In another article on this site, The
Casaubon Delusion, I talk about the lure of totality belief
systems. Even if you are one of those who wish to avoid falling into
the toils of the delusion you may find it difficult. (I know; I've
done so myself in the past). Here are some of the danger signs that
may act as a warning that this is happening.
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. 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
systems may 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 treats the
universe in this way; think of physicists who speak of looking
for a Theory of Everything. The difference between a scientist and
someone suffering from the Casaubon Delusion lies in their readiness
to test their ideas by trying to refute them instead of looking for
confirmatory evidence, but the distinction isn't always easy to
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.
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. What's more, subgroups who
are supposed to have specially privileged undeerstanding of the
group's ideas tend to arise within the main group over
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. 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—a guru. 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.
All authorities, whether political or spiritual, should be
distrusted, and extremely authoritarian characters who divide
the world into "us" and "them", who preach that there is only
one way forward, or who believe that they are surrounded by
enemies, are particularly to be avoided. It is not necessary to
be dogmatic to be effective. The charisma of certainty is a
snare which entraps the child who is latent in all of us.
[Feet of Clay: Anthony
Perhaps the most characteristic feature of totality belief systems
is the degree of conviction they inspire. The certainty that we feel
about our beliefs is not a reliable guide to their correctness. It's
often when we feel most firmly convinced of having attained ultimate
truth that we are enmeshed most deeply in the the Casaubon Delusion.