Monday, May 28, 2007

You may find it difficult avoiding the Casaubon Delusion

In another article on this site, The Casaubon Delusion, I talk about the lure of totality belief systems. Succumbing to the temptation to adopt such belief systems is the delusion in question. Even if you are one of those people who wish to avoid falling into the toils of the Casaubon delusion, you may find it difficult to do so. Anthony Campbell
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 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.
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.
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 crabs, you will recall, have a tough front which they present to the world but a vulnerable rear end that has to be housed in the shells of dead molluscs. 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.
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... HOME See also Living with Uncertainty and Avoiding the Casaubon Delusion Home page:

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