to anyone’s advice about vaccination, they said they’d rather take medical advice than ex-president Trump’s advice. Yet they didn’t understand why scientific predictions and recommendations had changed over time, and they felt that competing or changing information caused them to doubt the importance of vaccines.

Furthermore, they had a number of other beliefs that dampened their interest in vaccines. Some had been previously diagnosed with COVID and believed that they were already immune and did not need to be vaccinated. Others were unafraid of the illness or were more afraid of the vaccine (which they called “experimental,” “rushed” and “unproven”), or felt that there would not be sufficient immediate payoff for taking the vaccine (as social distancing restrictions would likely remain in place for a long time in any case). Another complained of “opportunistic politicians” for whom the vaccine was a tool in a mysterious plot for the “manipulation” and “socialization of society.” One said that lockdowns were a method of political “control.”

The group participants needed information and comprehension

The group members were missing basic information. They needed to hear that the vaccine was developed according to existing technologies; that the trials involved an unusually large sample size; that the Trump administration deliberately lifted regulatory requirements to speed up approval; that the vaccine has never killed anyone; that no one who has been vaccinated has gone on to die of COVID-19, either; that almost all doctors are vaccinated when they have the opportunity. Once they absorbed these facts, they were more open-minded toward the vaccine.

Of course people “do not want to be ridiculed, embarrassed or told that their thinking is ‘Neanderthal,’” as Luntz and Castrucci wrote for the Washington Post. As in any dialogue, the discussion needs to focus on the issue and not the person, and people won’t remain in the discussion unless they are treated gently and kindly.

But also: This group was designed within the boundaries of a political affinity

Luntz and Castrucci said everyone in their focus group was “eager to hear the facts.” They described these facts as “apolitical notions” that swayed the participants’ opinions. However, while the facts may have been apolitical, the group dynamics surely were not. They didn’t point this out in their Washington Post article. I am pointing it out.

The focus group itself was a political affinity group. All 19 participants (the subjects, that is) were Trump-Republicans, and we might expect that they were more open-minded and trusting with each other than they would have been in a more politically diverse group, especially given their beliefs that Democratic politicians seek to manipulate and control Americans through COVID policy. It so happens that the focus group was co-led by former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Tom Frieden, as well as four prominent Republican politicians, two of whom also happen to be physicians. The focus group participants enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak directly to these people. I don’t think we can assume that they would have been as receptive to physicians’ messages if the physicians had not so thoroughly embodied the imprimatur of Republican leadership. “If we had that kind of time and space with all vaccine-hesitant Americans, we would surely be able to move the needle,” Luntz and Castrucci wrote. Of course. And obviously it’s not possible. Congressional Republicans, governors, and national medical leaders can’t hold the hands of every American in a two-hour personal conversation to catch them up on a year’s worth of news they’ve been choosing every day not to read or listen to.

In other words, for all that the cultural right mocks the desire for “safe spaces” that reduce the likelihood that one’s identity will be challenged, this focus group was the epitome of a “safe space.” And it was only within such a safe space that the group leaders were able to begin to break through a year’s worth of science denial and epidemiologically bad behavior.

People need to take responsibility for their own information diet

Near end of the Washington Post article, this statement was notable to me: one focus group participant expressed interest in more data, while another just needed to hear a single emotionally affecting story.

The latter is a known phenomenon to storytellers, psychologists, and marketing experts everywhere. People generally do respond better to a story. “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” the proverb goes.

As for the former phenomenon, the person who craved more information: There are, of course, always people who say they want the statistics and who might really be equipped to begin to make sense of those large numbers. If they are academically interested, or if their intellect gravitates them more toward the logical than the emotional, that is fine.

But what I can’t quite wrap my head around is that these people were speaking in March 2021 rather than March 2020. Now that nearly 3 million people have died worldwide, a half-million of those close to home in the US, with many more people having been seriously sickened from the same disease, we do have the answers. The emotion is there. The logic is there. The answers have been available, and they have been communicated. We don’t need more data before we can decide. We don’t need more people to tell their tales of woe. The right decision is clear, and the right action should follow as a consequence: We need everyone to wear a mask, socially distance, and get a vaccine.

Of course, data can always be corrected and enhanced, and storytelling can always be improved. This is part of maintaining good communication. But the audience also needs to work on reading and listening.

Often the audience isn’t paying attention. It does not help to wield that observation as a deliberate insult, nor to say it quite so directly to someone’s face, as it will be received as an insult. But it is nonetheless true. Scientists and communication professionals have been talking. An important piece of the question is who is listening. If someone doesn’t make an effort to seek good information, pay attention to what they find, and critically evaluate it, they won’t have the knowledge they claim to want. If someone wants epidemiologically correct information, they need to listen to epidemiologists. If a politician whose primary raison d’être is being a racist troll has taken up a media campaign telling people not to worry about a potentially fatal, highly contagious disease, the public needs to assume that the politician is not speaking in good faith, unfollow them on Twitter, and not vote for them again. If the audience isn’t getting what they want from their television series, they need to try a different one. They can’t just sit and complain and blame their own ignorance on the series’ director. For the first week, yes, it’s the television’s fault; for an entire year, no. They are choosing to watch the confusing material. They need to change their own behavior.

Considering the supply-and-demand of good information in the Information Age, the deficit is surely not in the supply. The supply is high-quantity, and people need to learn to weed out the low-quality material. People need to learn to curate what they’re taking in. If someone has had a poor “information diet” for the past year—whether by overconsumption of bad material festering in a terrible corner of the information ecosystem, or by neglecting to read or listen to anything at all—it is their responsibility to change the channel. Ultimately, no one can do it for them.

There are a number of “how-to” books on critical thinking. They come in different flavors: everything from making sound philosophical arguments, to listening to scientists, to escaping cults. A very recent title is Behind the Scoop: Why You Should Think and Act Like a Journalist by the journalist Johannes Koch. It is accessibly written, a manageable length, and it reminds people that they are empowered to clean up their own information diet. It is also a book that you might plausibly give to someone else since it covers other topics, too, beyond just boosting your critical thinking habits.

I can empathize with someone who is wrong, but they are still wrong

I can muster empathy, to a limited extent, for people who are vaccine-hesitant. The part I can potentially empathize with is their general feeling of alienation from some aspect of the modern world—science, politics, culture—or their anxiety that someone is trying to hurt them. I may disapprove of their reason for feeling alienated or anxious, yet, in a far broader sense, I too am a human who knows what alienation and anxiety are. If they say they’re “scared and outraged,” I hear that and I know roughly what they mean.

However: Even if I manage to empathize with them as people and understand that they are having feelings, that doesn’t mean I can tolerate their error. In this particular case, factually, they are simply wrong. We’re all factually wrong about something now and then. Sometimes it’s a tiny detail that can be glossed over. The COVID vaccine is a particularly grave matter, and it is important that we arrive at a general agreement on the indispensability of this virus-fighting tool and that we perform the necessary act of solidarity; otherwise, we will never reach herd immunity from the COVID disease.

I don’t need to actively, directly, personally insult individuals who are vaccine-hesitant. At the same time, when someone holds a dangerously false belief, it’s necessary to be blunt (either with them or about them). They need to begin listening to the general agreement of the scientific and medical community. There is just no way around that outcome. Unfortunately, not everyone has an invitation to a focus group in which they get to have a two-hour personal conversation with the former director of the U.S. CDC, so they need to find another pathway through roughly the same information that will lead them to the same conclusion.

If I were to make (in this context, anyway) too many suggestions about how to think critically, it would sound patronizing. Anyway, I’m neither a scientist nor a science communicator. I’m sure I don’t need to explain how to make a choice about a vaccine. People know how make good decisions about the health of themselves and others. They just need to do it. Critical thinking is a choice about who to trust, what to care about, and when to put the time in. Now is a good time.

[Image of COVID vaccine by Reckmann Tim from Pixabay]