February 17, 2019

The Paradox of Self-Deception

“Self-deception seems inescapably paradoxical. For the self to be both the subject and the object of deceit, one and the same individual must devise the deceptive strategy by which they are hoodwinked. This seems impossible. For a trick to work effectively as a trick, one cannot know how it works. Equally, it is hard to see how someone can believe and disbelieve the same proposition. Holding p and not-p together is, straightforwardly, to contradict oneself.

Despite its seemingly paradoxical qualities, many people claim to know first-hand what it is to be self-deceived. In fact, philosophers joke that only prolific self-deceivers would deny that they experience it. Nevertheless, there are skeptics who argue that self-deception is a conceptual impossibility so there can be no genuine cases, just as there can be no square-circles.

Yet self-deception seems undeniable in spite of its alleged incoherence. For the fact is, we are not always entirely rational. Certain situations, such as falling in love or being in the frenzied grips of grief, heighten susceptibility to self-deception. Betrayed lovers everywhere, anxious to discard the damning evidence of infidelity, know precisely Shakespeare’s meaning at sonnet 138:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies

Self-deception is so curious a thing that it is a source of intrigue in the arts and sciences alike. Biologists such as Robert Trivers, for example, have begun to investigate self-deception’s evolutionary origins, probing its function and potential value.”

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