Optical illusions are fun and usually harmless. Look closely at the illustration above and you quickly realize that something is wrong. While each cube looks fine on its own, when all nine are arranged in the configuration shown, you have an impossible triangle. It simply doesn’t work, and that’s intriguing and even mentally stimulating.
But sometimes an optical illusion can prove deadly. At Apex Mountain in British Columbia, several aircraft have been lost over the past decade. Among the factors contributing to each disaster is an optical illusion that causes pilots to underestimate the elevation needed to climb above the mountain after takeoff. By the time they realize they’re in trouble, it’s too late to turn or climb further, and they crash.
Illusions are concerned with perceptual distortions of external reality. They are not real. Our senses are fooling us. Delusions are something different. They happen when we believe something that has no basis in external reality. In this case it’s our internal reality that’s distorted.
Delusions are never harmless. Like some illusions they can even be dangerous, but more so. A man who believes he is a savior sent to deliver his people in critical times has delusions of grandeur. If they share in his delusion, he may lead many astray with his ideas. Think of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot, the Kims. All of them led deluded followers to disaster, aided and abetted by some kind of religious manipulation of god status.
It has happened throughout the centuries. It’s said that the priests at Pergamos promoted Alexander the Great as a divine incarnation—a god. And he seemed to believe it himself; when he marched into Egypt and people welcomed him as the son of their principal god, Ra, it cemented his own idea that he was the son of Zeus, Ra’s Greek counterpart. Of course, this was delusional thinking on his part, evidenced by the fact that just a few years later the young conqueror was dead.
But today there’s another form of self-delusion that can be fatal. When we pretend to ourselves, in the face of existential risks that threaten all human life, that science and technology will save us, we are delusional. The risks are already too great.
Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, believes there’s a 50 percent chance that we will not make it through this century without a major setback caused by population growth and/or a catastrophe involving advanced technology. Further, he acknowledges that delusion lies at the heart of the problem.
“We are in denial about things that ought to concern us, especially these risks which could be so catastrophic that one occurrence is too many.”
Engineering physics professor Peter Townsend compares self-delusion to the human proclivity to inertia in the face of great danger. He says, “People just don’t feel the pressure and the need to take action. Those who deal with major disaster scenarios say that if you have the threat of a tsunami, for example, typically half the people will say, ‘It’s never going to happen to us.’ So even though the evidence is there and you’ve got the warning, people won’t move and get out of the way. I think this same inertia is found in respect of all the technological improvements and their potential downsides.”
Training our eyes to distinguish reality from delusion will be of paramount importance in the decades just ahead. The first-century Mediterranean world lived under the Pax Romana, a lengthy period of peace created by Augustus Caesar. It was difficult to imagine that it could end. But at that time the apostle Paul alluded to such false faith, warning, “When they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). The peace did end, and so did the empire. And the same could happen in our time.
Many scientists are deeply concerned. Maybe you are too. If you’d like to know more from the biblical perspective, take a look at “Apocalypse Now, Later or Never?” There’s certainly more there than meets the eye.