Hans Kuhn observed that a scientific hypothesis survives, and rightly so, until a better one comes along. But surely there are some hypotheses which, notwithstanding we don’t yet have – perhaps we’ll never have – an alternative to replace it, can be conclusively rejected because it’s simply falsified by the evidence. In such cases all we can say – and all we do say – is “Damned if I know!” For example, that the socks that have been eaten by the dryer have in fact been abducted by aliens has been widely rejected. And yet the Great Sock Mystery remains.
I suspect it’s this Kuhnian philosophy of science that’s driving many 9/11-Truthers. “No,” they admit, “we don’t have an alternative account that’s ready for prime time. But, dammit, it’s pretty clear that the official story can’t explain Building 7, and so the official story can’t be true.”
The only way around this, I suppose, is to show that the official story can explain Building 7, just as the Warren Commission tried to show that ‘the magic bullet’ wasn’t magic after all. I’m no expert on either 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination. Never will be. Just not interested. But it does seem to me that “Damned if I know!” is the more epistemically defensible response to the Great Building 7 Mystery than “So it must have been Mossad!”
That it must have been Mossad has about as much epistemic warrant as that it must have been Tinker Bell. But it has considerably more doxastic warrant. By the former I mean what one might have grounds to believe is true; by the latter I mean what one might find it most useful to believe. More often than not the two coincide. But not always. And in the case of having epiphenomenal beliefs – and our beliefs about the 9/11 are as epiphenomenal as beliefs get! – truth is pretty much irrelevant. What’s at stake is our knowing nods to our fellow travellers, not whether this knowingness reflects any real knowledge. So, for example, if I already have a bee in my bonnet about Israel, saddling its government with 9/11 – especially when it can never be proven otherwise – might not go amiss.
And this, I think, goes a long way to explaining what drives a lot of these Trutherisms. Unfortunately it also explains what drives a lot of convictions that aren’t called Trutherisms, but share the same etiology. Such as? Such as that anthropogenic global warming caused the Syrian civil war, or that global warming denialism is a wholly owned subsidiary of the evil Koch brothers.
This is not to say that the Syrian civil war was not caused by anthropogenic global warming, any more than it’s to say that 9/11 was not the work of Tinker Bell. Could have been. Neither is a metaphysical impossibility. And neither has been empirically falsified. It’s just that some hypotheses are more metaphysically extravagant than others. And extravagance is not among what W.V.O. Quine calls the virtues of an acceptable hypothesis. All other things being equal, advises Quine, opt for the hypothesis that’s the least metaphysically extravagant, where by ‘metaphysical’, in this context, is meant pertaining to unseen agents like Tinker Bell, or at least unseen agency, like global warming.
The problem with Quine’s advice, however, is that it presupposes we share a common take on what counts as extravagance. But we don’t. To the 9/11-Truther that nineteen ‘dumb Ay-rabs’ could have pulled this thing off is beyond credulity. For me that Mossad pulled it off, and then made it look like nineteen dumb Ay-rabs did it, just adds a gratuitous level of complexity. It wouldn’t be gratuitous if there were something about the hijackings that couldn’t have been pulled off by these nineteen dumb Ay-rabs. But that’s never been the Trutherist claim. Their claims have always been about the impossibility of the consequences of the impact of those planes on the two towers; that on their own those planes couldn’t have brought those buildings down. And certainly not Building 7.
So, it would seem, an implication of the Trutherist view is that Arabs are just too stupid to do what Jews, by contrast, are smart enough both to do and, as icing on the cake, to cover up their having done it. One wonders, then, why 9/11-Trutherism is so widely associated with anti-Semitism, when it should be associated with thinking that the Nazis just had it wrong about which is the true master race.
Most of the people reading this are, I take it, on the left, left in the sense of being pro-Choice, pro-vaxxer, anti-Trump, you know, that kind of thing. And from what’s been just said, they might be rubbing their hands with approval. Until, that is, they realize that this knife cuts both ways. Most of my readers – no, change that to – none of my readers have a shred of epistemic warrant for believing what they do about vaccination safety, the evilness of the Koch brothers, anthropogenic climate change, or pretty much any of the things they flaunt their high dudgeon about. But they have doxastic warrant up the wazoo. They want to believe these things, and they’ll cherry-pick from the orchard whatever they have to to buttress their beliefs, just as the Truthers do to buttress theirs.
So the truth about Truthers is also the truth about Falsers. And so since none of us can be neither Truther nor Falser – because remember: we live in a bivalent doxastic universe – this is the truth about all of us.
Sorry, I meant all of you. I’m not one of us. I’m the alien who’s been tractor-beaming your socks.
Categories: Why My Colleagues are Idiots