Propel, propel, propel your craft on the salt solution. Exuberantly, exuberantly, exuberantly, exuberantly. Existence is but an illusion. “Percy”
“Percy,” a looney high school friend who was immortalized in my novel, “The Brief Long-Term Therapy of A. Lester Lord” (Kindle books, $2.99. Cheap) knew many goofy songs. Some of them contained great wisdom. His version of “Row Your Boat” is one such ditty. It can be argued that just about everything we believe to be true is a delusion. Especially our most dearly held beliefs.
Delusions are defined in a variety of ways. Oxford Languages defines them as “false beliefs that are firmly sustained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted or (by) rational argument. Typically a symptom of a mental disorder.” The DSM-IV adds that they “persist despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.”
Note the term “rational argument.” Ben Franklin said it’s a good thing we are rational creatures because then we can rationalize anything we want to believe. Even incontrovertible evidence is problematic because it’s impossible to provide incontrovertible objective evidence for a belief that is not based on objective reality to begin with. The biggie in this category is belief in God. These definitional formalities should give pause to truly rational minds regarding what we can call a delusion and what we can’t.
No matter how many people believe them many of the ideas we hold true are delusional. That’s not all bad. We actually need delusions. They serve the purpose of helping us to make sense out of a random and chaotic universe, give us hope and guide our choice of values and direction in life.
Perhaps owing to the limits of our intellectual and perceptual capacity as a species, or simply due to the current limits to our scientific knowledge, we still view the universe through a glass darkly. Delusions take up the slack where the limits to our knowledge butt up against the unknown and the unknowable. This applies, for example, to the “grand unifying theory” that Einstein spent most of his life searching for in vain. We will never know everything. The vast majority of us know an infinitesimally small portion even of established knowledge. There will always be a need for delusions.
In addition to delusions based on ignorance, there are delusions that arise from societal values as they develop and change. One such delusion is the basis for the neo-cons’ most famous con, “trickle down economics.” Another is the idea that being a religious person makes you a good person. Such delusions are legion. Though false, they drive major personal decisions and national policy alike.
If you read my previous blog, “(Un)Truth Social,” you know my issue with the definitions of “delusion” is that they provide a cop out for delusions, failing to label them as delusional if they are accepted as fact by a large number of people. Just because tens of millions of people think Donald Trump won in 2020 does not make it any less a delusion. Just because the majority a people believe God exists does not prove that it is so. And, by the way, just because many people believe there is no God doesn’t prove there isn’t.
In my mind, the true test of whether something is delusional is not whether a lot of people believe it, but rather whether it is clung to as fact in the face of either irrefutable evidence to the contrary or a total lack of objective evidence that would support it.
That something is a delusion, however, may be less important than whether it has a positive or negative effect on the world. The left and the right both have their delusions. Though ultra-conservatives delude themselves otherwise, there is irrefutable objective evidence that policies based on the delusions of the left usually benefit more people and the world in general than do those of the right.
Let’s look at a different kind of delusion, though. Many people who are happily involved in monogamous relationships operate under the delusion that out of the millions of possibilities available, the person they connected to is their “soul mate,” destined by fate to be their one and only true love. Nothing could be further from the truth. The biological phenomenon of human bonding creates that delusion, but the reality is that there are many other potential partners these believers never met who would have filled the bill equally well. Perhaps even better. The fact they hooked up with a particular person and not another is a function of the random meeting at an opportune moment of two individuals who happen to possess mutually appealing characteristics.
Additionally, often these two lovebirds work at cultivating a higher level of compatibility that enhances the delusion. They create a reverberating feedback loop that reinforces the delusion and motivates them to work even harder at the relationship. The “one and only” delusion is objectively debunked by the fact that people who have experienced this kind of love are much more likely than those who have not to find it again after their spouse dies.
If it is delusional, so what? If the parties are so fortunate as to believe their relationship was “made in heaven,” that delusion is extremely beneficial to them and to their offspring. It’s the glue that reinforces and strengthens the bonding instinct. Successful bonding enhances the survival of the species, thus this extremely positive delusion is both a pleasant and useful self-deception.
Patriotism arises out of instinctual territoriality. It motivates us to defend our feeding grounds when circumstances demand and to act in unity to maintain and to improve what we already believe, erroneously, is the greatest land on earth. Unless you are one who suffers from the delusion that wealth or military might are the measures of greatness, you will be hard pressed to look at us objectively and maintain the delusion that we are “the greatest.” Try convincing the people of Canada or Norway or almost any other nation that we are and they are not. Even North Koreans, despite a very poor standard of living, believe the government propaganda that tells them their nation is the best one on Earth
Atomic theory reveals that our perception of the solidity of objects is an illusion.
Relativity reveals our perceptions of where we are in the universe, of time and space and movement, are likewise illusory.
Quantum theory reveals what we perceive as an orderly universe is the function merely of statistics, the sum of a multitude of random events.
Yet many of the illusions or delusions such objective scientific evidence should debunk are clung to because they help us maintain our sanity and keep us going in a generally positive direction.
I could go on, but you get the idea. If we objectively examine our closely held beliefs and do the work of gathering facts, we will quickly see that a great deal of what we assume to be true is delusional.
Of course, the downside of delusion is evident in our current political climate where masses of people believe wholeheartedly in a wide spectrum of easily disproved falsehoods and hold on to them with frightening tenacity. This is a function of ignorance, prejudice and their fear of losing the privileged position they grabbed for themselves a long time ago.
There’s not much we can do about these folks other than to educate them if we can and/or moderate the harm they do to the nation by electing the right candidates. To believe they are capable of being educated may also be a delusion. Remember, the definition of delusions requires people to hold fast to them regardless of factual evidence. They have their reasons for doing so, even though we may not agree their reasons are valid.
Percy is right. Life is but a dream. Sometimes it’s a beautiful dream. All too often these days, and for too many people, it’s a nightmare.
No one is free of delusions. The best we can do is to choose delusions that make us happy and promulgate goodness in the world.