In Praise of Contingency
(Conspiracy and Contingency)
How to Deal with Conspiracy Theories
The COVID-19 crisis has brought about a proliferation of conspiracy theories that reject, among other things, official accounts of the virus’ origins and remedies, and sometimes even the existence of the virus itself. Conspiracy theories usually link events to secret plots concocted by powerful conspirators, whether it be Bill Gates or Big Pharma. The exceptionally powerful surge of conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 crisis has several already famous causes: there are increasing ways for new media to massively spread misinformation and there has been a growing distrust for conventional scientific ideas among large parts of the population.
In this research I want to point to another dominant driving force: the desire to find simple and apparently reasonable explanations for phenomena that are actually purely random and contingent. Often, conspiracy theories emerge because contingency is not accepted, and necessities are looked for at all cost. Research has shown that “people tend to prefer explanations that make reference to a person’s intentions over explanations that present the event as accidental” (Borlotti and Inchino 2020).
The conspiracy theorist rejects a world of contingency and wants to create a universe structured by a necessary order. Just like religious fundamentalists who refuse evolution because it is too random and who replaces it with acts of deliberate and necessary creation, so conspiracy theorists refuse to attribute things to chance, and look for necessities, even when these necessities are only imaginary. Nothing happens by chance and there must be a plan or an intelligent design behind everything. Most of the time, this plan is evil in some way.
How did various ages, cultures, and philosophies deal with conspiracy theories? How would they have dealt with them if they had encountered them? Why do conspiracy theories appear very much in certain ages but less in others? In this study, I concentrate on the question of contingency. How would various philosophies have handled a disaster such as the coronavirus, which is apparently due to a coincidence? What would have prevented them from attributing it to a conspiracy? Conspiracy theories require a peculiar philosophical mindset. Some philosophies make conspiracy theories quasi-impossible because they find original ways of combining contingency with ontological, theological, or cosmological premises. Nietzsche, for example, instead of attributing the coronavirus to some predominant evil, would have encountered the pandemic with tragic irony. For him, conspiracy theories were fabricated in “dark corners, secret paths and back-doors” by the ressentiment man. Sartre, who believed that contingency provides a chance to break with oppressive systems and bring us existential liberty, would probably have called the coronavirus an absurdity, not because it is more absurd than other things, but simply because everything in this world is absurd. We must find reasonable ways to live within contingent constellations.
More consistently than Western philosophies, Eastern philosophies such as Daoism and Zen Buddhism have always tried to depict the world in terms of contingency. They link contingency to the phenomenon of existence, which makes conspiracy theories quasi-impossible.
Contingency has always existed, but within various phases of Western civilization, its position has changed several times. In Antiquity, almost everything was necessary, and, in general, contingency could not cause existential problems. Historians could attribute unexpected events to the goddess Fortuna or to divine Providence and turn the coincidence into a necessity by tracing it to a pseudo cause. Today such devices are less available, and one result is that conspiracy theorists invent new pseudo-causes.
The Christian Middle Ages divided the world into God and his creations – which were necessary – and those things that were independent of God and thus contingent. Contingency could spark no anger because it was possible, at any moment, to turn away from the contingent world towards the necessary world created by God. If a random event was evil, it could be ascribed to Satan; and the alternative (God’s necessity) was always available.
It is true that the ancient as well as the medieval world was teeming with conspiracy theories about emperors (Nero), malevolent Christians, immigrants, and slaves… Orators and plays tell of plots “that involve almost every facet of Athenian life. There are plots against people’s lives, property, careers, or reputations, as well as against the public interest, the regime, and in foreign affairs” (Brotherton). However, these theories remained local and personal and rarely adopted cosmological, theological, or existential dimensions. One reason is that, in these times, people were not confronted with radical contingency.
In modernity, the vision of a centralized universe whose micro and macro aspects are entirely controlled by God has been lost. The world order appears as entirely contingent. The world emerged in nature and has not been created by a superior power; there is neither purpose nor divine providence. This conception of the world is mainly the result of an advancement in natural sciences. In this context, conspiratorial thinking acquires new capacities.
The Paradox of Conspiracy Theories
Science provides necessity, but at the same time, it is science that has produced the world of contingency. Conspiracy theories thrive within this paradox. Already in the narrative of Adam and Eve, the loss of unity and scientific fragmentation is attributed to the biblical temptation to eat from the tree of science. Eating from the tree meant to obtain knowledge about good and evil and thus indicates a shift away from unity towards particularities. The temptation proposes an image of science and knowledge as fragmenting forces, as opposed to uniting theological systems. From the beginning, knowledge and science were linked to contingency insofar as scientific knowledge always signifies awareness of multiplicity, that is, of the distinctively contingent character of things.
The main problem with conspiracy theories is that they want to overcome contingencies through assumptions that are entirely random. They do not adopt an organic view of science capable of delivering macro principles about, for example, the benefits of vaccinations, but instead embrace precisely the (in their eyes) “negative” view of science that is reflected in the biblical narrative about temptation. To the tree of science, they do not oppose, for instance, God’s unity but rather their own tree of pseudo-science, which “eliminates” contingencies by conjuring up fake necessities.
Coincidence and Survival
Coincidences are events that are unlikely to happen, and a certain skepticism towards coincidences is normal. The coincidence disrupts the regular order: suddenly, the environment is no longer understood. To perceive regularities and their disruptions is even part of the human survival instinct. The occurrence of too many coincidences can signify danger. According to Ernst Gombrich, all humans (and even all organisms) have a natural inclination towards seeing order in chaos, and Karl Popper explained that our mind establishes order because we have a sense of balance. Both Popper and Gombrich believe that organisms have developed a sense of order through their evolutionary struggle for existence because “perception requires a framework against which to plot deviations from regularity.”
While this is true, coincidences can also have positive effects, as they permit us to escape from dangerous situations. To grasp a coincidence at the right moment can also be a matter of survival. Both, the incapacity or unwillingness to see necessities, and the categorical rejection of coincidences are thus pathological. Conspiracy theorists suffer from a pathological sense of regularity and refuse to recognize coincidences as such. The idea of a pathological “contingency aversion” has been formulated by George Canguilhem.
Ressentiment and Contingency
Many conspiracy theories spring from feelings of “sublimated revenge”: some injustice has occurred, sometimes a long time ago, and cannot be amended because the opponent is too powerful. Often the injustice and the enemy who caused it are not clearly identified, and the source of the evil remains diffuse. Max Scheler, following Nietzsche, calls this diffuse feeling of vengeance “ressentiment.” Ressentiment is also a core motivation of conspiracy theories. Ressentiment is not an accusation, because accusations are always directed against concrete persons or institutions that have committed concrete crimes. Accusations need to be backed up with evidence. In the case of ressentiment, both the injustice that has been suffered (which is often an insult or an injured honor) and the resulting negative feeling, remain diffuse.
According to Scheler, ressentiment is directed against lasting situations rather than against single events. Contingent events are single events. Despite its diffuse nature, the evil is presented as necessary and not as random. Because the evil’s structure is coherent, the spite or the anger cannot be relieved through vengeance, work, violence, robbery, or revolution: the enemy is simply too systematic.
Kitsch and Conspiracy
Conspiracy theories -- as well as ressentiment -- are kitsch because they are narcissistic: they recycle subjective feelings. Indulgence in one’s misery means that one does not realistically face problems in order to solve them. Instead, misery is transposed into the more “aesthetic” level of indulgence. Like the narcissist, the conspiracy theorist does not accept any insult to his vanity. The loss he believes to have experienced makes him delve into a pool of ressentiment from which he rarely reemerges. Both conspiracy theories and ressentiment are defense mechanisms dealing with life’s negative components. Indulgence in one’s own misery overlaps with Scheler’s ressentiment, which establishes an interesting link between ressentiment and kitsch.
French Philosophy of Contingency
The book contains a chapter on “French philosophy of the coincidence,” which was influential in around 1900. While Engels had rationalized history to the point of letting the mystery of contingency disappear under the glaring light of determinism, these French philosophers adopted the opposite approach. They depicted the world as a manifestation of contingency but demystified it to the point of it making it coterminous with reality. This is directly opposed to conspiracy theories, which cancel coincidence and rather mystify necessity. French philosophy of contingency bears resemblances to ancient philosophies as well as to Eastern philosophies of contingency. The main idea is that contingency is real and that necessities are only abstractions. These philosophies are the most efficient intellectual weapons to be used against conspiracy theories.
The Aesthetics of Contingency
Classical Western (Aristotelian) approaches towards contingency oppose the necessary to the contingent and the real to the ideal. As a result, in the Western tradition, art is not real because it is not inscribed within the realm of the necessary (as nature is believed to be); it contains contingency. However, given that there is a strong link between contingency and creativity, it is possible to say that in art, this contingency-dependent creativity makes the creation more “real” than the factual world of non-art. In art, the contingent is real whereas necessity (such as the rules of art) is an abstraction.
Usually, when it comes to creativity, the Western way of thinking will reserve a prominent place for contingency. There is, however, in more recent times, a strong tendency to rationalize creativity and to find necessary rules also in the realm of art. The algorithm has become the main tool employed to replace contingency with necessity. An algorithm is a self-contained mathematical operation used in data processing and automated reasoning. In automatization, everything follows necessary rules and there is no space for contingency. Contingent transformations, which can be read as metaphors for creativity, are not predictable. Despite this, algorithms are used to predict musical trends and even to compose pieces that follow the necessary rules of these predicted trends.
This ambition to create idealistic and schematic models of life is not unique to algorithm designers: they share this with conspiracy theorists. The latter, too, want to spell out a necessary rule that has overcome contingency. Once we admit that reality is a matter of contingency, we must conclude that algorithms are a special brand of conspiracy theories because they look for necessities that do not reflect reality but are instead constructed. This is also why algorithms often encourage conspiracy theories: once a conspiracy video is viewed, YouTube’s suggests more videos of the same kind, and the spectator falls into the rabbit hole of conspiracies.
Contingency in Eastern Philosophy
Eastern philosophies avoid the obsessions with necessity that are so common in Western culture. More consistently than Western philosophies, Eastern philosophies have tried to depict the world in terms of contingency or, rather, as a realm in which the contingency/necessity dichotomy has been overcome. For Daoism, the world is in a state of constant transformations (hua 化) from which necessary essences are excluded. In the famous “Butterfly Parable” of the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), Zhuang Zhou does not know whether he is a butterfly dreaming that he is Zhuangzi or whether Zhuangzi is dreaming that he is a butterfly: “Once, Zhuang Zhou fell into a dream-and then there was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly, self-content in accord with its intentions. Acting happy with himself and with wishes gladly fulfilled.” Zhuangzi’s being as a butterfly is entirely contingent; it is not a necessary essence because his being is in constant transformation.
There is a human tendency to look at the world in terms of good and bad, male and female, as well as in terms of contingency and necessity. Conspiracy theorists believe they have found “reality” by distinguishing the necessary from the contingent and hold that those who believe, for example, that the coronavirus was created by coincidence, are living in a dream. “Wake up” is a common slogan. However, in dreams, things are necessary and contingent at the same time, which leads to the feeling, when dreaming, that in these actions, necessity and contingency do not matter. For Daoism, reality therefore lies in a realm where the distinction between contingency and necessity (which is always only issued in terms of language) does not exist.
How to Live with Contingency?
The Greeks elevated Fortuna to the status of a goddess and worshipped her to diminish arbitrariness. The Middle Ages managed to separate the contingent from the necessary by creating a solid theological framework. At the time, people could retreat from a world of contingency into a quiet center of necessity guarded by God. Today the opposite is required. On the one hand, contingency is feared less than in the past because technical and practical mechanisms capable of softening its impact have become more available. On the other hand, contingency is feared more than ever before because the simultaneous loss of central authority and the multiplication of relationships between individual elements leads to disorientation.
Some people simply leave civilization because rural lifestyles have a more “necessary” feel. Conspiracy theories suggest another solution. Conspiracy theories create transcendental or imaginary unities by binding necessities together through theories. However, this does not solve the problem of contingency but tends leads to even more stress and ressentiment. Conspiracy theorists do not cope with the arbitrariness of coincidence but merely transform it into a kind unsolvable enigma. They lock themselves into an endless loop of doubt and will often even doubt their own evidence and conclusions.
The Aesthetics of Gambling
How can the world be explained without falling into either contingency fatalism or the determinism of conspiracy theories? The alternatives I present highlight the notions of play and game as essential terms for the philosophy of contingency. Play faces contingency “head on.” It does not avoid the coincidence by transforming it into necessity, but it does not fall into deterministic fatalism either. Contingency must be seen for what it is: an impossibility to predict the future. The above-mentioned French philosophy of contingency saw reality as contingent; later, existentialism suggested that we are thrown into a non-sensical situation with which we must eventually cope. Life is an undetermined game, and even God is a gambler. If we accept life as facticity, we will be neither surprised by contingencies nor resent them. This book also suggests irony, or more precisely, Nietzsche’s tragic irony. The ironical belief that much of our fate is due to coincidences avoids the poisoning of the mind through ressentiment. Fate is not determined, not even by our worst enemies. Contingency is real, and it can lead us out of painful conditions.
Play is a real-life activity and can even be a bodily activity; it is shaped by different “ways of doing” and it even has a style. To a large extent, a game’s style is determined by the right handling of contingency and necessity. In play, finding the right balance between the natural and the artificial is linked to a mastery of the necessity-contingency dichotomy. When seeing contingency not as a purely liquid mass but as a more or less solid chain of events imbedded in a game, the coincidence can be used, as it happens, for example, in art and aesthetics.
Coincidences cannot be fought off, but they can be integrated, in an existentialist manner, into the game. Accepting loss as the outcome of a game helps one cope with contingencies. Coincidences will not plunge us into desperation by initiating a frantic search for “necessary” alternatives. Contingency is both a condemnation and a chance, which is why it can never be an evil. A good gambler does not say, when losing, "Why must this happen to me?" Gambling should not instill ressentiment or conspiracy thinking, but rather skepticism, restraint, and tolerance, which are also the three major virtues of a good gambler. This gambler is not fatalistic, he does not give up his will, but he allows his will to flow with the emerging contingencies. There is no such thing as an “evil game” or a “perfect game.” This is because games are not created, at least not in the name of evil or perfection; each game emerges individually as an authentic entity. We cannot escape Fortuna’s decision, but we can learn strategies to withstand its consequences and accept them without falling into conspiracy thinking. Fortuna is not evil, and she is not manipulated by evil powers.
The conspiracy theory is an area, or an entire country, that receives refugees from the world of Enlightenment. After centuries of struggles, modernity has created a universe in which everybody is liberated, and everything, even art and sexuality are democratic, tolerant, well organized, and ranked. The latest state-of-the-art model of progressive Western civilization is the post-industrial society, which has created a world in which knowledge is the most valued resource and the most valued form of capital. The inhabitants of these societies are international and cooperative, invest in creativity culture, and appreciate the work of professionals such as scientists and designers.
The problem is that this late Enlightenment system is so perfect that some people cannot find their place in it. The situation is similar to when synthetic music is too impeccable, or when photos are digitally enhanced to a state of perfection until their correctness becomes puritan and formal. In these kinds of circumstances some musicians and photographers refuse this culturalization and aestheticization and look for alternative, low-tech methods. The same happens in the late Enlightenment world. As Baudrillard wrote, “the more the system is perfect, the more people are left out” (2005: 69).Those who are left out become terrorists, kitsch lovers, Brexiters, flatearthers, or conspiracy theorists.
Conspiracy theories stand for liberation: they provide freedom from a progressive world with which some people do not identify. Whether or not the theory makes sense does not really matter. Becoming a conspiracy theorist is a matter of belief and not of knowledge. The modernity dissident perceives the conspiracy theory as a safe haven in a world of hostile excellence. These outsiders who cannot be integrated into the modern (let alone the “postmodern”) world loath the elite or any Enlightenment (that is, “democratic”) politics. They perceive modernity as a well-oiled machine determined by necessities that work against them. Enlightenment is indeed very much built on scientific principles of necessity and its elitist correctness can easily be found dictatorial by those who are not already in its system.
Consequently, these people find alternative necessities and create their parallel universe of conspiracies. They try to establish their sovereignty within networks of apparently necessary interactions upon which they have no influence. Often, they attribute necessities to interactions that are entirely contingent.
The aim of this book is to find a different approach towards contingency. Both modern people and their anti-modern opponents have difficulties dealing with contingency as they oppose progress to anti-progress, Enlightenment to anti-Enlightenment, and scientific clarity to pseudo-scientific theories. Each group sees its productions as necessities. What about contingency? What about this quality that had always perturbed order, progress, science, belief, and convictions? If people recognize that the world is made, to a large extent, of contingencies, and that even modernity is not founded on necessity alone but on a slew of arbitrary decisions, the “perfect world model” of late Enlightenment can look more penetrable, accommodating, and humane. As a result, much of the conspiracy sphere would disappear.
1. Conspiracy and Contingency
Coincidence and Accident
Accident and Reality
What is a Conspiracy Theory?
The Conspiracy and Freud’s Uncanny
The Sense of Order
2. Ressentiment, Kitsch, and “Absolute Contingency”
Conspiracy and Ressentiment
Contingency and Science
Hegel’s “Absolute Contingency”
Kitsch and Conspiracy
3. Contingency through the Ages
Determination and Mystification
4. The Loss of Unity
The Role of the Disease
Conspiracy and Science
The Combining of Contingency and Necessity
The “Contingency Only” Option
5. French Philosophy of Contingency
From Boutroux to Virilio
The Coincidence in Biology
6. The Aesthetics of Contingency
Contingency and Creativity
The Art of Life
Algorithm and Conspiracy
The Aesthetics of Gambling
7. Contingency in Eastern Philosophies
Karma and Contingent Lived-Time
Contingency in Dreams