Avoiding the Casaubon Delusion

Revised 04-02-2019

The Casaubon Delusion is 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 succumbed myself in the past.) Here are some of the danger signs that may act as a warning that this is happening.

Emotional appeal

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 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

Totality belief 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 make.

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. What's more, subgroups who are supposed to have specially privileged understanding of the group's ideas tend to arise within the main group over time—ultra-elites.

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 her or his ideas as time goes by.

Gurus

Another characteristic feature is that the knowledge is usually in the possession of an inspired and inspiring 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 Storr]

Excessive certainty

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.

The most important question of all

Ask yourself this: what could happen to make me think I might be mistaken? If you can't answer or say there is nothing that could do this, you are probably in trouble.