David McDonagh on Self-Deception


We are told that by denying or by rationalising we can change our belief at will but that is clearly false. Our beliefs are automatic so quite independent of our will. The backward psychologists say that we can ignore evidence or the cogency of arguments at will but that looks to be clearly false. The cogency of arguments is personal rather than universal, an impact on the receiver according to his/her human capital state rather than the same for all people or a property of the argument itself. The psychologists seem to overlook that. They tell us that we can lie to ourselves as we can be as ignorant of whether we are honest just as we might be with another person. That does not look possible, let alone unlikely.

It is admitted that the absurdity is paradoxical but the psychologist feel that empirically many have seen this in others and accept that it might occur with themselves so they feel the meme is realistic. They hold that it may look absurd but though paradoxical it is real. Moreover, they love the idea that people are irrational. Self-deception seems to explain why people remain ignorant, as they can say with the self-deception meme that the ignorance is wilful. However, the great and dire epistemological problem together with the fact we all differ in training and experience such that the truth is not always manifest seems to fully explain the slow progress of reason and why it takes some of us longer to understand theories. The idea of self-deception is almost intrinsically intolerant.

It is usually admitted that to lie to another we need to cover up that we are lying. How can we do that with ourselves? The short answer is that we cannot so the idea is false, but the psychologists feel they can overcome that objection.

A pet idea of the backward psychologists in their futile quest to save the absurd meme of self-deception is the meme of rationalisation. This is just the false idea that we can suspend the natural reality principle that we normally call belief. There are a whole host of clearly enough false ideas that the psychologists resort to as defensive ploys for their absurd dogmas but they all fail.

We can think all we wish but any attempt of the will to believe will be up against the imagination, and the pop’ psychologists are quite right to say that in any contest between the will and the imagination then the imagination tends to win out. Moreover, as with the myth of brainwashing, if ever it is a success then the brainwashing results will be subject to the test of all future automatic belief, which, though far from being foolproof is about the best heuristic available to us today, let alone the past. Belief does check and recheck all that we think about, a s we think about it, from minute to minute. This does not prevent delusions [i.e.
false beliefs] but it is bound to revise or test them. As soon as we see error, it is eliminated automatically. But today most people are deluded on accepting the idea of stable belief. This is maybe the main error that the backward psychologists bring to maintain their silly dogmas.
Rationalisation can bypass lying to ourselves but not the later test by automatic belief. We automatically sort out the best account of the world or any aspect of it that we can muster. This reality principle aspect of belief puts the daft idea that the “cynics” have of rationalisation in perspective. We always think again and we do the best that we can to get the truth.

It is said that Alfred R. Mele sorted out two paradoxes about self-deception, a static one and a dynamic one.

We can only usually lie successfully to those who do not know that we are lying to them. Thus A needs B not to know that he is lying to lie well. For A to get B to believe p is true then A needs to think that p is false. A needs to get B to think it true. For A to try to get A to believe p is he needs to believe it yet not to believe it too. Mele asks how that can be possible. That is his static version.

A cannot get B to believe p if B knows his plan. He cannot do so with himself too as he does know his own plan. It might seem absurd, it is admitted. So how can a dynamic strategy work? Mele’s dynamic version is the same contradiction as his static paradox. He seems to have added nothing for anyone can see that the meme is absurd.
We are told that two schools of thought, intentionalists and non-intentionalists attempt to answer both but the task looks futile.

Trivers’ is said to have a good theory of self-deception. He holds it is irrational. Trivers maybe feels to play to this dogma might aid his ideas but it looks futile for this seems to be merely another dogma of common sense. Moreover, we cannot value mere beliefs as they are too ephemeral to value but he is most likely referring to a value rather than to a belief.
Values usually do require beliefs to look viable or worthwhile but they can often use a range of beliefs to do that.

Trivers holds there is lots of deception in human and animal behaviour. He feels we can do this better if we deceive ourselves but he seems to err twice there, as we cannot believe as we wish so we cannot deceive ourselves but if we could then we would thereby lose what seems to be the main advantage gains of deception viz. knowing that the lie is false. It is yet the fresh paradox of dumping the supposed advantage as an aid to trying to get it. Trivers is quoted as embracing the crass absurdity as “Hiding the truth from yourself to hide it more deeply from others.” It seems depressing that people can be as silly as Trivers was.

The mind always does automatically attempt to think of the true thing by the process of belief. That is not the cost of the lie but rather that this is the default mode of all minds imposes the cost of lying, for to lie we need to recall the needed protection or apology that the lie needs extra to normal honesty against what the teller of lies feels the truth to be. If we fall into the trap {I think there are many reasons why this is not humanly possible not just one or two}of believing the lie then the extra apology or protection for the lie will lapse so our effort to protect the lie will vanish; indeed we will join those we lied to in subjecting it to criticism. Trivers seems to overlook all that.

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3 responses to “David McDonagh on Self-Deception

  1. “We are told that by denying or by rationalising we can change our belief at will”

    I have read a lot of psychology and I have never heart anyone say that. What psychologists are saying is that you are biased by previous learning experiences. These stored believes then act as a filter to judge incoming information. In other words your bias determines what you think is true or untrue. But this is not happening at will, but automatically. Your brain is automatically filtering out and/or avoiding information that seem to contradict your bias, only letting information come through that seem to support your believes. This then creates this wonderful illusion that everyone has of ‘I got it. I understand the world’.

  2. “The cogency of arguments is personal rather than universal, an impact on the receiver according to his/her human capital state rather than the same for all people or a property of the argument itself.” If this is so then we have the cogency of ignoring or disbelieving evidence contrary to our cogency of our argument.

  3. David McDonagh

    Thanks, there is another post due soon on the sister myth of denialism.