Regarding the Past and How Knowledge of it affects the Future

Carla Binion is a right-wing reporter who, in the context of her article ‘Conspiracy theories and real reporters’, attacks left-wing ivory tower liberals for not buying into the conspiracy theories surrounding the CIA and 9/11. Let me repeat that; a right-winger attacking the left for NOT buying into conspiracy theories. Admittedly, she isn’t making the bold claim that 9/11 was an American plot, only that it seems possible that the CIA knew about the attack in advance and let it occur so to create a situation to their advantage.Whether or not you believe that there was some kind of conspiracy on the part of the American government in re 9/11 you might think that it is justified to suspect that the CIA could know more than it has let on. Binion says:‘Our own CIA and various presidents have participated in, and/or knowingly allowed, the Watergate conspiracy, the Iran-contra conspiracy, the domestic spying operation dubbed MHCHAOS, the CIA guns-for-drugs trade conspiracy, and a long list of other attacks on the American people. Does that automatically mean the CIA also participated in a September 11 conspiracy? Of course not, and no one has suggested that the CIA’s previous conspiracies against the public constitute “proof” that the agency also conspired regarding September 11. However, the previous conspiracies do show that our own CIA and government are indeed capable of conspiring against the American public.’(Carla Binion, ‘Conspiracy theories and real reporters’ in the Online Journal, 06-17-02, p. 1)Which brings us to the notorious Problem of Induction.We use inductive reasoning all the time; it’s the primary reason why we think it’s highly unlikely that we will wake up as jelly in the morning and the reason why we are surprised when the Nutrimatic machine, upon being asked to produce tea vends a substance quite unlike tea. Based upon previous experience of the world we infer certain qualities or regularies that we then think will be quite standard in the future. Thus, if the CIA has acted against the American people in the past then it seems likely that they might well do so again.There is a problem, however, with this kind of reasoning. Every instance of an event stands on its own. It’s a tricky problem, this one; David Hume, famous Scottish Philosopher and the father of Empiricism (contested) argued that whenever we see an instance of cause and effect all we see is one event followed by the other. We don’t see the ‘thing’ that links the event to the other event and so, in effect, we don’t see causation, just correlation. We see events but the link between events is invisible. Any statement of causation is just a statement of regularity; events of type A are regularly followed by events of type B. We shouldn’t, then, be surprised if it turns out that one day event B doesn’t occur after event A.If this is the case (and most philosophers and scientists acknowledge that the Problem of Induction is a fairly big one as yet unsolved) then each instance of correlation stands alone, statistically. No one set of events of type ‘B follows A’ informs us as to the likelihood of the next set of similar events because we cannot know that the principle that linked A following B in one situation is the same in another similar-seeming situation.Thus, the fact that the CIA has conspired against the American people in the past doesn’t really tell us that they will again in the future.Which is why so many Conspiracy Theories are based on accounts of motivating reason; ala psychological laws. If we provide accounts that tell us that these series of events are motivated by, variously, the structure of the institution, the function it plays and so forth then, theoretically, we have a better account.Which is just as problematic as all it has done is move the inductive problem to another level. Now we are linking psychological states with behaviours, which is just one event followed by another event that we think has a degree of regularity. Except that this time it looks more suspicious because psychological laws (of behaviour) seem to be fairly inexact; they don’t tend to act in the same, consistent, way that the Laws of the Natural Sciences seem to.Past events do affect the way we regard the probability of future events and this seems quite rational. It’s just that when we push ourselves on the reason why it looks as if our justification for that belief isn’t as strong as we think it is. Many philosophers think that the Problem of Induction can be got around (solving it is another matter); some even think that our account of what we believe to be good theories about the world rests upon deductive reasoning (I’m thinking of Falsificationism here rather than Logical Postivism) rather than induction. Whatever the case, there seems to be some interesting work to do in regards to whether we should take the past as a good indicator as to the likelihood of conspiracies today and tomorrow.