Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 64(4) November 2014
Man and Delusion.
Eugene Breen, Psychiatrist, Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, Dublin.
The working of the human mind has its own confidence intervals for error. We can all identify with mistakes and bias and conflict of interest and how these distort our thinking. Gross examples of delusion are common in psychiatric practice. The more subtle, subliminal, endemic delusional thinking characteristic of mentally healthy people is harder to identify. It is widespread and clouds our thinking and deludes us. The impact of bias on our thought process is discussed and the ultimate delusion prone topic of the existence of God is taken as a relevant example to illustrate the phenomenon.
We need clear unambiguous and assertive information to execute tasks. It is well recognised that one of the biggest hazards in medicine is poor communication. The facts must be right to effect good results. Delusions are incorrect facts, and decisions based on delusional thinking are wrong, because the data are wrong. Our brain/mind is error prone, and bias, distraction, tiredness and many other confounders make good information gathering difficult. “The God delusion” is really laughable considering how vulnerable and defective is our thinking. We need to get our house in order first before taking on God.
What a disaster to end life and discover one had lived a delusion. What worse scenario could you imagine than to find out that all the years and all the effort was misdirected? This could happen. Noteworthy examples are the beauty queen who builds her entire life around good looks and still thinks she has them when they are well faded, or the billionaire who invests all his life in accumulating money, and as we know loses it at death or even well before death.
What are delusions?
Delusions are erroneous thoughts or perceptions that we believe. There are various definitions for delusions but commonly it is understood to mean that a person “is out of one’s mind”. Delusions are false beliefs that are not explicable by one’s culture or religion. Many people believe in God, Angels and afterlife and these are not delusions but articles of a particular faith. A delusion is belief in some thing that is untrue.
Our experience tells us that thoughts really affect us. A sad thought can cause sorrow and even depression. A happy thought can cause joy and lead to sharing this joy with others. A philosophy can affect the way a person lives one’s entire life and a bad philosophy can cause people to kill or attack others. Philosophy in this sense means a system of rational thoughts that logically leads to a view of life that may and often does determine one’s way of living. Thoughts have the potential to drive human action in a controlled fashion towards a goal or possibly away from one. Thoughts can become incorporated into a person’s life. A person may be consumed by a thought or thought process and it may act as a template for life or for action or for motivation. All thoughts do not act in this way. Most thoughts just come and go.
Thoughts may not be the only thing that can stimulate organised action. A blow on the head stimulates a response, but you may say the initial response may be “who did it” and “why” and then a directed response occurs. There are, as we all know animal instincts and actions we all experience to protect and preserve our bodily integrity and dignity etc and these are spontaneous or knee jerk. The kind of thoughts of interest for discussing delusions are the ones that cause a directed conscious response purely in response to their impact on us. We are capable of assimilating and weighing up and incorporating thoughts and ideas and making them our own and initiating action as a result.
Thoughts in Action
Where thoughts come from varies. What most people can usually determine is when a thought is true and corresponds to reality, or is false. Thoughts depend on many things including what we are exposed to in life, our reading, people and events that influence us and also original or intrinsic thoughts that just “come to us out of the blue”. Let’s say the thought or thought process is true, corresponds to reality and that the person acts on it. This is the usual way for humans to function. We see this from our own experience. There are three stages here. There is the thought, which is a distinct reality experienced by our brain, and then there is the assimilation or weighing up of the thought, and then there is action. For example we hear that there is a sale in the supermarket, we think about it and the money we could save and we decide to go and purchase goods.
This process then is: (1) thought, (2) assimilation or assessment of the thought and (3) subsequent action. We all experience this all of the time. Some thoughts have more importance than others or more immediacy and force us to act. If the thought occurs to us that the noise we hear at 4 in the morning is an intruder breaking in to our house, this will have immediate action implications for us when we assimilate it.
This jump from processing information to actually doing something means that we take the information as being true or at least important enough for us to check it out. There is a leap here from data to action. We all recognise this. When all the faculties are true we say that the receptor or the sense faculty that gathered the information be it our ears, eyes, nose or brain is in correct working order and is doing correctly what it should. This correct retrieved data is then presented to our brain for assessment and or assimilation and then decision time. The brain decides what to do with the data or about it. This is business as usual. When the process is faulty for some reason e.g. bad hearing, faulty eyesight, or brain damage causing incorrect reasoning then there is a system failure and incorrect information is presented to us on which we may or may not act. A delusion is similar to this in that we act on incorrect information. The cause or source of incorrect information that underpins a delusion may come from brain malfunction due to illness e.g. psychosis; or it may come from false logic or false reasoning which presents a datum that looks true but is in fact erroneous.
Back to Delusions
Delusion is a type of system failure. It does not usually refer to the sense gathering of data, (hearing, seeing, smelling), which is assumed to be intact. It refers to the content of the data or the meaning the person ascribes to it, which is untrue and the person acts on it. In this sense we are all deluded. We think we are better than we really are. We think we are good looking whereas we are not. We think Chelsea is the best soccer team in the world etc. These are erroneous thoughts that do not correspond to reality but which we hold and think and may or may not act upon. Could you say that these are false beliefs? Well certainly they are false data and the extent to which one adheres to them and incorporates them into one’s life may be a gauge of how deeply one believes them. Action speaks louder than words and money talks. When a person acts on the basis of a thought or pays hard-earned cash on the basis of a thought, one may conclude that they believe the thought to be true to a certain degree of certitude since they have shown it by their action or money. This is the popularised world of delusion. The phenomenon of people acting on the basis of false data which they hold/believe to be true.
The classic example is the paranoid person who thinks someone is out to get him or her. They may go to extraordinary lengths to avoid capture or assault and psychiatric services are replete with such real people suffering such delusions. We live as if we will always exist and the truth is we will die soon. We may live in denial of a reality, for example the extent of our debts or the degree to which we have offended someone. This could be called a practical delusion in the sense that we live and act on a false assessment of the real truth of our situation, but we never really sat down and thought about it. It is still a delusion in this popular definition of the term because you might as well be really convinced and believe beyond all doubt because your behaviour would actually be the same.
There are many causes of incorrect data including emotions, bias, and tiredness to mention a few which can and often do alter information. When all the usual processes are in working order and a thought or fact or datum of information is presented to the brain, and it assesses and investigates it and accepts it as true and it actually is true, this is normal truth at work. We react in various ways to information such as ignoring it, filing it away or acting on it.
What is belief? Most people use the word or concept of belief in a matter of fact or routine way, saying that they accept the datum as being true. Up along the scale or continuum of belief is the question “do you really believe that?” This question looks for a more conscious focus and a weighed considered response based on studying the information one is asked to believe or not. The more the impact an acknowledgement of belief has, the more seriously one studies, gets collateral, gets evidence etc to really leave no stone unturned in ones quest to establish the truthfulness of the datum one is about to pronounce on. When you buy a house you check everything possible out before purchase. When you marry you get to know the prospective spouse in depth beforehand. When you pick a job or career you do likewise. Eventually after these full assessments you may act because among other things you believe this is the right choice. Delusion here means you adhere to incorrect information for whatever reason and you may or may not act on the basis of it.
A person has this capacity therefore to take on board information, act on it and suffer/enjoy the consequences. We have seen that a delusion may occur because of mental illness - the brain is defective and misconstrues the data. Delusion may also occur because the data is wrong. God exists for example and you believe and act, or just file it away, or live the way you want and ignore the data. God, some say does not exist, and you do the same: – act; do nothing; ignore. Who is deluded? A full response would be the scenario of :( 1) I believe in God on the evidence I have and I live my life in accordance with this belief. (2) I don’t believe that God exists and I live according to that belief. The nub of it is whether we can incontrovertibly demonstrate that God exists, beyond all reasonable doubt. The answer is we cannot present a compulsive demonstration as in scientific logic and cast-iron proof amenable to our human intelligence. You may correctly say that if this were possible then some people would still not believe, because they don’t accept the evidence, because they don’t want to. We see in everyday life how information can be contorted by emotion, tiredness, bias, monetary reward or penalty etc and this pattern is well proven in the psychological literature. When the information has to do with God, and the implications that has for a person, the stakes are enormous. Bias, prejudice, hate/love, family history, lifestyle and the consequences, if God is accepted, make an impressive array of obstacles to easily cloud and contort the information.
The existence of God is not compelling in the sense that 2 plus 2 equals 4, or that a car moves on the ground and not up in the air. When talking about God the stakes are much higher. This has to be the ultimate and even most sublime test of information gathering, assimilation and consequence, since it means so much. It is the most biased prone or charged process we will ever be involved in, and of course it is the most important and crucial. How do you maintain probity and honesty and be unbiased and open to the truth or otherwise of what is presented in this debate about God?
Generally speaking there are very few convinced atheists, that is, people who with full freedom, attention and intelligence have studied the data about the existence of God, and who conclude by denying the existence of God. Those who believe in God’s existence far outnumber them. Those who acknowledge that God exists however are a mixed bunch. It is well accepted that serious criminals and evildoers accept the existence of God, but like many others they live a practical atheism or agnosticism. They live as if God does not exist. We have the capacity to not accept or ignore information we don’t like or believe for whatever reason.
The degree of bias and the spin on data when God is involved is enormous.
The degree of bias and the spin on data when God is involved is enormous. Why does God not allow the absolute conviction and ever present truth of His reality to be forever evident, such that we cannot deny it? Possibly it may involve human freedom. Most other important things are resolvable either with further study, or consultation amongst experts. With God and the big issues to do with life this is not the case.
If we are open to the truth about God where do we begin? Is it logical? It certainly would explain everything, and it suits our mind/brain/intelligence. It is not repulsive to posit a God as the cause and sustenance of everything, and on the contrary it appeals to our reasoning and teleology. We always search for a cause for everything and a reason for things, and this is the basis of scientific enquiry. The truth about God is the quest to find the root and cause of everything. We certainly recognise that pattern i.e. one ultimate cause of everything, as being our usual way of working and of fitting in with our search for a cause for things. It leaves no loose ends.
This is all connected to the topic of the existence of God. Further observations about intellectual life may help enlighten us further. The brain is well encased in the skull. It is a locked room if you like. The animal functions such as hearing, seeing, coordinating movement, moving the body are non-communicable. You cannot move or see for another person. These functions are anatomically adherent to one’s own brain and body. Other faculties that emanate from the brain however are communicable. Joy, thought, anger, compassion to mention a few, definitely can and do impact on other persons and do not stay encased anatomically in the skull. Thus from the confines of a locked room i.e. skull, one influences things outside the room/skull. How is this possible? This occurs without the occurrence of physical contact and we don’t see anything physical transmitted in the air etc to convey the effect. This is not the action of our brain since it is encased in bone and cannot move so it must be something else. Could it be the “mind” at work? Thoughts once expressed can act independently and influence other people and cause effects in the world e.g. books, newspapers, songs, conversations etc. Thoughts are developed in our skulls in our brains, and once they leave our skulls they seem to be “autonomous” with a life of their own. This occurs even after a person dies. The thoughts, life and impact of a dead person can influence people for years. Admittedly the thoughts originally came from within his head, but once released from the confines of his skull are alive and propagate, influence and affect others even though he is truly dead and gone.
Thought is not the only brain-based activity that behaves like this. Emotion or feeling also emanate from a person to influence others. Show compassion to someone and they feel wanted and better and maybe even loved. They tell someone else this happened and they become happy and so on. The emotion is no longer a part of the physical brain, but it did start out from there, and now it is active and independent of the brain. Is it part of the mind? Is there part of a person that is beyond the confines of the physical body that engenders, possibly controls and communicates etc and could this faculty be called the “mind”? We all recognise these realities and ponder over them. You may ask what has this to do with God. One answer is that our brains or minds are all we have to investigate, appreciate, experience and encounter other beings or realities, and the better we understand the functioning of our own intellects the better we can use it to help us understand God and reality.
The human brain is not a standardized clone that acts identically in everyone. If that were the case we would all agree once the same data was presented to us. We well know that people differ in response to the same data. Why is this? As mentioned above our cognition or thought faculty depends on intelligence, mental illness, experience, age, bias and emotion to mention a few confounders. Our cognitive or reasoning faculty is very subject to influence, which contorts, complicates and obfuscates judgement, logic and information. Typical influences include:
What people will say............ peer pressure?
What is in it for me............. greed?
I remember this sort of thing before…experience.
The boss would like me to say x/y…. bias.
What impact will this have on me?........... bias.
There are many more sources of complication of what should be a simple transparent process. Thus when we are presented with evidence for or against the existence of God these and many more emotions, biases, and influences are at work. The biggest bias of all occurs when one does not want the reality of God to be true. There are virtually no data that will overcome this obstacle, because the person does not want it to be true. The human will and human freedom can enact powerful contortions on information, to protect their own integrity and inner world. These are amongst our psychological defence mechanisms which protect the safety of our person/ego/psychology. These defences may act at the expense of truth, fair play, justice etc. The human will is almost omnipotent, in this respect, and will brook no obstacle in its effort to defend itself. People are prepared to kill, steal, lie, embezzle, cheat or whatever it takes to get their way. The prisons are full of examples. The will reigns supreme in the human brain. Intelligence and cognition are very much the servants of the will and incalcitrant liars, people who live in denial, people who don’t accept incontrovertible evidence are examples of the will suppressing the intellect. A person’s previous life experience, a person’s family history, a person’s religious experience or education, a person’s innate defects, a person’s own actions and so on all colour the prism through which people see information. Can one therefore be totally unbiased all the time? For some of the time? For some topics only? etc. The normal day-to-day use of our brain is relatively unbiased, or else we would get confused and we just couldn’t function with all the small decisions we make everyday. Despite our biases we can give a true or unbiased assessment of a piece of information. We have the ability to give a fair hearing to a proposition, and say ok this is true, but it is not for me or it is beyond me or I couldn’t do that or live according to that. That is a transparent and honest response to this proposition at least. This type of response demands good will and an openness to the truth. The issue is honesty or the ability to suppress bias and give a fair hearing to the information. There is a lot at stake if one accepts God as being true, because once accepted one has to accommodate God into one’s life or view of things. An uncomfortable truth, one which challenges ones view of life or implies a need to change is at most risk of being suppressed, denied or obfuscated. The biggest obstacle to tackling an addiction is to first admit that one has an addiction. Until this happens nothing can improve. Any problem can be tackled when one admits that it exists. This is the first step.
A truth which challenges the status quo or which runs counter to accepted wisdom is at risk of not being accepted by one means or another. This is seriously relevant when it comes to the truth about God. This must be the hardest truth of all to gestate and bring to birth because the terrain is so hostile. The powerful human impulses, urges, passions which sweep all before them don’t even entertain the idea of God. Some of the more powerful human defences like guilt, fear, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, rejection, pain, disgrace, failure, and peer pressure, to mention some may enact knee jerk responses which are not subject to reason, and are unstoppable once initiated. So we may experience a fight or flight response to an uncomfortable truth.
To further assess decision-making and access to truth or reality, it is useful to Google bias and you get 357,000,000 sites in 0.1 sec. This is a small indication of how significant bias is in life. There are at least 50 different biases listed varying from cognitive to media to emotional to statistical and more. One wonders how we ever manage to establish any facts with all this flurry of mixed messaging and confounding bias. But we do achieve consensus and confirm truths. The proof of this is for example the progress of science. Unless the scientific data which is the building block is true, we could not achieve anything, because the science and foundation has to be correct for the machines to work. The day-to-day communication of people depends on an agreed meaning or truth of what words mean. The truth of planet earth is that day follows night on a regular cycle, bias or no bias, whether you like it or not. Why are all truths not like this? All truths are like this because once something is true it cannot change, it cannot be true and false at the same time. Often experts disagree about many things and the truth may not be uncovered for years or maybe centuries.
Is there a truth? Our experience shows us that yes there are truths. If a man comes to the doctor with a slash on his face we immediately ask “how did that happen?” The answer is that someone cut me with a knife. Simple case. The whole of human life is built and functions on many truths. Lies occur and they are let’s say false explanations for realities we encounter. The same case and the answer given is that he tried to hurt himself. This is a lie or untruth since we already know that the correct cause of the slash is that another cut him with a knife. Our cognitive signature is a constant seeking for causes and reasons and to understanding why this happened or what is the cause of this. Our mind/brain is programmed to search for truth and we know usually when we have the truth of a situation or when we don’t we are in doubt or else we don’t have the truth, we think we have but then circumstances etc reveal the real truth which we then grasp. It seems then that a lot of the time we spend is on truth searching and once established we then move on. What is the end game? Will there be a time when everything is known?
We are constantly advancing. From the tree to the town to the penthouse to computing to whatever but still incomplete and the search goes on. Within the bigger cosmic truth revealing of the truth about life and earth and man and the cosmos, we live out our own truth or search for it using the very same method and machine: the mind/brain. This is the hallmark of man. What does it mean this constant striving and partial knowledge and search for truths of all shapes and sizes? Maybe the machine we have developed or been given i.e. the brain/mind, will throw light on where we are likely headed or what kind of information we are likely or geared to access. An instrument can only function to its capacity. A potato-picking machine cannot count the stars but it can count potatoes. Our brain/mind can do a lot of things but it has definite limitations. It is finite, it is clouded, it can err, it is blinkered, it is biased…it is driven by will and it is coloured by emotion, imagination, hope, and passion. But it can be, and often is, reliable and right and that’s why we survive on earth anyway. It is a good enough tool for life here. Does or can it cross the frontiers of the here and now of life on earth? Certainly we have aspirations and dream of living forever, of total everlasting happiness, of utopia…and what is this, where did these ideas come from and is our mind/brain equipped to do these things? If not why are these ideas there since it doesn’t fit with the whole wiring of our brain/mind that some thing would not have an answer? Why do we long for eternity of happiness? Usually when confronted with a desire or issue we search and usually find the truth. The same should hold for eternity. We should search and eventually we will find it. That’s what the history of man shows…man on the moon. The car. All the inventions began as ideas. Eternal happiness is such an idea. That is our area we are built for problem solving and we almost always get what we once thought or dreamed.
Is the Brain Fit for……. what Purpose?
The human brain/mind is a search engine that never seems to reach satiety. It is always striving and achieving new heights of information and still the search goes on generation after generation. What would satisfy the brain/mind? The answer to this question gives the reason why it was fashioned in the first place. What’s it made for? What is at stake here is that we are saying that the goal is achievable because that’s the purpose of the mind and if that is not true that contradicts everything we know or have known or will know because that is our way of working. Therefore if the mind yearns for happiness, total information, eternal life which are the really important human desires, well according to human nature they are achievable…otherwise the human experience is contradictory and non-sensical and untrue. Our mind tells us we can live happily forever!
This is not delusion. It is solidly based on self-evident behaviour of man for as long as we know. Man’s activity has always been based on truth and it has always been correct when truth was found and built on. We are extrapolating on human experience and we don’t expect anything to have changed since the nature of man is the same and always will be. Therefore the ultimate truth that mankind has been searching for has not been attained but we can be certain, from the functioning of our minds, that it will be attained, because we have never been wrong before.
What is the reason for our mind? What is it made for? What would occupy all its receptors perfectly? The answer to these questions will tell us its ultimate goal and potential and function. What would fulfil the mind? This points to a truth and reality we have not yet achieved and which is achievable or else the mind is a lie. Ask 100 people if they had one wish, and this was for any thing even what seemed to them impossible, what would they wish? Eternal happiness has to be the answer.
So is total information the answer? Certainly from the enquiring cognitive aspect of our minds this has to be the case. The mind has other faculties which also crave fulfilment and these are the affective side. Empathy, love, hope, happiness, self fulfilment, and other areas of human desire to be satiated and fulfilled. Delusion is to not accept a truth as much as it is to accept a false truth. The truly deluded are those that don’t accept the hard evidence of the nature of man and man’s mind and brain and how they work and how they have always worked, and what these faculties and man himself are made for and seek after, and that has to be………… eternal happiness, complete knowledge, emotional fulfilment and ultimate truth. In a word…… God.
Dr Eugene Breen is author of four books
The Human Mind and Belief Opening Shots
The Human Mind and
Belief II - Unplugged
The Human Mind and Belief 3 - Reloaded
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