"The Test of the Lunatic Asylum: How Occam's razor can trick us into delusion"

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posted on Oct, 14 2012 @ 03:15 AM
Why do people fall into delusion?

This is a question at once easy and difficult to answer. On the one hand, it seems simple: Human beings are pattern seeking animals. We read meaning into the matrix, and the numinous out of the noise. We prefer a bad answer to no answer at all, and we can't help it.

The late Christopher Hitchens once said: "...our problem is this: our pre-frontal lobes are too small, and our adrenalin glands are too big, and our thumb-finger opposition isn't all that it might be, and we're afraid of the dark, and we're afraid to die, and we believe in the truths of holy books..." [link to full text]

I think Hitchens was on to something when he wrote this. His suggestion that biology underlies both our barbaric behavior towards one another, and our susceptibility to delusion, is both persuasive and portentous. But there may be more to the question than this. Which human faculty is responsible for the breakdown? Hitchens suggests, by way of his reference to the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, that we suffer from a lack of reasoning skills. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain primarily responsible for planning, thought, and judgement. [source]

We are so evolved that we cannot help but, at times, fall into delusion. But delusion is often damaging, we should endeavor to end it, and despite the limitations of our reasoning faculty there are still ways for us to do this. Steps we can take. Diagnostics we can perform.

One of these is the test of Occam's Razor: "Among competing hypotheses, the one which makes the fewest assumptions should be selected." [link] If we suspect ourselves of holding onto a delusional belief, we should check our belief for assumptions, and then look for simpler, complete explanations.

Now, I contend that this is a dangerous recommendation. Occam's razor may perform consistently well in the testing of separate, contained hypotheses, but it has unexpected consequences when applied to problems of metaphysics, theories of everything, all-encompassing beliefs, or beliefs about self. Delusion is evidence of disease or weakness in the organ of thought, and Occam's Razor exhorts us to reason our way out of the disease: In other words, to take the very faculty that is in error, and use it to make us well.

The problem with this approach is obvious, but the argument itself must be subtle.

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote:

"The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable...

...But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large...

...The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way."
[link to text]

Chesterton's argument is that delusional beliefs about self are always simple, rational, and complete. They cover all of the facts, and rely on very few assumptions. He gives three examples: That of the man who thinks others have a conspiracy against him, the man who thinks he is king, and the man who claims to be Christ. In each case, one assumption covers all of the facts. Or, as Chesterton put it: "If a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do."

Occam's razor is useless here, because the delusional explanation is already the simplest explanation. Now, I'm sure some might object to this statement, so I will explain as carefully as I can. From the perspective of the person arguing with the deluded individual, the simplest explanation is that the madman is mistaken. But that hypothesis is in answer to a question distinct from the one the madman is asking himself. The arguer is only looking for a hypothesis to explain the madman's belief, the madman is looking for a hypothesis to explain everything else: His insistence on finding the simplest, complete explanation for everything is the very cause of his morbidity.

Chesterton spots the problem. He says "If you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument."

And he's exactly right. Delusional beliefs about self arise when we subconsciously choose one, simple, complete, but small explanation over a large number of complex but incomplete explanations. We demand too much certainty -- too much completeness -- in our hypotheses, and as a result we are tricked into delusion by Occam's razor. We choose one, simple assumption to underlie all of our thinking about ourselves and our relationship to the world, and as a result we are led astray.

So, I contend, Occam's razor may be a useful tool for testing contained and comparable hypotheses, but it is not an effective prophylactic or diagnostic for beliefs about self. We cannot rely on this maxim to test our deeply held beliefs about the world, for it is equally likely to give warrant to false beliefs, and may disregard obvious complexities inherent in the nature of the questions our hypotheses seek to address. Healthy, often incomplete beliefs about the self or the relation of self to the world will always contain a great number of assumptions, each shaped by experience.

When we are dealing with the whole world, the truth is always complicated. Beware the simple explanation! Beware the answer that makes one small assumption and with that explains everything. Most of all, beware the explanation that is complete, and purports to cover all the facts.

I finish with Chesterton's words:

"Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart, and that many things do fit into other things as you say. I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours; and are all men busy with your business? Suppose we grant the details; perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers!"



posted on Oct, 14 2012 @ 04:58 AM
An interesting post I think and I look forward to seeing how the thread evolves, for me there are paths that lead in all directions.

From the position of the mistaken (deluded) conclusion being a negative one for the thinker Goya's warning echoes:

Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters:

Viewing the conclusion from the opposing end of the spectrum, where the thinker uses/is quietly happy to use the conclusion as reinforcement of a pre-existing belief due to desire, David Hume warns us:

But if the spirit of religion join itself to the love of wonder, there is an end of common sense; and human testimony, in these circumstances, loses all pretensions to authority.

But in both though logic and reason end up more abused rather than used. I had a little experience of a situation relating to this topic quite recently where logic and reason were not strangers to the individual who found themselves at the centre of matter but rather they were discreetly ejected from the house after they had served a purpose - to offer roots, foundations for a particular idea. Once the mind had justified to itself it's conclusions though, by marking these two usually positive and laudable attributes in consideration of the perspective, it dismissed them, becoming so blinded by the scale/impact of the premature (and incorrect) conclusion that it couldn't move past it; it became like a deer in the headlights. The steps used to reach the conclusion were reasoned, there was a logical progression in the thought process but it was this partial, this distorted truth, recognition or understanding that made the conclusion so convincing and therefore so dangerous to the individual. Use of these considerations only up to a point gave the conclusion a validity which left the argument for further consideration on these grounds and for distinguishing between that which is indeed potentially possible and that which is probable quite neutered.

All probabilities and potentials after became skewed, even to the point of becoming reversed, due to the false authority the individual gave to the ultimately erroneous conclusion. It was a short circuit of the individual's usually quite fierce and astute intellectual abilities which led to a standpoint where, as far the individual was concerned, the conclusion truly became an impossible monster. To me it seemed it would remain so too for at least as long as it stood under a sky shaded so; to charge against such a thing directly was utterly futile and from the perspective of the person at the centre of this anyone doing so was viewed tenderly as some kind of Don Quixote.

From there, the words you offer above:

Chesterton spots the problem. He says "If you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument."

seem, as all inspired words do, both absurdly simple and yet wonderfully insightful at the same time.

I like this:

Delusional beliefs about self arise when we subconsciously choose one, simple, complete, but small explanation over a large number of complex but incomplete explanations. We demand too much certainty -- too much completeness -- in our hypotheses,
The example I referenced above had a simple conclusion, insofar that it was one which was reached through a use of genuine possibilities and logical steps, that's why it was so dangerously convincing to the person concerned. There was no glaring a, b, c, e or 'Badgers did it' but, being human, they wanted some order, some completeness, they wanted a conclusion and so, being human, they found one.

Everything must justify its existence before the judgement seat of Reason, or give up existence. ~ Friedrich Engels

For me, to Deny Ignorance means to exercise argument beyond merely finding an agreeable conclusion and here ATS can be a great read. I look forward to seeing where this thread goes, thanks RedBird.

edit on 14/10/12 by JAK because: (no reason given)

posted on Oct, 14 2012 @ 05:02 AM
"It doesn't cost 100 Billion to produce 1 amateur season of Appollo" ... - Awkems Razor

posted on Oct, 14 2012 @ 02:27 PM
Well, yeah. You're misapplying Occam's Razor and then complaining that it doesn't work right. It's one of the most common logical errors one runs across when arguing.

"... the one which makes the fewest assumptions should be selected."

Selected. The context of the the statement means that he was talking about _selected for testing next_. It's not a statement about making bets about what's real, it's a rule of thumb for hypothesis prioritization when designing test experiments.

Occam's Razor is exclusively useful as a practical guide for experiment design. It's not intended to be a axiomatic principle of existential philosophy. Using it that way is essentially making a probabilistic formulation of a modus tollens sylogism. And that's a straight-up logical fallacy.

posted on Oct, 14 2012 @ 03:08 PM

Originally posted by Stunspot
Occam's Razor is exclusively useful as a practical guide for experiment design. It's not intended to be a axiomatic principle of existential philosophy. Using it that way is essentially making a probabilistic formulation of a modus tollens sylogism. And that's a straight-up logical fallacy.

I'm glad you agree.

I think you think I am disagreeing with you, but I'm not. I agree 100% with your post (minus the first sentence or so, where you accuse me of misapplying occam's razor and then complaining it doesn't work.)

On the contrary, I agree Occam's razor works very well for selecting among hypotheses for further testing. In fact, your statement: "It's not intended to be a axiomatic principle of existential philosophy." sums up much of what I was saying, and in a very concise and articulate manner, thank you.

But if that's the case, and if the fallacy is so obvious, why do writers and thinkers as careful as Hitchens, Dawkins, and others attempt to use Occam's razor as a test against absurd metaphysical beliefs or beliefs about the self that are by their very nature untestable? The purpose of my post was in part to ask that question.

I'm not propounding some newly discovered truth, merely urging caution to the layman, whose fascination with axioms and cheap maxims makes him liable to use them fallaciously, and who, as a result, is often in danger of justifying his own delusional beliefs about self through the misuse of common tropes of argument.

Thank you very much for your comments.
edit on 14-10-2012 by RedBird because: (no reason given)

posted on Oct, 14 2012 @ 03:35 PM
reply to post by JAK

It sounds like I may have stumbled into an area lit by your lamp, JAK, and I'm appreciative of your detailed and thoughtful comments on this matter.

My contention is that when we are dealing with a diseased mind, especially one prone to or trapped by delusion, we must not rely on the same techniques that healthy reasoners use to distinguish good arguments from bad. Indeed, we must not rely on the faculty of reason at all.

Forgive me if I quote Chesterton once more:

"Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason."

'Obsession' is one of the hallmarks of delusion -- this propensity to connect every new fact or experience back into the all-encompassing belief; a process which adds to the completeness of the belief while simultaneously providing additional evidence for it. Each new experience, regardless of content or circumstance, reinforces the delusional belief, and this is only possible because the delusion is small -- it relies on one or two basic, unfalsifiable assumptions. This process -- this inability to be idle, or to ignore new data -- is a warning sign.

The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane.

Thank you very much for your post.

posted on Oct, 14 2012 @ 05:28 PM
I think Occams Razor relies on the premise that humans are aware and know of everything there is to know. Which is obviously insane. We know so little and yet want to explain everything away simply and easily because it puts our mind at ease.

The fact of the matter is we know very little about what we refer to as reality, and probably never will. In the name of comfort we eliminate complexity and the unknown. The arrogance of mankind is stunning.

We'd be better off admitting that we just don't know when those problems arise.
edit on 14-10-2012 by PatriotGames2 because: (no reason given)

posted on Oct, 14 2012 @ 06:11 PM
reply to post by PatriotGames2

I'm not entirely sure I agree with you, though I do see what you're getting at, and concur with the general direction of your thought.

I do not think that this danger lies specifically or solely in Occam's razor, but you are correct that many of our axioms of reason and thought presuppose -- not that we know everything -- but that everything is, in fact, knowable.

It's precisely when we begin to approach the unknowable (or the untestable), that the usual tests and procedures begin to break down.

Such is the case with Occam's razor: A useful tool for pre-testing competing hypotheses yields unexpected and nonsensical results when applied to the metaphysical.

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