Episteme Review #6 – Shit Happens – Peter Mandik

Shit Happens – Peter Mandik


In this paper I embrace what Brian Keeley calls in “Of Conspiracy Theories” the absurdist horn of the dilemma for philosophers who criticize such theories. I thus defend the view that there is indeed something deeply epistemically wrong with conspiracy theorizing. My complaint is that conspiracy theories apply intentional explanations to situations that give rise to special problems concerning the elimination of competing intentional explanations.


I’m not really sure, some days, where I fall in the schema of answers to ‘Is belief in Conspiracy Theories rational?’ I’m obviously on the side of ‘No,’ but I think it’s a little more like ‘Not really, no, but…’ Mandik’s paper is one of those pieces that makes me think my sympathy is really with the ‘Yes, but…’ crowd (of which Coady and Pigden are the best examples). Mandik is arguing for what Coady calls the Coincidence Thesis; it is more rational to assume that things just happen than to posit intentional agency. Mandik’s greater thesis is really an argument against the traditional account of Historical Explanations. Because we cannot know what an agent (or set of agents) intended to do we should prefer non-intentional explanations of the variety of ‘shit happens’ (this is a little misleading; Mandik isn’t saying that events happen randomly but rather that we cannot adequately describe them as happening intentionally). It’s an interesting argument (and one that has been hashed out agian and again since the 1960s, most famously and influentially by Donald Davidson in ‘Actions, Reasons and Causes’) but no matter what you think about about the status of Historical Explanations (I think that they a) obviously exist and b) have a different epistemic status to that of explanations in the Natural Sciences) I think Mandik gets entirely the wrong end of the stick by arguing that Conspiracy Theories look like classical examples of Historical Explanations where the explanada is somehow ‘witnessed’ by the person providing the reasons for the explanadum. This seems wrong; Conspiracy Theorists, I think, infer the existence of Conspiracy Theories rather than witness them. Thus a lot of what Mandik says in this paper misses the point (I think), although he does argue fairly well for a set of individually necessary, jointly sufficient set of conditions for what counts as a Conspiracy Theory (with the exception of his claim of secrecy, which just doesn’t work at all).