Conference Program: Day 1 (3rd of February)

All times are listed in UTC -08:00/Pacific Standard Time (PST).

8pm PST Welcome to the conference
8:15pm Keynote: Conspiracy theory and (or as) folk psychology
Keynote Speaker: Professor Brian L. Keeley (Pitzer)

Abstract: One perennial issue within conspiracy theory theory is whether, or to what extent, our central concept - conspiracy theory - should map on to the common, lay usage of the term. Some conspiracy theory theorists insist that we use the term as everyday people use it. So, for example, if the term has a pejorative connotation in everyday parlance, then academic work on the concept should reflect that. Other conspiracy theory theorists take a more revisionary approach, arguing instead that while their use of the theoretical concept should bear some relation to its use in natural language, it need not follow it slavishly. I argue that elements of this debate mirror debates that were prominent in the philosophy of mind in the 1980s over folk psychology and eliminative materialism (debates that continue today, such as within the philosophy of perception and theories over how to individuate the senses). Then, there was a debate over whether the concepts of commonsense psychology, such as <belief> or <desire>, should be treated as theoretical posits, and hence open to significant revision or elimination, or whether they were instead the targets of explanation. On this latter view, <belief> is not an explanatory term, but instead the very thing that needs explanation. As somebody who embraces eliminativist approaches in my philosophy of mind, I will argue that an eliminativist approach to <conspiracy theory> has significant merit. However, I note that the political dimension of conspiracy theory theory may provide reasons for undermining such a conclusion.

9:15pm Panel One: The History of Conspiracy Theory Theory
Professor Brian L. Keeley (Pitzer) and Associate Professor Charles Pigden (Otago), chaired by Associate Professor M R. X. Dentith (BNUZH)

Join Brian and Charles, in conversation with M on the history and pre-history of the philosophy of conspiracy theory, as well as how things have or have not changed since the pioneering work of the late 90s/early 2000s.

10:15pm Break (20 minutes)
10:35pm 'Conspiracy Theory' as a Tonkish term. The runabout inference-ticket from truth to falsehood
Associate Professor Charles Pigden (Otago)

Abstract: I draw on Prior's 'The Runabout Inference Ticket' (a paper in Philosophical Logic) plus some of Dummett's remarks in Frege: the Philosophy of Language to argue that 'Conspiracy theory' and 'conspiracy theorist' are Tonkish terms with a variety of inconsistent introduction and elimination rules. The upshot is that 'conspiracy theory' and 'conspiracy theorist as they are commonly used do not generate determinate extensions. Whether or not something qualifies as a 'conspiracy theory' or somebody counts as a 'conspiracy theorist' depends upon who is talking and on which Tonkish rules they have chosen to deploy.

11:15pm "Conspiracy Theory", Relevant Alternatives, and the Problem of Premature Knowledge Claims
Dr. Rico Hauswald (Technische Universität Dresden)

Abstract: Drawing on the relevant alternatives framework, I argue that the term "conspiracy theory" is typically used in ordinary language and public discourse to perform dismissive conversational exercitives, a special type of speech act whose function is to exclude certain elements from the set of alternatives considered relevant in a given conversational context. While performing dismissive conversational exercitives is not necessarily blameworthy, excluding alternatives that deserve to be taken seriously can be highly problematic for a variety of reasons. One of them is that the exclusion of relevant alternatives can give rise to what I call the "problem of premature knowledge claims".

11:55pm Towards a conceptual framework for conspiracy theory theories
Dr. Dr. Niki Pfeifer (University of Regensburg)

Abstract: I aim to develop a conceptual framework for classifying generalist and particularist approaches to conspiracy theories (CT). Specifically, I exploit a probabilistic version of the square and hexagon of opposition which allows for visualising systematically the logical relations among basic philosophical positions concerning CTs. The probabilistic interpretation can also account for positions which make weaker claims about CTs: e.g., instead of claiming "every CT is suspicious" some theorists might prefer to claim "most CTs are suspicious" and then ask what contradicts such claims. Finally, I illustrate how the proposed framework can also be applied to other approaches to CTs, like psychological ones.

Conference Program: Day 2 (4th of February)

5:00pm PST Panel Two: Is the problem "conspiracy theories" or "conspiracy theorists?"
Professor Steve Clarke (Charles Sturt) and Dr. Marius Raab (Bamberg), chaired by Associate Professor M R. X. Dentith

Join, Steve and Marius, in conversation with M, on the topic of whether, when we talk about the supposed problem of belief in conspiracy theories, we are talking about something which is wrong with conspriacy theories, or some issue to do with the kinds of people who believe such theories.

6pm Break (20 minutes)
6:20pm A Particularist Critique of Quassim Cassam's Political Response to Conspiracy Theories
Kurtis Hagen (Independent Scholar)

Abstract: Quassim Cassam maintains that Conspiracy Theories are primarily a form of political propaganda, and people who so much as "flirt with" them thereby support right-wing, racist and/or anti-Semitic ideologies - even if unwittingly. Thus, he recommends responding to them by "outing" them for their implicit right-wing racism/anti-Semitism, thereby embarrassing at least some conspiracy theorists into silence (primarily those with left-leaning sympathies). I maintain that his argument depends upon an untenable generalism about conspiracy theories. Consequently, his proposal itself amounts to advocacy of an inappropriate use of political propaganda and should be rejected. Each conspiracy theory ought rather to be treated according to its own particular epistemic merits.

7pm The Conspiracy Theorist and the Intellectual: The History of a Boundary
Andrew Woods (Western University)

Abstract: In this paper, I contend that the notion of the "conspiracy theorist" is a fundamentally relational concept that can never possess a stable definition. I borrow Thomas F. Gieryn's concept of boundary-work to suggest that the term "conspiracy theorist" is used pejoratively to protect prevailing hegemonic conceptions of what it means to be an intellectual. I conclude the paper by recommending that, if we wish to initiate a particularist turn in conspiracy theory research, we may need to invent an entirely new terminology to describe those people that we call "conspiracy theorists" and those objects that we call "conspiracy theories.""

7:40pm Some Dare Call It "Conspiracy Theory"
Professor Ginna Husting (Boise), Professor Martin Orr (Boise) and Associate Professor M R. X. Dentith (BNU-ZH)

Abstract: Michael Wood's 2016 paper, "Some Dare Call It Conspiracy: Labeling Something a Conspiracy Theory Does Not Reduce Belief in It", examines whether labelling something as a "conspiracy theory" acts as a stop when it comes to assessing claims which are conspiratorial. Wood concludes that some, indeed, dare call it "conspiracy", and thus the label "conspiracy theory" does not do shut down debate. We beg to differ. To bolster this argument, we present the results of a survey about the assassination of JFK, which shows that labelling something as a "conspiracy theory" has an effect on conversations about conspiracies.

8:20pm Break (30 minutes)
8:50pm Social Location and Warrant
Jag Williams (Independent Scholar)

Abstract: I contend that the requirement for investigating conspiracy theories is not contextless but predicated on epistemic duties and shared responsibilities within a particular social and discursive context. I argue that the generalist account fails because some epistemic locations might possess a low threshold for what warrants a conspiracy theory because of their social location. The standard particularist account also needs revision, however, because the shared epistemic responsibilities of certain social locations might entitle rational agents to ignore investigating some conspiracy theories. What emerges from this analysis is a contextual particularism that, via a centering of social location, is grounded in a revised form of the particularist's understanding of one's prima facie call to investigate conspiracy theories.

9:30pm Particularism: A Rhetorical Perspective
Logan Spence (Ohio)

Abstract: In this presentation, I will analyze the conspiracy theory rhetoric of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's speech to the Commons where he asserts his case for the invasion of Iraq. Specifically, I will be examining how Blair uses the rhetoric of a conspiracy theory to justify the Iraq War and how his reliance on the State’s ethos convinced the British public that Blair's justification itself was not a conspiracy theory. I assert that, through particularism, the State will use its ethos to conflate the official authorities with epistemic authorities.

10:10pm Do Conspiracy Theories Damage Democratic Legitimacy
Dr. Will Mittendorf (Cerritos)

Abstract: Justifying the coercive use of power by the state is one of the central tasks of social and political philosophy today. Deliberative theories of democracy claim that reason-exchange between free and equal citizens is central to the legitimacy of democracy. However, due to apparent moral and epistemic failures, conspiracy theories are viewed as a threat to democratic legitimacy. I challenge this assumption. I argue conspiracy theories have implicit social-epistemic requirements that commit the theorist to democratic norms and institutions.

10:50pm Break (10 minutes)
11pm Confronting Conspiracy Theories in the Era of Covid-19: A Novel Phenomenological Approach
Associate Professor Thomas Byrne (Sun Yat-sen)

Abstract: Conspiracy theories sprang up in response to public health measures to combat COVID-19. Many attempts have been made to persuade dissidents via education or incentives. Yet, they have met minimal success. Such efforts are ineffective, because they do not address the underlying disease, but rather attempt to treat one symptom. I reveal that these conspiracy theories can only be confronted, when they are recognized as a response to a larger societal problem. I employ Edmund Husserl's phenomenology to argue that the development of the sciences has led individuals to feel alienated, where this has set the conditions for the proliferation of conspiracy theories.

11:40am What does it mean for a conspiracy theory to be a 'theory'?
Julia Duetz (Amsterdam)

Abstract: Instead of considering what it means for a conspiracy theory (CT) to be about a conspiracy, I focus on the question of what it means for a CT to be a theory. I argue that there are three senses of 'theory' that correlate to different epistemic evaluations of CTs and show how these evaluations relate to the views of friends and critics of CTs. These insights illuminate some polarizing features of CT-disagreement that former philosophical responses have overlooked because of their focus on framing CT-disagreement in terms of the generalism/particularism distinction.

Conference Program: Day 3 (6th of February)

12:40am The Generalist-Repressivist Research Program in the Research on Conspiracy Theories
Dr. Daniel Minkin (Marburg)

Abstract: Conspiracy theories do not have an excellent reputation today. This is due - I will argue in the talk - to the fact that the scientific study of conspiracy theories is governed by the generalist-repressivist research program ('GRP'). This program generally treats conspiracy theories as unjustified. After clarifying the concept of GRP, I will take a look at German research on conspiracy theories and use an observation by Tasmanian philosopher David Coady to argue against GRP.

1:20am Let's talk about Conspiranoia: Leaving behind the demarcation debate
Daniel Barbarrusa (Selville)
Academic theorizing about conspiracy theories has been entangled for too long in the debate about the definition of the field. I propose leaving this debate behind by labeling the most problematic — and thus, interesting — ideas at stake as conspiranoia (or its derivatives: conspiranoid beliefs or ideas). This way we concisely express that we deal with conspiracy theories defended far beyond what's reasonable. Thus, when we deepen into the consequences and counters of conspiranoid beliefs or ideas we are not obliged to, once more, swamp ourselves in debating whether these beliefs are reasonable or not.
2am Break (20 minutes)
2:20am The Alleged Rationality of Conspiratorial Thinking
Dr. Filip Tvrdý (Olomouc)

Abstract: Discussions in contemporary epistemology are burdened with confusions about the terms "rational", "rationality", and their antonyms. In economics, for an agent to be rational simply means to satisfy the Bayesian probability axioms. Some philosophers get inspired by this tactic, but the situation is usually considered more complicated. Two kinds of rationality are often distinguished: epistemic and instrumental. This division cleared the way to rational irrationality, which is the case when an acceptance of epistemically unwarranted beliefs may increase instrumental profit for an individual. I will criticize this approach as unfruitful, using examples from philosophers who describe conspiracy theorists or conspiratorial thinking as rational.

3am Conspiracy Theories, Monothematic Delusions, and Psychopathology
Dr. Anna Ichino (Milan) and Dr. Ema Sullivan-Bissett (Birmingham)
Delusions and beliefs in conspiracy theories share some important features: they both have bizarre contents and are resistant to counterevidence. Yet conspiracy beliefs are generally taken to be a normal-range phenomenon, whilst delusions are typically considered pathological. Is this difference in treatment warranted? We argue that it is not. We identify three reasons which could justify it: reasons concerning the initial provoking conditions of delusions and conspiracy beliefs; reasons concerning the role of cognitive biases in these phenomena; reasons concerning their different social dimensions. We find no grounds from any of these quarters for pathologizing delusions and not pathologizing conspiracy beliefs.
3:40am Why Conspiracy Theories Deserve Our Suspicion. A Novel Demarcation Problem
Dr. Maarten Boudry (Ghent)

Abstract: What, if anything, is wrong with conspiracy theories (CTs)? Many philosophers have concluded that the negative reputation of CTs is undeserved. In this paper, however, I argue that there is indeed something prima facie suspicious about CTs. My proposed demarcation criterion draws on a deep asymmetry between causes and effects in the world. I analyze CTs as the epistemological equivalent of black holes, in which unwary truth-seekers are drawn, never to escape. Finally, by presenting a generic "recipe" for generating novel CTs around any given event, I rescue the intuitions beneath phrases like "That's just a conspiracy theory."

4:20am Break (30 minutes)
4:50am Who is a conspiracy theorist?
Melina Tsapos (Lund)

Abstract: The simplest definition of 'conspiracy theories' leads us to conclude that we are all conspiracy theorists. Yet, I argue nobody would self-identify as such (the problem of self-identification). Since everyone emerge as conspiracy theorists, the construct is theoretically fruitless; like defining intelligence in a way that makes everyone intelligent (the problem for theoretical fruitfulness). These problems present us with a dilemma. I present an analysis of the solutions on offer, and argue that neither is satisfactory. Either a) the solution solves the problem of self- identification or b) provide a theoretical fruitful definition, but no account does both.

5:30am Conceptual Engineering or Conceptual Domination? The Case of Conspiracy Theories
Matthew Shields (Dublin)

Abstract: M. Giulia Napolitano and Kevin Reuter ("What is a Conspiracy Theory?") have recently argued that the disagreement between Generalists and Particularists is best characterized as a set of dueling conceptual engineering projects. I argue that while they are right to turn to the conceptual engineering literature, their account of its applicability is misguided. Particularists and kindred earlier views are better read as aiming to diagnose the ways in which many discussions of the concept of conspiracy theories are a form of what I have recently called 'conceptual domination' in a paper of the same name.

6:10am Break (10 minutes)
6:20am Apocalypticism and Conspiracy Theories
Tomas Pimenta (New School for Social Research)

Abstract: Although Particularism succeeded in dissipating the philosophical prejudice against conspiracy theories and in showing that they are not as such unwarranted, it has not been able to grasp their historical and political nature. Conspiracy theories often reproduce patterns and strategies which allow them to be mobilized for specific political purposes. Building on Patrick Stokes' criticism of pure Particularism, this paper sheds light on the political uses of conspiracy theories. More precisely, it follows Hofstadter's clue that in modernity they often reproduce apocalyptic narratives. Finally, it gives an account of the emergence of apocalypticism in our times and the kind of politics it entails.

7am A Critique of Skeptical Reason
David Guignion (Western Ontario)

Abstract: This paper conducts a critique of skepticism, an effort to determine "not what to do, or what must people believe but, rather, what evidence is there for beliefs, and is this evidence adequate?"" (Popkin), as it manifests itself in some strands of conspiracy theory research. It argues that a skeptical viewpoint forecloses an engagement with conspiracy theories beyond their empirical validity, thereby disregarding the many ways that conspiracy theories are meaningful despite their veracity. Borrowing from Immanuel Kant's 1st Critique, it contrasts skeptical reason with a transcendental approach to conspiracy theory research that identifies the ways that conspiracy theories circulate and are meaningful as discursive objects of experience.

7:40am Break (10 minutes)
7:50am Panel Three: Future research avenues in conspiracy theory theory
Matthew Shields (Dublin), Melina Tsapos (Lund), and Dr. Will Mittendorf (Cerritos), chaired by Associate Professor M R. X. Dentith (BNUZH)

Join Matthew, Melina and Will, in conversation with M, on how the next generation of scholars are responding to and developing the existing work in Philosophy on conspiracy theory.