by Jack Dawkins, 2014 (edited in February 2021; updated in July 2023)
The difference between subjective phenomena and delusions
Although delusional disorders do exist, not all subjective phenomena are delusions. Delusions are falsifiable, incorrect beliefs about objective consensus reality; subjective experiences can’t be falsified. If someone makes a delusional claim, it can be disproved. If someone believes their ears are made of broccoli, that’s a delusion. Subjective identities are not necessarily delusional. They’re not making untrue claims about the physical world; they’re describing the way they see themselves internally, but they also distinguish subjective experiences from those of the physical world. For example, someone in a plural system might be a werewolf. If this person is saying that they are a werewolf internally, then that isn’t a delusion in itself. It’s a subjective self-perception that is different from their system’s physical body, but they acknowledge the difference. It’s not a delusion; it’s a parallel belief.
If this same person is claiming their physical body transforms into a wolf at the full moon, though, then that would be a delusion. As I’ve said before, ‘delusional is thinking your body is actually, literally, physically a cabbage’. My own background, appearance and identity are different from what we’ve experienced out here in the physical world, but I’m aware of it. I don’t claim that my own history is the only one we’ve experienced or that our physical body resembles mine. I don’t think I can physically manifest myself in this world. I’m aware of the contradiction and parallel existence. If I were actually delusional, I’d believe things about myself that can be falsified easily, but I don’t. I do see myself as a separate person with my own history, but it’s a subjective perception.
Learning the hard way
Sadly, we know the distinction between subjectivity and delusions firsthand. Some time ago, we had a bipolar manic episode that included delusions. These beliefs were incorrigible, nonsensical and inconsistent with how we ordinarily perceived consensus reality. What’s more, even our subjective stories changed. Ethnic backgrounds, personal memories, cultural references and other individual traits were jumbled and distorted, just as our outworld memories and perceptions were. After we came back round, we were better able to appreciate the distinction between subjective self-perceptions and clinical delusions. We question where we come from. We have different beliefs about our origins. We speculate, examine, analyse, interpret our plurality. None of this happens when you are delusional.
Sceptics who criticise others’ subjective beliefs – from plurality to religion to even transgender or non-binary identity – will often claim that these beliefs are delusional. But, as we’ve seen, they’ve misused the word in the first place, since a parallel belief can exist without claims about the physical world. There isn’t the slightest pretence at academic rigour in internet trolling, but some trolls do use the language of psychiatry and fail miserably. You can be a strict physicalist if you like, but that doesn’t give you the authority to misuse the word delusional. Parallel beliefs – a kind of ‘non-overlapping magisterium’, a term the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould used to describe the relationship between science and religion – aren’t incompatible with physicalism anyway, since they cannot be applied to the physical world.