Did 'illuminati' conspiracy theories originate in ancient Greece?

You might think conspiracies that say everything that happens is caused by a group of the powerful are a modern phenomenon. Karl Popper says they are two thousand years old.

Astronaut David R. Scott, commander, gives a military salute while standing beside the deployed U.S. flag during the Apollo 15 lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Hadley-Apennine landing site. Right: Karl Popper (Wikimedia Commons/NASA/Big
Astronaut David R. Scott, commander, gives a military salute while standing beside the deployed U.S. flag during the Apollo 15 lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Hadley-Apennine landing site. Right: Karl Popper (Wikimedia Commons/NASA/Big

The word “conspiracy theory" only dates back to 1909 and didn't have an explicit association with paranoia and delusion until the 1960s. In the short time that the modern notion of conspiracies has existed an endless slew of them have been cooked up. From claims that the US government planned and carried out 9/11 to claims that Elvis faked his death, the idea that major events are part of a larger plan is a common one. Some conspiracy theories turn out to be true, others, not so much.


However, despite the relatively recent invention of the term the basic idea of many conspiracy theories, that events are planned and carried out by mysterious and powerful forces for their benefit, goes back two and a half thousand years. At least according to philosopher Karl Popper.

In his short essay The Conspiracy Theory of Society, Popper begins by describing the worldview of the ancient Greeks. For them, the Gods took an active interest in human affairs and anything that happened had their tacit approval. Events like the Trojan war were the direct result of divine meddling in human affairs. Popper believes that this belief never faded away and that now, instead of using God, conspiracy theorists suppose events are orchestrated by “various powerful men and groups—sinister pressure groups, who are to be blamed for having planned the Great Depression and all the evils from which we suffer."

Popper is suggesting that many conspiracy theories are based on the idea that a social outcome is evidence of an intentional order, and that random occurrences are rarely, if ever, relevant. He posits that people are attracted to this worldview for two reasons. Firstly, because people are often unaware of the unintended consequences of mundane occurrences and discount them when trying to explain the causes of major events and secondly because humans have a habit of assuming that all events were the intended cause of a prior action.

What does this look like in action?

He gives an example of a man who buys a house. That purchase then causes the price of all remaining homes to go up a little. The buyer didn't intend to raise the prices of the other houses, but it still took place. The conspiracy theorist, who believes all major socio-economic events are planned, will then assume some malicious organization of real estate agents has taken steps to inflate prices. It takes an understanding of how purchases have unintended effects on prices to know that there is no conspiracy at work and that the inflation was unintended.

As it is with houses and economics, so it is with society and all social sciences, alleges Popper. Ignorance of causes combined with the search for them leads to grand conspiracy theories.

Does this explain all conspiracy theories? Is it all just ignorance of unintended causes?

Popper is talking mostly about one kind of conspiracy theory. Specifically, the kind that alleges that most, if not all, major events are planned and executed by some cabal of the powerful who stand to gain from them. Those theories try to explain why events take place. He isn't aiming at false flag theories or theories that suggest the government is covering up the existence of aliens.

Lee Harvey Oswald after his capture. Conspiracy theories that suggest he didn't act alone in the assassination of President Kennedy are exactly the kind that Popper is talking about. We just don't want to admit or can't fathom how a major event could have such an odd cause. We demand a larger scheme. (Getty Images)

He is also not saying that no conspiracy theories are true. The idea that sometimes people do conspire to do significant things and then act on those plans remains a possible though rare occurrence. He categorizes Hitler's reaction to what he preserved as a worldwide conspiracy against Germany as a “counter-conspiracy" in which most of German society worked to disenfranchise, ostracize, and ultimately kill off the Jews. The fact that the Nazi plan failed and was not secret doesn't make it less of a conspiracy.

Are all conspiracy theories superstition as Popper implies some are? Probably not, as Big Think contributor Cass Sunstein reminds us that the domain of Popper's explanation is quite limited, " in his essay on conspiracy theories. However, Popper does give us a tool to help understand why some outlandish ideas manage to catch on. Some people either don't understand or don't want to realize that sometimes random events can have significant consequences and nobody is in control of things.

After all, it can be comforting to think that somebody is in control of things; although the information we have on conspiracies that happened suggests that the powers that be aren't good enough at keeping secrets to pull off the kind of thing Popper is talking about.

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A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

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Volcanoes to power bitcoin mining in El Salvador

The first nation to make bitcoin legal tender will use geothermal energy to mine it.

Credit: Aaron Thomas via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

In June 2021, El Salvador became the first nation in the world to make bitcoin legal tender. Soon after, President Nayib Bukele instructed a state-owned power company to provide bitcoin mining facilities with cheap, clean energy — harnessed from the country's volcanoes.

The challenge: Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a digital form of money and a payment system. Crypto has several advantages over physical dollars and cents — it's incredibly difficult to counterfeit, and transactions are more secure — but it also has a major downside.

Crypto transactions are recorded and new coins are added into circulation through a process called mining.

Crypto mining involves computers solving incredibly difficult mathematical puzzles. It is also incredibly energy-intensive — Cambridge University researchers estimate that bitcoin mining alone consumes more electricity every year than Argentina.

Most of that electricity is generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels. As it stands, bitcoin mining produces an estimated 36.95 megatons of CO2 annually.

A world first: On June 9, El Salvador became the first nation to make bitcoin legal tender, meaning businesses have to accept it as payment and citizens can use it to pay taxes.

Less than a day later, Bukele tweeted that he'd instructed a state-owned geothermal electric company to put together a plan to provide bitcoin mining facilities with "very cheap, 100% clean, 100% renewable, 0 emissions energy."

Geothermal electricity is produced by capturing heat from the Earth itself. In El Salvador, that heat comes from volcanoes, and an estimated two-thirds of their energy potential is currently untapped.

Why it matters: El Salvador's decision to make bitcoin legal tender could be a win for both the crypto and the nation itself.

"(W)hat it does for bitcoin is further legitimizes its status as a potential reserve asset for sovereign and super sovereign entities," Greg King, CEO of crypto asset management firm Osprey Funds, told CBS News of the legislation.

Meanwhile, El Salvador is one of the poorest nations in North America, and bitcoin miners — the people who own and operate the computers doing the mining — receive bitcoins as a reward for their efforts.

"This is going to evolve fast!"
NAYIB BUKELE

If El Salvador begins operating bitcoin mining facilities powered by clean, cheap geothermal energy, it could become a global hub for mining — and receive a much-needed economic boost in the process.

The next steps: It remains to be seen whether Salvadorans will fully embrace bitcoin — which is notoriously volatile — or continue business-as-usual with the nation's other legal tender, the U.S. dollar.

Only time will tell if Bukele's plan for volcano-powered bitcoin mining facilities comes to fruition, too — but based on the speed of things so far, we won't have to wait long to find out.

Less than three hours after tweeting about the idea, Bukele followed up with another tweet claiming that the nation's geothermal energy company had already dug a new well and was designing a "mining hub" around it.

"This is going to evolve fast!" the president promised.

How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine

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How Pfizer and BioNTech made history with their vaccine
Sponsored by Pfizer
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