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An Integral Approach to Conspiracy Theory

(Or: “A Conspiracy Theory of Everything”)

Having just completed Ken Wilber’s book, A Theory of Everything, I’m anxious to try my hand at applying some of his theories of “integral practice” to areas that I’m interested in. Since so much of Wilber’s model seems to deal with human psychology, behavior and interaction, I felt like conspiracy theory would be a great place to start. Plus, I imagine most people (possibly even Wilber himself) would find it ironic to try and apply a “Theory of Everything” onto something as unsavory and culturally maligned as conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theory has much to benefit from such a philosophical facelift. If it can truly be called anything, it is fragmentary, contradictory, confusing, and sometimes just plain weird. Is there any way we can really make sense of all these wildly diverging theories and interpretations of current events, history, and the cosmos? Hopefully, using Integral Philosophy, we’ll be able to put it into a framework that will grant us greater understanding of the whole messy state of affairs that is conspiracy theory.

At the heart of Wilber’s ideas are a few sets of models. For the sake of our discussion here, I’m going to apply only two in modified form: the four-quadrant system and the first tier “memes” of Spiral Dynamics. I’m no great fan of all the crazy terminology that Wilber uses, so I’ll try to keep it to a minimum while still retaining the essence of his ideas.

Let’s start with the quadrant system. This method of organization seeks to account for all the various types of experiences that people have. There are two main dichotomies expressed here, each along it’s own axis. We have the interior dimension of human experience, and we have the exterior. Think of the interior as things that happen to you, and that involve emotions, states of mind, physical sensation, etc. And the exterior could be understood most simply as things that happen to somebody else. You can’t experience somebody else’s emotions or sensations, but you can observe their behavior.

The other axis accounts for individual or solitary experiences, or things that occur to groups or collectively. Do you act differently around your friends than you do by yourself? Are the types of things you talk about with your family different than those you talk about with your boyfriend or girlfriend? The collective side especially has to do with relationships, and how relationships influence and are influenced by various factors.

In the diagram below, I’ve taken these quadrants and tried to map them onto four areas of inquiry in the realm of conspiracy theory. The goal here is to be able to break conspiracy theory research down into four main areas having to do with interior & exterior phenomena, and things that happen individually and in relation to others. Then, once we understand these areas individually, we can integrate them into a more “holistic” truth-seeking approach.

(If anybody has suggestions on improving the terminology in this diagram, please let me know.)

In Wilber’s integral model, he advocates taking an “All-Quadrant” approach to whatever you’re doing. This means that no one of these quadrants ought to really supercede any of the others. They must all be accounted for in order to arrive at a holistic understanding.

The four quadrants in our Integral Conspiracy Theory system could be broken down as follows:

  1. Interior-Individual - Motivations & Intuition (Psychology): This quadrant can and should be applied to both conspiracy theory researchers and the people who they research.

    I’ve found that people get interested in researching conspiracy theory for a variety of reasons. There are also a great many different types of conspiracy theories out there. I feel that it’s important for researchers to examine their own motivations, and try to understand psychologically why they feel drawn to a particular theory or to a particular area of investigation. What about it draws you in? How might this relate to the bigger of your own life? It’s also important for conspiracy theorists to set goals. What is it that they want to have happen based on their research? Justice? Entertainment? Enlightenment? Once you know where you’re headed, I find that intuition is probably the most common and most useful tool for getting you there. When you come across information or an idea that somehow “feels right” you’ve got to follow that thread wherever it may lead.

    This is also the quadrant of empathy. One of the most basic and most important human capabilities is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Try to imagine and feel what it would be like to live their life from the inside out. If you are researching Osama Bin Laden or George W. Bush, spend as much time as possible to imagine what you might do in their position. Study their psychological profile, but also try to understand them from a first-person emotional perspective. Imagine if you were forced to make the same choices in your life as they have been. How would you have handled the pressure? How might you have reacted differently? Can you see how their actions and decisions might make sense from their perspective? This will enhance your ability to understand the motivations of others, and in turn study your own motivations. It may also increase your subtle intuitive understanding of characters, relationships and events. Empathy is an important grounding in any conspiracy theory research, because you often encounter tales of horrible acts which might seem inhuman from your perspective, but which might be seen very differently by the people involved.

  2. Interior-Collective - Cultual Meaning (Sociological): Conspiracy theorists often talk about things like propaganda and disinformation campaigns. What they are really talking about on a deeper level is how meaning and value is understood and transmitted within a culture.

    The main way that people understand things is through creating and telling stories. Stories place disconnected events and characters into a coherent framework that allow us to intuitively understand the motivations and effects of actions. Some stories are based in reality. Some stories are rooted in reality, but become distorted through transmission (others are changed on purpose). Still other stories are invented almost out of thin air. Part of being a good conspiracy theory investigator is to be able to track down the origins of stories. Where and from whom did they originate? Under what circumstances? What might have been the motivations of the people who were telling the story? You must also be able to understand the effects that stories have on people. One person who hears about a nearby UFO abduction might be scared out of their mind. Somebody else who hears it might not believe aliens even exist, so they dismiss it out of hand. Still somebody else might take a trip out into the field with binoculars and a video camera and wait to capture evidence. Why do different people react differently to the same stories?

    Also, it’s important to recognize that sometimes stories have an important impact whether or not they are true. When we hear a story, there’s some part of us that imagines it happening to us. This is what makes stories interesting, exciting, scary and funny. This empathic part of us doesn’t much care whether or not a story really happened in real life. It only cares if it’s a good story. What makes something a good story? What makes people respond positively or negatively to something? What methods do people who tell stories use to manipulate their audiences?

    Additionally, stories transmit cultural values. When you hear a narrative, try to determine roles such as hero and villain. They may not always be clear-cut, but the way different characters and events are framed will reveal deep meaning which might not be explicitly stated within the story. To determine cultural values, examine your own and other’s reactions to the story. Do they feel disgusted? Inspired? Terrified? Chances are their underlying value systems are being operated on in some way. Stories also often use imagination to give power to individuals and groups who lack it in the real world. The traditional tale of the “boy who cried wolf” describes a child who was always creating horrible tales to gain attention or notoriety. Apocalyptic stories also often set aside a certain racial or religious group as the survivors or “winners” at the End of the World, while everybody else is swept away. Take a look in these instances at the values and ideas which make this group who they are.

  3. Exterior-Individual - Empirical Evidence (logical): This is the “dirty work” of conspiracy theory research, actually collecting individual pieces of evidence. Charles Fort is a great example of a researcher in this quadrant-mode of thinking. While not particularly a conspiracy researcher, Fort spent years collecting accounts of anomalous phenomena from news, scientific journals and other historical anecdotes. Fort focused on collecting objective data for strange events. His work often revolved around proving that while factual data may be objective, the interpretations that we apply to it almost never are. Too often conspiracy and other researchers will begin their search with a specific theory in mind, and then they will see only facts which support their interpretation. This necessarily leads to lop-sided selective understanding. To begin with facts and then proceed from there will often challenge accepted theories and suggest entirely new ones which may be either more accurate, or which may give you a new understanding from which to find more evidence.
  4. Exterior-Collective - Complex Systems (ecological): Thinking in this quadrant deals heavily with following connections and understanding networks. Probably the easiest place to start would be with looking at organizations and institutions. When theorists have evidence about a particular person who may be involved in a conspiracy, they will often spend a great deal of time sifting through associations in that person’s life. These may be corporate, political, religious, social, family, business-based or many others. The very definition of conspiracy is when multiple people come together to perform some sinister or illegal act. Thus, no conspiracy ever occurs inside a vacuum; there will be multiple members, though everyone may not be involved in precisely the same way. Following through on personal connections and contacts will help ground any conspiracy theory in a “bigger picture” and will also help in understand motive and justification for various events.

    Cui bono? is a question we hear again and again in conspiracy theory as well. Who benefits? Another common dictum is “Follow the money.” Both these point to impersonal forces: social, political, financial. Together these (and others) form a complex system which can be studied objectively. The simplest way of understanding complex systems is to ask how various people and elements are related? An example: Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 made a heavy point of studying the business and personal relationships between the Bush family and the Saudi Bin Laden family. Often such connections are in plain sight and need merely be interpreted of the context of the other three quadrants of Integral Conspiracy theory.

An “All Quadrant” approach to conspiracy theory will make equal use of all four of the above areas, placing each area of inquiry into the appropriate context of the other three, thus revealing a more complete picture. It might be a worthwhile experiment to go through various conspiracy theory researchers and try to understand how their work contributes to understanding according the four quadrants. My own interest in the subject has always tended more towards the left-side of the diagram: the psychological and sociological aspects of conspiracy theory. Jeff Wells of the blog Rigorous Intuition is a good example of somebody who’s research is weighted more towards the right hand side: looking at evidence, and at the interaction of complex systems. Different people approach this stuff in different ways, based on their own motivations. Perhaps Integral Philosophy offers a useful way to make sense of the differences and map together the similarities.

The other part of Ken Wilber’s work that may be useful for conspiracy theorists is taken from a system called Spiral Dynamics. This system could be compared to Timothy Leary’s 8 circuit model of consciousness, or perhaps the 8 Dynamics of Scientology. All three systems are meant as a way to understand human behavior according to various modes of behavior, and accompanying attitudes and concepts. It’s important to bear in mind that these are merely maps, and that human behavior doesn’t always reduce to neat categories. But such systems can still be useful for understanding and predicting how people function. Spiral Dynamics tends to be described according to eight or more modes of human behavior, which are color-coded according to the following system:

  1. Beige: Archaic/Instinctual - Survival & safety
  2. Purple: Magical/Animistic - Spirits, spells, kinship, lineage, tribes, gangs, teams
  3. Red: Power Gods/Heroic/Egocentric - Power, glory, conquerors, invasions, feudal empires
  4. Blue: Mythic Order - Codes of conduct, rules (rewards & punishment for following or breaking), law & order, hierarchy, patriarchy, totalitarianism, fundamentalism
  5. Orange: Scientific Achievement- individualistic, rational, materialistic, mechanistic, manipulation
  6. Green: Sensitive Self - Emotional, egalitarian, ecological, liberal, pluralistic, anti-dogma, human rights

There are two or three levels (termed “memes”) beyond that (according to who you ask), which focus on integrating the “lower” levels into a holistic framework. The basic idea is that none of the levels are necessarily better than the others; they each have their own positive and negative expressions. Supposedly the only difference between one level and the next is that higher levels transcend and include previous levels. The goal of integralism is then to figure out how to positively express each level, so that it can grow according to it’s own terms and timeline.

While I don’t agree 100% with this system of classification, I think it’s an interesting one to try to apply to our analysis of conspiracy theory. In addition to the quadrant system, this system of levels might help us understand how various groups of people relate and react to events which make up the backbone of conspiracy theory. Let’s take this system and try to understand how it would work with a real-life example: terrorism and the so-called “War on Terror.”

  1. Beige: Archaic/Instinctual - This level is mainly concerned with safety and security. The Department of “Homeland Security” was set up essentially to satisfy this need in people. Our primitive feelings of security were violated by the attacks of September 11th. The constant threat of terrorism, as evidenced by the “Terror Alert Level” system keeps us all firmly rooted in this archaic/instinctual mode of thinking. Higher levels in turn take advantage of this primitive regression, and direct it in various ways advantageous to the state.
  2. Purple: Magical/Animistic - One of the biggest elements at this level is kinship & tribal bonds. Besides the obvious safety and security needs of the Beige level, the Purple level promotes an “us versus them” mentality. We see this any time the conflict is posed as an Islam Vs. Christianity one. And we see it when Bush makes statements about the terrorists “hating our freedoms”. We see this also in patriotism, in flag-waving, in “Support Our Troops” magnets on cars, etc. This level also deals with magic and spirits, both good and bad. Terrorists again fit the bill here, because they are a sort of amorphous impossible to define, identify or catch type of threat. They are almost like ghosts or spirits which maliciously inflict damage on us in ways that we could never expect. They use “magic” to turn every day objects like planes into weapons of destruction. The government in turn uses “good magic” to try and stop these evil spirits. This is where restricting civil liberties comes into play.
  3. Red: Power Gods - A tribe vs. tribe mentality eventually must erupt into military action. Warfare helps keep people at that difficult-to-maintain level of tension for a long time. This is where we got the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq from. After our sense of security was violated in the Beige level, we must lash out violently in order to rebuild our shattered self-image and sense of superiority.
  4. Blue: Mythic Order - This level introduces strict morality and clear codes of right and wrong conduct. Good and evil are sharply articulated (think “Axis of Evil”) as are law & order (the name of a popular television show, you’ll notice). This level is built very much on punishments & rewards for violating or following the strict codes of conduct. This level is tied inherently to religious fundamentalism, and would account for it’s rapid expansion in the past few years. I’d imagine that this restrictive system of “moral clarity” is necessary to contain the explosive energy unleashed by the red level.
  5. Orange: Scientific Achievement - One of the phrases frequently linked to this level of thinking is “chessboard”. In this level, actions are based on rational, calculated mechanistic manipulation. It results in scientific achievement, but also in materialistic attitudes. This level is shown readily by our use of advanced military technology, and our indifference to the deaths of countless casualties of war - collateral damage. There’s also a book pointed to by conspiracy researchers as evidence for far-reaching plans of geopolitical strategy. It’s called The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And It’s Geostrategic Imperatives. A similarly Machiavellian/mechanistic view of world events is also noted in the Project for a New American Century, which released it’s infamous report several years before 9/11 calling for “some catastrophic and catalysing event - like a new Pearl Harbor” in order to bring about social acceptance of it’s geopolitical aims.
  6. Green: Sensitive Self - The green level is concerned with overcoming cold rational thinking, tempering it with emotion and empathy. It generally is concerned with egalitarianism, democracy, human rights, resistance to dogma and cultural dialogue. In short, it’s the liberal response to the conservative ways of the blue level. It’s evidenced by anti-war sentiment, outrage over the PATRIOT ACT, the abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, among other things.

It’s interesting that terrorism and the resulting War on Terror, in a sense, is a truly “integral” phenomenon. It activates and encourages strong human response on all the levels in Spiral Dynamics. It’s truly “All-Level”. This might just be the hallmark of important events throughout history. But conspiracy theorists might argue that it is a carefully engineered phenomenon quite intentionally designed to engage us on all these levels for the purposes of social control. In order to determine the truth of such a possibility though, conspiracy theorists may combine this system of understanding with Wilber’s quadrant model for a truly “All-Quadrant, All-Level” approach to conspiracy theory.

13 Reader Responses

  1. hester Says:

    laugh. my. ass. off. shit, you just blew the lid off of his tiresome tripe.

  2. John Says:

    All Quadrant. All Level. Al Qaida!

  3. slomo Says:

    Nice post. I am struck by how well the colors match up to the color assignments for many of the sephiroth in the qabalistic tree-of-life. I suppose this really isn’t an accident on Wilber’s part. If you want to go deeper with this model, you might want to check out some Qabala theory if you haven’t already.

  4. zacharius Says:

    looks mostly accurate, at least in terms of how wilber, beck and so forth laid it out.

    i think alot of the nationalistic stuff actually more accurately goes in blue and not purple. the purple stuff is home to a lot of the racist material that allows us to dehumanise brown people cause they’re not like white america, and helps expalin the kind of disconnect between the number of african americans who have family in military service vs the number of white and so forth, which is a strong undercurrent to the war on terror. on the purple level its the war on other races, and their ways. it’s partly how the nazis got that kind of primitive blood and soil mysticism, too. fetishising the race as it were.

    most of the nationalistic stuff is more accurately under blue and the ‘mythic order’ of america, which is also how the fundamentalist chrisitan thing is so easily conflated with the mythic america thing, and not the orange rational enlightenment level, which holds the ideals of america as laid forth by the constituion, but the mythic level is older and stronger.

    it’s kind of fun once you understand the framework well enough to play with it. that’s why i wonder why people have problems with wilber. his system actually gives you more room to play with things if you look at it the right way.

  5. Nathan Says:

    From William Irwin Thompson (summing up perfectly I think why many of us who’ve been exposed to the works of Chrome-Dome Kenny have chosen to go in another direction):
    “We have so replaced [high] culture with psychology, psychotherapy, and simplistic workshops on how to fix the depressive flats of our lives that we prefer the compulsive mappings and textbook categorizations of a Ken Wilber to the poetic insights of a Jean Gebser. Wilber seeks to control the universe through mapping, and the dominant masculinist purpose of his abstract system is to shift power from the described to the describer. As an autodidact from the Midwest, Wilber wants to promote himself as “the Einstein of the consciousness movement”…This mode of scholarship is really a mode of psychic inflation and self-magnification; it is a grand pyramid of systems of abstract thought, with Wilber’s kept on top. Never does one come upon a feeling for the concrete: a new look at an individual poem, a painting, or a work of architecture.”

    Dominant masculinist purpose - a natural extension of the Western, imperialist, colonial enterprise, in other words. And, I would say that anyone who openly declares that they want to be the “Einstein of the consciousness movement”, pretty much disqualifies themselves from the task right then and there.

  6. alistair Says:

    i like the quadrant approach to description of states as a map. it is a way to hold a complex series of thoughts together in a picture. steven covey uses this method to show how important tasks can be abrogated by trivial pastimes, sometimes unconciously. he is a guru of the autorobotizing crowd.

  7. alistair Says:

    www.daimon.org/cwb/stupidity.htm is another quadrant diagram,this time explaining stupidity. the chart is about half way down the page.

  8. J. Puma Says:

    well i dunno– imho, it looks as though there’s nothing in wilbur’s lil’ structural analysis that hasn’t been covered by qabalists for centuries. brilliant analysis here, of course.

  9. albion Says:

    valiant effort tim, but as the saying goes, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. perhaps it is the ironic fate of those striving toward universality and integration, to end up being the most marginal & idiosyncratic cranks.

  10. albion Says:

    the political compass also uses quadrants for mapping political views. i think its a good basic approach, if you clear away the wilberian gobbeldygook.

  11. Occult Investigator Says:

    I prefer the saying, “You can’t polish a turd”

  12. Occult Investigator Says:

    Yeah I actually think the quadrant part of this is really useful. I’ve never really tried to articulate a framework for conspiracy research before. I’m not quite as keen on the stages and all that jazz though

  13. Nicq MacDonald Says:

    Nathan: Wilber didn’t declare himself the “Einstein of Consciousness Research”- that was Jean Houston in a blurb on one of his earlier books, back in the 80’s. Of course, part of what appeals to me about Wilber’s work is that I tend to have a very strong (to use Spiral Dynamics terminology) “Orange” component to my personality- rational, systematizing, organizing, mathematical, logical. I’m guessing that if you put Wilber on the Meyers-Briggs personality model, he’d come out an INTP- same as me, Jung and G.W.F. von Hegel. It’s just the way we look at things.

    Tim: Great article. I’ve been trying to apply Wilber’s model to some recent experiences, and I’ve been coming up short… despite the fact that I probably know Wilber’s model better than anyone else under the age of 25. This helps me out a lot. As for the “stages”, well, Wilber admits that they’re fictions- nobody is really “at” a given stage, as such, which makes them similiar to the forementioned Qabalistic sephiroth- they’re imaginary “fulcrums” in what is really a spectrum-model.

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