Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Interview with Gregg Ten Elsoff: I Told Me So (part two)

We continue with the final part of our interview with Gregg Ten Elshof, author of I Told Me So: Self-deception and the Christian life (Eerdmans, 2009).


Can self-deception ever be a tool used for our good?

Yes. In the book I argue that both (i) the mechanisms that make self-deception a possibility for us and (ii) self-deception itself have legitimate ends. God gave us the amazing capacity to deviate in inquiry from the general practice of pursuing belief in accordance with evidence. I think he did this for a reason. For the most part, believing what is true and what is in accordance with one’s evidence is a very good idea. But in special cases, believing can serve ends that outweigh truth and (epistemic) rationality. Think, for example, about the terminal cancer patient who believes (despite evidence easily available to her) that she will overcome her condition or the drug addict who believes (despite overwhelming inductive support to the contrary) that this time he will quit. The cancer patient actually has a slightly less radically improbable chance of overcoming her condition if she believes she will. The addict’s recovery is less improbable if he believes he’ll recover. Love, loyalty and friendship may sometimes require belief out of step with the evidence in the good of the beloved. And God has graciously allowed me to keep at the edges of consciousness (and beyond) several truths that would almost certainly undo me were they faced squarely (e.g., the gravity of my own sin and the overwhelming glory of his own being).

How do we often incorrectly deal with self-deception? How would you counsel Christian leaders about how to lead others in a life that is not burdened by self-deception?

We most often deal incorrectly with self-deception, I think, by ignoring it. We typically don’t ignore it altogether, of course, since we’re quick to recognize it in others. But we’re slow to take seriously the idea that we, ourselves, are significantly taken in. One is reminded of Bishop Butler’s haunting suggestion that “those who have never had any suspicion of, who have never made allowances for this weakness in themselves, who have never (if I may be allowed such a manner of speaking) caught themselves in it, may almost take it for granted that they have been very much misled by it.”

To face it squarely, we must first recognize its place in the Christian life. It is not chief among the vices. It is a God-given capacity with a narrow range of legitimate application. We get into trouble with this capacity (like any other God-given capacity) when it is misappropriated. Three strategies for avoiding the misappropriation of self-deception are (i) to die to the sinful tendencies that give rise to the need for hypocrisy, (ii) to seek membership in communities and groups where it is safe to disagree and (iii) to seek the community of the Holy Spirit who knows us better than we can know ourselves and who knows when we can and cannot handle a particular truth.

Are there particular social environments where self-deception can live rather well? If so, how and why?

If the inside of a group is defined according to whether or not folks believe this or that and if the stakes are very high for being on the inside of the group, the conditions are prime for self-deception. This has obvious implications for Christian belief and for creedal Christianity in particular. This is not to say that such groups are inappropriate. I am a member of various groups of just this sort. But, as members of such groups, we should have our eyes open to the fact that we are subject to the kinds of pressures that make self-deception likely.

Are there relevant factors at the level of a person's "world view" that are more conducive to self-deception? If so, how and why?

Yes. Here’s just one example: Very often people simply don’t know what to do with disagreement. Often they implicitly assume that when equally well-informed, equally intelligent, and equally sincere inquirers disagree, it must be that the subject is not one about which knowledge is available. Now Christians are slow (or should be slow anyway) to give up on the idea that they know the great truths of the gospel. But they’re not so blind as to miss the fact that people disagree with them. So what are they apt to conclude? That those who disagree with them are either uninformed, stupid, or insincere. While few would put it quite so baldly, many Christians interact with those on the other side (or with other Christians who disagree with them on some matter of theology for that matter) with a disdain or condescension that suggests exactly that – my opposition is either unintelligent, uninformed, or unwilling to take an honest look at the evidence. But if we think of our opposition that way, we’ll blind ourselves to whatever genuine insight they might have to offer. What is needed and often lacking is a category in one’s world view which allows one to assess another person in the following way: I know that p. She thinks that not-p. We disagree. Nevertheless, she’s as smart as I am, is in possession of all of the evidence I possess and is equally committed to an honest inquiry toward the end of discovering the truth on this matter.

How can philosophers and theologians further contribute to this discussion?

We need to think together more carefully about the implications of disagreement between thoughtful parties to a discussion. It's easy to demonstrate that it doesn't follow from disagreement that there's no objective truth of the matter or that nobody can know the truth. But what exactly SHOULD we infer from the fact that thoughtful, intelligent and sincere people disagree about something? What does it say about the human condition that such disagreement is possible? What does it say about God that he sustains in existence the conditions that make such disagreements possible?


More about Gregg Ten Elshof's work can be found at his faculty web page.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Interview with Gregg Ten Elshof: I Told Me So (part one)

We are pleased to have interviewed Gregg Ten Elshof about his latest book, I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2009). Gregg is a professor of philosophy and the department chairperson of the undergraduate philosophy program at Biola University. He has also been a contributor to Philosophia Christi. Below is part one of a two part interview with Gregg.


How did this book come about for you?

I first took up an interest in self-deception as a graduate student at USC in the 90’s. I was just beginning to modify my approach to the Way of Jesus in response to the reading I had been doing about spiritual formation (from Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, etc.). I began to suspect that I had fallen prey to self-deception in significant ways and that my Christian brothers and sisters had too. But I found precious little in the contemporary literature on the Christian life that focused on self-deception. I devoted my doctoral research to defending a model of self-knowledge which made sense of self-deception with an eye toward writing this book at some point. In the ten years or so since, I’ve been reading and teaching courses about self-knowledge and self-deception. Finally, last year, I felt like I had enough to say to warrant the writing of a book.

What is your model of self-knowledge that makes sense of self-deception?

I've defended a traditional account of self-knowledge according to which the most direct way of knowing about yourself parallels the most direct way of knowing about anything else -- observation. Put differently, I've defended an observational account of introspection. I think an observation model makes the most sense of our experience of ourselves. So it's defensible for its own sake. But it also makes clear sense of self-deception. Just as there are recognizable conditions that make for illusion in sense-perception (speed, lack of light, object too small, object too big, object under water, etc.), one can expect there to be recognizable conditions that make for illusion in introspection or inner-perception.

How does your book contribute to our knowledge of Christian experience?

Most Christians who are interested in spiritual formation suspect (as I did) that self-deception is alive and well in their own experience and in the experiences of those around them. Most pastors are aware that self-deception is occurring to one degree or another in their congregations. Psychologists who focus on this sort of thing have explored the various forms that self-deception can take and the conditions under which it reliably occurs. I Told Me So is the only contemporary book I know about, though, that explores the various manifestations of self-deception in Christian sub-cultures in particular and provides explicitly Christian wisdom about what to do with and about it.


Why do you think there has been a lack of responsible attention to the issue of self-deception?

The first chapter of the book is given over to this question. Part of the answer, I think, has to do with the fact that authenticity has been given a very large promotion in the ordering of the virtues over the past 100 years or so. Interestingly, for college-aged students, the most significant qualification for a leadership position is authenticity. Older generations, by comparison, rank competency much higher on the list of qualifications. In our culture, it has become all-important to be authentic. Interestingly, self-deception often occurs when there is some painful truth about yourself that you’re not willing to face squarely. Well, if authenticity is all-important, then self-deception is chief among the vices. The rise in significance of authenticity means that the admission of self-deception in oneself is more damning and painful. So the motivation to avoid that admission is stronger. I think we have collectively avoided the topic of self-deception because, as we heap increasing praise on authenticity, it is an increasingly painful thing to recognize in ourselves.

So what is self-deception? How does it come about?

As you might expect, philosophers argue about what exactly self-deception is. Its label practically screams paradox and invites philosophical reflection about how best to characterize what it is that that we’re talking about. I doubt that there is a single set of necessary and sufficient conditions that captures all of the phenomena we’re likely to label “self-deception.” I Told Me So interacts with cases of self-deception, though, that can be characterized this way: To be self-deceived is to intentionally manage one’s own beliefs for some purpose other than the pursuit of truth. It’s worth noting that, given this characterization, one can be self-deceived in believing what is true. One can even be self-deceived in believing something that is true and for which one has evidence. Self-deception occurs most often when there is an emotional attachment to believing in a particular direction. It often involves the management of attention away from evidence that would disrupt the desired belief. And it seems to be capable of achieving greater distances from truth and rationality in groups than in the individual. It was Nietzsche, I believe, who said that insanity is rare in the individual but the rule in groups.

How must the self be understood if self-deception is to be rightly understood?

Well, the kind of transparency that characterizes the Moderns (Descartes, Locke, etc.) is out. There’s a whole lot going on in my mind that is not available by means of direct and simple introspection. On the other hand, I don’t think a proper understanding of self-deception requires anything like the Freudian unconscious censor. In the book, I try to steer clear of both of these models. What we need, I think, is a view of the mind and of intention which accommodates the suggestion that things can be closer or further away from the center of attention and consciousness. At any given time in my experience my direct focus is on a very limited number of things. Beyond that, though, there is a horizon of conscious experience which fades gradually into objects which lie beyond the scope of my awareness. Self-deception most often occurs, I think, on the peripheral edges of consciousness – not in the center of my focused attention but also not in an unconscious self that is, in principle, off limits to examination.


Next week we continue with part two of our interview with Gregg Ten Elshof.

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