The Casaubon Delusion

A Danish translation of this article is available here.

Gertrude Stein's dying question

It's said that when Gertrude Stein was dying her companion, Alice B. Toklas, asked her urgently: "Gertrude, Gertrude, what is the answer?" To which Gertrude replied, very reasonably: "What is the question?". Many people believe that the dead have access to knowledge which is not vouchsafed to us who are alive, and Alice's request to the dying Gertrude no doubt stemmed from the assumption that her friend, though not yet actually 'on the other side', was near enough to it to be able to report from that standpoint.

What Alice wanted, no doubt, was a 'totality answer'. The kind of question she had in mind resembles the one that Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, describes as being about the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything. If you've read this delightful book you'll remember that the super-computer called Deep Thought gives us the unhelpful answer to the question, namely "Forty-two". This may be about as far as we are likely to get with all-embracing questions about ultimate meaning, but many of us find it hard to accept. There seems to be something in the human mind that cannot help searching for totality answers, for all-encompassing solutions. But it is a perilous quest; it can even degenerate into a kind of madness.

Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch

In George Eliot's Middlemarch, Edward Casaubon spends his life in a futile attempt to find a comprehensive explanatory framework for the whole of mythology. He is writing a book which he calls the Key to all Mythologies. This is intended to show that all the mythologies of the world are corrupt fragments of an ancient corpus of knowledge, to which he alone has the key. Poor Mr Casaubon is, of course, deluded. His young wife Dorothea is at first dazzled by what she takes to be his brilliance and erudition, only to find, by the time he is on his deathbed, that the whole plan was absurd and she can do nothing with the fragments of the book that she is supposed to put into order for publication.

In honour of Mr Casaubon, I have given this tendency of the mind to search for all-inclusive answers the name Casaubon delusion. I believe we are all liable to fall into it in one way or another, probably because it is an exaggeration of an inbuilt function of our minds. Typically the supplying of such answers is the province of religion, although something similar can occur in science too.

The search for explanations

The search for explanations is a normal and healthy function of the mind as a rule, but it can become abnormal and pathological if it is allowed to develop to excess. The problem arises when we push the desire for explanation too far, and impose our wishes on the world so as to make it conform to how we would like it to be. A very characteristic feature of the Casaubon delusion is the belief that the universe is constructed like a kind of giant cipher, a cosmic intelligence test set for us by God which it is our business to try to puzzle out. Mr Casaubon himself is of course an illustration of this, but he is following on a long tradition. Complete esoteric systems have been founded on this belief.

J.G. Bennett as Mr Casaubon

The late J.G. Bennett was a remarkable instance of how the Casaubon delusion can come to dominate someone's life. Throughout his life he was taken over (taken in?) by an extraordinary variety of gurus and mystagogues, including G.I. Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, Pak Subuh, and Idries Shah. He was convinced that there was a secret tradition of teachers and initiates in Central Asia, existing from time immemorial and guiding the destinies of humanity, an idea that figures in his monumental work on the inner history of the cosmos, The Dramatic Universe. He was repeatedly disappointed in his quest to find authentic representatives of this Wisdom Tradition but never ceased to believe that there was indeed a Tradition to be discovered. In the end he was received into the Catholic Church, where he apparently found fulfillment.

Belief systems as security

There's no doubt that, for most of us, belief systems afford a welcome sense of security. Often we behave towards them in much the way that hermit crabs behave towards the empty mollusc shells they use as homes. These crabsecall, have a tough front which they present to the world but a vulnerable rear end. The shell that serves the crab as home is at once a refuge and a liability. It protects him from his enemies but he has to drag it about with him wherever he goes; he dare not leave it for an instant. This encumbrance is a liability, and a further liability is that, as he grows, he eventually reaches a size at which he can no longer fit inside the old shell; he then has to search for a new one. Once he has changed house, the whole process starts all over again. He will never be free from dependence on cast-off shells for as long as he lives.

Answers to everything?

Mr Casaubon's error was to think it was possible to discover an 'answer to everything'. In his case the search for such a thing was absurd, yet the idea was not wholly wrong. It is, after all, the quest for understanding that drives scientists to theorize, and the more comprehensive the theory - the more facts it explains - the 'deeper' the theory. Newton's laws of motion and theory of gravitation are classic examples of such explanations. Today some physicists are searching for a 'Theory of Everything', but others say that such theories are in principle untestable and are more like metaphysics than science.

One might ask why it is that people do seem to have this propensity to seek for such all-inclusive beliefs. In part the answer may be that our brains have been programmed by our evolutionary history to make us susceptible to them. The propensity may be merely an exaggeration of the natural pattern-making function of the brain, which must certainly go far back in prehistory. Whether as hunter or hunted, animals need to be able to pick out and identify meaningful features of their environment. A tiger looking for an antelope amid the leaves of the jungle, the antelope watching out for the tiger, or a bird trying to pick out a moth camouflaged against the bark of a tree--all these are seeking for visual patterns. We have to do the same thing when we cross a busy road: we won't last long if we fail to pick out the pattern of an oncoming bus.

My experience of manufacturing an answer

I lived at one time in a house which contained a lot of abstract paintings, many made with the artist's hands instead of a brush. Once I happened to be in a room where one of these works hung on the wall, when a visitor arrived and looked at the painting. "I can't make anything out of this," he said. "Oh, it's easy," I said; "look, it's a garden in sunlight; there's the pattern of the leaves, there's a summerhouse..." and I went on to describe various things you could make out in the painting if you looked at it closely. The visitor was convinced and went away quite impressed. I myself was sure that these things were there to be seen, in a sort of pointilliste representation; but, talking later to the artist's wife, I discovered that the painting was purely abstract and none of the things I thought it represented were supposed to be there at all.

Language and pattern-seeking

We are also interested in the abstract intellectual patterns symbolized by language. We find patterns here even where they don't exist. For example, if you listen to people speaking an unknown language, especially if you are not attending closely, you may very well be startled by apparently hearing a word or phrase in your own language. It wasn't really there, of course; your brain picked out certain sounds and interpreted them as meaningful to you even though they weren't. A few years ago there was a vogue for claiming that the voices of the dead could be heard in the static picked up on the radio between stations; the same phenomenon was at work here.

At a still more abstract level, we instinctively seek for meaning in the events that happen to us, and the more important the events, the more we want to find meaning in them. It's difficult, for many people impossible, to accept that there is no ultimate meaning in our lives, our illnesses, our deaths. Totality beliefs minister to this widespread human need.

Boundary between science and delusion

There is no sharp dividing line between a valid search for a comprehensive scientific theory and the delusion that afflicted Mr Casaubon. He might have been right, after all! And, ultimately, does it matter? Wasn't Mr Casaubon happy in the pursuit of his chimera? There certainly seems to be quite a prevalent feeling that belief is a good thing in itself. Some time ago I heard a discussion on the radio about cults.

The speakers were generally rather dismissive of them, but one made a remark that has stayed in my mind ever since. He said, a propos of some fairly innocent if irrational cult, that those who believed in it might be deluded but "at least they believe in something". This struck me as a curious position to adopt. Is it really preferable to believe in something, anything, rather than to suspend judgement? Aren't we then liable to find ourselves in the situation of the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, who managed to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast?

Are belief systems ever desirable?

Is it always undesirable to adopt a totality belief, or might it even be something to welcome if it makes you feel secure? I don't think this is a trivial question. For much the greatest part of our history as a species, we have subscribed to belief systems. Scarcely any society we know of has lacked a religion, in the widest sense of the term, and it's difficult not to think that the cave paintings of our ancestors are evidence of the same thing in prehistory. Our modern secular outlook is very recent indeed and the revival of religious fundamentalism in many parts of the world suggests that we may not be able to tolerate for long the absence of metaphysical beliefs. I think there's a good case to be made out for the view that to believe in a religion - which usually means immersing yourself in a totality belief - is psychologically healthy. Some research evidence seems to show that this is so; people who attend church regularly live longer, are in better health, and so on, although, of course, this does not prove a causal relationship.

Yet even if the relationship is causal, this hardly seems enough justification for adopting an invalid belief system. As the critic I.A. Richards said, "to be forced by desire into any unwarranted belief is a calamity". If it comes to a choice between believing in what one knows to be untrue (the skeptic's definition of faith) in order to live longer, and dying sooner while maintaining one's critical sense, I'd settle for the second alternative, but I recognize that I may be in a minority.

See also Living with Uncertainty and Avoiding the Casaubon Delusion