What would "The
Sons of Liberty" have thought and done if the British Crown seized the
business of Paul Revere, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, James Otis, John Adams, or his
cousin, Samuel Adams? Violence, probably.
Violence is never the answer. But
neither are ignorance, apathy, inaction, or wishful thinking.
These politicians took a solemn oath not to do this. They lied. They are stealing.
They would kill if protesters got in their way. This family business never conducted
its business using these tactics. But stealing and killing are the very essence of
I'm sure the politicians who are stealing this couple's property and giving it to
friends of the State are not deliberately seeking to make these Americans cry, or
destroy the vision symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. I'm sure these politicians
have genuinely deceived themselves into believing that they are "public
servants," and are an asset to their community.
But they are wrong. The Nazis felt this way, and the Communists felt this way, but
they were wrong. Evil men always feel that there is some moral justification for the
evil they commit. They rationalize, justify, and deceive themselves concerning the
nature of their evil desires and evil acts. They sincerely don't believe they are
evil. They believe they're doing what "has to be done."
The Humanitarian with the Guillotine
The following is adapted from an article by my mentor, Greg L.
Bahnsen, in the Westminster Theological Journal,
vol. LVII (1995) pp. 1-31, reprinted by Covenant
Media Foundation, 800/553-3938. The article is entitled,
Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics
Don't be put off by the phrase "presuppositional
apologetics." "Apologetics" here means "a defense of
Christianity." What I want you to understand is my understanding of the reality
of "self-deception." Bahnsen writes:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against
all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the
truth in unrighteousness;
Because that which may be known of God is manifest in
them; for God hath shewed it unto them.
For the invisible things of Him from the creation of
the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things
that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that
they are without excuse:
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him
not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their
imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,
And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an
image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and
fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.
Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through
the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies
Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped
and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed
for ever. Amen.
For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections:
for even their women did change the natural use into that
which is against nature:
Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the
woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men
committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the
penalty of their error which was due.
And even as they did not like to retain God in their
knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those
things which are not appropriate;
Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication,
wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder,
debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,
Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters,
inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,
Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without
natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:
Who, knowing the judgment of God, that they which
commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same,
but have pleasure in them that do them.
Self-deception -- which is practiced by all unregenerate men according to the Apostle
Paul's incisive description in Romans 1:18ff. -- is at once religiously momentous and
yet philosophically enigmatic.
Paul asserts that all men know God so inescapably and clearly from natural revelation
that they are left with no defense for their unfaithful response to the truth about Him.
In verses 19-20, Paul says "what can be known about God is plain within them
because God made it plain to them... [being] clearly perceived from the created world,
being intellectually apprehended from the things that have been made... so that they are
without excuse." Nevertheless, even as they are categorically depicted as
"knowing God" (v. 21), all men are portrayed in their unrighteousness as
"holding down the truth" (v. 18). They are suppressing what God has already
successfully shown them about Himself. As a result of hiding the truth from themselves,
unbelievers neither glorify nor thank God, but instead become futile in their reasoning,
undiscerning in their darkened hearts, and foolish in the midst of their professions of
wisdom (vv. 21-22). According to God's word through Paul, then, unbelievers suppress
what they very well know, confirming what Jeremiah the prophet so aptly declared,
"The heart is deceitful above all things" (17:9).
As long as the notion of self-deception appears uncertain, awkward, or unclear, the
cogency of the presuppositional method will remain in the balance. We must say in
conformity to Romans 1 that in some sense the non-Christian knows and does not know God.
In some sense, he believes, but disbelieves in God. In some sense, he is unconscious of
suppressing the truth and still responsibly conscious of doing so. So then, what might
prove especially beneficial would be for us to give some sense to these apparent
paradoxes. If we can do so, the philosophy of presuppositionalism will be noticeably
advanced and more readily presentable to struggling defenders of the faith who need it
An Enigmatic yet Familiar Notion
The concept itself has certainly not been unfamiliar. Portraying men as self-deceived
has been a virtual commonplace in Western literature, and thus the apparently
paradoxical nature of the concept cannot be thought to be a uniquely religious matter.
 It is because of the
pivotal importance of the concept of self-deception to
presuppositional apologetics that I pursued an in depth
analysis of it for my doctoral dissertation in philosophy:
"A Conditional Resolution of the Apparent Paradox of
Self-Deception" University of Southern California, 1978.
What follows is a brief synopsis.
 Joseph Butler, Sermons
(New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1870 ), p. xv.
 Leo Tolstoy, War
and Peace, vol. 1 (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), p.
 Most recently by
John M. Frame in a chapter on "Cornelius Van Til"
in Handbook of Evangelical Theologians, ed. Walter A.
Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), pp. 163-165.
Examining various discussions of the unbeliever's knowledge of
God in Van Til's writings, Frame says, "It is difficult
to make sense out of all this.... Contrary to Van Til, a
biblical apologetic need not exclude common notions or ideas,
but may legitimately draw conclusions from them."
 For Van Til's place in
the historical unfolding of the discipline see Greg L.
Bahnsen, "Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of
Christian Apologetics" in Foundations of Christian
Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective, ed. Gary
North (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1976), pp.
 Cornelius Van Til,
A Survey of Christian Epistemology, vol. 2 of the series
"In Defense of Biblical Christianity" (n.p.: den
Dulk Christian Foundation, 1969), p. 4.
 Cornelius Van Til,
"My Credo," Jerusalem and Athens: Critical
Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van
Til, ed. E. R. Geehan (n.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed
Publishing Co., 1971), p. 20. Also note: "The only
'proof' of the Christian position is that unless its truth is
presupposed there is no possibility of 'proving' anything at
all" (p. 21). For an illustration of how this argument is
put into practice, consult the "Bahnsen-Stein
Debate" (at the University of California, Irvine, in
1985), tapes #ASST from Covenant Media Foundation at
 Cornelius Van Til,
An Introduction to Systematic Theology, vol. 5 of the
series "In Defense of Biblical Christianity"
(Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.,
1974), p. 9.
 Contrary to the
unbalanced and misleading remark about ontological priority in
Jim Halsey, "A Preliminary Critique of Van Til: the
Theologian," Westminster Theological Journal
39 (Fall, 1976): 122-130.
 John W.
Montgomery, "Once Upon an A Priori," Jerusalem
and Athens, p. 391; Norman Geisler, Christian
Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p.
56; R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical
Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a
Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), p. 184.
 Van Til, A Survey
of Christian Epistemology, p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 205.
 Cornelius Van Til,The
Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and
Reformed Publishing Co., 1955), pp. 117-118, 131; cf. pp.
125-126, 132. References throughout are to the first edition.
 Ibid., p. 119.
 Cornelieus Van Til,
A Christian Theory of Knowledge (n.p.: Presbyterian and
Reformed Publishing Co., 1969), p. 19; cf. The Defense of
the Faith, p. 197.
 E.g., A Survey of
Christian Epistemology, pp. 189, 201, 204, 206, 225; The
Defense of the Faith, pp. 94, 110, 117, 119-120, 194-195,
198, 266-267, 279, 283.
 Cornelius Van Til,
Common Grace (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed
Publishing Co., 1947), p. 62.
 Van Til,The
Defense of the Faith, p. 396.
 Ibid., p. 317.
 Ibid., pp. 67, 290;
cf. Van Til,A Christian Theory of Knowledge, pp.
 Van Til, A
Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 13.
 Van Til, A Survey
of Christian Epistemology, p. xii.
 Van Til, The
Defense of the Faith, p. 355.
 Van Til, A
Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 22.
 Van Til, The
Defense of the Faith, p. 120; cf. p. 260.
 Ibid., p. 103.
 Ibid., p. 111.
 Ibid., p. 173.
 Ibid., pp. 173-174,
 Ibid., p. 257; cf.
pp. 107, 109.
 Ibid., p. 173; cf. p.
 Ibid., pp. 109, 111,
emphasis added; cf. pp. 102, 115, 285, 305-306.
 Ibid., p. 100 (cf. p.
26); Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 46.
 Van Til, The
Defense of the Faith, pp. 385-386.
 Ibid., p. 110,
emphasis added; cf. p. 112.
 Van Til, An
Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 26. On the
preceding page he labels the problem "complex," and
on page 93 he speaks of Romans 1:18-21 as "this most
 Van Til, The
Defense of the Faith, pp. 261-262.
 Ibid., pp. 363-364.
 Ibid, p. 66, emphasis
 Ibid., p. 388,
 Van Til, A
Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 45.
 E.g., ibid, pp. 45,
46; Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 388.
 Van Til, The
Defense of the Faith, pp. 120, 111.
 Ibid., p. 259.
 Ibid., pp. 257, 112,
111. (Interestingly, this type of example is common in recent
philosophical literature on self-deception.)
 Ibid., p. 355.
 Ibid., pp. 257, 111.
 Ibid., p. 115.
 E.g., ibid, p. 306;
Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 42.
 Van Til, A Survey
of Christian Epistemology, p. 225.
 Van Til, The
Defense of the Faith, p. 191, emphasis added.
 Van Til, A
Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 46.
 Van Til, The
Defense of the Faith, p. 259; cf. A Christian Theory
of Knowledge, p. 42.
 Ibid., p. 306.
 Van Til, A Survey
of Christian Epistemology, p. 4.
 Van Til, The
Defense of the Faith, p. 109.
 Raphael Demos,
"Lying to Oneself," Journal of Philosophy
57 (Sept. 1, 1960): 588-594.
 Jean-Paul Sartre, Being
and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York:
Washington Square Press, 1956), p. 89.
 John V. Canfield and
Don F. Gustavson, "Self-Deception,: Analysis 23
(1962)32. Throughout this essay I will use "S" to
stand for any subject who knows or believes, and "p"
for any proposition which is known or believed.
 Patric Gardiner,
"Error, Faith, and Self-Deception," Proceedings
of the Aristotelian Society 70 N.S. (1969-1970) 224-25.
 Cf. Stanley Paluch,
"Self-Deception," Inquiry 10 (1967) 271-72;
David Pugmire, " 'Strong' Self-Deception," Inquiry
12 (1969) 339-46.
 John Turk Saunders,
"The Parados of Self-Deception," Philosophy
and Phenomenological Research 35 (1975) 561.
 Herbert Fingarette, Self-Deception
(New York: Humanities, 1975) 561.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Blue
and Brown Books, (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1958) 18;
Philosophical Investigations (3rd ed.; New York:
Macmillan, 1968), sections 65-71.
 Sadly we sometimes
find both of the two preceding, artificial, and
philosophically unhelpful treatments in popular presentations
of Van Til's position: e.g., Jim S. Halsey, For a Time
Such as This (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and
Reformed Publishing, 1978), pp. 63, 66-68.
 E.g., Paluch,
"Self-Deception"; A. E. Murphy, The Theory of
Practical Reason (LaSalle: Open Court Publishing Co.,
1965); T. S. Champlin, "Self-Deception: A Reflexive
Dilemma," Philosophy 52 (July, 1977): 281-299.
 E.g., H. O. Mounce,
"Self-Deception," Proceedings of the
Aristotelian Society, Supplemental Volume 35 (1971):
 E.g., Frederick A.
Sigler, "Demos on Lying to Oneself," The Journal
of Philosophy 59 (Aug. 2, 1962): 469-475;
"Self-Deception," Australasian Journal of
Philosophy 41 (May, 1963): 29-43.
 E.g., Canfield and
Gustavson, "Self-Deception"; Terence Penelhum,
"Pleasure and Falsity," Philosophy of Mind,
ed. Stuart Hampshire (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), pp.
 E.g., Richard Reilly,
"Self-Deception: Resolving the Epistemological
Paradox," The Personalist 57 (Autumn, 1976):
 E.g., James M. Shea,
"Self-Deception," Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell
University, 1966 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Xerox University
Microfilms 67-1411); Eugene Valberg, "Rationality and
Self-Deception," Ph.D. dissertation, State University of
New York at Buffalo, 1973 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Xerox
University Microfilms 73-29,146).
 E.g., Alan R.
Drengson, "Self-Deception," Ph.D. dissertation,
University of Oregon, 1971 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Xerox
University Microfilms, 72-14,723).
 E.g., Charles B.
Daniels, "Self-Deception and Interpersonal
Deception," The Personalist 55 (Summer, 1974):
 E.g., D. W. Hamlyn,
"Self-Deception," Proceedings of the
Aristotelian Society, Supplemental Volume 35 (1971):
 E.g., Eric J. Lerner,
"The Emotions of Self-Deception," Ph.D.
dissertation, Cornell University, 1975 (Ann Arbor, Michigan:
Xerox University Microfilms, 75-27,038); Sigler, "An
Analysis of Self-Deception," Nous 2 (May, 1968):
 E.g., John King-Farlow,
"Self-deceivers and Sartrian Seducers," Analysis
23 (June, 1963): 131-136.
 E.g., Bela Szabados,
"Rorty on Belief in Self-Deception," Inquiry
17 (Winter, 1974): 464-473; "Self-Deception," Canadian
Journal of Philosophy 4 (September, 1974): 51-68.
 E.g., Demos,
"Lying to Oneself"
 E.g., Charles D.
Bruce, "An Investigation of Self-Deception," Ph.D.
dissertation, Michigan State University, 1975 (Ann Arbor,
Michigan: Xerox University Microfilms, 75-20,815).
 E.g., Pugmire,
 E.g., Gardiner,
"Error, Faith, and Self-Deception"
 E.g., Hamlyn,
 E.g., Saunders,
"The Paradox of Self-Deception"
 E.g., Fingarette, Self-Deception
 This is especially
evident in many treatments of doxastic logic in our day.
 Cf. Knowledge and
Belief, ed. A. Phillips Griffith (London: Oxford
University Press, 1967); H. H. Price, Belief (London:
George Allen and Unwin, 1969); Robert J. Ackermann, Belief
and Knowledge (Garden City, New York: Achor Books of
Doubleday and Co., 1972); Belief, Knowledge, and Truth,
eds. Robert R. Ammerman and Marcus G. Singer (New York:
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970); D. M. Armstrong, Belief,
Truth and Knowledge (London: Cambridge University Press,
1973); J. O. Urmson, "Parenthetical Verbs," Essays
in Conceptual Analysis, ed. Antony Flew (New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1956), pp. 192-212; Mitchell Ginsberg, Mind
and Belief: Psychological Ascription and the Concept of Belief
(New York: Humanities Press, 1972); Paul Helm, The
Varieties of Belief (New York: Humanities Press, 1973);
F. P. Ramsey, "Last Papers," The Foundations of
Mathematics and Other Logical Essays, ed. R. B.
Braithwaite (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,  1954).
 Cf. especially the
works by Armstrong, Ramsey and Price cited in the previous
 This characterization
enables us to distinguish believing from related notions.
Thought is not action-guiding, and judgment is a mental act
rather than state. Hope adds to a propositional belief a
valuational belief pertaining to the proposition. We are only
"under an impression" when the evidence for the
proposition cannot be readily adduced. We say we "suspect
that p" when p is deemed a relevant possibility and
treated in hypothetical fashion in our inferences. Suspicion,
supposition, surmise, opinion, thinking and conviction
represent degrees of confidence with which the belief is held
(although in common parlance "belief" itself can
denote a particular level on such a scale); they are
distinguished by their varying causal efficacy in guiding
one's theoretical and practical inferences.
 Robert Audi,
"The Limits of Self-Knowledge," Canadian Journal
of Philosophy 4, no. 2 (December, 1974): 266.
 Notice that this
analysis does not affirm a logical contradiction in S's
beliefs or a logical contradiction about S. The claim is not
that S believes [p and not-p]. Nor is the formula that [(S
believes p) and it is not the case that (S believes p)]. We
are dealing with two levels of believing: one is about p, the
other is about S. Now then, although it is not necessary, S's
denial of his belief that p can sometimes take the form of -
or be facilitated by - S coming to believe not-p (as a way of
counteracting S's belief that p), but even here the appearance
of logical contradiction is avoidable. Rather than saying that
S believes [p and not-p], it should be said that [(S believes
p) and (S believes not-p)].
 When any human
activity becomes habitual, one might not always be
fully conscious or aware of what he is purposely doing.
Popular, cynical platitudes about man's proclivity to self-deception have been
published continually by men from Demosthenes to Benjamin Franklin, who once quipped,
"who has deceived thee so often as thyself?" The Puritan preacher, Daniel
Dyke, wrote a four-hundred page treatise published in 1617, entitled The Mystery of
Selfe-Deceiving. A century later, the Anglican apologist, Bishop Butler, included
his famous sermon "Upon Self-Deceit" in a published collection of his sermons.
In it he correctly recognized, "A man may be entirely possessed of this unfairness
of mind, without having the least speculative notion what the thing is."
It has been common to make mention of self-deception, even though it may be uncommonly
difficult to explain philosophically just what it is.
Yet even among philosophers the notion has been common stock. From what was said
about it by Plato, Rousseau, Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, one would learn how
dubious a view it is that men really want the truth when the truth happens to be
uncomfortable for them. Special attention is given to the concept of self-deception in
Hegel's theory of "unhappy consciousness," in Kierkegaard's discussion of
"purity of heart," and Sartre's view of "bad faith." According to
Sartre, men evade responsibility for their existential freedom through intentional
ignorance of the human reality.
Apart from the obscure works of the philosophers, however, self-deception is also one
of those human realities on which great works of Western literature have been richly
sustained over many years. One thinks of the classic portrayal of it in Sophocles' Oedipus
Rex or Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Lear. We remember the soliloquy
on self-swindling in Dickens' Great Expectations, Emma's intrigues with lovers
in Flaubert's Madame Bovary, or Strether's efforts to remain oblivious to
unwanted evidence in Henry James' The Ambassadors. The tragic condition of
self-deception is discussed and depicted in great Russian literature of the past - such
as Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Father
Sergius, and The Death of Ivan Ilych. Indeed, one of the most graphically
accurate depictions of self-deception is found in Tolstoy's War and Peace, when
Count Rostov returns home from a business trip to discover that something has happened
to his daughter. We read:
The Count saw
clearly that something had gone wrong during his absence; but it was so terrible for him
to imagine anything discredible occurring in connection with his beloved daughter, and
he so prized his own cheerful tranquility, that he avoided asking questions and did his
best to persuade himself that there was nothing very much wrong or out of the way....
The illustrations from literature could be multiplied many times over. We could
mention O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, or Andre Gide's Pastoral Symphony,
or Camus' The Fall, or any number of other entertaining, perplexing accounts.
We still would not be fully aware of how common the notion of self-deception has been
in human thought until we supplemented the survey with those sociological and
psychological approaches to man which have so profoundly affected Western culture in the
last century. One thinks here, of course, of the discussion by Marx of "false
consciousness" and collective illusion, causing an entire social class to obscure
the motives of its thought from itself. We recall the sociology of knowledge presented
by Karl Mannheim, who pointed to the tenacity of commitment to theoretical formulations
which, although impractical, have been acquired in the cooperative process of group
life. Finally, we cannot overlook Freud's psychoanalytic study of subconscious maneuvers
and defense mechanisms by which men cling to their cherished illusions.
So whether we turn to works in religion, philosophy, literature, sociology or
psychology, we cannot come to the conclusion that the notion of self-deception is
somehow an unfamiliar one. We have ample evidence that men identify something in their
experience as self-deception. The notion is readily utilized in everyday conversation,
not simply in published works of scholars. The vocabulary of self-deception is
recognizable (even by children), mastered by people, and taught to others. And so, when
the son of Mrs. Jones has been caught red-handed stealing lunch money out of students'
desks at school, and Mrs. Jones continues to protest her son's innocence - despite this
being the third time such an incident has taken place, despite her discomfort and red
face when the subject of dishonesty comes up in casual conversations, despite the fact
that she does not trust her son around her purse any longer - and she continues to
explain his innocence with strange explanations (like the school officials have a
vendetta against little Johnny, they were framing him, etc.) nobody finds it awkward to
say the poor lady "is deceiving herself." You see, self-deception is part of
our common experience, and familiarity with it breeds acceptance of it as a genuine
reality of life.
Self-deception is also one of the focal points in continuing criticism of Cornelius
Van Til's apologetic and, as such, invites analysis with a
view to supplementing and strengthening the saintly professor's remarkable contribution
to the history of apologetics. The apologetical importance of such
self-deception should be quite evident. Throughout the history of apologetics we find
that Romans 1 has been of guiding interest to Biblically oriented apologists, and indeed
the self-deceptive character of man as presented there has itself been stressed
periodically by scholars of Reformed persuasion. However, no apologist has drawn more
consistent attention to this characteristic of the natural man or made it more pivotal
for his system of defending the Christian faith than has Dr. Van Til. It is an
indispensable concept in his epistemology, as one will see in systematically studying
Van Til's writings or analyzing his apologetical perspective. The point is not simply
that references to the unbeliever's self-deception, as taught in Romans 1, are
conspicuous and common in Van Til's books, but that this notion functions in such a
crucial manner in his argumentation that without it presuppositional apologetics could
be neither intellectually cogent nor personally appropriate as a method of defending the
faith. A short rehearsal of a few basic points in Van Til's apologetic shows why this is
In A Survey of Christian Epistemology Van Til claims that "there can be
no more fundamental question in epistemology than the question whether or not facts can
be known without reference to God... [and so] whether or not God exists."
That is, a metaphysical issue is the most fundamental question in epistemology. Van
Til's apologetical argument for the metaphysical conclusion that God exists, however, is
in turn epistemological in character. The Christian defends the faith "by
claiming... he can explain... [the] amenability of fact to logic and the necessity and
usefulness of rationality itself in terms of Scripture." He
could thus write: "it appears how intimately one's theory of being and one's theory
of method are interrelated." This mutual dependence of
metaphysics and epistemology has always been characteristic of Van Til's apologetical
So then, far from being a species of "fideism," as it is so often
misconstrued by writers like Montgomery, Geisler or Sproul, Van
Til's approach to the question of God's existence offers, I believe, the strongest form
of proof and rational demonstration - namely, a "transcendental" form of
argument. He writes, "Now the only argument for an absolute God that holds water is
a transcendental argument... [which] seeks to discover what sort of foundations the
house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is."
To put it briefly, using Van Til's words, "we reason from the impossibility of the
In The Defense of the Faith, Van Til explains that this is an indirect
method of proof, whereby the believer and the unbeliever together think through the
implications of each other's most basic assumptions so that the Christian may show the
non-Christian how the intelligibility of his experience, the meaningfulness of logic,
and the possibility of science, proof or interpretation can be maintained only on the
basis of the Christian worldview (i.e., on the basis of Christian theism taken as a
unit, rather than piecemeal).
The method of
reasoning by presupposition may be said to be indirect rather than direct. The issue
between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct
appeal to "facts" or "laws" whose nature and significance is already
agreed upon by both parties to the debate. The question is rather as to what is the
final reference-point required to make the "facts" and "laws"
intelligible.... The Christian apologist must place himself upon the position of his
opponent, assuming the correctness of his method merely for argument's sake, in order to
show him that on such a position the "facts" are not facts and the
"laws" are not laws. He must also ask the non-Christian to place himself upon
the Christian position for argument's sake in order that he may be shown that only upon
such a basis do "facts" and "laws" appear intelligible.... The
method of presupposition requires the presentation of Christian theism as a unit.
Taking Christian theism "as the presupposition which alone makes the acquisition
of knowledge in any field intelligible," the apologist must conduct a critical
analysis of the unbeliever's epistemological method "with the purpose of showing
that its most consistent application not merely leads away from Christian theism, but in
leading away from Christian theism, leads to [the] destruction of reason and science as
well." This point, which Van Til drives home persistently
throughout his large corpus of publications, is expressed with these words in A
Christian Theory of Knowledge: "Christianity can be shown to be, not 'just as
good as' or even 'better than' the non-Christian position, but the only position that
does not make nonsense of human experience." Because the
unbeliever's commitment to random eventuation in history (i.e., a metaphysic of
"chance") renders proof impossible, predication unintelligible, and a
rational/irrational dialectic unavoidable, Van Til claims repeatedly in his writings
that the truth of Christianity is epistemologically indispensable.
It is in this
sense, then, that the presuppositional argument for the existence of God and the truth
of the Bible is "from the impossibility of the contrary."
The argument for
the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity is objectively valid.... The
argument is absolutely sound. Christianity is the only reasonable position to hold. It
is not merely as reasonable as other positions, or a bit more reasonable than other
positions; it alone is the natural and reasonable position for man to take.
"Christianity is proved as being the very foundation of the idea of proof
itself." Admittedly those are rather strong claims, and as I
see it, they constitute the most rigorous apologetical program of intellectual defense
being advanced in our time. It is, moreover, just in the all-or-nothing epistemological
boldness of presuppositionalism that Van Til finds the distinctiveness of Reformed
apologetics - what he calls "the basic difference" between it and other types
The Romanist-evangelical type of apologetics assumes that man can first know much
about himself in the universe and afterward ask whether God exists and Christianity is
true. The Reformed apologist assumes that nothing can be known by man about himself or
the universe unless God exists and Christianity is true.
Ironically, those who are uneasy with the presuppositional approach to apologetics
include not only those who think that it, being fideistic, does not prove enough, but
also those who (reading the claims that we have just cited) say that it proves far too
much! The charge is made, you see, that presuppositionalism implies that unbelievers can
know nothing at all and can make no contribution to science and scholarship since belief
in God is epistemologically indispensable according to the presuppositionalist. And it
is right here, right at this crucial point in the analysis, that the notion of
self-deception by the unbeliever enters the picture.
Van Til always taught that "the absolute contrast between the Christian and the
non-Christian in the field of knowledge is said to be that of principle." He draws
"the distinction... between the regenerated consciousness which in principle sees
the truth and the unregenerate consciousness which by its principle cannot see the
truth." If unbelievers were totally true to their espoused
assumptions, then knowledge would indeed be impossible for them since they deny God.
However the Christian can challenge the non-Christian approach to interpreting human
experience "only if he shows the non-Christian that even in his virtual negation of
God, he is still really presupposing God." He puts the point
succinctly in saying: "Anti-theism presupposes theism."
The intellectual achievements of the unbeliever, as explained in The Defense of the
Faith, are possible only because he is "borrowing, without recognizing it, the
Christian ideas of creation and providence." The
non-Christian thus "makes positive contributions to science in spite of his
principles" - because he is inconsistent. Van Til replies
directly to the charge that we are now considering with these words:
objection that suggests itself may be expressed in the rhetorical question "Do you
mean to assert that non-Christians do not discover truth by the methods they
employ?" The reply is that we mean nothing so absurd as that. The implication of
the method here advocated is simply that non-Christians are never able and therefore
never do employ their own method consistently.... The best and only possible proof for
the existence of such a God is that his existence is required for the uniformity of
nature and for the coherence of all things in the world.... Thus there is absolutely
certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism. Even
non-Christians presuppose its truth while they verbally reject it. They need to
presuppose the truth of Christian theism in order to account for their own
The sense of deity discussed by Calvin on the basis of Paul's doctrine in Romans 1
provides Van Til not only with an apologetical point of contact, but also with an
account of how those who disclaim any belief in God can know much about most subjects.
The knowledge of God which every man has as the image of God and as surrounded by
God's clear revelation assures us, then, that all men are in contact with the truth.
Not even sin in its most devastating expressions can remove this knowledge, for Van Til
says "sin would not be sin except for this ineradicable knowledge of God."
It is this knowledge of God, of which Paul speaks in Romans 1, that Van Til identifies
as the knowledge which all men have in common, contending that such common knowledge is
the guarantee that every man can contribute to the progress of science, and that some
measure of unity in that task can exist between believers and unbelievers.
Because he is convinced that self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness,
the presuppositionalist can assert then, in the most important sense, "There are no
atheists." Van Til clearly relies very heavily on Paul in
making such a surprising claim.
The apostle Paul
speaks of the natural man as actually possessing the knowledge of God (Rom. 1:19-21).
The greatness of his sin lies precisely in the fact that "when they knew God, they
glorified him not as God." No man can escape knowing God. It is indelibly involved
in his awareness of anything whatsoever.... We have at once to add Paul's further
instruction to the effect that all men, due to the sin within them, always and in all
relationships seek to "suppress" this knowledge of God (Rom. 1:18).... Deep
down in his mind every man knows that he is the creature of God and responsible to God.
Every man, at bottom, knows that he is a covenant breaker. But every man acts and talks
as though this were not so. It is the one point that cannot bear mentioning in his
Van Til speaks of the unbeliever sinning against his "better knowledge" - that
"it is of the greatest possible importance" to acknowledge that man knows God
in some "original sense."
Now then, just because knowledge is a category of belief (viz., justified true
belief), and because it can reduce unnecessary philosophical complications throughout
this discussion, we could just as well speak of the unbeliever's suppressed belief about
God as we could speak of his suppressed knowledge of God. In fact, Van Til makes his
point in just that way also in his writings.
To be sure, all
men have faith. Unbelievers have faith as well as believers. But that is due to the fact
that they too are creatures of God. Faith therefore always has content. It is against
the content of faith as belief in God that man has become an unbeliever. As such he
tries to suppress the content of his original faith.... And thus there is no foundation
for man's knowledge of himself or of the world at all.... When this faith turns into
unbelief this unbelief cannot succeed in suppressing fully the original faith in God.
Man as man is inherently and inescapably a believer in God. Thus he can contribute to
true knowledge in the universe.
Our brief rehearsal of presuppositional apologetics has brought us step by step to
the realization that a crucial component in Van Til's perspective, one that is
necessarily contained in any credible account of its functioning, is the conviction that
the non-Christian is self-deceived about God - that the one who does not believe in God
actually does believe in God. The cogency of presuppositionalism is tied up with the
intelligibility of this notion of self-deception. If we do not find our point of contact
with the unbeliever in his suppressed knowledge of God and reason with him in such a way
as to "distinguish carefully between the natural man's own conception of himself
and the Biblical conception of him" - that is, if we do not proceed on the firm
premise that the unbeliever is engaged in self-deception of the most significant
religious kind - then, according to Van Til, we "cannot challenge his most basic
epistemological assumption" that his reasoning can indeed be autonomous. And
immediately Van Til adds, "on this everything hinges."
The concept of self-deception is critical to Van Til's presuppositionalism.
Everything hangs on it, according to him. If there should be something suspect or
muddled about the notion of self-deception here, then the entire presuppositional system
of thought is suspect and unacceptable as well. Its key argumentive thrust relies
completely on the truth of the claim that unbelievers are suppressing what they believe
about God the Creator. That is why I stated at the beginning that the self-deception as
depicted in Romans 1 is religiously momentous and also why the unbeliever's
self-deception is a pivotal notion - a sine qua non truth - for the
presuppositional method of defending the faith.
However, as I also wrote at the outset of this essay in reference to Romans 1, the
notion of self-deception is philosophically enigmatic. It is more that just a bit odd,
is it not, to say that someone believes what he does not believe! Indeed, it sounds
downright self-contradictory. At just the crucial point where the presuppositionalist
must make reference to clear and compelling considerations in order to give a justifying
and credible account of the very heart of this apologetical method, he seems to take an
unsure step into philosophical perplexity. It hardly seems to the critics of
presuppositionalism that its account of itself explains the unclear in terms of the
clear. It appears rather to move from the unclear to the even more unclear. For now the
obvious question, if not challenge, will arise: what could it mean for an unbeliever
to simultaneously be a believer? Is the notion of self-deception at all
The quite enigmatic character of his conception of the unbeliever as self-deceived is
confessed very plainly in Van Til's writings, where he admits that the problem of the
unbeliever's knowledge "has always been a difficult point..., often the one great
source of confusion on the question of faith and its relation to reason."
Van Til insists that we must do justice to the twin facts that every unbeliever knows
God, and yet, that the natural man does not know God. If we do not stress these two
points, following Romanist and Arminian apologists, then we will necessarily allow for a
compromising apologetic. Van Til was aware of the counter charge
that was likely to be made.
It is ambiguous
or meaningless, says the Arminian, to talk about the natural man as knowing God and yet
not truly knowing God. Knowing is knowing. A man either knows or he does not know. He
may know less or more, but if he does not "truly" know, he knows not at
all.... In reply to this the Calvinist insists that... the natural man does not know
God. But to be thus without knowledge, without living, loving, true knowledge of God, he
must be one who knows God in the sense of having the sense of deity (Romans 1).
As we can see, Van Til was appropriately sensitive to the charge of
self-contradiction. Accordingly he wanted to draw some kind of distinction which would
indicate that he, with Paul, was not taking away with one assertion what he gives in
another. Thus he qualified his statements. "Non-Christians know after a fashion, as
Paul tells us in Romans." Elsewhere he writes that
"there is a sense in which all men have faith and all men know God. All contribute
to science." Therefore he taught "there are two senses
to the word 'knowledge' used in Scripture."
A common way in which Van Til denominates those two senses, and the difference
between them, is by saying that unbelievers know God but "not according to the
truth," or they do not "truly" know him, or they do not have "true
knowledge." How is this to be construed? Unbelievers
presuppose (and hence believe) the truth of God and of Christianity "while they
verbally reject it." The non-Christian "acts and talks as though this were not
so," for he cannot bear the mentioning of his knowledge of God.
Why not? Van Til says all sinners "have an ax to grind and do not want to keep God
in remembrance. They keep under the knowledge of God that is within them. That is they
try as best they can to keep under this knowledge for fear they should look into the
face of their judge." Being troubled in conscience, the
unbeliever must make an effort "to hide the facts from himself," somewhat like
a cancer victim who, in distress, keeps the awareness of the truth at a distance from
himself. Some students of presuppositionalism have made, I think,
the hasty error of conceiving of this situation as a simple matter of lying. The
unbeliever, it is thought, knows God, but simply says that he does not know God.
However, Van Til did not take this artificial and simplistic route. He recognized that
the unbeliever's situation is epistemologically strange and hard to describe accurately
(unlike the lying scenario). On the one hand, Van Til portrayed the unbeliever as
holding this knowledge of God "subconsciously." The non-Christian is said to
borrow Christian ideas "without recognizing it."
"He knows deep down in his heart" or "deep down in his mind,"
so that the natural man's knowledge of God is taken as "beneath the threshold of
his working consciousness." And yet on the other hand Van
Til wanted to contend unequivocally for the sinful guilt of men who suppress the
knowledge of God. Thus they are also portrayed by him as somehow conscious of what they
are doing. Knowing that it cannot successfully be done, says Van Til, the unbeliever
pursues the impossible dream of moral and epistemological autonomy, seeking to suppress
what he knows about God. Van Til writes, "He knows he is a
'liar' all the time," and accordingly his denying of the
truth is a self-conscious act. And yet in saying this, Van Til immediately felt the need
to place a qualification on his claim. Notice that the word 'liar' in the preceding
quotation is placed conspicuously in quotes. Van Til wants to say it with some measure
of reservation. Elsewhere he explained that the unbeliever's hostility is not
"wholly self-conscious." To his qualitative distinction
(knowledge/true knowledge), and to his spatial distinction (knowing/knowing deep down),
he now adds a quantitative distinction (wholly self-conscious/partially self-conscious).
Again it must be
borne in mind that when we say that fallen man knows God and suppresses that knowledge
so that he, as it were, sins self-consciously, this too needs qualification. Taken as a
generality and in view of the fact that all men were represented in Adam at the
beginning of history, we must say that men sin against better knowledge and also
self-consciously. But this is not to deny that when men are said to be without God in
the world they are ignorant.... There is therefore a gradation of those who sin more and
those who sin less, self-consciously.
One way or another, however, Van Til teaches that the natural man is "ethically
responsible" for his suppressing of the truth. He states
that "the Scriptures continue to hold man responsible for his blindness,"
and he calls the result of the unbeliever's self-deceptive effort "culpable
ignorance." The reason for his failure to recognize God as
he should "lies exclusively in himself," says Van Til; it is nothing less than
"willful transgression" which accounts for his refusal.
So again, Van Til has indicated how awkward it is to speak of the unbeliever as
self-deceived. On the one hand, the unregenerate's knowledge is considered
sub-conscious, and he does not recognize his utilizing of it. And yet on the other hand,
the unregenerate is portrayed as actively seeking to suppress it, and in some measure he
consciously and willfully works to hide it from himself. Van Til runs his reader from
pole to pole. On the one hand he does not want to say that the unbeliever is a bare
liar, and yet on the other hand he does want to say that the unbeliever is fully
culpable, just like any liar would be.
Given this short review of Van Til's discussion of the apologetical situation, we
have learned (1) that a recognition of the unbeliever's self-deception is indispensable
to presuppositional apologetics, and yet (2) that its recognition is fraught with
The Apparent Paradox and Search for a Solution
Our ready acceptance of the phenomenon of self-deception, however, has been
challenged over the last thirty-five years; philosophical attention has been given to
conceptual questions about self-deception which arise in both the theory of knowledge
and the philosophy of mind.
The analytical-epistemological approach to the subject was somewhat anticipated in
Bertrand Russell's critique of Freud in The Analysis of Mind (1921) and in
Gilbert Ryle's criticism of mind-body dualism in The Concept of Mind (1949).
Russell spoke of desire-motivated beliefs (or wishful thinking), and Ryle pointed out
that the practice of self-deception challenges the common dualist assumption that man
has some direct introspective knowledge of the workings of his own mind, a knowledge
free from illusion and doubt. However critical, intense and thorough philosophical
scrutiny of the notion of self-deception was inaugurated in 1960 by Raphael Demos in his
pioneering article entitled "Lying to Oneself." A long
series of reactions and counter-proposals has developed in the philosophical journals
since that time. Now inquiry was made into just what self-deception must involve to
qualify as such, and into whether it is a feat which can literally be accomplished.
Analyses of the notion always seemed headed for some form of paradox.
You see, the natural thing to do is to model self-deception on the well-known
activity of other-deception. Deceiving oneself is thought of as a version of deceiving
someone else. A problem here, of course, is that in other-deception the roles of
deceiver and deceived are incompatible; yet in self-deception a person is thought to
play both of these incompatible roles himself! Sartre put the matter plainly in his book
Being and Nothingness.
It follows first
that the one to whom the lie is told and the one who lies are one in the same person,
which means that I must know in my capacity as deceiver the truth which is hidden from
me in my capacity as the one deceived. Better yet I must know the truth exactly in order
to conceal it more carefully - and this not at two different moments, which at a pinch
would allow us to re-establish the semblance of duality - but in the unitary structure
of a single project. How then can the lie subsist if the duality which conditions it is
Let us stop and analyze the situation. In a case of other-deception, Jones is aware
that some proposition is false, but Jones intends to make Smith believe that it is true
- and he succeeds. If we take Smith out of the picture and substitute in Jones, so as to
gain "self-deception," we end up saying "Jones, aware that p is
false, intends to make himself believe that p is true, and succeeds in making himself
believe that p is true." Such a statement is surely
puzzling, for it suggests, "that somebody could try to make, and succeed in making,
himself believe something which he, ex hypothesi, at the same time believes not
to be true." It would be easy to conclude, then, that
self-deception is an incoherent project that cannot be fulfilled.
So we are forced to ask whether there actually is such a thing as perpetrating a
deception on oneself. How could it occur in practice? How could it be described without
contradiction? How can someone, after all, as deceived, believe p, yet as
deceiver disbelieve p? It now appears that self-deception, despite the
familiarity of the notion, is about as difficult to do as presiding over one's own
funeral. When we introduce the element of mendacity (dishonesty, lying) into the
picture, the problem is even further complicated. Here we move from epistemic notions
about belief into the philosophy of mind with questions about consciousness, purpose,
and intention. There have been "weak models" of self-deception proposed by
some philosophers, intending to take the sting out of the paradox by maintaining that an
agent does not know what he is up to in self-deception. In
"strong" self-deception the enterprise is purposeful and not so innocent. And
it is this strong version of self-deception which is usually thought necessary
for moral culpability in self-deception. This approach, however, only
intensifies the philosophical perplexity involved in the notion, for the kind of thought
that goes into planning and executing what you are doing in purposefully deceiving
someone else, makes doing it to yourself seem impossible. "Self-deception is not a
matter of mere stupidity or carelessness in thinking. It is a craftily engineered
project, and this is why it seems pointless and self-contradictory."
So then, the analytical-epistemological approach to the literature on self-deception
in recent years makes us hesitant to speak of it confidently and clearly. And the maze
of philosophical treatments given to the paradoxical notion only intensifies our
confusion. Herbert Fingarette, in the first full book published on the subject,
summarizes the problem nicely:
Were a portrait
of man to be drawn, one in which there would be highlighted whatever it is most human,
be it noble or ignoble, we should surely place well in the foreground man's enormous
capacity for self-deception. The task of representing this most intimate, secret gesture
would not be much easier were we to turn to what the philosophers have said.
Philosophical attempts to elucidate the concept of self-deception have ended in paradox
- or in loss from sight of the elusive phenomenon itself. . . . We are beset by
confusion when once we grant that the person himself is in self-deception. For as
deceiver one is insincere, guilty; whereas as genuinely deceived one is an innocent
victim. What, then, should we make of the self-deceiver, the one who is both the doer
and the sufferer? Our fundamental categories are placed squarely at odds with another. .
. . 'The one who lies with sincerity,' who convinces himself of what he even knows is
not so, who lies to himself and to others and believes his own lie though in his heart
he knows that it is a lie - the phenomenon is so familiar, the task so easy, that we nod
our heads and say, 'of course.' Yet when we examine what we have said with respect to
our inner coherency, we are tempted to dismiss such a description as nonsense.
At this juncture we can take the route of denying the reality of self-deception or
the route of resolving the apparent contradiction involved in the notion. My procedure
will be to take self-deception as a datum, and thus I am committed to saying
that at best it is only apparently self-contradictory. While it is not inconceivable
that those many people who have made use of the notion of self-deception over the
centuries have been unwittingly contradicting themselves, it is still not very likely.
We resist the conclusion that self-deception is actually impossible because we know that
people do not merely play at self-deception. They engage in it in tragic ways, and very
often they later come to realize the fact (for instance, think here of that devastating
book by Albert Speers, Inside the Third Reich). Given Paul's teaching in Romans
1 - not to mention the actual use of the phrase 'to deceive oneself' in James 1:26 and 1
John 1:8 - the Christian especially will want to resist dismissing self-deception as an
incoherent impossibility. Most people, then, will be more sure that self-deception
occurs than they would be of any explanation which renders it only apparent. So whenever
we confront an account of self-deception which makes it appear self-contradictory, our
assumption should be that the confusion lies not in the notion of self-deception but in
the person's philosophical account of it. Accordingly our work is cut out for us: as
elusive as it may be, we are committed to finding an adequate and coherent analysis of
What will be required of us if we are going to succeed? The basic requirement for an
acceptable analysis of self-deception is simply that it must "save the
phenomenon," while at the same time respecting the law of contradiction. Thus our
account must be descriptively accurate - true to paradigm examples of self-deception. It
is useful here to recall Wittgenstein's warnings against a reductionistic "craving
for generality" which is "contemptuous of the particular case." We must
admit at the outset that the many and varied uses for the term 'self-deception' bear a
"family resemblance" to each other. Doubtless there
will be borderline cases, where ambiguous evidence makes it difficult to tell if all of
the usual elements of self-deception are present. There will be extreme cases where some
element of self-deception is accentuated out of proportion - even as the colloquial
exclamation "That's insane!" is an exaggeration of the literal and proper use
of the concept of insanity. There will be analogous cases, deficient cases, peculiar
cases, and on and on. Nevertheless, there are typical or paradigmatic cases from which
we learn to use the expression "self-deception" and apply it to further,
diverse cases. Our use of this vocabulary is not so ad hoc as to preclude the
possibility of our picking out genuine cases of self-deception. So I will aim to give
necessary and sufficient conditions for the truth of the assertion, "S deceived
himself into believing that p," as it is taken in the full-fledged and paradigmatic
In order to be descriptively correct, our analysis must not radically depart from
ordinary language. Nor must it confuse or merge self-deception with related and similar
phenomena in human experience (e.g., ignorance, wishful thinking, change of belief).
Beyond being accurate and exact, our account must also be completely rid of any
incoherence, which requires using clearly defined notions in the analysis so that
self-contradiction (or its absence) is detectable. We do not want to explain
self-deception, moreover, by appealing to concepts which are even less clear than the
one we are attempting to understand - for example, by an ambiguous and misconceived
distinction between "psychological knowing" and "epistemological
knowing," which is easily faulted as obscure, if not simply wrong. Yet on the other
hand, we do not want to make the analysis so pat and easy that the perplexing element in
self-deception is dismissed altogether, causing us to wonder why it should ever have
appeared problematic to begin with (for instance, by drawing a trivial distinction
between what someone ought to know and what he actually does know - a strategy which
brings self-deception down to the level of any mundane oversight in one's thinking, such
as not knowing your father's age).
Within the guidelines we have rehearsed here, we need to formulate an adequate
analysis of self-deception. While existentialist treatments (e.g., Sartre, Fingarette)
affirm the contradiction found in self-deception as an experienced reality, the analytic
tradition has offered various avenues for removing the apparent logical difficulties. In
the philosophical journals, you will notice three basic strategies for resolving the
The first strategy is to deny that there is a parallel between self-deception and
other-deception. Some maintain that deception is inherently other-regarding, and thus
the skeptical conclusion is advanced that there actually is no such thing as
self-deception. What is commonly called "self-deception" needs to be given a
more accurate description. Others say that words like
"deceive," "know," or "believe" are used in a non-standard
fashion in accounts of self-deception, not having the same intended sense as in
descriptions of other-deception. Finally, others who deny the
other-deception parallel recommend that we "look and see" what conditions
actually hold when self-deception locutions are utilized, in which case we will notice
that self-deception situations do not involve two incompatible beliefs (as in
other-deception), but rather only a particular kind of single belief entertained under
peculiar circumstances. Thus we speak of "self-deception" when we want to
reprimand irresponsible holding of an unwarranted belief, or
self-deceived beliefs are taken as those held in belief-adverse circumstances,
or where there is an irrational refusal to look at evidence, or
where one simply desires to hold the belief, or where weak-willed
dishonesty permits desire-generated blindness, or some emotion
has irrationally obscured the contrary evidence.
The second strategy is to accept the other-deception model (the reality of
perpetrating a deception upon oneself) and maintain that self-deception is a conflict
state of holding incompatible beliefs, but then resolving the paradox of believing
contrary things by introducing various kinds of distinctions. Some distinguish between
knowledge and "as-it-were-knowledge," or between full
belief and "half-belief," contending that the different
senses for this epistemic vocabulary in analyses of self-deception render the paradox
only apparent. Other philosophers treat self-deception as a literal case of
other-deception, positing some kind of duality (e.g., levels of consciousness, split
personality) within the self-deceived person himself. Another
approach is to draw a temporal distinction between S-the-deceiver and (later)
S-the-deceived. Finally, many writers have attempted to give a
coherent account of self-deception as a conflict state of incompatible beliefs by
drawing some kind of distinction regarding consciousness - for instance, distinguishing
two levels of awareness, or between general and explicit
consciousness, or between general awareness and detailed
awareness, or between conscious purpose and unreflective purpose,
or between conscious and unconscious knowledge, or between strong
and weak consciousness.
The third strategy proposes to utilize an altogether different model for
self-deception which avoids appeal to such epistemic terms as "knowledge" or
"belief," using instead a volition-action model wherein one fails to
"spell-out" for himself his engagements in the world. In this way it is
thought we can preserve the purposiveness and culpability essential to any adequate
account of the phenomenon, yet avoiding the paradoxes which have proved inherent in the
epistemic accounts of self-deception.
My evaluation is that none of these three major strategies for resolving the apparent
paradox will pass the tests of adequacy prescribed above. In some cases we find
necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for self-deception set forth (e.g., adverse
evidence, the influence of desire on human belief). In other cases necessary conditions
are dismissed altogether (e.g., belief, incompatible beliefs). Some proposals merely
state all over again the need for a resolution to the problem (e.g., those using new
senses for the epistemic vocabulary), or else they reintroduce the paradox at a
different point (e.g., having a policy of not spelling-out an engagement in the world).
Some suggestions end up reducing self-deception to something else (e.g., reducing it to
a change of belief, ignorance, cognitive error, or pretending) and thereby render the
notion dispensable. Another group of attempted solutions rely on notions which are even
more obscure or problematic than self-deception itself (e.g., diverse kinds of
consciousness), escaping the appearance of paradox at the price of equivocating on just
what the self-believer believes he is aware of. Other analyses confuse or merge
self-deception with one of many related states or actions (e.g., with wishful thinking,
delusion, simple trust, vacillation of opinion, obstinacy, or motivated belief).
Virtually all of the authors who have written on the subject have contributed some
helpful insights into the difficult issue of self-deception, and I will draw from many
of them in my own proposed resolution to the apparent paradox. However, I am not
convinced that these writers have been fully true to the phenomenon or have escaped
Belief and Its Characteristics
There is something of a cognitive mess at the core of our lives. We are inconsistent
in our choices, incoherent in our convictions, persuaded where we ought not to be, and
deluded that we know ourselves transparently. The concept of belief shows up in all of
these kinds of personal failures, and it should seem obvious that it does as well in the
kind of cognitive error we call "deception." Deceived people have been misled,
deluded, beguiled or somehow mistaken in what they think and expect to be the case; they
engage in false believing. There are few (if any) plausible grounds for disputing the
claim that self-deception involves holding one or more false beliefs. Ordinarily in
everyday thinking we construe self-deception in terms of belief (of some variety, under
some circumstance, etc.).
Fingarette, however, proposes as an alternative analysis a volitional account of
self-deception which, stressing the element of intentional ignorance, takes it to be a
kind of action rather than a kind of belief. Consciousness is an active and vocal power
(rather than, as traditionally thought, passive and visual), and a person becomes
explicitly conscious of something through an intentional act of "spelling out his
engagements in the world." Sometimes, though, there are overriding reasons for a
person to avoid spelling out these engagements, as when doing so would be destructive of
his self-conception or the personal identity he has achieved. Lest the effort to avoid
spelling out the engagement itself reveal the engagement, one must avoid spelling out
that effort as well. Self-deception thus involves adopting an avoidance policy whereby
one purposefully chooses to stay ignorant of some engagement in the world.
This is an inadequate alternative to belief-analyses of self-deception, in the first
place, because the troublesome concept of self-deception is explained at the price of
even greater obscurity (the unfamiliar metaphor of "spelling out an engagement in
the world"). Secondly, the volition-action family of terms (which Fingarette
prefers for explaining self-deception) is itself heavily laden with notions involving
cognitive or epistemic terms like "belief," "knowledge,"
"perception," etc. A further difficulty is that Fingarette's analysis
overlooks completely those cases of self-deception which involve an artificial and
misleading overdoing of spelling out one's engagements in the world with an
inappropriate emotional detachment - the very opposite of Fingarette's avoidance policy.
Finally, Fingarette's alternative account does not rid the notion of self-deception of
paradox, but simply restates the paradox in new terms. The effort to avoid spelling out
one's (preceding) effort to avoid spelling out a distressful engagement in the world
makes one conscious of making oneself unconscious.
Others use the word "deceive" in a way which does not seem to make
believing false propositions essential to the act. Freudian psychologists speak of the
self-deceived person as being in the grip of unconscious motivations (without mention of
cognitive processes). Kierkegaard spoke of a person's failure to be true to himself and
ethically consistent as self-deception. However, Freudian and existentialist uses of
"deception" are either figurative language or implicitly employ the cognitive
sense of believing. If we are unable to cash in talk of unconscious motives and true
selves into descriptions of ourselves which can be believed, it makes little sense to
say we are "being false" to ourselves or "living a lie." Even when
we say the husband who is unfaithful to a knowing wife (they do not speak to each other
of his indiscretions) has "deceived" her, we mean he has violated her
expectations- in which case the cognitive sense of "deceive" is again waiting
in the wings.
There is simply no good reason to omit reference to belief in a proper analysis of
self-deception. More particularly, what is essential in self-deception is that people
hold a false belief - not simply an unwarranted belief (e.g., the patient who chooses to
disbelieve his doctor's report of cancer, only to turn out right in his wishful
thinking), and not simply the absence of expected belief (e.g., the cuckold who
literally thinks nothing about his wife's infidelity, although the neighborhood is loud
with rumors and she has too many shady late-night excuses). Even where people deceive
themselves about their attitudes, hopes, emotions, etc. (e.g., false security, false
pride), the objects of self-deception themselves have a cognitive core. The parent who
is inappropriately proud of his child's report card experiences a certain emotion only
by believing something about the marks on the card. About the colleague who shows false
sorrow over a fellow worker's firing we say, "He may think that he is sorry, but he
knows quite well he is delighted over this turn of events."
I would maintain, then, that self-deception, as a form of deception, involves
believing false propositions. Further, the mistaken believing which is involved is fully
genuine believing. We do not here speak of "belief" in some odd, defective, or
"twilight" sense. The self-deceiver is not merely feigning ignorance or being
an obvious hypocrite. He is concerned with the truth and makes efforts, albeit strained,
to sustain his false belief as rational. He is aware of the weight and relevance of the
evidence contrary to his belief, so he distorts the evidence through pseudo-rational
treatment of it. He is not simply pretending. Although his twisting of the evidence
shows that he is trying to convince himself of something unlikely, he still behaves in
ways which rely upon the truth of what he says about his (false) belief. He must say
that he really believes the false proposition, or else he would not be
"deceived" after all. This is not simply half-belief or near-belief, for that
proposal would reduce self-deception to mere vacillation, lack of confidence, or
insincerity. There is no lack of evidence for the self-deceiver's full-fledged
believing; it is just that we have too many beliefs of his for which there is adequate
evidence - beliefs which are incompatible. Moreover, the self-deceiver's false belief is
not simply performatory in character (an avowal which initiates a commitment about which
he will not follow through), for that would reduce self-deception to personal
determination, striving, hoping contrary to fact, or wishful thinking.
We must turn attention, then, to the concept of belief if we would hope to analyze
self-deception adequately. This is a safe and promising move because the concept of
belief is familiar to everyone (despite notorious philosophical questions which can
nettle one's understanding of it). Of course "belief" could be defined in such
a way as to preclude the possibility of self-deception, but philosophers who have done
so have paid the price of implausibility. In the history of epistemology belief is
sometimes artificially restricted to an ideal philosophical notion where people never
believe contradictory propositions - which might better be termed "rational
belief." This will hardly do as an account of belief itself,
for human nature is capable of more things and stranger than common-sense philosophers
suppose or than rationalistic philosophers impose on the world in Procrustean fashion.
One has a far smaller opportunity to rid the world of irrationality if he takes the
short-cut of defining unreasonable or incoherent thinking out of existence. Accordingly,
I would suggest that the adequacy of one's conception of belief and of one's conception
of self-deception will probably need to be judged jointly. To give a satisfactory
account of one while being untrue to the other is to fail to do justice to the full
range of human reality.
The term 'believe' has received analysis as a "parenthetical verb," a
performative utterance, an expression denoting an occurrent mental event or denoting a
personal disposition to act in certain ways under certain conditions.
Each analysis has its advantages and drawbacks, and in the end we are probably unable to
provide a genuine "analysis" of belief just because it appears to be a notion
which is primitive or fundamental in the explanation of the wide range of concepts in
epistemology and philosophy of mind. Belief cannot be traditionally defined in terms of
anything more basic than itself. Nevertheless, nothing prevents us from offering a
general characterization of the ordinary notion of belief (without claiming
Belief is a positive, intellectual, propositional attitude which is expressed in a
large variety of symptoms (some of which are subject to degrees of strength). To believe
something is to have a favorable attitude toward a proposition - an attitude of the
intellectual (rather than merely conative or affectional) kind. It is to take the
proposition as true in a virtually automatic response to the evidence as it is perceived
by the person. Thus to believe p is to see it as evidenced, to regard p as reliable. In
the sense that belief is controlled by and informed by the way evidence is construed by
the believer, belief is often said to be "constrained" - and some propositions
are popularly said to be "beyond belief." Even seemingly unreasonable beliefs
(cf. "blind faith") will turn out upon exploration to rest on something which
is regarded by the believer anyway as a warrant, calling for the belief in question.
Although belief is a positive propositional attitude informed by the evidence, that
evidence can (and often is) misconstrued, misperceived, and approached with myopia of
mind and senses. On this characterization, belief by no means precludes believing false
We can attempt a more precise characterization of belief here, one which with a
modicum of judicious philosophical industry can survive whatever problems may remain to
be worked out elsewhere. The proposed way of speaking of belief
shows initial plausibility, has been defended by respected scholars, and is bolstered by
our common understanding of the concept of belief (even though it may not be a
completely systematic account or analysis). At base belief is an action-guiding state of
mind; it is a map-like mental state that is a potential cause of particular action
(mental, verbal, or bodily). Specifically, belief is a persisting, intentional, mental
state (made up of ideas which give a determinate character to the state corresponding to
the proposition believed) with a stimulus-independent causal capacity to affect or guide
one's theoretical and practical behavior, under suitable circumstances, in a wide
variety of manifestations. In what follows, then, the expression "S believes that
p" will be understood as true if and only if S relies upon p (sometimes,
intermittently, or continuously) in his theoretical inferences and/or practical actions
The grounds for saying that someone is self-deceived will coincide with or include
the grounds for saying that he believes some proposition. If S did not take p as
evidenced - that is, if S did not have a positive attitude or mental state such that p
was relied upon in his theoretical or practical inferences - then we could not
distinguish self-deception from mere ignorance of, or dislike for, p. It is just because
S unavoidably looks upon some evidence as supporting p - and is thereby in the mental
state of relying upon p in his inferences (practical and/or theoretical) - that his
desire to avoid or manipulate that evidence in "self-deception" is meaningful.
S does not wish to have his mind "in-formed" by the evidence in this fashion;
he does not want to believe what he does believe. He would rather forget or hide the
unpleasant truth that has gripped him, that is, to make covert that he relies upon p in
his theoretical inferences and/or practical actions and plans. His negative emotional
response to p leads him to try and escape his uncontrived way of seeing things.
There are certain further points regarding belief about which we should make special
mention. First, the bases for ascribing a belief to someone (the marks by which we
discern a belief) are provided by both occurrent and dispositional accounts of belief.
We consider the person's outward assertion of p (or inward, if ourself), and the way in
which he behaves, reasons, gestures, feels, etc.; we take into account his decisions,
emotions, habits, and even inaction. Of course neither a person's actions nor his
utterances are infallible signs of belief, but they do offer fairly reliable
correlations. The various kinds of indicators for belief should be used to supplement
and qualify each other. One's own avowals of belief have a presumptive authority in
determining what he believes, but those avowals can be defeated by cautious and
relatively thorough observation of his other behavioral indicators. To put it simply:
over time, actions will speak louder than words.
Second, not all of our beliefs are formed consciously, rationally, and with the
giving of internal or external assent. To give assent to a proposition is explicitly to
spell out (inwardly or outwardly) how one stands in respect to that proposition, thereby
bringing one's belief to a conscious level of experience. However, there is no special
logical or conceptual connection between beliefs and their linguistic expression.
Holding a belief is not logically dependent upon a willingness or competence to express
that belief verbally to oneself or others. Assent is not necessary to the mental state
of belief. The cognitive and affective aspects of belief can sometimes be separated in a
person and even be at odds with each other (e.g., hoping for what cannot be, fearing
what you know does not hurt, failing to feel conviction in the face of strong proof).
Accordingly we can easily imagine situations where most of the affective manifestations
of a belief that p occur in S, and yet S does not assent to p, even when the proposition
is attended to in his mind. He does not notice that his actions, emotions, assumptions,
inferences, etc. are such as would be expected symptoms of someone who accepts p. It is
a false picture we entertain of intelligent beings if we think of them as incessantly
talking to themselves internally and always making explicit (or reporting on) their
mental states and acts. A person's condition can be quite obviously belief-like, even
when the (usual) assent-symptom of belief is absent; most, if not all, of the other
symptoms of belief are evident. His behavior can hardly be explained without postulating
in him a belief that p. It would be an artificial imposition to erect a terminological
rule at this point, prohibiting us from saying that "S believes p" under such
That would only screen off the complexity of human nature and behavior from us. We
can certainly imagine, if we have not actually encountered, people who would protest
that they do not hold beliefs about the inferior human dignity of people from other
races - and yet who evidence just such an attitude in their social behavior nonetheless.
The fact that belief can be divorced from explicit assent shows us, then, that there can
be beliefs held by a person of which he is not aware - not consciously entertaining in
his mind by introspection. A person can rely upon a proposition in his theoretical
inferences and/or practical plans (e.g., "There is sufficient gas in the car's
tank") without entertaining that proposition in mind; the proposition may not come
to mind until something goes wrong (e.g., when he ends up stranded down the road). When
I am surprised by meeting my previously vacationing neighbor at the mall, it is hardly
because I had consciously inferred or entertained the proposition that he would not yet
be back from his travels. The fact is that our set of beliefs is expanded and diminished
throughout our waking moments (through sense experience, casual reflection, etc.), and
thus beliefs can be adopted without concentrating on the adoption procedure or even
being aware of its results. Furthermore, it is quite clear that not everything that a
person believes can be simultaneously attended to by him in thought. We must conclude
that introspection and assent do not invariably accompany a person's each and every
mental state or action.
Third, we must add that self-ascriptions of belief by way of assent - just like
disavowals of belief - are not incorrigible (i.e., there can be overriding reasons to
think them false) and therefore not infallible (i.e., such reports can be mistaken). A
person can be held to believe something from which he dissents, and can be found not to
believe something to which he assents. To some appreciable extent we can be mistaken
about our own beliefs. This may seem surprising, but there are after all limits on our
self-knowledge, even though our own reports about our beliefs (or pains, or perceptions,
etc.) have a presumptive authority and are granted a degree of accuracy.
We have seen
that normally first-person, present-tense, occurrent mental state beliefs are direct,
far more reliable than the counterpart beliefs about others, excellent evidence for the
presence of the states they "report," ... but they are like our beliefs about
others in being fallible, dubitable, corrigible, and testable.
People may have the best word on what they believe, but they do not logically have
the last word (as in the example of racial prejudice above). It is not hard to find
examples in ordinary experience of someone believing something, but yet withholding,
avoiding or suppressing internal and external assent to it. We also have ready examples
of someone believing that he believes something, although in fact he does not believe
it. Such examples can only be explained away or recategorized by the ex post facto
imposition of artificial conditions upon what we call "belief." People can and
do sometimes come to realize, on the evidence in their behavior, that their previous
avowals (or disavowals) of a belief were mistaken.
Fourth, the last thing about belief which calls for special mention is its
voluntariness. This may seem strange since we have above spoken of belief as a
propositional attitude which is "constrained" by the evidence as seen by the
person in question. The seeing of the evidence as this or that - the taking of it in a
particular way - constrains one to believe as he does. Since I see myself as
right-handed, I cannot voluntarily and on the spot believe (genuinely) that I am
left-handed. Nobody can believe contrary to the way in which he sees the evidence, to be
sure. However, one can exercise some control over the way in which he sees that evidence
- directing his attention, giving prominence to some matters over others, suppressing
what he does not wish to encounter, re-evaluating the significance of past
considerations, etc. If belief is like "seeing-as," then we must also
recognize that seeing-as is somewhat subject to one's will. A person is free to ignore
the grounds for a belief, in which case that belief is not compelled (in an absolute
sense) after all. A person cannot choose voluntarily and arbitrarily to believe whatever
he wishes, but he can nevertheless freely doubt propositions, suspend judgment about
them, voluntarily inhibit extending inferences based on them, etc. Directing our
thoughts is a kind of doing, and by the directing of our attention we can encourage or
thwart our propensity to believe things. People are thus free to fortify or undermine
beliefs they have by voluntarily concentrating on certain lines of evidence, ignoring
others, misconstruing yet others, etc. In such ways we can deliberately cultivate a
belief (whether about some matter or about ourselves and our beliefs) which turns out
contrary to the facts.
Everyone knows the experience of weighing or deliberating about the options and then
"taking the plunge" of assenting to one over the other. We ordinarily take
responsibility - and are held responsible - for our beliefs. They are assessed as though
we had some control over them; our beliefs are evaluated as more or less reasonable,
justifiable, and even moral. We at times hear people declare "I cannot believe
that" (e.g., a close relative has been convicted of a heinous crime), but we all
realize that the "cannot" here should be interpreted as "will not" -
because one does not want it to be true, cannot emotionally afford to admit it, thinks
it is his duty to resist it, or lacks the intellectual energy to rise to the occasion.
In many ways, then, we recognize the voluntary aspect of belief.
Given the preceding explanation of belief as such, and with the salient features of
belief just enumerated in mind, we can proceed to explicate a non-paradoxical account of
Incompatible Beliefs, Motivated Rationalization, and Self-Covering Intention
We should maintain the appropriateness of modeling self-deception on other-deception,
contending that there is a common sense for the word "deception" in both
cases. This does not commit us to going to the extreme of making self-deception a
literal case of other-deception (the same in every detail), as though we were dealing
with a split personality. Rather self-deception should be seen as a general parallel to
other-deception in certain specifiable ways. For instance, elements of deception which
are shared by both self-deception and other-deception are the deceiver's responsibility
for causing the deceived to believe falsely, the deceived holds (at least implicitly) an
erroneous belief about the deceiver's beliefs, and the rationalization maneuvers taken
in the face of evidence brought to the attention of the deceiver by others.
Given the other-deception model, incompatible beliefs need to be attributed to the
self-deceiver on the basis of his behavior. Self-deception is a conflict state in which
S holds incompatible beliefs, but the nature of this incompatibility needs to be noted.
The self-deceived person holds a first-order belief (viz., that p) which is not a matter
of personal indifference to himself, but somehow distressing; he has a personal stake in
(or against) p. Thus it is a special kind of belief: one which S dreads, cannot face up
to, or wishes were otherwise since it brings some unpleasant truth before him.
Accordingly, S brings himself to deny that belief - not only to deny p (about the
distressing issue in question) but more significantly to deny something about himself
(namely, his believing p). Thus the analysis of self-deception involves reference to
iterated beliefs (i.e., beliefs about one's beliefs). While believing p, S comes to hold
additionally a (false) second-order belief about that belief - namely, that S does not
believe p. A person may believe that dogs are dangerous (first-order), and may also
believe (second-order) that this belief concerning dogs is quite reasonable. A person
may believe (first-order) that members of other races are inferior and yet
(second-order) believe about himself that he does not believe in racial inferiority.
It is important to note that the behavioral symptoms of believing p overlap
extensively with the behavioral symptoms of believing that you believe p. In the
examination of one's actions, emotions, words, etc. it will be found that they can
easily be taken as indicators of both the first-order and the second-order belief.
Likewise, the behavioral indicators for S not believing p readily shade back and forth
into the behavioral indicators for S believing (about himself) that he does not believe
p. A man who believes that dogs are dangerous engages in most of the same inferences,
reactions, emotions and behavior as a man who believes that he believes dogs are
dangerous. This helps us to understand that the nature of the incompatibility of beliefs
in self-deception is not logical in nature, but behavioral and practical. The
first-order and second-order beliefs are not formally contradictory, but the inferential
and behavioral effects of the two beliefs are in conflict with each other. The
self-deceiver believes something (which causes him distress) and gives evidence of
believing it; however, he brings himself to believe that he does not believe it (which
brings a measure of relief) and gives evidence that he does not think of himself as
believing it. S believes p, but his assent to it is blocked by acquiring the (false)
second-order belief that S does not believe p. The incompatibility between these two
beliefs is thus practical in nature. They call for conflicting kinds of intellectual,
verbal, and behavioral responses.
Now S has an obvious interest at stake in maintaining the rationality of his
second-order belief (which brings him into a conflict state with his first-order
belief). This analysis of self-deception holds that it comes about when, in the face of
evidence adverse to his cherished second-order belief (about himself), S engages in
contrived and pseudo-rational treatment of the evidence. That is, he manipulates,
suppresses, and rationalizes the evidence so as to support a belief which is
incompatible with his believing that p. He ignores the obvious, focuses away from
undesirable indicators, twists the significance of evidence, goes to extreme measures to
enforce his policy of hiding his belief that p from himself and others. If he looked at
himself as others see him, he would have all the evidence he needs to conclude that he
believes that p, but he strains and strains to convince himself that he does not believe
This rationalizing activity, in order to count as self-deception and not something
else (e.g., a cavalier disagreement), must be given a motivational explanation. S
distorts the evidence in order to satisfy a desire - namely, the desire to avoid the
discomfort, distress, or pain associated with believing that p. By means of it he enters
into and maintains self-deception, believing that he does not believe that p. Actions or
reactions which have the effect of achieving the special state of incompatible beliefs
traced above are referred to in statements like "S is deceiving himself regarding
p" (namely, by bringing himself to believe about himself that he does not believe
that p). Avowal of the second-order belief about his not believing that p may function
for S as "the taking of a stand" on his identity as a person; it amounts to a
commitment to a particular conception of himself (although by no means logically free
As human actions, self-deceiving maneuvers may be purposively engaged - done
intentionally (although they need not be in all cases). "Falling" into
self-deception would no more be a uniquely human action than falling into a pit. We
should be concerned, then, to complete our analysis by considering self-deception as
something done on purpose (i.e., "strong self-deception"). Only then could it
be considered morally culpable and, as such, of interest to Christian apologetics and
The vexed questions of awareness and purpose in self-deception address what is
perhaps our underlying perplexity in making sense of the notion. If S is intentionally
trying to deceive himself (thus being conscious of what he is up to), how could he ever
be successful (making himself believe contrary to that of which he is conscious)? This
is what I propose. While the self-deceiver is aware of the truth of p or sees it as
evidenced (i.e., p presents itself to S as the truth), and while his belief that p is
indicated by his behavior (i.e., relying upon it in his theoretical or practical
inferences), he will not give assent to p but induces in himself - by controlling
attention to the relevant evidence - an incompatible (and false) belief that S does not
believe p. Accordingly, the self-deceiver is not aware that he holds incompatible
beliefs; after all, he does not believe that he believes that p, but believes of himself
that he does not believe p, thus avowing mistakenly and only that he does not
believe p. S should recognize the conflict state of incompatible beliefs (if
his self-knowledge were not defective), but the strategy of hiding his dreaded belief
prevents him from doing so. If he did recognize the incompatibility of his genuine
beliefs, but did not resolve it, he would simply be vacillating or irrational. Thus the
self-deceiver is not personally aware that his professed and cherished belief about
himself (that he does not believe that p) is false. He is not simply a liar.
The critical question is whether one can try to deceive himself and not be aware of
such things. Can S engage in self-deception on purpose? The common assumption is that if
S purposes to do something, then he must be aware of its character. In that case, if S
purposely engaged in the activity of self-deception (e.g., rationalizing the evidence so
as to hide a dreaded belief), it seems he would be aware that he is attempting to
deceive himself, and that would foil the effort - just as much as if R realized that S
were intending to mislead him from the truth, S could not successfully deceive R.
However, I argue that S's awareness of his aim to make the belief that p covert (by
believing something incompatible with it) need not undermine the success of his effort
at deception. What S thinks about in his purposeful attempt at self-deception need not
be deception-defeating, for the intention to deceive oneself can be self-covering.
That is, it is one of a special class of human intentions which obscure awareness of
themselves, in which case S can purpose not only to hide his belief that p, but also -
to preserve his self-esteem as a rational agent - to hide his hiding of it. The
self-deceiver conceals his intention from himself, deceiving himself about his intention
to deceive himself.
To avoid an infinite regress of self-deceptions (about the self-deceived intention to
deceive oneself, etc.) in the case of "strong" self-deception, it must be
possible for an intention to be self-covering. The intention to practice self-deception
must obscure itself in the process of obscuring S's belief that p, and yet
without calling for a further intention regarding itself in this matter. But can (some)
intentions have two objects in this way? If so, the intention to practice self-deception
could have as its object both the dreaded belief (to be covered) as well as the
deceiving intention (also to be covered). The fact that (some) intentions can indeed be
self-covering is obvious from the common experience of intending to go to sleep. A
person can purposely choose to go to sleep, doing the things necessary to accomplishing
that end (e.g., relaxing, lying down, counting sheep, etc.). However, if he is
successful in that intention, he does not continue to be aware of the intention itself,
or else he would stay awake (aware). So then, there are intentions which cover
themselves when they are successfully performed, and there is no good reason to refrain
from classifying self-deception as that kind of intention. When a person intentionally
tries to deceive himself and is aware of that intention at the outset,
he is eventually going to lose his awareness of what he is doing (i.e., "will fall
asleep" concerning it). If successful, the "strong" self-deceiver will
reach a point where he no longer looks back and spells out what he was doing. Likewise,
if you intend to put out your own eyes, at some point in the process you can no longer
visually examine (in a mirror) what is going on. When self-deception is intentional,
then, I propose that it is a self-covering intention, such as we are familiar with in
our ordinary experience.
The analysis of self-deception fostered here maintains that when S deceives himself:
S believes that p,
S is motivated to ignore, hide, deny (etc.) his belief that p, and
By misconstruing or rationalizing the evidence, S brings himself to believe
falsely that "S does not believe that p."
In order to preserve something about his own self-conception, S engages in motivated
rationalization of the evidence so that he relies in his theoretical and practical
inferences on the proposition that he is not relying in his theoretical and practical
inferences on p. He is morally culpable for this lie about himself because it is engaged
intentionally, and yet he may not be aware of his intention since it has become habitual
or, being self-covering, has become something he no longer thinks about (like falling
asleep). S obscures his dreaded belief that p, as well as his intention to obscure it by
rationalizing the evidence. Self-deception involves deception of the self, by the self,
about the self, and for the sake of the self.
This analysis of self-deception in terms of iterated beliefs, corrigible disavowals,
motivated rationalization of evidence, and self-covering intentions is adequate to
explain the common illustrations of self-deception which we encounter. Recall the
example about Mrs. Jones. The principal calls her to say that her son Johnny (her pride
and joy, her only child) has been caught stealing lunch money out of students' desks.
The evidence is plain that Johnny is a thief, and this is the third time she has
received such a call from the school. She has also noticed money missing out of her own
purse at home, and Johnny has been coming home with expensive items from the store. Mrs.
Jones shows the affective symptoms of believing the proposition that Johnny is a thief.
She tries to avoid situations where she is likely to be reminded of his dishonesty. She
moves to a new neighborhood, transferring Johnny into a new school, and refusing to put
a phone in her new home. She keeps an unusually attentive eye on her boy, but will not
admit that she does so, etc. Yet on the other hand, since nobody in the Jones family has
ever stooped to dishonesty, and Johnny is her one reason left for living in the cruel
world, she persuades herself that Johnny could not have done the dishonest deeds
reported by the principal. She forgets the past evidence and supplies "more
credible" explanations of present evidence (e.g., money is missing from her purse
because she is so careless or forgetful). She goes out of her way to express confidence
in her son to others, makes a show of giving him mature responsibilities, and tries to
do only what one who believed in Johnny's virtue would do. She avers that she has a fine
boy who is a joy to her, a regular paragon of virtue. Nevertheless, she flies off the
handle at him over trifling matters (in a way unlike the way she related to him prior to
the principal's phone calls). She astonishes and embarrasses others by seizing on every
oblique innuendo to defend Johnny's honesty. When neighbors get curious over her missing
cash and Johnny's new acquisitions, Mrs. Jones fidgets, blushes, looks away, answers in
halting fashion or changes the subject. She treats the evidence broached in an unusual
and distorted way, all the while apparently satisfying herself that her interpretations
are quite plausible.
In this situation we find it very natural to express the view that Mrs. Jones is
self-deceived. The affective symptoms justify us in attributing to her the belief that
Johnny is a thief. Because she cannot stand that thought with its attendant psychic
discomfort, she is motivated to hide this information from herself and direct her
attention to the evidence in odd ways. She dissents from believing her son is dishonest.
She claims the school officials had a vendetta against Johnny and were framing the poor
boy. She leans on implausible interpretations of facts, ignores the best and most
obvious indicators, and brings herself to believe that she does not believe in Johnny's
dishonesty. (She is not the mother of a crook!) She fools herself about her awareness of
the truth. The symptoms of this false second-order belief are nearly identical with
believing that it is not the case that Johnny is a thief. She conceives of herself as
trusting this untrustworthy son, and while guarding herself against his
untrustworthiness she enthusiastically affirms her belief in him to others. She meets
all the criteria of self-deception as proposed above, and we are able to describe what
she is doing without resorting to paradox.
The analysis of self-deception offered here not only is adequate to account for
mundane and well-known cases of self-deception, but more importantly, it is adequate to
explain Paul's description in Romans 1 of men who know (believe) that God exists and yet
suppress that belief unrighteously. The analysis thus strengthens, defends and advances
the cause of Van Til's presuppositional apologetic.
All men know and hence believe that God exists. The revelational evidence is so plain
that nobody can avoid holding the conviction that God exists, even though they may never
explicitly assent to this belief. We are justified in ascribing such a belief to men on
the basis of their observed behavior in reasoning (e.g., relying on the uniformity of
nature), in morals (e.g., holding to ethical absolutes in some fashion), and in emotion
(e.g., fearing death). Nevertheless, all men are motivated in unrighteousness and by
fear of judgment to ignore, hide, and disavow any belief in the living and true God
(either through atheism or false religiosity). By misconstruing and rationalizing the
relevant, inescapable evidence around them ("suppressing it"), men bring
themselves to believe about themselves that they do not believe in God, even though that
second-order belief is false. Sinners can purposely engage in this kind of activity, for
they also deceive themselves about their motivation in handling the evidence as they do
and about their real intentions, which are not noble or rational at all. Thereby they
"go to sleep" (as it were), forgetting their God. Because the evidence is
clear, and because the suppression of the truth is intentional, we can properly conclude
that all men are "without excuse" and bear full responsibility for their sins
of mind, speech, and conduct.
Given the elaboration of self-deception offered here, we can better appreciate what
Paul says in Romans 1, namely, that "knowing God," all men "suppress the
truth in unrighteousness." And we can assert non-paradoxically that unbelievers
culpably deceive themselves about their Maker.