‘Epistemic nihilism’

‘Epistemic nihilism’ December 2, 2020

The election and the delusional aftermath among many Trump supporters causes Paul Campos to revisit this post from last year on “conspiracism.” He repeats a good chunk of that in “Conspiracism and the Election.” Campos begins with a quote from a recent book by Nancy Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead which “posits that Donald Trump is emblematic of a growing trend, which is conspiracy theories that feature no actual theory”:

Conspiracy theorizing today dispenses with the burden of explanation. In fact, sometimes, as in Pizzagate, there’s absolutely nothing that needs to be explained, and there’s no real demand for truth or facts. There are no actual dots that need to be connected to form a pattern. Instead, we have conspiracy charges that take a new form: bare assertion. Instead of trying to explain something that happened in the world, it’s about creating a narrative that itself becomes the reason for the conspiracism. And it even spreads in a much different way.

For instance, much of the conspiracism today spreads through innuendo. You’ll hear people say, “I just want to know more, I’m just asking questions.” Or, as President Trump likes to say, “A lot of people are saying…” This is conspiracy without any theory. It’s about validating preexisting beliefs by constantly repeating false claims that reinforce what you already believe.

So it’s not merely that someone thinks Hillary Clinton is an unworthy candidate; we have to make up a story about her sex trafficking in children. And by repeating these things and assenting to them, you’re signaling a kind of group affinity. Conspiracy without the theory has become a form of political participation.

One term describing phrases repeated and assented to in order to signal one’s group affinity is “creed.” This is why I don’t see conspiracism or “conspiracty without the theory” as exclusively a form of political participation. It is also a form of religious participation. It involves asserting and imposing meaning as the grounds for asserting and imposing one’s own identity. That’s religion.

It’s not the healthiest kind of religion, of course. Healthier forms of religion involve seeking meaning beyond and outside of oneself, and thus some kind of belief in something actual apart from oneself, whether that something actual can or cannot be proven with certainty. Conspiracism isn’t about seek and ye shall find but about abandoning seeking and rejecting any need for it. It’s not about “ask and ye shall receive,” but “receive, and stop asking.”

Rosenbaum and Muirhead’s useful term for this religious devotion to conspiracy without the theory — “conspiracism” — doesn’t grab me quite as well as the phrase Campos uses to describe it: “epistemic nihilism.”

I think that captures what’s going on here in a way that highlights the deepest division separating Americans right now. This is not a clash between groups that believe different things. It is a clash between those who really believe what they claim to believe and those who do not.

This “epistemic nihilism” doesn’t quite mean that these folks don’t believe in anything. What it means, rather, is that they don’t require any correspondence between what they actually believe and what they tell others and themselves they do. Nor do they require any relationship between what they claim to believe and anything externally real.

But for all that, they do still require something to believe. What that something is cannot be discerned by asking them. They’re not at this time capable of providing an honest answer to such a question even to themselves, let alone to anyone else.

But what they “really believe” can be discerned. Just because they’re committed to epistemic nihilism doesn’t mean we have to join them. What they “really believe” is still knowable. It can be known in the same way — the only way — that any of us can learn what it is we ourselves “really believe.” By watching what they do.

Do they “really” believe in the absurd phantasmagoria of Q-Anon and the ongoing Satanic panic? No. Evidently not. Because to believe in such things would entail living lives, in ways large and small, that we see no evidence of these “believers” living.

Do they “really” believe in white nationalism and Herrenvolk democracy? Why, yes. Yes they do. This may not be what they say they “really believe,” but this is the belief their lives, habits, actions, and reactions all demonstrate.



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