“It is an axiom of psychology that when a part of the psyche is split off from consciousness
it is only apparently inactivated; in actual fact it brings about a possession of the
personality, with the result that the individual’s aims are falsified in the interest of the
split-off part.” (Jung 1951, [CW 9i, para. 277])
The Red Cross was trying to poison the people of Afghanistan through vaccinations. The Moon landing was fake. The Holocaust did not happen. Donald Trump was claiming for years that President Obama was not born in United States or that President Obama may have hired someone to murder Supreme Court Justice Antonio Scalia. (SLIDE 2) The Trump administration figured out how to manipulate public opinion by skewing the truth and producing “alternative facts.”
Even though conspiracy theories are largely based on fantasies, they can actually change the course of history and often claim human lives. Based on irrational premises, these “theories” falsify data and pretend to present rational conclusions. That is to say that their “live” core is submerged in unconscious. Belief in conspiracy theories typically feeds secret or unconscious positions and thus shields the true reasons, which leads to a deformation of perceived reality and consequent deformation of the desired outcomes. (SLIDE 3) Let’s recall how during the Middle Ages, so called “religious” [cosmological] theories held back scientific progress, or how many women, labelled as “witches,” had to die during inquisition. (SLIDE 4) Three hundred years later, the age of information, which includes the internet and easy access to knowledge, allows for conspiracy theories to grow like mushrooms after the rain. “Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret et mala perrumpet furtim fastidia victrix,” said Horace. We can drive out the nature by the pitchfork, but she will always come back and triumph over our vain contempt. Consciousness, teaches Jung, can never succeed in overpowering unconscious, but it can engage it in a dialogue.
Conspiracy theories, just like all “theories” that are based on inferior thinking, are by definition irrational. As Jung said, the inferior function secretly and mischievously influences the superior function. (CW 9i, par. 431) It pretends to be rational, but the autonomous core unwittingly asserts its magical power over one’s thought process. St. Matthew (7:15) warned: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.” (SLIDE 5)
Conspiracy theories, or if you want, bizarre theories, have existed since time immemorial. Perhaps since times when consciousness began its discrimination journey.
While originally concerned with supernatural and sacred powers, today conspiracy theories main concern are powers that are natural and secular. The function of symbol evaporates with too much of “secularity” and could lead to concretisation or literalization of experienced reality. The great “Unknown” is locked down to a simple “Known.” The truth becomes a dogma and the symbol breaks apart, leaving feeling and thinking disjoined.
Let’s look at the similarities and differences between “sacred” and “profane” theories, e.g. traditional religious theories and contemporary conspiracy theories.
(SLIDE 6) When ancient Greeks believed that Eros hallowed the marriage of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky), they likely thought of it as a symbolic marriage, not a literal one. They perhaps imagine the depth of human suffering caused by our shadow holding opposites separate so they could not touch each other. Maybe that is why they believed that Zeus condemned Atlas to hold in pain the western sky on his shoulders.
Jung (1950) said: “A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps.” (CW 9i, par. 222)
(SLIDE 7) We read in the Old Testament (Ex 7:14-11:10) that God sent a calamity in the form of bloody rivers upon people of Egypt because Pharaoh refused to free suffering Israelites. That was followed by nine other plagues until Pharaoh got the message: hordes of frogs, biting insects, invasion of wild animals, livestock diseases, boils, fiery hail, locusts, darkness, and death of firstborn males.
Behind some of these “punishments” could have easily been natural or rationally explainable causes, as many scientist have attempted to prove. However, sixteen hundred years BC there was likely only a handful of mystics who would explain any natural event by other than a supernatural cause. The paradigm of understanding reality via omnipotent deity had governed mankind since the times of Cognitive revolution of homo sapiens roughly dated to 70,000 years ago (Harari, 2014).
(SLIDE 8) It was not until recently that Greek cynics and later stoics, such as Zeno of Citium (c. 334 – c.262 BC), Cleanthes of Assos (c. 330 – c. 230 BC), and others, transferred the moral responsibility from the gods’ to humans’ shoulders.These cynics and stoics dared to break the taboo with their analytical methods.
Nonetheless, the gradual rise of critical thinking, along with the retreat of the power of collective institutions, had complicated the way in which people explained the origin of complex, especially “negative,”emotionally painful experiences. Belief in divine will was steadily replaced by various seemingly rational theories, but that might have created room for a great anxiety of chaos and uncertainty. We humans can hardly face the painful realization that our words are like words of God that create reality…we have to live with!
“Madness,” said Jung, “is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is full of craziness and at bottom utterly illogical. Man strives toward reason only so that he can make rules for himself. Life itself has no rules. That is its mystery and its unknown law. What you call knowledge is an attempt to impose something comprehensible on life.” (Jung, RB, Liber Secundus, p. 108)
So rising plurality of information and thirst for knowledge allowed conspiracy theories to gain on individual creativity. Their uniqueness, though, might be only ostensible!
While in the domain of traditional cultures there were firmly rooted ways of explaining the world (e.g. religions), geographical and mental openness gave rise to greater plurality for understanding reality. During modern times, while the religious creed has kept its mandate for explaining eschatological and cosmological questions, conspiracy theories gradually took over the domains where secular explanations sufficed. The numinous powers have not ceased to be secretly present though.
(SLIDE 9) Gods and their supernatural faculties were replaced by sophisticated powers of secret agents, wealthy illuminates, freemasons, presidents of powerful nations, Jews and their intelligence agencies. Words that were suppose to unlock symbols have been replaced by literal terms that locked symbols down. The living connection between the ego and the Self quite eroded during this process. Hubris sets in and the truth became the “only” truth. The inflation moved us from a position where everybody knows something and nobody knows everything to a belief where everybody knows everything, while nobody knows nothing. But we cannot communicate this to each other; we are trapped in the Tower of Babel longing for the unity! (SLIDE 10)
Jung again: “[This] rupture of the link with the unconscious and our submission to the tyranny of words have one great disadvantage: the conscious mind becomes more and more the victim of its own discriminating activity, the picture we have of the world gets broken down into countless particulars, and the original feeling of unity, which was integrally connected with the unity of the unconscious psyche, is lost.” (CW 11, par. 443) (SLIDE 11)
Theories built on the religious creed and conspiracy theories differ mainly in the fact that the conspiracy theories are secular in their outward appearance. It is human who is conspiring, human who is the source of evil, and human who is planning the doomsday, humiliation, and destruction of the other human. In exceptional cases, conspiracy theories refer to an alien civilization as the conspirator of the plot. In the case of these secular conspiracy theories, the omnipotence is transferred from God to a human being. Projection has not become withdrawn though, it was only relocated and remains under the veil of the dark shadow of the Self. Conspiracy theories carry within themselves archaic patterns that continue engaging our shadows through news consumption and daily arguments as to which country or which politician is set to destroy the world. (SLIDE 12)
“Archaism attaches primarily to the fantasies of the unconscious, i.e., to the products of unconscious fantasy activity which reach consciousness. An image has an archaic quality when it possesses unmistakable mythological parallels. Archaic, too, are the associations-by-analogy of unconscious fantasy, and so is their symbolism” says Jung. (CW 6, par. 684)
(SLIDE 13) When analyzing patterns of conspiracism and [fundamentalist] religious creed, certain analogies become apparent (see: Zdeněk Vojtíšek, Dingir 2, 2016): (SLIDE 14)
- Conspiratorialists believe in a perfect nearly omnipotent director and a perfect plan of particular conspiracy.
- All conspiracies have primal cause.
- Conspiratorialists seek secret signs and clues.
- Conspiratorialists are chosen to find the secret by their special ability to see by their heart.
- Object of their quest is revealed to them by their ability to read in between the lines.
- Their knowledge is unshakable and is treated by them as faith.
- They idolize sources and refuse to question their authority. There is only ONE truth (their own).
- They surrender their will and passively accept their responsibility for the states of affair.
- Conspiratorialists feel duty to convert others. Righteousness.
- Conspiratorialists believe in the struggle between the good and the evil and they themselves are on the good side.
- They believe in supreme justice.
- And finally, they believe in the Triumph of the Good.
Religious and likewise conspiracy theories provide us with the feeling of “cathartic insight,” namely the feeling that one understands the origin of negative phenomenon: that is with what motivation and to what aim is something plotted. That feeling gives one rather illusional hope that he or she can somehow participate on controlling the phenomena and also influence the outcomes. It is primarily a magical feeling, because no actual personal responsibility is employed. Even though conspiratorialists believe that there is a human factor behind the conspiracy, they admit reluctantly that it is planned so well that it is practically impossible to achieve justice. For example, they’d rather believe that global warming is a hoax than try to do something about it just to be on the side of caution.
Conspiratorialists’ position is very firm and is akin to archetypal defence we typically observe when it comes to so called “facts” of holy scriptures. (SLIDE 15) Even the best documented terrorist attack on 911 is in their eyes only a masterpiece plot of the CIA. Their knowledge is not ordinary; it is a gift of divine providence!
There are many parallels between conspiracism and religion that are not to be confused with spirituality!
When I speak here about “religion” I am referring to a rather rigid set of beliefs that are related to a moralizing deity that has a plan and a full control over happenings. We have to distinguish between religion as institutionalized convictions and practices (creed) and religion as form of inner connection to a transcendent reality, i.e. spirituality. Crucial difference between those two lies in the ability of symbolic insight, that is in the ability to accept personal responsibility [for one’s own shadow]. Responsibility can be viewed as propagation of ethical freedom while searching for reasons of one’s thinking, feeling, and acting; not a blind acceptance of compulsive fantasies as moral imperatives. (see Neumann, E., 1963)
(SLIDE 16) Spirituality is characterized by its individual aspect: 1) unique experience of the unconscious, 2) personal relationship with the Self, 3) striving for conscious choice, 4) individual mythology and theology that do not arrive in conclusions, but remain in seeking relationship with one’s ego. Such relationship yields faith that is based on personal experience rather than depersonalized fantasies.
(SLIDE 17) The latter, fundamentalistic, literal form of religion is distinguished by: 1) codified, often institutionalized conception of God, 2) prescribed content of beliefs, 3) prescribed mythology and theology, 4) prescribed rituals.
Now, from the perspective of depth psychology, conspiracy theory could be viewed as a religious theory sui generis. It is a cognitive defense structure by which the ego copes with the “pressure” of numinous energies of the Self. The more rigid and literal the theory is, the more it falls for the aspects of fascinans on one hand, or tremendos on the other. The degree of irrationality, of fundamentalism and also of conspiracism, is given by the degree of identification with the Self and its consequent inflationary influence of the ego-consciousness. To put it simply, the dark aspect of the Self possess ego and deforms its perception of the given problem. In the case of conspiracy theories, the possessions happen on more individual “levels” while with fundamentalist religious persuasions deep, split-off archetypal contents could be assumed. In the case of “dark religion,” the ego is hiding behind the collective image of God (Imago Dei); while in the case of conspiracy theories, these defensive images are coming more from personal unconscious. Thus, the chance for correction is greater in the latter case. In other words, the ability to change depends on the strength of archetypal defences.
The ability of human mind to form organization based on uniform idea and image probably stands behind the formation of civilization. (Harari, 2015) At the same time, this ability complicates individuation because it carries within itself the desire to seek this unifying image.
Because “dark religions” and conspiracy theories consist of mere identification with unconscious, their followers cannot access full depth of spiritual sentiments and thus only stay with “primitive,” raw emotional experiences. Spirituality is blessed by a heroic power to enter the world of darkness with resolution to suffer all the traps of this darkness with an open heart. The conspiratorial attitude only neurotically pretends suffering and thus changes the awe to fear. Fear, that can be easily relieved by the projection of the darkness onto the other!
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in the interview for Scientific American said in 2005: “I continue to be fascinated by the fact that feelings are not just the shady side of reason but that they help us to reach decisions as well.” But in 1921, Jung already very accurately described how inferior function deforms ego-consciousness.
(SLIDE 18) As a rule, the less the ego is aware of its shadow, the more it is prone to be gripped by its influence. Perils of the world, such as difficulties of adaptation, indoctrination (propaganda, brainwashing), trauma, and death, including the fear of death, are typical reasons that could stifle individuation process. (SLIDE 19) Conspiracy theories provide false archetypal fantasies for the ego lost in the labyrinth of life, but offer no way to the center. People who suffer from significant shame and inadequacy feelings: powerlessness, hopelessness, fear of the unknown, or anger towards the state of affairs, are more prone to manipulation. Propaganda that falsely promises “salvation” falls with them on fertile ground. Now, we can see this being tweeted almost daily! If the indoctrination is carved to an individual from early childhood, it becomes falsely accepted as a true self. This can be observed based on the example of North Korea, where conspiracy theories are instilled by the government’s propaganda systematically. (SLIDE 20) Or the example of Vladimir Putin successfully investing in theory about the blood-thirsty West preparing to devour Russia. (Šolc, V., Vesmír, 2016) (SLIDE 21)
Of course, there is no one simple explanation why people fall prey to conspiracy theories. We are looking to a convergence of an accumulated set of beliefs, personality structure, current psychological situation, and life circumstances. Psychological profile, statistically speaking, reveals a tendency towards lower emotional intelligence, low self-esteem, and lower educational level (ACP, 2016; Is Belief in Conspiracy Theories Pathological? A Survey Experiment on the Cognitive Roots of Extreme Suspicion, Radnitz, S., Underwood, P., British Journal of Political Science, 2011) Among others’ attributes, there are scientific cynicism, distrust of authorities, reactivity, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia of conservatism.
We can say that people who tend to not have developed insight into their psychological pain, such as hopelessness, helplessness, anger, loneliness, and so on, are more prone towards conspiracism.
From a Jungian perspective we can speak about one-sidedness, or symbolic rigidity, that is marked by a limited ability of symbolic contemplation. Conscious relationship to a symbol allows for maintaining of balance between awesome and awful feelings. Unconscious relationship is distinguished by the inflation of one or the other.
Conspiracism is not a pathology though, it is rather a developmental arrest where certain convictions become childishly magical.
If ego is able to accept new meaning and at the same time able to withstand negative emotions, a transformation can happen. (SLIDE 22) Buddha is teaching that the middle path is golden. If the string of citar is too tight it can break, and if it is too loose it would not give out a lovely tone, says classic Buddhist story. Ego that is too tight by the levels of its defences can get trapped in one-sidedness. If it is too loose, it can lose its integrity and be broke up by archetypal energies. (SLIDE 23)
See, conspiracy theory is, from a Jungian perspective, a feeling-cognitive structure (image) that provides ego with relative relief from fear, anger, anxiety, and other “dark” contents that have fragmentary effect. It is a fairy tale where the beholder has all the powerful knowledge. Conspiracy theory translates complex theory to a simple empowering story. It is actually a quasi-religious, seemingly rational myth that explains evil while reducing it to the human cause. At the same time, it provides instructions how to eliminate the evil; how to control it. But because it is literal, detached from reality, it inadvertently produces the evil that it originally set forth to annihilate. Thus all the polarizing feelings: uncertainty, ambivalence, paradoxicality, and irrationality, find through conspiracy theory a gateway to certainty. And all the unwanted parts are then simply projected out.
Conspiracy theories just like fundamentalist theories have tendency to flourish in the environment that amplifies the psychological symptoms described above. (SLIDE 24) Well established anti-semitic theories on which Hitler built his propaganda caught on very well during the times of economic crisis. Healthy religion should serve as a pillar for consciousness to bear dark contents better. But if the society’s trust that it can face the darkness in complicated circumstances wanes, its center of gravity shifts towards the more primitive, or more fundamental modus operandi.
Many official theories that arose during the Cold War in both Russia and the United States resembled conspiracy theories. Today, we watch them rise again.
Access to information, education, economic prosperity, mobility and other attributes of a democratic society helps to maintain the intensity of conspiracies within “normal” limits. But the loss of love and trust within the society, anxiety, trauma, and systematic propaganda leads to a compensatory pressure that in turn produces the increase of the intensity and frequency of conspiratorial thinking.
(SLIDE 25) It is a heroic task for each of us to face the darkness of lies, manipulations, and so called alternative facts, and to keep the small flame of the candle of our consciousness alive by our self-knowledge. It is a heroic task of all of us to face our inner conspirator; to know our inner Trump!
(SLIDE 26) And Jung at the end: “The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.” (CW 9ii, p. 14) (SLIDE 27)