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.
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.
Pay attention to the decisions made by the provinces.
- China leads the world in numerous green energy categories.
- CO2 emissions in the country totaling more than all coal emissions in the U.S. have recently emerged.
- This seems to be an administrative-induced blip on the way towards a green energy tipping point.
NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.
Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!
And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"
All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!
If you want to be a better and more passionate communicator, these tips are important.
If you identify as being a socially conscious person in today's age of outrage, you've likely experienced the bewildering sensation when a conversation that was once harmless, suddenly doesn't feel that way anymore. Perhaps you're out for a quick bite with family, friends, or coworkers when the conversation takes a turn. Someone's said something that doesn't sit right with you, and you're unsure of how to respond. Navigating social situations like this is inherently stressful.
Below are five expert-approved tips on how to maintain your cool and effectively communicate.
Calling all big thinkers!
- The next Mega Millions drawing is scheduled for Oct. 23 at 11 pm E.T.
- The odds of any one ticket winning are about 1 in 300 million.
- This might be a record-setting jackpot, but that doesn't mean you have a better chance of winning.
Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku.
- Many readers buy books with every intention of reading them only to let them linger on the shelf.
- Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives as they remind us of all we don't know.
- The Japanese call this practice tsundoku, and it may provide lasting benefits.
Money makes the world go 'round. Unfortunately, it can make both children and adults into materialists.
- Keeping a gratitude journal caused children to donate 60 percent more to charitable causes.
- Other methods suggested by researchers include daily gratitude reflection, gratitude posters, and keeping a "gratitude jar."
- Materialism has been shown to increase anxiety and depression and promote selfish attitudes and behavior.
The Boring Company plans to offer free rides in its prototype tunnel in Hawthorne, California in December.
- The prototype tunnel is about 2 miles long and contains electric skates that travel at top speeds of around 150 mph.
- This is the first tunnel from the company that will be open to the public.
- If successful, the prototype could help the company receive regulatory approval for much bigger projects in L.A. and beyond.
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