Nowadays, 5G detractors and coronavirus deniers have invaded the place usually occupied by anti-vaxxers and their like. But not long ago this crowded realm was the province of yet another eccentric group: flat earthers. Far from the judgments of the academy, a core part of our scientific understanding of reality was being rejected outright, with the arrogance characteristic of conspiracists and pseudoscientists, who generally have no use for self-doubt. Among my first thoughts on learning of this was that these people are holding back progress.
However, perhaps this attitude of mine is a side effect of a Romantic, teleological notion of history that suggests that progress is about accepting a series of indisputable facts—in this case, scientific axioms telling us that the more or less sphere-like shape of the Earth is both undeniable and intrinsic to our understanding of physics.
But that the Earth is spherical is not a primary component of modern knowledge—whereas the act of questioning is characteristic of modern epistemology. We can only obtain an unbiased picture of the world through a process of sceptical questioning and this means that we have to tolerate uncertainty. Therefore, we should not be hostile towards questioning itself—though we can criticise the method used. Flat earthers dismiss any information that runs contrary to their entrenched position. Their biased reasoning and pseudoscientific ideas can be faulted for this.
But to say that flat earth theories are historically regressive is to ignore where these eccentric ideas come from. In fact, the emergence of new forms of magical thinking is a symptom of our times: an unpaid epistemological debt incurred during our culture’s passage to modernity. This debt is not only in evidence in the thinking of conspiracy theorists like flat earthers, but in every idea with roots in Platonism.
In his 1954 essay “The Question Concerning Technology,“ Martin Heidegger writes that the end of Platonism would mean that “the suprasensory world is without effective power.” This is his interpretation of Nietzsche’s famous assertion that “God is dead”: the emergence of modernity has meant the end of metaphysics as ontological Otherness. In other words, in modernity, the truth and meaning of things is no longer vested in the existence of an unintelligible plane, conveniently beyond our reach, and originally meant to provide us with moral guidance. Modern knowledge, from sceptical Cartesian epistemology onwards, is based on a concept of knowledge as the opposite of dogmatism. This has enabled the development of science and its bifurcation into endless different branches. This constantly growing set of knowledge, which, for the past two centuries, has been unfathomable in its entirety even to the brightest human minds, is the antithesis of dogma, and, at the same time, the quintessence of modernity. Meanwhile, following the fall of Platonism, over the past centuries, modernity has gradually moved ever farther from Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and its requirement of self-certainty.
Heidegger repeatedly addressed the question of the end of metaphysics. In his 1964 talk “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” he recognized cybernetics as metaphysics’ successor. For him, cybernetics was “the new fundamental science” which “corresponds to the determination of man as an acting social being.” Founded by mathematician Norbert Wiener in the mid-twentieth century, cybernetics studies systems and their evolution. While the supernatural was once evoked to explain the order of reality, cybernetics uses observation, feedback and calibration to order phenomena in the form of information, information that strives towards order as a by-product of a system’s elements and their interactions. More importantly, far from providing a moral law, cybernetics views knowledge as a matter of studying the discernible behaviour and properties of systems. Rather than wanting to obtain a knowledge of the truth of such systems, cybernetics simply focuses on understanding them sufficiently to allow us to use them for our purposes.
Yet, the fact that metaphysics no longer has a place in our description of reality doesn’t mean that it has completely relinquished its grip on us. We still use metaphysics to find scapegoats and to banish the fear of uncertainty—a fear that is justified, since dogma always finds human agents to help it to reproduce, while knowledge more often manifests as a kind of black box. We all know that gravity plays a part in determining Earth’s shape, that our body requires oxygen to work and that the mobile internet network requires electricity—but this is very different from knowing how any of these systems actually work. The globalized world we inhabit is criss-crossed by discrepancies between the forces of modernity—which have transformed societies and how we relate to each other and to nature—and the vestiges of a Platonist tradition. This is where dogma persists and this dogma is not limited to the remnants of organized religion. It can be seen in the New Age belief in energy and in holistic supernatural entities, which are not underpinned by any real theology and may have been created through eclecticism. Secular dogmas, for their part, although they lack consensual or comprehensive definition, can manage to create ad hoc Platonic beliefs to match their settings. At their peak, flat earth theories were the squeakiest manifestation of this kind of reasoning, although not the most widespread or threatening. All kinds of social issues—whether or not they serve political or media agendas—can be argued for in a rhetoric that is limited to dogma.
While it can take many forms, dogma is always available to those who want to use it to deal with—or try to eliminate—the world’s complexity. Often, knowledge itself resembles an instruction manual, explaining how things work. Facts are often taken to be dogmatic truths, and, when this happens, knowledge ends up losing any trace of the scepticism that allowed those ideas to be conceived in the first place. If we consider humanity’s knowledge as a corpus of bibliography and technology, its development occurs behind most people’s backs—or rather, behind the backs of anyone unaware of the state-of-the-art knowledge in every scientific field. Since it impossible for anyone to understand scientific theory in its entirety, it shouldn’t surprise us that dogma continues to find partisans, since the idea of being unable to face a potentially infinite ignorance is pretty frightening in itself.
A debt implies two things: a debtor and an obligation of repayment. We often judge modernity by its individual actors and institutions, rather than by western civilization as a whole. What we call modernity arose as a western phenomenon. However, this obligation to repay a debt is simply the completion of the ontological and epistemological transition to modernity. Whether we are religious or not, as individuals we must understand that when we make concessions as to what we do and don’t know, this is not so much a matter of losing our identity or faith as of recognising our intrinsic limitations and that this necessity to concede doubt is also part of the nature of modern knowledge and that this doubt pervades social and natural sciences alike. At the same time, becoming modern implies abandoning the search for an external moral high ground, and recognizing that certainty is a dead end. To belittle claims of being in the right or in possession of the truth is to accept that to be transitive and perishable is part of the nature of knowledge itself.
I think an actually much more important reason for many people becoming anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, or corona virus, global warming, or Holocaust deniers, or any sort of fanatical opponents of generally accepted scientific, medical, or historical knowledge (including also fanatical belief in flying saucers, Ancient Astronauts, astrology, or the lost continents of Atlantis and Lemuria) is a temperamental “contrarianism” that seeks personal validation and ego-gratification through adamantly opposing “mainstream” or “consensus” beliefs and presenting oneself as a brave, brilliant independent thinker smart and courageous enough to see through the lies of the “Estabishment” and the ignorant illusions of the naive, gullible “sheeple.” Thus, I myself once met a university librarian who claimed to be a flat-earther and also a right-wing “free market” libertarian (more or less in the Ayn Rand tradition). I got the feeling that both his “flat-earthism” and his right-wing economic libertarianism arose mostly from a “contrrian” psychological impulse… Read more »