How to separate psychotic delusion from regular dumb ideas?
The concept of “delusion” is ultimately based on the concept of “truth.” This is a problem. Everyone claims to have “The Truth.” But they each say different things. To be in possession of The Truth, one must reject all other beliefs as delusional. While as many beliefs abound in the marketplace of ideas, there is some consensus about the wrongness of what crazy people claim to be true. Of course, this is also problematic. People say, rhetorically, that if Jesus lived in our times, he would be locked up in a mental hospital. And yet, billions worship and have worshiped him. As Pontius Pilot said, “What is truth?” We won’t be able to identify delusion until we identify truth.
Merriam-Webster defines Truth as:
the real facts about something : the things that are true
: the quality or state of being true
: a statement or idea that is true or accepted as true
All but the last of these is a tautology. Truth is what is true. How nice. But what is “accepted” as true really seems to get us somewhere. So, I would venture to say that Truth is about communication. If you can get people to accept your truth, it will be, well, accepted. Still tautology.
In my Epistemology class back when I was in college, the theories of truth were basically
- Correspondence Theory.
- Coherence Theory.
- Pragmatic Theory.
The Correspondence Theory, which is what Merriam-Webster adheres to in their definition, is really Metaphysics and is tautological.
The Coherence Theory, which I consider the only viable one, tests truth by how well it consistently fits a unified view of reality. In other words, one’s beliefs must be consistent with one’s other beliefs. If two beliefs conflict, one of them must be wrong. If one believes in a natural, material universe, and a bright light appears with a loud voice announcing, “I am the Lord, Jesus Christ,” and then performs miracles to prove it, one would have to either reject this experience as a hallucination or modify hir previous philosophy in order to accommodate this new data. One should always be willing to modify one’s view of reality in terms of the data.
The Pragmatic Theory is just that “what works” is what is true. I think this “theory” shows enormous lack of respect for reality and an indifference to philosophy. One could say, “Everyone has hir own reality.” I believe in an objective reality. I leave pragmatism to the politicians.
Now that we have some sort of working handle on “truth,” what about delusion?
About Health defines delusion much the same way as others do so we can use them as an example. They define delusion as follows:
Delusions are false beliefs that a person firmly holds to be true, despite what other people may think or say. They are usually a part of psychosis in bipolar disorder.
What Kinds of Delusions Are There?
Types of delusions include:
Delusions of grandeur. Believing that you’re famous or publicly important or that you’re a god.
Delusional jealousy. Believing a spouse or partner is unfaithful when it is not true.
Persecutory or paranoid delusions. Believing you are being followed, spied on, secretly listened to, or the like.
Delusions of reference. Thinking that random events contain a special meaning for you alone.
Other “bizarre” delusions. Believing in things that are impossible, such as thinking you’re a werewolf, that your spouse is an octopus, or that giant worms make subway tunnels.
A “false belief that a person holds to be true, despite what other people may think or say?” But aren’t there people who believe something we might think is nonsense without being psychotic?
“Delusions of grandeur?” Don’t most of us Cluster Bs have them. We know the rest of the world probably doesn’t agree about our greatness but we still hold on to our grandiosity without actually being delusional. I mean, if someone believed he was president or something, that would be a delusion. But thinking one is god? Why not? Maybe we’re all god. The belief in “god” can be seen as delusional for that matter. But non-psychotic people believe these things.
“Delusional jealousy?” Lots of people are plagued by irrational jealousy. I hardly think they’re ready for the rubber room.
“Persecutory or paranoid delusions?” This can be neurotic or crazy depending on the belief. People can think others in their office are whispering about them. That’s paranoid but not insane. Thinking an enemy is reading their thoughts from the headquarters of the Illuminati. Yet, that’s pretty crazy.
“Thinking that random events contain a special meaning for your alone?” That can happen on strong grass. Everything can have a special, symbolic significance.
“Believing in things that are impossible, such as thinking you’re a werewolf, that your spouse is an octopus, or that giant worms make subway tunnels?” OK. That’s pretty open and shut nuts.
The thing is, there seems to be a sometimes pretty thin line between actual delusion and the kinds of thinking “normal” people sometimes engage in. Harry Potter fans will remember Luna Lovegood who believed many bizarre things most people considered nuts. Of course, her beliefs earned her the nickname “Loony” but she really didn’t seem to be so. Lots of people entertain all sorts of conspiracy theories. Look at Munch in the series Law and Order: SVU. Even I believe some things that are dismissed as crazy by the mainstream. For example, I believe that 9/11 was an inside job. Of course, I could change that view if shown enough evidence. Maybe that’s the difference.
Quite often, other people’s beliefs seem crazy. How can they rationally believe that? Truth should be self-evident.
People seek to reduce the confusion by getting into groups. Within the group, they struggle for what they think is the best answer. This is why political groups have created the concept of “politically correct.” This is what medical associations and all learned associations, for that matter, define. And other groups, in opposition to the “truth” of some established learned group, espouse their different ideologies. For example, Freelee the Banana Girl, believes a high-carb vegan diet can cure cancer and prevent those who don’t have it from getting it. So she and those who agree with her reject the Cancer Society’s basic paradigm. Then there are all the religions in the world, each claiming to “have the truth.”
The beauty of a democratic, pluralistic society is that each of these claimants can co-exist with one and other. We often think other people and groups are crazy. But we usually live and let live. The only people to whom this courtesy is not extended are those who are deemed crazy by the consensus. For this to happen, they can’t just have bizarre beliefs. They must also be harmful to self or others. Of course, ideas can be very dangerous. But this is a danger we are willing to live with. If someone threatens my view of reality, that’s my problem. Only if he physically threatens my autonomy or well-being is his freedom taken away from him. At least, in theory. Of course, someone who does this sort of thing can be subject to the criminal “justice” system unless he seems mentally impaired enough not to be responsible. Even convicted criminals are considered rational enough to have a point of view that deserves to be taken seriously. Only the mental patient’s reality is dismissed out of hand. Mental patients are to be treated kindly, again in theory, because they are not held responsible.
Sanity is a privileged status. Seriously denying someone’s sanity is an assault on his adulthood. This might be a good time to mentioned the fact that psychopaths, as a group, have sometimes been subject of that assault. To say we are wearing The Mask of Sanity is to suggest that we really only seem sane on the surface. All terms of that sort, such as moral imbecility would remove us from the sphere of those who must be taken seriously. At present, the law regards us as sane and responsible. Some psychopaths have sought the status of mental patient to avoid the long arm of the law. Most of the “cases” Dr. Cleckley discussed in his book had voluntarily put themselves in his care. The book, The Psychopath Test, shows what dire consequences can come once one is in the mental health system. They can do anything to a mental patient, give hir electric shocks, put hir in a straight jacket… Of course, some people really are crazy. They can’t help it. Be glad you’re considered eccentric and/or bad and not nuts.