Illusions of delusions



What is delusion? We hear the charge tossed back and forth these days, often with little clarity. We recognize it as a rhetorical trope – ‘these people are delusional’ – yet suggest that it could be clinically verifiable. That’s like taking the statement ‘he’s a son of a bitch’ to mean that the person belongs to some breed of canine, to be determined through dissection.

Clinically, the term ‘delusion’ refers to reports and behaviors of an individual. At some point it may be asked, whether there were “safety in numbers” for those who may be sharing what seem to be delusional beliefs, but are not ‘diagnosed’ so. The short answer is yes.

Let’s consider the matter philosophically – indeed, beginning from the perspective of the philosophic discussion of it at the Stanford Encyclopedia – There are several similar definitions deployed there, but it is also noted that strict definition is somewhat difficult.

Nonetheless, let’s consider a number of scenarios:

Fred Bob thinks he’s a great physicist; if only other physicists paid attention to him, he could prove the existence of the aether. However, Fred never studied physics outside of science fiction comic books. Since he works two janitorial jobs, he has convinced himself that he hasn’t the time to fully work out the arithmetic (he doesn’t know higher maths) in order to prove his theory. Consequently, being rather modest, he’s never told anybody what a great physicist he is. He is a decent husband and father, and only expresses his disappointment with the situation by moping around the house on his day off. Delusional? How would anybody know?

Fred One smashes radios. When asked why, he says they are alien surveillance devices. He is taken to a psychiatric center for treatment. Fred Two also smashes radios. When a policeman shows up, he says ‘I just like smashing radios.’ The policeman says, ‘okay, just don’t smash anybody else’s radio – and do it quietly, the neighbors complained.’ Fred Two agrees, and buys radios to smash only when the neighbors are out.

Fred Bob is convinced that his wife is an alien imposter. However, he happens to think the imposter is an improvement on the original model. One day he tells her all this. She says, ‘yeah, fine, whatever.’ They live happily ever after.

Fred One comes up to Fred Two, and admits, ‘I think I have two bodies.’
Fred Two says,’it’s not possible that you have two bodies.
Fred One: ‘I agree, that’s totally impossible. But there’s a problem.’
Fred Two: ‘What’s that?”
Fred One: ‘I have two bodies.’

Fred Bob, who is no freak of nature, only has one head. He thinks he has two. He attempts to shoot one off, ends up in the hospital. When he is conscious he exclaims ‘the other head did it! Thank gosh he missed!’

Fred One: ‘I am god.
Fred Two: ‘You can’t be, I am god.’
Fred One: ‘I am the god of a parallel universe’
Fred Two: ‘Well, that’s alright then.’
Problem: Only one of these Freds really believes he’s god – which one?

Mildred Bob tells Fred: ‘I’ve traveled the aethereal realms between galaxies, learning from the elders of the cosmos.’ Fred’s appropriate response should be:
– begin the Cult of Mildred based on what she has learned?
– organize a poetry reading for her?
– remark that she has mistaken Carl Sagan as a spiritualist?
– take her to a psychiatrist?
– ‘yeah, whatever,’ and live with her happily ever after?

Delusion is determined externally – socially – based on reports. Therein lies a problem.

When is a delusion not a delusion? When the majority of those assumed to have studied the matter agree to it. Geocentrism was not a delusion in the Middle Ages, it was science.

Where are the lines between rational thought that we can rely on, and irrational thought we do rely on because we don recognize the underlying irrationality? There are personal delusions of individuals that others than the individual can easily recognize as delusions, esp. in the cases of mental illness – ‘This person is not Jesus Christ as he claims.’ But there are borderline cases not so easily determined, e.g., ‘I’m surely irreplaceable in to my employer.’  And there are shared beliefs among small groups that appear, to say the least, eccentric to outsiders – e.g., that Ed Wood was a brilliant film-maker. But then there are beliefs that are widely accepted in a culture that can only be perceived delusional outside the culture, or at a later date.

Again, geocentrism – if believed today, it is widely recognized as delusional or simply profound ignorance (although, disturbingly, it has lately gained some credence among Young Earth Creationists!). But in the middle ages, it was science, and astronomers and mathematicians made serious efforts to correct-for-errors in their calculations of seasons and star-patterns to keep it afloat.

Indeed, both the sciences and the theology of the later middle ages were far more complex than most people realize. Those interested in the geocentric/heliocentric debate especially should consider browsing the history of science blog, The Renaissance Mathematicus ( The author there has a particular interest in clarifying legends about this debate generally, and about Galileo especially.

For all I know, scientists and philosophers of the future may have access not only to technology we have not imagined, but ways of knowing that we have not yet looked at, or which have been previously rejected. Generally what we know at any given historical moment is entirely valid in the moment; but that doesn’t carve it into stone as eternal truth.

Nonetheless, surely the questions still remain – how do we differentiate between private and public delusions? what if the accepted truths of a culture and those of an opposing or novel system of thought are both equally wrong? What if our best estimations of the epistemology assuring true belief, rather than securing knowledge, actually blinker it from us?

At the institutional center of Medieval culture, these questions could be ‘answered’ by fiat, to some extent; but there were certainly some lively debates at the periphery.

That should not engender pride in our current scientific achievements, but rather humility and caution. Extreme skepticism may be dangerous, but there can be no doubt that some degree of skepticism is always warranted

When what appear to be delusions – beliefs determined as outside of accepted knowledge -are shared among a variety of people, then we need not call them delusional; we have different words to talk about their beliefs – ‘cultic,’ ‘fanatical,’ ‘conspiracy theories,’ etc., and such categorizations are useful in determining how to deploy responses to people holding such beliefs aberrant to the responding social order. When they are widely shared, then we address the organizations they engender to determine whether these present any threat to the society, or may prove beneficial to it, regardless of the irrationality of their foundations. There is other language, political and legislative language, addressing such issues, that need never raise the question of the rationality of the foundations for such organized beliefs.

But then comes the kicker: When possibly delusional beliefs are shared among the general populace of a society, they are no longer aberrant, and they come under the rubric ‘culture.’

I think the elaboration of irrational beliefs into culture is unavoidable (which implies that any culture must be founded on some irrational beliefs). A friend of mine maintains that all culture is pathological – that seems too strong, but analysis of social behavior indicates an uncomfortable level of probability to it. So we must always be somewhat skeptical of any belief we hold dear that we may share with others.

Again: “there are beliefs that are widely accepted in a culture that can only be perceived delusional outside the culture, or at a later date.” This can’t be helped, it is in the nature of history. We share the assumption that the sciences and philosophy of our day are on considerably firmer epistemic ground than those that came before. But – we could be wrong. A century from now, scientists and philosophers may look back on us and remark, ‘oh, those delusional Moderns!’ But one benefit of mortality is that one gets to die before finding out just how wrong one’s beliefs really are.


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