A theory of conspiracy theories

I've been amused, entertained and exasperated by conspiracy theorists since getting into the work of Robert Anton Wilson many years ago. There's an undeniable appeal to their world view – it's just so much more interesting than the way I normally see the world. Shadowy cabals controlling events, manipulating public opinions, slipping messages into the media. A group of elite individuals who play events throughout history to bring about a great aim. That's just so much more dramatic than my usual sense that history is just a bunch of people trying to do the best they can according to their current level of knowledge, understanding and a mixture of self interest and moral commitment.

Thoughts of conspiracy theorists came to mind again when I saw a link to this wonderfully creative article about the Illuminati symbolism in the Olympic opening ceremony. It's hard not to enjoy the deliriously creative craziness in this article.

The above seems to be an example of the more Christian end of conspiracy theories, but occult circles see a higher proportion of such theorists than the general population. This, frankly, doesn't do our reputation any good at all, but I was wondering why this might be the case. Does fringe belief just simply attract fringe? Or is there another mechanism in place?

I tend to think there is – that there is a way of thinking which is useful in magickal and spiritual pursuits but, when misapplied, can produce some really unfortunate effects. When working spiritually we quickly learn the importance of working with symbols, and dealing with material in a metaphorical way. This is familiar to anyone who has done even relatively basic dream analysis – it isn't about what happens in the dream, but about the meaning of the events, the meaning of the objects, places, and people within the dream. Dream analysis can provide very rich, meaningful and helpful material if it's done well – and many spiritual practices produce equally valuable material that needs to be worked with in a similar way.

In some cases this is quite obvious – if one is doing a 'spirit quest' or a guided meditation the experience one has is quite dreamlike, so it's natural not to take material literally. If, say, it turns out your spirit guide looks like the Cat from "Red Dwarf" wearing his penguin tuxedo (yes this consistently happened to a friend of mine), it's best not to assume you should dedicate your life to the wisdom of Danny John-Jules, but instead ask the question "What does the Cat represent to me? What is the meaning of this character, and what archetype is it fulfilling in my mind?"

However, many other practices lead to events and material that should be dealt with at symbolic level. Magickal practice often leads to an increase in synchronicities – coincidences start popping up. You could take these at face value, along the lines of "Cool – I'm living a more magickal life and odd stuff is happening." Or you could ask what these particular coincidences – at this time, place, in these circumstances – might mean to you in your journey.

Likewise, visions, divination output, communications from entities – rarely should these things be taken at face value. They need analysis, they need question to be asked about what further meaning is being conveyed. Add this to the fact that historically many occult authors have deliberately written work using extensive metaphor, symbolism and hidden meaning, and… well, you end up getting used to working with symbols.

Problems come, I think, when you take this mindset and apply it to the mundane world. Rather than looking at the logo of a company and thinking "Yup, that's their logo" you start asking "What symbolically does this logo convey?" Rather than hearing a piece of music on a TV program and experiencing it, a part of your mind goes "What message has this music been chosen to communicate?" If you're good at converting symbols into meaning you will find yourself generating an enormous amount of data. If you then have a pre-disposition to believe that the world really works in a particular way, you'll easily find enough data to support your belief (a simple case of Confirmation Bias, which we are all guilty of one way or another).

This idea was really brought home to me when I was listening to an interview with an occultist who was talking about the moon landings. Always a splendid topic for a creative theory. Anyway, one of his arguments roughly ran like this: The badge for the Apollo missions contains the constellation Orion, which has nothing to do with the moon. Orion is a myth of death and resurrection. Were they therefore trying to tell us that this was the resurrection of a moon mission? That we've actually been there before and that this is a return flight?

This is, at least, more interesting than the idea that hundreds of people faked a moon landing and not one of them has said anything about it. If one were doing a guided meditation and one saw the constellation of Orion, I think it would be good practice to think about the myth of Orion, about the symbolism in it, and perhaps the concept of 'return' might come out of that. But applying it to a logo? Firstly, assuming that there is a deeper meaning to a logo is a pretty bloody big leap. Secondly, we accept the idea that there is a massive, huge, secret – like the fact that humanity has already been to the moon – that someone knows this secret, wants to keep it secret, yet wants to tangentially hint at it in one of the logos they use for the mission?

Is there a recorded case in the second world war, say, where one country had a big secret that they wanted to keep (like the fact that the Enigma had been broken, or that D-Day would be on the 6th of June), where they repressed all knowledge of the secret, prevented hundreds of people from speaking of it, yet decided to make veiled references to it in letterheads, or in the music they played over official broadcasts, or to lay out very, very obscure clues here and there just to taunt the enemy? Where there moments, at the end of the war, where allied generals went up to their German counterparts are mocked them by revealing that the clues were all there if only they'd been clever enough to see? "If you had only bothered to count the letters in our official communique on 14th of April, laid the RAF roundel over a scale map of London and used the angles from the "Dig for Victory" poster, our invasion plans would have been clearly revealed! Churchill's V was a key to all of it! All of it! How could we have made it more blatant? You fools!"

Intuitive, symbolic, thinking is very useful when working spiritually, internally, and with psychic material. The Universe tries to talk to us, but rarely is it kind enough to put material into words. Literary and artistic works are also improved by a certain level of understanding of the symbolism they contain (whether their creator was conscious of putting it in place or not). But constantly seeing the world in this way? One would become rapidly overcome by a vast flow of data, of possibilities, of interpretations. The Olympic Opening Ceremony is a great example of this – it was, in my opinion, bat-shit crazy, piled full of… well, of stuff. Huge amounts of stuff happened, often with other stuff happening in the background and in the sky at the same time. Even if you did know what it was all about it was pretty damn overwhelming. But if you started asking yourself about the symbolic meaning of giant baby heads, dancing children, smoke stacks, flying fictional nannies… The amount of stuff just climbs and climbs exponentially. You can't process it all, so you have to use a pre-existing filter to make sense of it. Play connect-the-dots with enough points and you can draw any damn thing you want. Go deep enough into the symbolism of any complex event and you can find enough stuff to draw any conclusion you want. If you have a cognitive bias towards a particular way of seeing the world (and lets face it, which of us isn't a little paranoid now and again?) and you find evidence to support it.

I think occultists are prone to conspiracy theories because we find value in intuitive thinking. But intuitive and symbolic thinking can introduce massive cognitive errors. Sometimes we just have to deal with the world as-is. Sometimes it's simple, straightforward, and there's no deeper meaning than "I just thought it'd look pretty" or "I wanted to represent shit I like about Britain and make it really sparkly and wooshy at the same time."

4 Responses to "A theory of conspiracy theories"

  1. […] Bullshit. He has an interesting series about why occultists are particularly prone to believing in conspiracy theories. Summary: Because we spend so much time exploring correspondences and symbolic meanings, it's […]

  2. […] Making sense of the symbolism of Seidh var addthis_product = 'wpp-261'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":false};As I just posted, I was involved in a Seidh ritual this week.  I thought it might be interesting to look at some of the material that I received during this ritual as a way of exploring the difficulty of interpreting symbolic and intuitively received material. A problem which can really plague occultists. […]

  3. Re:
    "Is there a recorded case in the second world war, say, where one country had a big secret that they wanted to keep (like the fact that the Enigma had been broken, or that D-Day would be on the 6th of June), where they repressed all knowledge of the secret, prevented hundreds of people from speaking of it, yet decided to make veiled references to it in letterheads, or in the music they played over official broadcasts, or to lay out very, very obscure clues here and there just to taunt the enemy?"
    Yes, this is _exactly_ what was done (or one of the things that was done) with regard to the D-Day invasion: see http://www.vox.com/2014/6/6/5785954/how-paul-verlaine-helped-the-allies-pull-off-d-day

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