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

August 13, 2009
Posted by Joe Gorra

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.