Wittgenstein’s On Certainty and the Concept of “Conspiracy Theories”

This is definitely a non-topic. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty – thoughts compiled from April 1950 to April 29, 1951 – does not show any clearer interest in “conspiracy theories”. The very phrase could be there and isn’t. Mental illnesses become a topic, religious beliefs, philosophical doubts, our everyday forms of “knowing” and “normal” and “healthy” scepticism fill the paragraphs with thought experiments like this one:

467. I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again “I know that that’s a tree”, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: “This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.”

Most of these Gedankenspiele look trivial. There is a long history of philosophers from Socrates to Descartes wondering about the possibility of proving their own existence. Normal people dismiss any such question as unhealthy – and in asserting this they can point to internees in mental asylums who show all sorts of strange beliefs and existential doubts and that is a problem in their lives. Which is, however, not the complete consideration enacted in this strange story. The man who has overheard the philosophers’ conversation seems to have turned into a menace. The philosophers did their best to prevent him from calling an ambulance. Which is only the beginning of the intricacies: Philosophers, so we have to realise, know that “normal people” do not doubt certain things. “Normal people” are, however, just as sophisticated. They can be expected to know that philosophers are not mad where they doubt the obvious. Both parties share a concept of real lunacy. Philosophers, that is what we have to admit, do not consider things on a meta-level then, on a level above normal consideration. Normal people command over their own meta-level from which they can look down on the rather limited game of philosophers. Both games, the philosophers’ and the normal man’s are transparent to each other even where they are kept apart. And still one more Thing to remark: the regular game is the bigger one, the one that includes the philosophers’ game.

Is Wittgenstein not interested in conspiracy theories because he is mostly interested in why we can entertain such conflicting thoughts as “normal people” and as “philosophers”?

Some theoretical conspiracy theories in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty

On Certainty is, none the less, filled with potential if not real conspiracy theories. There is the man who claims that he has been on the moon – in 1950 an impostorure if not a mad fixation. Any such claim violated a broad spectrum of working premises, so Wittgenstein. One will read his consideration on the odd thought today with at least two ironical twists: We live in a strangely new world in which the claim that no one has ever reached the moon is the new lunacy – and at the same moment a claim made by serious conspiracy theorists, not by lunatics. Read On Certainty §§ 106, 108, 111, 117, 171, 226, 238, 264, 269, 286, 327, 332, 337, 661, 662, 667 for the complete series of 1950s lunar claims.

A longer series of Wittgenstein’s thoughts – beginning with § 84 – deals with history as a field of possible fraud. Wittgenstein is at the same moment not interested in the option of a particular fraudulent act (the regular conspiracy theorist’s fear – or shall we say: field of creative work?)

185. It would strike me as ridiculous to want to doubt the existence of Napoleon; but if someone doubted the existence of the earth 150 years ago, perhaps I should be more willing to listen, for now he is doubting our whole system of evidence. It does not strike me as if this system were more certain than a certainty within it.

The philosophical challenge is in Wittgenstein’s eyes the doubt that threatens our entire “system of knowledge”. The particular doubt is rather boring (because it is the option a conspiracy theorist would stress?):

186. “I might suppose that Napoleon never existed and is a fable, but not that the earth did not exist 150 years ago.”

Where would Wittgenstein have positioned Young Earth Creationists on his scale of people with interesting historical doubts? The creation of the universe in the year 4004 BC is both ridiculously specific (to use Wittgenstein’s scale of humour) and charmingly universal.

Young Earth Creationists existed in the early 1950s in Mennonite, Mormon and Jehova Witnesses communities. Would Wittgenstein dismiss them as religious people with a simple lack of knowledge?

21st century creationism has more of a conspiracy theory than of a religious belief. Its 21st-century proponents play with the claim of a global conspiracy of secularists and evolutionists who have allegedly hijacked our universities and our educational systems with the aim to spread a fraudulent pseudo-scientific belief – which, again, does not become Wittgenstein’s topic.

Wittgenstein begins with a sentence conspiracy theorist will fully subscribe to:

2. From its seeming to me – or to everyone – to be so, it doesn’t follow that it is so.
What we can ask is whether it can make sense to doubt it.

What exactly do we mean where we say we “know” that the universe far older than 150 (or 6,018) years? Our personal experience does help us here. Wittgenstein is ready to agree with Ken Ham: We rely on school knowledge even where we claim that this knowledge has been tested and that we ourselves have experienced its validity on numerous occasions:

162. In general I take as true what is found in text-books, of geography for example. Why? I say: All these facts have been confirmed a hundred times over. But how do I know that? What is my evidence for it? I have a world-picture. Is it true or false? Above all it is the substratum of all my enquiring and asserting. The propositions describing it are not all equally subject to testing.

As he had said a couple of paragraphs earlier using Occam’s razor in a pragmatic cut:

147. The picture of the earth as a ball is a good picture, it proves itself everywhere, it is also a simple picture – in short, we work with it without doubting it.

And yet: to “know” that Greenland is covered with ice still basically means that we have “learnt” this. The school system requires us to state schoolbook information as personal knowledge – an imposition the philosopher is not ready to forget:

165. One child might say to another: “I know that the earth is already hundred of years old” and that would mean: I have learnt it.
[…]
263. The schoolboy believes his teachers and his schoolbooks.

Grown-ups are in a different position. They can claim to have validated much of their schoolbook knowledge, they are rather operating on a system of knowledge into which they were introduced back then. Wittgenstein speaks of a “frame of reference”, the pattern of information in which one alleged fact will support all kinds of other related pieces of information:

83. The truth of certain empirical propositions belongs to our frame of reference.
[…]
142. It is not single axioms that strike me as obvious, it is a system in which consequences and premises give one another mutual support.
[…]
410. Our knowledge forms an enormous system. And only within this system has a particular bit the value we give it.

We can redefine “knowledge” on this basis to the dismay of empiricists who have claimed that they would base all their knowledge on experience:

272. I know = I am familiar with it as a certainty.

Doubt as systematic counter knowledge

Once we have a clearer concept of what we mean where we say speak of “knowledge” we can say what doubt – normal doubt – is. Errors can be made on wide scale of options from mental illness to miscalculation. Doubt is rather fundamental. It works on the established system knowledge and is itself therefore inherently systematic:

115. If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.

Rationality can be seen as readiness to not doubt within the given system:

220. The reasonable man does not have certain doubts.

The Young Earth Creationist is again not among Wittgenstein’s providers of systematic (or should I say systemic?) doubts. Wittgenstein’s exemplary hero is an imaginary “king” (92 ff.) who has been raised to belief that the universe is not older that he. How would we move this man into our framework of knowledge? By opening his eyes to the truth? We could only try to “persuade” him, so Wittgenstein:

262. I can imagine a man who had grown up in quite special circumstances and been taught that the earth came into being 50 years ago, and therefore believed this. We might instruct him: the earth has long… etc. – We should be trying to give him our picture of the world.
This would happen through a kind of persuasion.

“Richer” knowledge is superior – a second tool added to Occam’s razor

Traditional philosophers will call for Occam’s razor where they try to defend their preference for a scientific over a faith based explanation. The positivist chooses the truth with the smallest number of acting forces. We do not multiply the kinds of entities if that is not necessary and we dismiss all gods and angels as long as we can. Wittgenstein has used the razor in § 147 and adds an additional tool in § 286: We prefer the “richer system of knowledge”. He is again writing under the imposition of his 1950s-framework of constructive knowledge on lunar affairs:

286. What we believe depends on what we learn. We all believe that it isn’t possible to get to the moon; but there might be people who believe that that is possible and that it sometimes happens. We say: these people do not know a lot that we know. And, let them be never so sure of their belief – they are wrong and we know it.
If we compare our system of knowledge with theirs then theirs is evidently the poorer one by far.

The competing options – Occam’s razor and the “richer system” call – are not mutually exclusive. Young Earth Creationism violates the demands of Occam’s razor: it calls for God on occasions which can be far better explained on the basis of natural laws. Wittgenstein’s vote for the “richer system” has its own charm at the same moment: The evolutionist can handle the broader spectrum of observations from geological, biological, linguistic, astronomical, to archaeological. Every single item of information these fields have thus far provided have found specific systematic positions in the wider framework of scientific knowledge where creationists have to fall back into their three fundamental sweeping generalizations without getting a step further: God threw the continents into their present positions during the flood (we cannot say why they keep on moving with their present speed, it is definitely not the speed with which God separated them in the first place during the flood). God created the oil, gas and coal deposits where he wanted to have them again during the flood. God made river beds that look as if they carved their canyons into the landscape over thousands of years – again within weeks of the flood as he liked to have them. God created the present mess of language when he destroyed the Tower of Babel – linguists might claim they can reconstruct how these languages developed over thousands of years, but in making this claim they fail to see that God just stamped them the wa according to the way he wanted to have them. God piled up the Himalayan Mountains not over millions but again suddenly during the flood – no matter with what speed we see them rising at the moment.

Conspiracy theorists will hint at the new complexities of their views: It takes a rich story of God’s plan to assume that he created a world that looks so much older and it takes an even richer story to assume that scientists worldwide are presently deluding the world in what appears to be a well coordinated but hidden interaction. Add to these rich complex stories thirdly the rich stories these scientists are presently creating and you have more richness in Young Earth Creationism than in evolutionism. Holocaust denialists handle the equivalent complexity of a secret Jewish World Conspiracy working hand in hand with modern historians plus the richness of “knowledge” these historians are producing.

Wittgenstein might strike back and claim that Ken Ham’s universe or the Holocaust denialist’s history are only theoretically rich. They are practically poor because they remove most of the disturbing facts with all their complex dependencies on each other into the new realm of forgery in which the specific information (the specific radio-carbon dating of a finding, the specific names of victims and places) becomes irrelevant.

But conspiracy theories are not really Wittgenstein’s topic

Is it because Wittgenstein was mostly interested in deconstructing our mainstream rationality – in an operation in which he is far more critical of our “knowledge” than the rivalling conspiracy theorist? Is it because he was interested in systems that work – in an attempt to determine to what extent they can claim to work (not in fake systems that only work as counter narratives)?

Our entire agenda of doubt seems, in any case, to have changed in the 64 years since Wittgenstein penned these thoughts. He did, so it seems, not live in a world in which almost any piece of publicly accepted news would sparkle the creativity of communities that would presently present critical alternative histories, histories of strange hidden plots, histories of suppressed news. In the early 1950s, “the media” and “the sciences” were not seen as institutions pursing a goal of systematic mass deception, so it seems. The very term “conspiracy theory” is in its present employment rather new and we have not discussed this “employment” thus far, Wittgenstein might say.

61. …A meaning of a word is a kind of employment of it.
For it is what we learn when the word is incorporated into our language.

The real question might be what kind of employment the term “conspiracy theory” has gained in our present “system of knowledge” (or should I speak of our present “system of knowledge”?) Wittgenstein does not really seem to be the philosopher who offers the straight answer we seek when we try to define the term and Levi Asher has said this earlier on this blog: definitions are not really on Wittgenstein’s agenda.

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (1950/51), translated by Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe (Archive.org).
  • Steven Andresen: Understanding Wittgenstein // What is a “philosophical theory” and are they of any use? March 30, 2012 Touchy Subjects
  • Alistair Robinson: Notes on Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”, Part 1, see especially Part 6
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