Friday, July 23, 2010

In Search of the Irrefutable

I’ve come across several philosophers in my experience who consider our discipline as a kind of science of arguments. Philosophers are seeking, according to these folks (none of whom are made of very much straw), the truth through argument. So when a philosopher formulates an argument that cannot be refuted, he (and they have all been he’s) will have discovered a truth upon which philosophy may rest content. But a curious idea occurred to me a few days ago that I realized would make an excellent philosophy article, and stick solidly in the craws of all those truth seekers who would deign to take me seriously.

It started when I read Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, about men who synthesize every occult conspiracy theory for the past eight hundred years into a single, perfectly consistent history of the secret and hidden. The aficionados of ancient conspiracies (Masons, Templars, Rosicrucians, et al) then hunt down our heroes, killing them for their evidence, even though their synthetic history was entirely fictional.

Periodically, I’ll have a conversation about the 9/11 Truth conspiracies, the beliefs that some blend of the United States government, conservative establishment, intelligence agencies, and business elite carried out the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, and that al Qaeda had nothing to do with it. Not all the conspiracy theorists are quite this extreme, but all the 9/11 Truth theories have some of these elements mixed and matched together. Even if you can point to an established fact of the case that disproves some aspect of their conspiracy theory, the theorist will not respond to modifying his beliefs. He will instead denounce this fact as an elaborate fakery of the conspirators.

Nothing in the arguments of the 9/11 Truth conspiracy theorist, or indeed any committed conspiracy theorist, can ever be refuted. The very nature of conspiracy thinking maintains the integrity of the theory above all else - even facts. Some conspiracy theories are more consistent than others, and an intelligent theorist will modify their theory when shown some internal inconsistency. But this amounts to a strengthening of the conspiracy theory, not its refutation. Refutation would involve the dismissal of the argument itself, admitting that the USA government did not, in fact, cause 9/11.

This puts the definition of philosophy as seeking truth through articulating an irrefutable argument in quite some bother. The arguments most durable to attack, most invulnerable to critique, most flexible in maintaining their validity, are the most outlandish conspiracy theories. Of course, I’m not troubled, because I don’t think philosophy is about seeking truth at all. But if you’re sympathetic to this idea, I think I have something that could trouble you.