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.
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."
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
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!"