Category Archives: Psychology

A Hurricane of Paranoia

Is there any end to the flow of paranoid conspiracy theories seeded in the internet ocean? Like hurricanes, they seem to proceed implacably, one after the other. Not only do we have the illuminati, the reptilians, the 9/11 conspiracy theories, and the revival of flat earth beliefs, but more recent theories seem to suggest that almost no action is so bad that it can’t be attributed to the mysterious ‘deep state’. There were some who alleged that the Sandy Hook shootings were a set up, and now – before the hurricane has even struck the coast of Florida, there are those who allege that the hurricane itself is the creation of the all-manipulating authorities. What distresses me about the rising tide of conspiracy theory is the way in which closed loops of confirmation bias are increasingly fed by the ‘echo chamber’ effect of social media, aided by the widespread lack of the kind of critical thinking skills required to challenge them. The effects feed not only disinformation, but quite unnecessary social and political conflict. Just when everyone needs to be on the same side, dealing with enormously traumatic events, they end up undermining the whole basis of experiential judgement on which common humanity could develop. Although as I write, Hurricane Irma has not yet hit Florida, the consequences of a section of the population seriously believing that it’s all been set up by the US government can hardly seem anything but deeply insulting to those who will shortly doubtless risk (and possibly lose) their lives to save others, in the service of the very same public authorities who are being blamed for the disaster by these conspiracy theorists.

In many ways, a conspiracy theory is no different from any other absolute belief. Those in the grip of an absolute belief do not weigh up the evidence and select the most likely explanation for it: rather they select evidence that fits the beliefs that obsessive desire or anxiety are urging on them, and ignore or dismiss all alternatives. In this respect conspiracy theorists are no different from medieval dogmatists – they just have access to better communications technology. They trade on uncertainty, pointing out that there is no way of disproving their belief, but completely ignore that the same point applies to a wide range of other possible competing beliefs that can also not be disproved. Unrealistically expecting disproof, they remain attached to their conspiracy theory in its absence, but can only do so because the comparison of probabilities simply does not figure in their thinking. Any challenge to the theory is likely to be seen as under the deluded spell of the all-powerful conspiracy that otherwise rules the world. By maintaining and spreading such beliefs, too, social capital is earned by gaining prominence in the in-group, whilst to seriously question their basis is to risk that status and thus risk rejection by that group.

Those who attempt to offer ‘facts’ to refute conspiracy theories merely feed them by providing more of the same absolute language. The whole context in which they exist is one of dualistic opposition, so that the direct opposing of one ‘fact’ by another reinforces defensiveness. It is only by becoming reflectively more aware of the limitations of our knowledge, as well as positively confident in justified belief, that we can start to disentangle the kind of thinking that fuels conspiracy theories. By holding off from claims about ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’, but nevertheless investigating justification, we would be practising the Middle Way.

The belief that Hurricane Irma is created by the US government, like most other conspiracy theories, involves a weight of assumptions that make it vastly improbable when you start to consider those assumptions. The video that I linked above merely argues that there is a record of the US government researching and testing weather manipulation in the past, but gives no evidence at all that weather manipulation on the scale that would be required to either create or stop a hurricane is or ever will be possible. Even if it was, a large number of people would have to be in on the plot, and the government would have to have some kind of motive for doing it (the video falls into its nadir of incoherence when trying to explain why on earth the US government would want to engineer Hurricane Irma). But, of course, mere improbability and weight of assumption does not figure at all for a conspiracy theorist. The shadowy authorities are powerful enough – so they can do anything, it seems.

The role that these shadowy authorities play (the ‘deep state’, the ‘liberal establishment’ and its ‘fake news media’, the Communists, the Reptilians etc.) is very similar to that played by God in medieval times. The vaguer the actor the better, so that any inconvenient new developments can be readily attributed to it . It’s not necessary to offer any allegations about who exactly did what, since a vague suspicion is actually more powerful in inducing this kind of absolute belief. This shadowy authority is also, in Jungian terms, a projected archetype: an open potential that we have for power in ourselves is attributed to something beyond us.

But for those watching the video offering ‘proof’ of such a conspiracy theory, these considerations are unlikely to figure. In order to maintain critical awareness, the alternatives need to be available to you whilst you are watching such a video, or at least immediately afterwards. That for many people they obviously are not seems to be more than anything due to gaping holes in our education systems, which still leave many people without any practice in exercising that critical awareness. All the rest of us can do, I think, is try to support others in thinking things through, whilst trying to avoid simply inducing a dismissive reaction through too direct a challenge. Together with that, we can positively acknowledge the archetypes in us, not out there, and positively investigate the complexity of causation in an event like a hurricane, which may be our fault in some respects (looking at the wider context of climate change) but not in others. As the hurricane heads across the straits, my thoughts are with the people it is about to strike. For their sake, if for nobody else’s, please do not uncritically share conspiracy-mongering!

Picture: Hurricanes Irma and Jose on 6th Sept 2017, NASA (public domain)

Nationalism and Patriotism

[The following is an adapted chapter from Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief. It’s of special relevance given recent political events!]

Nationalism is an ideological commitment often, but not always, associated with conservatism. However, the fact that it can take liberal or socialist forms (as under the recent leadership of Alex Salmond in Scotland, or the anti-colonialist left wing leadership of such figures as Julius Nyerere in Tanzania) shows that it is worthy of separate treatment rather than being treated only as an aspect of conservatism. It could also be argued that most politicians add a seasoning of nationalism to their other ideologies – one that needs a separate critical perspective. For example, there are few politicians who will not appeal to ‘national interest’ to justify a stance in international negotiations, apparently without embarrassment.

Nationalism focuses specifically on one kind of value foundation of the six identified by Jonathan Haidt: that of loyalty. Loyalty to one’s country is predominantly loyalty to one’s compatriots and to the cultural (or perhaps linguistic and religious) traditions of that country, but also perhaps loyalty to that patch of the earth itself. Such loyalty clearly has a rooted basis in our moral experience, and in its benign, non-exclusive and non-ideological form may be defined as patriotism. I would suggest that patriotism involves an embodied sense of one’s relation to a particular ancestry, ethnicity, environment, language and culture, to deny which would be as fruitless as denying our bodies. Those who assume, explicitly or implicitly, that they are neutral in these respects must be deluded, for there is nobody with a body, for example, who can label other people ‘ethnic’ whilst they are not, or assume that their regional or class-specific language is the default and other people speak ‘dialects’.

For my own part, then, I try to acknowledge that I am an Englishman. What’s more, I’m a middle class educated Englishman subject to a particular set of cultural assumptions that go with that background. Although my culture and language are increasingly part of a globalised norm that tends to assume itself to be the default, these norms are actually very specific in their origins. Standard British English, which I use when writing, is just the one of many dialects of English that happens to have become dominant, but if you were hearing me speaking instead of reading, my delivery would be more obviously influenced by my physical state, background and environment, for example including a mildly northern English pronunciation. My geographical environment – that of an ecologically robust, damp, maritime, temperate, fertile, and heavily populated corner of Europe – is also only one of many specific geographical environments that help to form people’s cultural responses and assumptions, not some sort of default normality. I love the landscape and cultural heritage of England and embrace that specificity.

However, nationalism as normally understood, though made meaningful by this embodied patriotism, contains an additional absolute or metaphysical element: a belief in the absolute identity and value of the nation-state. Since belief in the nation-state means belief in the absoluteness of a set of boundaries and the value of what lies within those boundaries, it is a form of metaphysical field-belief (a belief about absolute boundaries). Such field-beliefs are in no way a necessary accompaniment of patriotism, for I can love my country without believing either that it should necessarily have particular boundaries or political organisation, or that the value of its assumed interests overrides other values. I could continue to love England, for example, whether it became part of a European superstate or whether it was divided up into micro-states, and even if the interests of its inhabitants in maintaining a particular level of wealth or land ownership needed to be greatly compromised to share that wealth or land with newcomers.

Such metaphysical field beliefs can be spotted as absolute assumptions that are required to reach particular policy judgements. For example, the belief that ‘national interests’ override the interests of those in other countries assumes an absolute rather than incremental distinction between the interests of those in one nation and those in another. This results, for example, in conflicts over resources or in immigration restrictions. If we compare these assumptions about national interests with those of an individual, they are equivalent to ‘self-interest’ – that is, a frozen representation of a self and its desires that is identified with at a particular time. Not only do the inhabitants of a country not necessarily identify with the particular boundaries and interests its government represents on its behalf, but it may actively prefer foreign ones, just as individuals may identify with others rather than themselves. The problem is thus not that nation-states, like individuals, have particular desires so much as that the represented context of those desires is assumed to be absolute and eternal. Nor is the problem with boundaries as such: nations need boundaries as a basis of action, just as individuals do, but those boundaries do not have to be absolutised. Boundaries on a political map, like those in language, can be provisional, accepted for practical reasons in the ongoing recognition that those reasons may change.

Though nationalism can be defined by this absolutised loyalty, it may also incorporate a range of other values depending on the circumstances. If a part of an existing nation-state demands independence, the emphasis is likely to be on liberty. If one nation is oppressed by another, the emphasis will be on fairness. If compatriots are suffering, the emphasis may be on care. If the nation has a clear leader such as a monarch, the authority of that leader is likely to be closely tied to loyalty to the nation. If the nation is closely associated with a specific religion, notions of sanctity are also likely to play a part. However, in each of these cases it would also be possible to detach the other value from the nationalistic beliefs. For example, in the recent referendum in Scotland on independence (2014), values of liberty and fairness were important for many Scots who voted ‘yes’ to independence, and who felt oppressed by the rule of Conservatives from London that they had not elected; but it would be possible to protest against this constraint and unfairness without tying it to the concept of Scottish nationhood.

The metaphysical elements of nationalism become even more pronounced in its extreme form as Fascism. Fascism not only maintains absolute field-beliefs in the nation, but also in the race that inhabits that nation. The difficulties of creating and maintaining an absolute division between a pure in-race and an inferior out-race became rather ludicrously apparent in Nazi Germany, where the stereotype of the pure Aryan did not fit Hitler himself very well, and Nazi men who were sexually attracted by Jewish women resorted to accusing them of using black magic to bewitch them rather than admitting their compatible humanity. Ideas of sanctity also tend to get embroiled in those of racial purity, with whatever lies beyond the zone of racial purity arousing disgust. Fascism also relies on the absolute authority of a leader in a way that supports totalitarianism.

Nationalism can be distinguished from most other political ideologies  in its central reliance on specific metaphysical beliefs, rather than on value foundations that may or may not be absolutised (such as the care and fairness that are central to socialism). This means that there are also counter-beliefs to nationalism that deny these beliefs, such as internationalism and cosmopolitanism, which deny national boundaries or deny the exclusivity of value involved in national interests. Like most metaphysical denials, these are mistaken if they simply assert the opposite, in this case that national boundaries have no justification at all or that the desires of national groups have no value. Internationalism becomes metaphysical when it denies patriotism and the experience of loyalty when rebounding from the dogmas of nationalism. Our international sympathies can become gradually extended in a way that is integrated from an embodied starting point, but this process can be blocked rather than aided by a discontinuous leap to a wholly international perspective.

Internationalism thus offers a false middle way between the extremes of conflicting national absolutes, when it is instead patriotism that offers an experience of loyalty to country as a value foundation in experience. One’s patriotism might potentially expand to include a positive identification with all other nations, but I do not need to have necessarily experienced all other nations and find them meaningful to adopt a Middle Way response to my own. Genuine internationalism thus needs to develop from the roots of a non-exclusive identification with one’s own country, and the confusion or repression of such roots is more likely to result in shallow nationalism than in genuine internationalism – just as the denial of one’s individual desires does not create the conditions for loving others.

Of related interest: Cosmopolitanism

Picture: Medal ceremony from the 1984 Olympics (Creative Commons: Wikimedia Commons)

Jung and Nazism

In the aftermath of World War 2 and since, controversy has raged about Carl Jung’s attitude to Nazism, with some condemning him as a Nazi sympathiser, and others defending him in the strongest terms. After reading Deirdre Bair’s detailed biography of Jung, and following up my recent post (and as yet unpublished book) on Jung and the Middle Way, it seems increasingly clear to me that this is a classic case of a messy Middle Way strategy being misunderstood by polarised interpreters on both sides.

Jung was a citizen of Switzerland, which remained neutral throughout the Second World War. However, throughout the 1930’s he remained the president of an international psychoanalytic society that was based in, and dominated by, Germany. From the time of the rise of Hitler in 1933 this society was subject to Gleichgeschaltung, the regulations by which the Nazi government ensured conformity to Nazi values in organisations of civil society. In many ways Jung was a convenient tool for the Nazis, as they were able to use him as a source of credibility for their gleichgeschaltet version of psychoanalysis, purified of what they considered the corrupting Jewish influence of Freud with his decadent emphasis on sexuality. Although there was ambiguity in this position, because the society was formally international, the Nazis were able to manipulate that ambiguity, and he was only finally able to resign from this presidency in 1940.

It is this involvement, together with a number of incautious public statements about the psychology of races and nationalities (some of which generalised about Jewish psychology as distinct from other races) that form the basis of a case against Jung that has been raised on a number of occasions by his detractors, and even led to one (not very realistic) proposal that he be prosecuted at the Nuremberg war crime tribunals. For his critics, any compromise with Nazism or involvement in Nazi-dominated organisations makes Jung a Nazi sympathiser, and any generalisations about the psychology of Jews make him anti-Semitic.

However, Jung’s position was highly ambiguous. On his own account, his motive in remaining involved with the Nazi-dominated society was to maintain the position of psychoanalysis and to help Jewish psychoanalysts. If he had tried to take a position of purity and refused to be involved, he would have lost the possible opportunity to help psychoanalysis survive in Nazi Germany, and the opportunity to help maintain the status of persecuted Jewish psychoanalysts. After 1940, with the cohesion of the international society destroyed and Freud having fled to England, it is fairly clear that he recognised such hopes as naïve. However, he did manage one substantial achievement, which was to employ an (ironically Jewish) lawyer called Rosenbaum to introduce lots of loopholes into the anti-Semitic regulations being introduced to the society by the Matthias Goering (cousin of the more famous Goering) – who effectively developed political control over it.

As in many such highly charged and polarised political contexts, there is plenty of evidence that can be seized upon and interpreted one way, and also plenty of evidence the other way. Any case thus becomes overwhelmingly a product of confirmation bias. There is also plenty of scope for hindsight bias if we assume that the attitude Jung took to Nazism earlier in the 1930’s should have been based on their later actions – but nobody knew the full horrors to come. Highly unscientific generalisations about the psychology of races were also common currency at the time.

Later in the war, Jung also became involved in support of a plot to get Hitler overthrown, effectively providing advice about Nazi psychology to a US secret service operative working in Switzerland, as well as psychoanalytic support to a close friend who was more directly involved, both of whom were working in support of a German officer involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler. Jung’s support for anti-Nazi activities may have even gone further than this. Allen W. Dulles, the US agent mentioned, is quoted by Bair as saying “Nobody will probably ever know how much Professor Jung contributed to the Allied Cause during the war, by seeing people who were connected somehow with the other side.” Dulles went on to decline to give further detail on the grounds that most of the information was classified.

What makes me think that Jung was attempting to practise the Middle Way in any sense in this complex and ongoing situation? Partly my reading of the Red Book, which mentions the Middle Way explicitly, as I have discussed elsewhere. Partly, however, it also seems the best way of making sense of Jung’s actions. He was not ideologically motivated, though he could often be accused of political naivete. He saw the justification of one action or another in the situation, even when that situation was one dominated by Nazism, rather than solely in the terms of an ideal situation in which Nazism was not dominant. His moral values were those of individuation (as he usually called it) or what I would tend to call integration, the actual practice of which depends on the quality of judgements rather than any pre-formed general rules about the objects of those judgements.

His involvement was thus deeply messy, and he obviously left himself vulnerable to blame from both sides. It was not Nazi or Anti-Semitic, but neither was it Anti-Nazi in a way that would have made his activities less effective at the time by seeking purity from Nazism. However, it does also seem that he could have followed this path more effectively than he did: by developing more politically awareness, by seeking clearer evidence than he had before making racial generalisations, and by making the Middle Way a more explicit basis of action so as to reduce the chances of being misunderstood. Like the rest of us, however, Jung had limited knowledge, limited abilities and limited understanding with which to work, and the path of the Middle Way only requires reconciliation and adaptation to these conditions, not an unrealistic expectation of transcending them, as a basis for responsibility.

I can even find some inspiration in the way that Jung handled this difficult series of situations, not despite, but because of the many human failings that his biography has made me all too aware of. Would I, or any of us, have done better? Adopting the principle of charity seems to be the first requirement for reading the situation – a principle that allows us to appreciate the strength of messy achievement without idealising it.


The MWS Podcast 125: Arie Kruglanski on Close-Mindedness and the Middle Way

Our guest today is Arie Kruglanski. Arie is a Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland College Park, and has been at the forefront of research into closed-mindedness-or, the “need for closure”— in particular its relationship to fundamentalist belief systems and violent extremism.
He is is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and has edited a variety of prominent journals, including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition. During his long career he has received numerous awards, including the Donald Campbell Award for Outstanding Contributions to Social Psychology.
His work in the domains of human judgment and belief formation has been disseminated in over 300 articles. He’s the author of six books including the psychology of close-mindedness and the psychology of terrorism and the themes explored in these books will be the topic of our discussion today

MWS Podcast 125: Arie Kruglanski as audio only:

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The MWS Podcast 124: Abeba Birhane on a person is a person through other persons

Our guest today is Abeba Birhane. Abeba is an Ethiopian cognitive science PhD student presently living in Dublin. She blogs regularly at on topics including philosophy, psychology, feminism, anthropology. She recently drew quite a bit of attention on the internet in an article for Aeon entitled Descartes was wrong: a person is a person through other persons and this will be the topic of our discussion today

MWS Podcast 124: Abeba Birhane as audio only:
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