Truth, Lies and Self-Deception

Is self-deception real? If so, who is deceiving?

It pleases the editors of the OED to release, at increasingly frequent intervals, lists of words newly added to the dictionary. They mostly divide between those you would expect to find there already, such as ‘Armagnac’, ‘anxiolytic’, ‘char sui’, and those no-one would care to look up anyway, such as ‘vlogger’, ‘VJing’, and ‘side dressing’, for they rain upon us daily from the all-enveloping digital sky. In any event, if language were a tree then this would be minor trimming and grafting around the terminal shoots, noticeable only by the obsessive, the tree-for-the-wooded. The main branches never change; they merely lignify into greater inflexibility.

Perhaps, as with trees, this is necessary to keep the structure erect. But there are cardinal aspects of language that I cannot be alone in wishing we could change, and of those perhaps the most important is the language of assertion and denial. The two principal words we have here – true and false – leave out the case that can be neither, for the question of whether it is true or false simply makes no sense.

Of course, we already have a word for this – nonsense – but it has needlessly, unhelpfully pejorative connotations. First, it implies stupidity, whereas there are kinds of nonsense only the very clever can comprehend and produce. Worse, it implies futility, whereas clever nonsense may be invaluable. Much of continental philosophy, for example, is perfectly frozen flirtation, to be conveniently defrosted in the casual seduction of humanities graduates, for whom the dark glamour of suggestive opacity is a potent aphrodisiac. Indeed, to make anything out of less than nothing is a stunning achievement, a kind of intellectual perpetual machine, only within the reach of those touched by godhead. Žižek (say) deserves all the followers he has so precociously acquired.

But even the most relaxed amongst us occasionally need to view the world other than as a playground, beyond entertainment, as a realm where the consequences of our actions matter enough for us to be tediously, fastidiously, unsexily forensic in our attention not only to truth but also to the sense on which all claims to truth are premised. Medicine is one such realm, and those of us who are its agents are bound to the uncouth sobriety that attitude demands. Though seemingly dominated by conceptually uncontroversial fact, little of the theoretical framework on which biology rests is structurally robust, and so conceptual errors undermine the edifice at least as much as any factual voids and defects. 


"That we are all masters of the psychological vocabulary blinds us to the opacity of the rules that govern its use." 

Nowhere is this more striking than in psychology, where the conceptual architecture is all the more challenging for seeming, superficially, so simple. That we are all masters of the psychological vocabulary blinds us to the opacity of the rules that govern its use. Psychologists are no less vulnerable to this, especially those in whom the scientific impulse is too strong to be able to resist trying to impose an order where chaos is not to be dethroned. Nor are philosophers of psychology immune: indeed, many of those who identify the disease are potent vectors of it themselves. A great deal of empirical endeavour is as a result here premised on conceptual positions that cannot support it, not because they lack substantiation, but because they are, well, “asense”, “missense”, and perhaps “perisense”, if nonsense is too uncomfortable a word.

Now especially mis-sensical in the domain of psychology are terms of reflexivity: psychological descriptors that make explicit reference to a subject’s point of view. Here the model of a physical object and its percept that correctly describes the real relation between an object in the world and our experience of it is incorrectly applied to the “virtual” relation between a conceived “mental object” and its experience. This illicit move is eased by the marginal case of percepts grounded not in the outside word but within our own bodies, such as, for example, visceral sensations. The object here is, of course, no less real and physical for being inside one’s body, but since it is obscured from the view of others and known only from its percept, it tends falsely to legitimize the presumption of an independent object of any experience, even where there is none.  

“Self-x” constructions, then, such as self-belief, self-consciousness, self-respect, are taken to imply an x cleanly dissociable from the “self” attached to it. The meaning of self-consciousness, for example, is extended beyond giving (undue) attention to one’s perspective, to being aware of being conscious. Acquiring self-belief becomes not merely developing confidence, transitively related to a specific ability, but a process of discovering belief in oneself, within oneself. And so on.

The notion of self-deception is illicitly extended in the same way.  We casually speak of deceiving ourselves when we overestimate our powers, wilfully close our eyes to our real motives, choose to think about ourselves differently from the way we are. But there is not a “self” here that has been deceived: there cannot be, for deception implies a disparity in belief between a deceived and a deceiver. If the “self” is both, it cannot hold both beliefs. One can be mistaken about oneself, but then the correct term is delusion, not deception, for insight is lacking, by definition. The notion of self-deception, taken as anything more than a façon de parler, is incoherent, it simply makes no sense when closely examined, like the idea of a barber who shaves all those, and those only, who do not shave themselves.


"When we see our interventions fail, it may be because we have the fundamental explanatory framework wrong."


Why should the words matter, you might ask, as long as we use them correctly? The problem is we do not take the meaning at face value, but try to look behind it, and are then misled. Take numerically the most significant of the remediable health problems in the western world: addiction to food. Across the political and medical spectrum, addiction is widely seen as a dysfunctional relationship between the “self” and the object of addiction. The addict is conceived to be self-deceived: about the real value of the object, and about his capacity to resist it. Proposed therapies are then naturally focused on “educating” or “assisting” the “self”, so that it might see the object of its addiction – and its attitude towards it – in the right light. It is if there were two sharply distinct, independently knowable, variables here – the self and the object of addiction – or rather a constant and a variable, the self being at some basal level monolithic and inviolable.  

But, of course, it need not be so: this model may simply be an artefact of our logical grammar. It may well be that what we tend to refer to as the “self” is radically transformed in the context of the addictive substance, whereas the object of addiction remains the same. All we can know is the product of these two variables, for there is no reference frame within which they can be independently located. The conceptual structure gives us no bedrock to rest on; there is no core, more or less stable, “self” around which all else can be anchored: everything is fluid here, conceptually, and cannot be made firmer without being artificially, falsely frozen.

So when we see our interventions in the management of (say) obesity fail, it may be because we have the fundamental explanatory framework wrong. If a – largely cognitive – “self” is not confidently to be relied upon, interventions might instead target a different, less “cerebral” psychological channel. If addiction is no longer intelligibly a failure of willpower – for the normal model of goal-directed agency no longer obtains – neither moral condemnation nor sympathetic encouragement are likely to be effective vectors of change. If addiction is allowed to be more about the addict’s “self” than about the experience that has seemingly captured it, then our concern might shift away from limiting exposure to substances and towards altering how we deal with them. In short, a few conceptual moves here may open therapeutic territories previously hard to navigate, both politically and scientifically.

Biology favours the direction of travel I suggest here: it may be considered odd I did not begin with that first. But we should remember the empirical always comes after the conceptual, not because it is less interesting or important, but because like flesh without bones it has no form without it. It is high time we paid at least as much attention to sense as to fact, for if we are to shape the world as we want it, neither can be neglected.   

Read more like this on IAI News...
- Mark Salter, Psychiatry After Postmodernism
- Joanna Kavenna, The Word and the World
- Andrew Bowie, Art, Philosophy, and Truth

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