When does widespread belief becomes a mass delusion?

Published: 2006-05-18

Smith asked Brutto: "I wonder when widespread belief becomes a mass delusion?" I think it's all of a piece. This is MPI (mass psychogenic illness) or mass delusion, because it causes physical illness. Holocaust claims are a little bit different. But they are the same; because they both point to the suggestibility of human nature, the suggestibility of the fetish of individual consciousness on which our modern psychological world view is built. Especially when the suggestion comes from a source we accept with authority, or uncritically, as we do with the media.

In short, I don't really think there is much difference between a mass belief and a mass delusion, except from outside. With regard to a belief, we merely note its lack of empirical substance. With regard to delusion, we assert that the belief is false.

As a student of philosophy I always followed in the paths of post-Renaissance, Descartes and later. The main premise was understanding the nature of a single individual consciousness, and then expanding from there. But I have come to the conclusion, based on my study of H, that very little of our consciousness is individual, most of the time. We are social animals, and our consciousness, and therefore the content of our consciousness, in terms of what we believe, think, see, perceive, evaluate, judge, etc. comes from whatever society we are in. The strangest part is that there doesn't seem to be any way to control it. All of a sudden we're a normal mob of human beings. Then, from who knows where, all of a sudden we're in a panic about flying saucers, or communists, or daycare center pedophiles, or witches, or we believe we are being poisoned, or we believe our genitalia are disappearing, or we believe in gas chambers. I really don't think that in this mass of human beings somebody wakes up one morning and decides: I will get everyone to believe in flying saucers. And yet it happens. And that in turn suggests, that we are not only a mob most of the time but our beliefs are self-generated within the mob: a mob drives itself crazy by suggesting crazy things to itself. How sad, terrible, is the human race.

As a result I think there is much to the maxim of Seneca, "the more I am among men, the less I feel a man." Only when you are alone can you really gain any individual insight. But then, having acquired it, what good is it, because it's just in you, and if it's not transmitted to the mass, it is of no use. And yet, if it is transmitted, it won't be understood. (Zarathustra, here.)

Well, I've gone far afield late at night. Humans prefer the group, and follow the rarely explicitly articulated rules of the group. They share and adopt and believe in the similarly rarely articulated beliefs and values of the group. And, as a group, they conjure up all kinds of terrible things to be afraid of. Which of course engenders terrible violence. Individual insight and self-possession is possible, but, to get there, you still have to have been brought up by the group, which means you have the language, the values, the prejudices, and all the rest of the group. And if you manage to disentangle yourself from all that, the group will consider you mad. And if you truly manage to disentangle yourself from all that, you will be of no use to the group, either.

I would like philosophy to recognize how incredibly weak and suggestible humans are.

Sorry to be so abstract and seem so pessimistic. Actually I am in wonder of the whole thing.

Ray Brutto, 18 May 2006

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Author(s) Ray Brutto
Title When does widespread belief becomes a mass delusion?
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Dates published: 2006-05-18, first posted on CODOH: May 16, 2006, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a
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