Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Matrix and Conspiracy Theories

The most glaring philosophical question of the Matrix asks how to distinguish reality from a simulation.  It has always been the easiest to fall back on the agnostic argument: it doesn't matter since we cannot know.  The beauty and frustration about this viewpoint is that by admitting your impotence at finding the truth, you thumb your nose at the truth by telling it that it does not matter.  It is almost like after being rejected by a girl, you swear you never found her attractive anyways.

Not too long ago, when the violence in Ukraine began to erupt, there seemed to be a battle to control the narrative.  Mainstream American sources painted Russia as the aggressors while alternative viewpoints maintained that it was the West which destabilized the region.  Responding to the opening salvos, Western media painted the Russian perspective as propaganda while Russia-sympathetic websites such as RT reminded readers of Western propaganda in the past such as Gulf of Tonkin.

We are now in the same Matrix conundrum: how do we distinguish reality from propaganda?  Logically, it holds that both sides have an incentive to paint the other party as the bad guys.  It is also true that normal citizens like me are not privy to any inside knowledge.  All of our understanding of how the world works is filtered through what others tell us.  Fifty years ago it was scientific mainstream though to treat gays as mentally ill.  Now gays have parades.  Is either closer to the truth?  Of course, reading this in 2014 believes the latter to be accurate while the former a disgusting backwards view from a bygone era.  But how do you distinguish whether "being gay is ok" is due to being gay is actually ok or because that is what current society believes?

Feel free to replace Ukraine with the Hong Kong protests, or climate change denial.  It's the same story every time.  Depending on what you read and your innate biases, there is your truth plus the bonus of believing anyone who disagrees is a scoundrel or retard.  The separation between conspiracy theory, propaganda, and truth is only a degree of power.  When you have no power and you shout your version of the story, it is merely a conspiracy theory.  When you have some followers, but are still on the fringe, then the mainstream will decry you as propaganda.  When you are the mainstream, you now speak the truth.

Psychologically, this is a challenging frame of mind.  You are frustrated at the majority who believe the mainstream perspective without reservation.  When expressing doubts, you are dismissed as a shill for the other side.  It is my easier to embrace one viewpoint and trash the other.

This is the downside of diversity: diverse culture engenders diverse viewpoints, which engenders diverse truths.  This leads to not only traditional divides between liberals and conservatives, but also newfangled oddities: feminists versus men's rights activists or black activists versus white rights advocates.  On a grand scale, this explains the troubles in Ukraine and the Middle East.  Each side lives in a separate world, held up by different truths.