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.