While I was required to take Epistemology in graduate school, I was not particularly interested in the study of knowledge until I started teaching it. While remaining professionally neutral in the classroom, I now include a section on the ethics of belief in my epistemology class and discuss, in general terms, such things as tribal epistemology. Outside of the classroom I am free to discuss my own views on epistemology in the context of politics and it is a fascinating subject. My younger self from graduate school would be surprised at the words “epistemology” and “fascinating” used together in the same sentence. But here we are to discuss epistemology and Trump supporters.
While COVID-19 is a nightmare for the world, the professed beliefs of Trump supporters about the pandemic provide an excellent case study in belief. As anyone familiar with these beliefs knows, they form a strange set of inconsistent and even contradictory claims. I am not claiming that every Trump supporter believes all these claims and I am not claiming that only Trump supporters believe them; but these are all claims professed by those who support Trump.
At the start of the pandemic Trump placed the blame on China and still refers to the virus as “the China virus.” His supporters generally accept this view. The role of China varies depending on which explanation is offered. Some make the true claim that it originated in China. Others make the unsupported claim that it escaped (or was released intentionally) from a lab. On this view, the virus is generally presented as something bad. After all, it makes no sense to blame China unless the virus is a significant problem.
There are also various other conspiracy theories about the pandemic—one infamous theory is that the pandemic is real—but caused by 5G. This would be inconsistent with the China virus theory; but one could preserve the China link by claiming that 5G originated in China.
Trump has also advanced the idea that the pandemic does not exist, that it is a hoax. This has been echoed by his supporters—although some also advance the theory that the Democrats infected Trump with the virus. The hoax idea is presented in various ways. For example, on some accounts the virus does exist but is no worse than the flu—something that is not true. This view has led to an active anti-mask movement and death threats against public health experts. The anti-mask views make sense if one claims to believe the virus is a hoax but makes less sense if one professes to believe that the virus is bad enough to warrant making China pay. If it is a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats, then it makes little sense to hold China accountable. And if the virus did real damage and China should pay, then it makes no sense to claim it is a hoax. To be fair, these could be combined into the claim that China and the Democrats ran a worldwide hoax with the cooperation of all governments to harm Trump. Reconciling the 5G theory with the hoax theory would be challenging—if 5G is the cause of the pandemic, then it is not a hoax. And if it is a hoax, there is no pandemic for 5G to cause.
While Trump supporters profess to believe the pandemic is a hoax, over 80% of Republicans claim to believe that Trump has done a great job with the pandemic. His supporters claim that he took rapid action (he did not) and that his response has been very effective (it has not). Trump has also attempted to take credit for the forthcoming vaccines and has claimed, without evidence, that the FDA and Democrats stalled the vaccines. If the pandemic is a hoax, then it makes no sense to claim that Trump acted rapidly and effectively to counter the pandemic. This is because there would be no pandemic to counter. It could be claimed that Trump acted to counter the hoax but this would be hard to reconcile with Trump’s claims about the vaccine—if the pandemic is a hoax, then there is no need for a vaccine and taking credit for a useless vaccine would be silly. A Trump supporter could take the view that the pandemic is no worse than the flu and then credit Trump with addressing something no worse than the flu and developing the equivalent of a flu vaccine. But to the degree that Trump downplayed (lied about) the pandemic, thus would undercut claims of how significant his alleged success should be considered.
As I noted earlier, I am not claiming that every Trump supporter believes all these claims. For example, the 5G pandemic theory is not universally embraced by Trump supporters (and is, one suspects, held by some who do not support him). However, Trump supporters generally seem to profess belief in many of these claims—even though they are not consistent, and some would seem to lead to contradictions.
In logic, two claims are inconsistent when both could be false, but both cannot be true. To use my classroom example, the claim that my water bottle contains only vodka and the claim that it contains only water are inconsistent with each other. If the bottle contains only vodka, then it does not contain only water—and vice versa. But both could be false: the bottle could be empty. Or it could contain tequila. Many of the claims Trump supporters profess to believe about the pandemic seem inconsistent. For example, the claim that the pandemic was caused by 5G is not consistent with the claim that it is a hoax.
In logic, two claims contradict one another when one of them must be false and the other must be true. A contradiction is a claim that must be false and is false because of its logical structure. The stock example in logic is the conjunction P & -P. Since a conjunction is true when the two claims being conjoined are true and false otherwise, this claim is always false—at least on the assumption that any claim is true or false (but not both). So, if P is true, then -P must be false (and vice versa). Some of the claims Trump supporters profess to believe would seem to entail contradictory claims. For example, if it is claimed that the pandemic is caused by 5G, then this would entail the claim that the pandemic is not a hoax. This would contradict the claim that it is a hoax. Naturally, one could argue that the pandemic is caused by 5G and is also a hoax—provided that the nature of the hoax is defined in a way that allows it to be caused by 5G. As another example, the conspiracy theory that the pandemic was caused by a bioweapon released (intentionally or not) by China (or someone else) would entail that it is not a hoax. This would contradict the claim that it is a hoax. Again, one could try to craft the hoax claims in a way that the pandemic is both a hoax and caused by a bioweapon. Claiming that it is a hoax about a bioweapon would not do this, since a hoax about a bioweapon is not a bioweapon it is just a hoax.
From the standpoint of truth-functional logic (a logic in which the truth of a claim depends on the truth of the parts), the claims made by Trump supporters about the pandemic cannot all be true. In science-fiction, a robot or computer that attempted to accept all these claims as true would suffer some sort of sci-fi logic failure, perhaps exploding in accord with the special effects budget of the show. In reality, mapping out the logical relations between these claims would show that they cannot all be true and there would be no explosions (one hopes). But there is the interesting question of how people can hold to beliefs that cannot all be true and some of which lead to contradictions.
In philosophy, epistemologists (and others) often speak of beliefs as having intentionality. That is, beliefs have aboutness. When a person believes something about their world, they take their belief to correspond to reality. But while a belief has aboutness it need not be about reality. As an example, if Ted believes in unicorns, his belief is about unicorns (although philosophers disagree about beliefs about things that are not real)—but not about real unicorns. Because there are no unicorns. People can also believe that all the claims in a set are true, even though it is not possible for them all to be true. That is, that set contains beliefs that are inconsistent with each other (or even contradictory). A person can even believe that a contradiction is true. Unlike truth functional logic, the truth of the claim “Person A believes claim C” does not depend on the truth of the parts; only on the truth of the claim about A believing C. A crude way to look at the matter is to see belief as like a Word file in which one can type any sentence rather than being like a computer program or circuit design that would crash or fail if it contained logical inconsistencies or contradictions. So, saying that a person believes something is like saying it is in their Word file. Humans are clearly able to believe sets of inconsistent claims and even act on those beliefs—which raises many interesting questions about belief formation and how belief impacts actions. As a closing point, people can certainly reconcile apparently inconsistent beliefs by not really believing in some or all of them—professing that a claim is true when one believes it is not. That is, lying.