Making Meaning: Conspiracies and Contingency

  (20 September 07)
  by Greg Spearritt

Don Barratt is on the money, I reckon, when it comes to conspiracy theories:

"Why do we love conspiracy theories about the deaths of... prominent people? [He's just been discussing Princess Diana, President Kennedy, Harold Holt et al.] Patrick Leman, a London University academic, suggests that, when a big event happens, we prefer to have a big cause, not something as arbitrary and mundane as a traffic accident, a drowning or the act of a lone mad gunman. These latter make us feel insecure in our own lives. Who knows? We could be next."

We humans are incurable meaning-makers: we want (or need?) to see significance even when it's not there. We have trouble accepting the contingency, the arbitrariness of life. Is religion evidence of this foible writ large?


Greg is spot-on. Humans, it seems to me, have always had a problem with 'reality'. The contingency and arbitrariness of life is, in fact, 'reality'. It's as simple as that. But it's a problem.

Fantasy, or "significance even when it's not there", is one solution. Fantasy acts as a reality-distorter and makes life easier to bear. The stronger the belief in the fantasy, the more the reality gets distorted. That is why religion is so appealing. And conspiracy theories play a similar role.

An alternative solution for humankind has been the use of drugs, be they legal, illegal or medicinal. Drugs are more than reality-distorters, they are often reality-blockers. That is why booze has been such a persistent problem for humankind.

I would make the controversial claim that another traditional solution is the labelling as 'negative thinking' of the contemplation of life's contingency. It has long been realised that for the vast majority of people such thinking leads to being dejected, dispirited and, perhaps, depressed. This can be life-threatening.
Many of us have been brainwashed when we were children by such cajoling as - "Don't have negative thoughts.", "Think positively.", "Always look on the bright side of things." I suspect that we brainwash our children in like manner.
Hence, I would assert, most of us become addicted to optimism. But, as nothing stops life's contingencies, many of our hopes are dashed. So we are unhappy. Depression has become a major problem for society.
For those few of us who are capable of being pessimists, life is never as bad as we expect. Consequently, we are often pleasantly surprised and therefore happy.

Posted by David Miller

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