Avoiding the Casaubon Delusion
The Casaubon Delusion
In another article on this site, The Casaubon
Delusion, I talk about the lure of totality belief systems.
Succumbing to the temptation to adopt such belief systems is the
delusion in question. Even if you are one of those people who wish to
avoid falling into the toils of the delusion you may find it
difficult to do so. Just because the need to believe can be so great, it
may be difficult to recognize that one is beginning to adopt a totality
belief. It isn't always easy to know that a set of ideas one encounters
for the first time is likely to prove an all-embracing belief system. So
are there any pointers that might warn one that this is likely to
happen? I think there are. Some are in one's own mind, others are in the
belief system itself.
Within one's own mind, a danger signal is the sheer emotional appeal
of some belief systems when first encountered. The very fact that we
desperately wish something to be true is a pointer to the possibility
that we may select the evidence that seems to support our favoured
belief and ignore whatever contradicts it. Many of us are guilty of
attending only to arguments with which we already agree; we prefer to
bolster our beliefs rather than to challenge them. And the more
important the subject matter of the belief, the more we should be on our
guard. If we have spent many years looking for the answer to a
particular problem, we should be all the more cautious about accepting
any apparent solution that may come our way.
Seeing the universe as a cipher Totality belief
systems have certain features that mark them out as what they are. One
is the tendency to represent the universe as a giant cipher, to which
they uniquely hold the key. We have to be careful here, because there
is a sense in which mainstream science thinks of the universe in this
way too. The difference between a scientist and someone suffering from
the Casaubon Delusion is not so much in the nature of their theories as
in their readiness to submit their ideas to the test of experimental
verification, but the distinction isn't always easy to make. One useful
touchstone, I've found, is the attitude to questions.
Limits to questions Within many belief systems you
find an apparent readiness to accept questioning, and this may be quite
impressive at first. However, this openness is usually confined within
limits. Becoming a member of a group dedicated to the study and practice
of such a system is rather like learning a new game, with very
complicated rules many of which are never spelled out but have to be
picked up as you go along. Peer group pressure is undoubtedly an
important factor in such circumstances.
Psychological experiments have shown that group attitudes can affect how
people perceive things. For example, if you are shown two lines of equal
length when you are a member of a group in which all the other
participants have previously been told to say that the lines are
unequal, it's quite likely that you, too, will perceive them as unequal.
Elitism Because they believe they have discovered or
been given the key to a mystery, adherents of a belief system tend to
regard themselves as an elite. Of course, in-groups are found in all
human organizations, but the very nature of organizations dedicated to
the study of esoteric ideas means that inner subgroups with claims to
special knowledge are particularly likely to arise.
Claims for great antiquity A feature of many belief
systems is that they are said to be of great antiquity, even if they
have apparently arisen quite recently. Just because the 'knowledge'
professed by such groups is said to possess timeless verity, it can
never change. It is therefore static. This doesn't mean it is boring for
students; indeed, these students always feel their exploration of the
esoteric knowledge to be immensely exciting. The leader of the group
often ensures this by progressively revealing more and more of his ideas
as time goes by.
Another characteristic feature is that the knowledge is usually in
the possession of an inspired teacher. Nearly all totality belief
systems are equipped with at least one guru, who is normally the founder
of the system. He or she may be dead, however, in which case the guru's
mantle will have been draped on the shoulders of one or more disciples.
In extreme cases, where the system is of vast antiquity, the guru will
be a legendary figure, as in traditional Chinese acupuncture, where the
founder is the mythical Yellow Emperor. The only way you can avoid
encountering such a figure is by inventing your own system from scratch,
in which case you will be the guru yourself if you enlist any followers.
Excessive certainty Perhaps the most characteristic
feature of belief systems is the degree of conviction with which they
are adhered to. We need to remember always that the amount of certainty
that we feel about our beliefs is not a reliable guide to their
correctness. The subjective sense of certainty is no guarantee of truth.
Indeed, it's often when we find ourselves most firmly convinced of
having attained ultimate truth that we have fallen most deeply into the
toils of the Casaubon Delusion.