The conspiracy conspiracy

I was just listening to physicist Sean Carroll’s podcast interview of epistemologist Quassim Cassam. The interview mainly concerned Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political, but at the end it touched on his new book Conspiracy Theories. He remarked on the widespread belief that conspiracy theories are becoming increasingly widespread, and politically influential, and then made this Chomskyan comment

leaving aside the question of whether conspiracy theories are more or less prevalent, it’s true that conspiracy theories are popular and influential across the world and particularly in the US…. I’m actually much more interested in the idea that conspiracy theories or at least the sort of big ticket conspiracy theories are really forms of political propaganda, that what they really do is to advance a political agenda and that’s really their role.

So, you may think conspiracy theories are just arising naturally, but actually there are dark shadowy figures manipulating belief in conspiracies for their nefarious ends.

One small point: Carroll started the interview by remarking “I know a little bit about epistemology, not that much”. Which struck me as a deeply ironic remark, to which I yearned in vain for Cassam to reply “You may know more about it than you think you do.”

Paradoxical times

I remember in my childhood, maybe when I was ten or so, talking with my brother about the weird counterfactual possibility that someone could be elected president without winning a majority of votes. Of course, we imagined the most extreme possibility, a candidate winning by one vote in a minimum collection of states, and getting not a single vote in the rest, so that he could attain the presidency with (we worked out) only about one quarter of the votes.

This was discussed in the same kinds of spooky tones that we used to discuss uncanny notions like that someone could be his own grandfather or God could make a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it. When grownups on television tried to defend the Electoral College it was generally in terms of turning small vote majorities into decisive Electoral College majorities, thus enhancing the popular credibility of the vote. Now we’ve gotten used to the Electoral College being used to entrench Republican government against Democratic majorities. Given that it was originally designed to enhance the power of slave states, we can say it’s working as planned.

The Shabbat automobile (and other regulatory subterfuges)

It reminds me of the questions that folklorist Alan Dundes raised in his book The Shabbat Elevator and other Sabbath Subterfuges: Why do Orthodox Jews adopt enormously rigid strictures on every element of their lives, and then devote enormous energy and creativity to evading them, as when they tie a string around a whole neighbourhood to make an eruv, defined to be a single residence for purposes of the law that bans carrying objects in a public domain.

One could well ask, if a set of customs is deemed overly oppressive, why not simply repeal or ignore them?

At least they can argue that repeal isn’t really an option when you’re talking about divine law. But what about automobile pollution regulations?

Amid all the attention focused on Volkswagen’s bizarre cheating on diesel emissions tests — which ought to, but probably won’t, lead to multiple executives spending long terms in prison — some interesting lessons about the general nature of regulations and testing threaten to be submerged. As many have pointed out, real diesel emissions are many times higher than those permitted by regulations. The tests are routinely evaded, if not always as creatively as Volkswagen has done. Some examples: Continue reading “The Shabbat automobile (and other regulatory subterfuges)”

Condorcet method for choosing a religion

Making choices is hard! Particularly when there are multiple possibilities, differing in multiple dimensions. Like choosing the best religion.

There are many possible methods, leading to a variety of outcomes. The 18th century French mathematician Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, the Marquis de Condorcet, advocated privileging methods of deciding elections that will always grant victory to a candidate who would win one-on-one against each other candidate individually. (Of course, there need not be such a candidate.) Such methods are referred to as “Condorcet methods”.

I’ve just been reading The Jews of Khazaria, about the seventh to tenth-century kingdom in central Asia that converted to Judaism around the middle of the ninth century.

According to the Reply of King Joseph to Hasdai ibn Shaprut, one of the few surviving contemporaneous texts to describe the internal workings of the Khazar kingdom,

Each of the three theological leaders tried to explain the benefits of his own system of belief to King Bulan. There were significant disagreements between the debaters, so Bulan went a step farther by asking the Christian and Muslim representatives which of the other two religions they believed to be superior. The Christian priest preferred Judaism over Islam, and likewise the Muslim mullah preferred Judaism over Christianity. Bulan therefore saw that Judaism was the root of the other two major monotheistic religions and adopted it for himself and his people.

Four ways of paying the piper

I was thinking about four different expressions, interestingly different, for the platitude that people shape their consciences to their circumstances.

The most straightforward is the English classic

Who pays the piper calls the tune.

This is the most straightforwardly economical. The boss makes the decisions, and the opinions of the underlings are irrelevant. It says nothing about what those underling opinions might be.

A step more cynical is the old-German proverb

Wes Brot ich ess, des Lied ich Sing. [Whose bread I eat, that’s whose song I sing.]

It has the same general musical theme, suggesting the court jester performing for his master. But the singing, rather than piping, is more intimate, and to my mind suggests a more complete subordination of ones own beliefs to those of the master.

Perhaps the most pessimistic is the saying that Mark Twain claims to have learned as a boy, from a young slave:

You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.

In other words, as Twain explains, no one can afford to have opinions that interfere with his livelihood. It’s not a matter of dissembling — which is what makes this more pessimistic (but maybe less cynical?) — but rather of naturally adopting the opinions that are a comfortable fit to his circumstances. (Twain’s more cynical version was “It is by the fortune of God that, in this country, we have three benefits: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the wisdom never to use either.”)

And then there was the perfection of the corn pone line, the famous dictum of Upton Sinclair,

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

Here we see the complete identification of master and slave. The slave not only gives voice to his master’s views, he not only comes to accept the master’s views, he has deformed his intellect to the point where any other opinion has become completely incomprehensible to him.






Is Yahweh a constitutional monarch?

And was King David his prime minister?

I recently commented — as I’m not the first to notice — that an important advantage of having a monarch sitting formally on the throne, but prohibited from doing anything, is that it prevents the people wielding real power, like the prime minister, from putting on regal airs. You wouldn’t think such a silly trick would work, but it seems to.

It occurred to me that the origin of this trick could be seen in the political philosophy of the Hebrew Bible. God is repeatedly referred to as the King of Kings, and he is not at all pleased when Israel insists on having a king of their own. A king? he says. Are you out of your fucking minds? A king will be making war all the time. He’ll tax your grain and livestock. He’ll take your sons for his army and your daughters to serve in his palace. You’ll be slaves. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But even then, it’s a very limited sort of kingship, because the real monarch is the King of Kings.

It’s a perfect solution, for keeping kings in their place. Even Queen Elizabeth meddles in affairs of state. What better way to keep the regalia from messing with human politics than to bestow them on a deity who is (depending on your perspective) either too busy to get involved with human trifles, or simply imaginary?

I got to think about this again in reflecting on what I find one of the most fascinating stories in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the prophet Natan and King David. King David, the story goes, seduced Bathsheba, and she became, as the expression goes, with child. The problem was, her husband Uriah was a soldier out on a long-term deployment, so a pregnancy was liable to raise some eyebrows. No problem! He’s the king! He summoned Uriah back from the field, asked him for a report on the status of the front line, and then suggested he take advantage of the opportunity to see his wife. But instead, Uriah slept outside the king’s door.

David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.”

The king got him drunk, but he maintained his scruples. So the king decided to have him “accidentally” killed in battle. That worked, and David could take up openly with Bathsheba.

Problem solved! One could hardly imagine anyone criticising Rameses for accidentally on purpose bringing about the death of one of his subjects; nor Nebuchadnezzar; nor Louis XIV, for that matter. The story is set up so that the death is a soldier’s death in battle. The only crime was in David’s intention.

But then comes the prophet Natan and announces God’s anathema (to be punished by the death of their firstborn child — when I read the story as a child, I of course thought, why is the child being punished for this?). Actually, he gets David to condemn himself, by presenting his deed as an anonymous case of a wealthy man who stole the little that his neighbour had.

I’ve always been amazed that people 2500 years ago were able to formulate the principle that everyone, even a king, even the most majestic of holy priest kings, must respect the basic rights and dignity of other human beings. And a king who violates this principle is no better than a common thief.

But what never occurred to me before is to think that part of the trick was to declare the absent god to be the real king, and the king on earth to be just another servant. It took another couple of millennia for the West to instrumentalise this lesson.