The unifying form of string theory is M-theory, which unifies general relativity and quantum theory and gives 11 dimensions, of which 7 are curled up small and the remaining 4 are space time. Intelligent life requires the three space dimensions in order to survive. It is therefore curious that there are millions of people who are wholly engaged within a 2-dimensional world of extraordinary, fantastical theories and beliefs which shape the structure of their three dimensional real existence. The scale of these beliefs, largely involving conspiracy theories, is staggering to the rational mind and frequently involves intolerance of others on an epic scale, reflecting the view of 17C Thomas Hobbes, ‘The condition of Man … is a condition of Warre of every one against every one.’
Examples of collective mobocracy madness include accusations of Black Masses, Human Sacrifice and the disposal of thousands of children in appalling circumstances, in which the most senior figures in government are intimately involved and implicated. Once this collective insanity becomes ochlocracy, both the ordinary and the exalted are levelled, innocence irrelevant when in the path of the juggernaut of opprobrium. This is nothing new, as evidenced by the 1677 L’affaire des Poisons where a confession and implication of others by Madame de Brinvilliers, after being subjected to an early form of waterboarding, resulted in a literal witch hunt and the burning at the stake of 34 people, thus demonstrating that a truth told under duress is frequently a fabrication. And the children? The bodies of 2,500 babies were alleged to have been found in the garden of the midwife La Voisin in 1679; they were not, but this was irrelevant and she too was burned, though not before implicating more innocents whilst under duress. It all makes the accusations of paedophiles holding children in the basement of a pizza restaurant seem somewhat mundane, though no less absurd and dangerous.
Instead of consigning the bodies and reputations of the innocent to the inferno, it would be better to follow David Hume’s thoughts on Verification and question, “Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact, and existence? No? Commit it, then, to the flames.” Instead, modern maddening conspiracy theorists, fabricators and society altering hysterics tilt at windmills, believing that it is ‘maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.’ In this way they define their identity through their beliefs, since it is easier to have an opinion than it is to have facts.
To quell the madness we could employ suppression, but the allowance of a plurality of ideas is the price we pay for democracy, ‘the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience’ said John Milton, whilst recognising that liberty is paid with the coin of individual, corporate and governmental responsibility; and it is a currency easily devalued with lies and deceit. Dictators and monomaniac narcissistic leaders, which every dictator starts out as, know the value of a lie and Hitler knew this better than most, understanding that in order to establish a big lie, you must start with lots of smaller ones. He also knew that you needed ways of delivering lies and also the followers and subordinates to perpetuate and embellish them, so even irony is unable to steel itself to stand in opposition - if it was able to, then Goebbels would not have been Minister for Propaganda and Enlightenment.
But democracies are faced with a paradox of tolerance, as outlined by Karl Popper in 1945:
1. To be tolerant, a society must allow people to express their views.
2. Intolerant views are still views.
3. These intolerant views must be permitted if a society is to be completely tolerant.
4. The expression of these intolerant views creates intolerance.
Thus we return to the 2 dimensional world, where intolerant views rage, creating firestorms fuelled by misinformation, snuffing out the oxygen of rational debate. No wonder social media companies find themselves unable to deal with the problem. Whilst it is hard to raise much sympathy for them, since they created the platforms and pocket the billions, we should always hold to account those who use the platforms in ill-considered ways and fail to ‘Give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself’ – Thomas Paine.
However, it is not enough for society and corporations to hold individuals to account, it is ultimately the personal responsibility of people to judge themselves. There is irony in the renaming of Facebook as Meta, a major platform for misinformation, since metacognition in the individual is the state of mind which allows people to gain self-awareness, including insight into their personal biases. It is metacognition which enables cognitive reflection, which helps in avoiding agreeing with something which initially feels right but is in fact incorrect, as René Descartes wrote, ‘If you would be a real seeker after truth … doubt, as far as possible, all things.’ He went further with the philosophy of Rationalism, where our understanding of the world is guided by logic and reasoning and where we are born with all the tools we need to unlock the complexities of the universe, let alone a bunch of online conspiracies.
It may seem as if these online conspiracy theories are simply maddening mischievousness, but they have a corrosive effect on trust and truth, plying their trade without the accountability of the often vilified mainstream media. Tyrants get to understand how far they can go by observing how far the people are taking themselves, as it is the unaccountable who push the boundaries, the forward patrols of an advancing force; all that is needed to maintain momentum is to keep them supplied. Thus the tyrant can say anything, no matter how outrageously false it is, and see what is adopted as reality, ploughing minds with impunity and sowing the seeds of chaos.
The conflagration that is engulfing Ukraine has been fed by the Russian tactic of maskirovka, altering the perception of reality to sow confusion, and of all the statements that Putin has made, it is the accusation of Ukrainian Nazism which is the most outrageous, and ironic given the history of mid 20th century Russia. In 1939 Germany and Russia signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, also known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which deepens the irony given the urging of the presently beleaguered Ukrainian government for citizens to oppose the invading Russians with Molotov Cocktails. Taking a quick aside, and doubling down on irony, when the Russians invaded Finland and their aircraft unloaded their bombs, minister Molotov broadcast on state radio that these were humanitarian food drops, delivered to a starving neighbour. It was the Fins who came up with the technique of using petrol bombs to conflagrate invading Russian tanks, Molotov cocktail drinks to complement their food deliveries.
The pact between the Nazis and the Russian Soviets enabled them to collaborate in the seizing of Europe (invading Poland from both sides) and the funnelling of Russian supplies to Hitler’s armies of essential food and fuel for their invasion of Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The flaw in their grand conspiracy to carve up Europe between them was the pesky Poles who decided to stand and fight and, with a treaty in place and time for cognitive reflection, the United Kingdom also decided to stand and fight.
When Hitler proved to possess even greater duplicity than Stalin and invaded Russia, Soviet power shifted to the side of the good guys and the Motherland was granted redemption through sacrifice. Russia became a heroine for standing against the forces of fascism and now Putin weaves the lies that once again they are fighting Nazis and NATO is controlling the ‘orphaned’ states, those lost to Russia at the end of the Cold War, cynically amnesic to their past Soviet subjugation and the less than favourable opinion of Russia by their citizens. Violence and chaos were kindled with lies, burning bright in the darkness of deceit, and the immolation of tens of millions in the 20th Century bear witness to this truth.
Today, as the lies grow, so does the violence in Ukraine and I am reminded of Galgacus, a leader of northern Britains who fought the Romans, ‘They give the lying name of Empire to robbery and slaughter; they make a desert and call it peace.’ In this he was referring to a popular slogan of the Roman authorities, ‘Peace and security’ which St Paul viewed just as sceptically, ‘For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.’
Paul’s advice to counter the malignancy was ‘let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober’. Two thousand years on, the warning is to be alert to the power of falsification which flourishes in etiolated minds, grows in the absence of cognitive reflection and is always fed by malignancy. Perhaps we should leave the last word to the Poles, who know much about the tinder of little lies which lit up minds and seared their world. A lesson in personal responsibility for everyone from Leszek Kolakowski:
‘In politics, being deceived is no excuse.’