Edward Feser here tackles the irrationality on daily display via the Covington Catholic affair, and references a more detailed description of skepticism gone crazy:
As I have argued elsewhere, the attraction of political narratives that posit vast unseen conspiracies derives in part from the general tendency in modern intellectual life reflexively to suppose that “nothing is at it seems,” that reality is radically different from or even contrary to what common sense supposes it to be. This is a misinterpretation and overgeneralization of certain cases in the history of modern science where common sense turned out to be wrong, and when applied to moral and social issues it yields variations on the “hermeneutics of suspicion” associated with thinkers like Nietzsche and Marx.
Readers of this blog may recognize in Feser discussion above what I refer to as the Galileo Trap: the tendency or perhaps pathology that rejects all common experiences to embrace complex, difficult explanations that contradict them. In Galileo’s case, it happens that all common experiences tell you the world is stationary. Sure does not look or feel like we are moving at all. That the planet “really” is spinning at 1,000 miles an hour and whipping through space even faster proves, somehow, that all those gullible rubes relying on their lying eyes are wrong! Similar situations arise with relativity and motion in general, where the accepted science does not square with simple understanding based on common experience.
Historically, science sometimes presents explanations that, by accurately accommodating more esoteric observations, make common observations much more complicated to understand. Galileo notably failed to explain how life on the surface of a spinning globe spiraling through space could appear so bucolic. By offering a more elegant explanation of the motion of other planets, he made understanding the apparent and easily observed immobility of this one something requiring a complex account. But Galileo proved to be (more or less) correct; over the course of the next couple centuries, theories were developed and accepted that accounted for the apparent discrepancies between common appearance and reality.
We see an arrow arch through the air, slow, and fall; we see a feather fall more slowly than a rock. Somehow, we think Aristotle was stupid for failing to discover and apply Newton’s laws. While they wonderfully explain the extraordinarily difficult to see motion of the planets, they also require the introduction of a number of other factors to explain a falling leaf you can see out the kitchen window.
Thus, because in few critical areas of hard science – or, as we say here, simply science – useful, elegant and more general explanations sometimes make common experiences harder to understand, it has become common to believe it is a feature of the universe that what’s *really* going on contradicts any simple understanding. Rather than the default position being ‘stick with the simple explanation unless forced by evidence to move off it,’ the general attitude seems to be the real explanation is always hidden and contradicts appearances. This boils down to the belief we cannot trust any common, simple, direct explanations. We cannot trust tradition or authority, which tend to formulate and pass on common sense explanations, even and especially in science!
Such pessimism, as Feser calls it, is bad enough in science. It is the disaster he describes in politics and culture. Simply, it matters if you expect hidden, subtle explanations and reject common experience. You become an easy mark for conspiracy theories.
I’ve commented here on how Hegel classifies the world into enlightened people who agree with him, and the ignorant, unwashed masses who don’t. He establishes, in other words, a cool kid’s club. Oh sure, some of the little people need logic and math and other such crutches, but the pure speculative philosophers epitomized by Hegel have transcended such weakness. Marx and Freud make effusive and near-exclusive use of this approach as well. Today’s ‘woke’ population is this same idea mass-produced for general consumption.
Since at least Luther in the West, the rhetorical tool of accusing your opponent of being unenlightened, evil or both in lieu of addressing the argument itself has come to dominate public discourse.
A clue to the real attraction of conspiracy theories, I would suggest, lies in the rhetoric of theorists themselves, which is filled with self-congratulatory descriptions of those who accept such theories as “willing to think,” “educated,” “independent-minded,” and so forth, and with invective against the “uninformed” and “unthinking” “sheeple” who “blindly follow authority.” The world of the conspiracy theorist is Manichean: either you are intelligent, well-informed, and honest, and therefore question all authority and received opinion; or you accept what popular opinion or an authority says and therefore must be stupid, dishonest, and ignorant. There is no third option.
Feser traces the roots:
Crude as this dichotomy is, anyone familiar with the intellectual and cultural history of the last several hundred years might hear in it at least an echo of the rhetoric of the Enlightenment, and of much of the philosophical and political thought that has followed in its wake. The core of the Enlightenment narrative – you might call it the “official story” – is that the Western world languished for centuries in a superstitious and authoritarian darkness, in thrall to a corrupt and power-hungry Church which stifled free inquiry. Then came Science, whose brave practitioners “spoke truth to power,” liberating us from the dead hand of ecclesiastical authority and exposing the falsity of its outmoded dogmas. Ever since, all has been progress, freedom, smiles and good cheer.
If being enlightened, having raised one’s consciousness or being woke meant anything positive, it would mean coming to grips with the appalling stupidity of the “official story”. It’s also amusing that science itself is under attack. It’s a social construct of the hegemony, used to oppress us, you see. Thus the snake eats its tail: this radical skepticism owes its appeal to the rare valid cases where science showed common experiences misleading, and yet now it attacks the science which is its only non-neurotic basis.