on self-deception.

If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.  –Bertrand Russell

I largely agree with the quote above, but I have to amend it a little.  Humans have an amazing ability to rationalize their prejudices and preferences, to the point where they will refuse to believe something despite a mountain of evidence, or fervently believe something not only in the complete absence of evidence, but in the presence of a mountain of contradictory evidence.  (That’s why so many religions make unquestioning faith the highest of virtues, especially when that faith contradicts “worldly” knowledge.  That’s how Tertullian could proudly proclaim “I believe because it is impossible.”)  To modify yet another famous quote, I’d say there are only two things that are infinite: the universe, and the human capacity for self-deception…and I’m not so sure about the former.

Case in point: the Casey Anthony case, and the brand new “Craigslist Killer” case.

Craigslist killer accused’s friends say police “have the wrong man”.

The friends and relatives of the man arrested in connection with a slaying and several robberies of women advertising services on Craigslist are in denial about the situation, because the admission that their friend/fiancee is a robber and murderer would upset some of their core beliefs about themselves: that they are good people, and that they are good enough judges of character to not hang out with (or be engaged to) bad people.  His fiancee sent an angry email to ABC News, insisting that the whole thing is just “cops trying to make money off accusing an innocent man.”

“Unfortunately you were given wrong information as was the public,” Megan McAllister wrote to ABC News in an e-mail. “All I have to say to you is Philip is a beautiful person inside and out and could not hurt a fly! A police officer in Boston (or many) is trying to make big bucks by selling this false story to the TV stations. What else is new?? Philip is an intelligent man who is just trying to live his life so if you could leave us alone we would greatly appreciate it. We expect to marry in August and share and wonderful, meaningful life together.”

In the Casey Anthony case, her parents still insist that she is innocent and a victim of malicious prosecution, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  When they were in court to respond to a civil lawsuit recently, they lashed out at the lawyers and reporters, claiming all these people had destroyed the Anthony family and ruined their lives.  When they left the deposition, Casey’s mother shouted, “You have to have faith!  If you don’t have faith, you don’t have hope!”

That, of course, cuts right to the heart of the matter.  When people are faced with accepting a reality that is just too fundamentally threatening to their most dearly held beliefs, they have a vested interest in denying that reality just for reasons of mental self-preservation.  They will deny the evidence for that reality, and latch on to anything that will enable them to continue their self-deception.  It’s a natural–and very effective–defense mechanism.  The alternative would be to admit that you are indeed capable of making friends with (or getting engaged to) a murderer…that your daughter did indeed kill your granddaughter…or that demographics and geography have far more to do with your chosen religious affiliation than its inherent truth does.

The trouble is that humans are wired for seeking out truth, and that even the most elaborate act of self-deception can’t ever suppress the knowledge that it is, indeed, self-deception.  That knowledge sits in some corner of the brain, and its presence causes discomfort through cognitive dissonance for as long as its bearer refuses to match their world view with the facts. 


28 thoughts on “on self-deception.

  1. pochp says:

    I believe that self-deception is the best sure way to self-damnation.

  2. Marko says:


    That doesn’t even make sense, pochp. Run that sentence by me again, and explain what you mean, because to me, it reads like you just wanted to work the word “damnation” into a clever-sounding statement.

  3. MarkHB says:

    Mmmph. Heck, even in the face of bloody obvious evidence, which one has accepted and agreed with as being Sensible Stuff, changing one’s patterns and habits can be a right bear. Witness if you will, this cigarette. I know it’s hurting me. I know in the long term it’s got a 1-in-16 chance of killing me. And yet, scratching that itch for a momentary shred of solace from the Jones that I light it anyway.

    Ah, well. At least I try to be honest with myself and others about when my behaviour’s completely irrational. The folk you’ve mentioned above, though, give themselves to their irrationality and insist that it’s fact. That’s a bit sad, really.

  4. Kristopher says:

    The sub-conscious mind does volition and memory.

    The conscious mind does external modeling and logic.

    Consciousness has veto power … but starts to lose it when the sub-conscious make the volitional request “make up a rational sounding excuse for me to do what I want”.

    Recognizing that as an excuse and not reality on the part of the conscious mind, and recognizing that instant gratification can cause self-harm on the part of the unconscious mind, is what we generally refer to as will power ( another word for having a bit of mental discipline ).

    A lot of folks don’t have a lot of willpower/self-discipline … and I can generally blame my own lack of that for most of the trouble I have gotten myself into in the past.

  5. Tiffani says:

    Also, using the examples you’ve used above, for people to accept the evidence presented and admit against their own deeply held beliefs that yes, this “good person” is violent, dangerous, murderous, etc., is to admit that they carry within themselves the seeds of violence and murder, and that just freaks people out. Somewhere inside our brains we are all liars, thieves, murderers, adulterers; once you accept this about yourself as a human animal, it’s easy to see the world and its troubles a bit more clearly.

  6. Michael says:

    One of Ayoob’s lectures presents the topic that sometimes a human being witnesses something so awful, so terrible, that their mind simply cannot cope with it so they “see white.” White fire, a white sheet, the brain simply says that’s all folks! Human beings are incredibly complex creatures.

  7. Divemedic says:

    Which in my mind explains religion. They try to rationalize and modify their religion to fit the facts. Take the “intelligent design” people: The evidence points strongly towards evolution, as evidenced by the mutation of microorganisms to create antibiotic resistant strains.

    The strict evolutionists continue to deny the theory, while the intelligent design believers have changed their theory to fit the facts, albeit with a little deism added for flavor.

    This follows the 5 steps:

    – Denial
    – Anger
    – Bargaining
    – Depression
    – Acceptance

  8. “…humans are wired for seeking out truth…”

    yes, and it’s an ongoing process; one that transcends those who would claim that all truth is already scientifically proved/disproved and intellectually “known”.

    cognitive dissonance? yes, as evidenced by the gambit of juxtaposing faith and religion with emotional “feelings” towards murderous monsters and miscreants. cloak it in evil and mock it with gratuitous derision, suppress it and deny it ’til the cows come home…

    but that nagging, lurking possibility in the most remote corner of the mind, that “this” is not all there is, is still there, waiting.


  9. Marko says:

    yes, and it’s an ongoing process; one that transcends those who would claim that all truth is already scientifically proved/disproved and intellectually “known”.

    Science doesn’t make that claim. There’s never an end to discovery. If there’s a side in this debate that already claims to have all the answers, it’s religion.

    jtc, I have a serious question for you, since you seem to think I’m “mocking and deriding” your faith.

    Do you extend the respect of religion to those who aren’t of your faith? Do you believe that a Muslim or a Hindu has just as much of a firm base for his morality, and just as much claim to a satisfactory explanation of the universe?

    Or do you really mean “my faith and religion”?

  10. if your “serious question” is, do i believe that a flock of virgins awaits me after i blow up some folks, or that food animals are sacred conduits, then the answer is “no”.

    but neither do i believe that rock and roll music is the devil’s tool, or that wearing short pants consigns me to hell.

    and when i bristle at that smirky derision, no i don’t mean my religion (partly because i’m not sure exactly what that is)…i mean yours.

    namely, the cocksure belief that belief in the supernatural origin of man and the possibility of the existence of a hereafter, are treated as a manifestation of ignorance and intolerance…which, ironically, is itself the very definition of the same.

    not to mention the element of “self-deception” that is so apparent in those protestations.


  11. Marko says:

    No, jtc. Intolerance is not a card I’ll let you play on this turf. You can’t claim a free pass for respect of your own beliefs, and then call me intolerant for voicing mine.

    Intolerance would be working to make sure you can’t exercise your faith, or speak your mind. I have no use for faith at all, but I’ve said in this spot many times before that I will defend and support your–and anybody else’s–right to worship and believe as your please, whether you believe in the divinity of bovines, the divinity of Jesus, or the existence of Xenu.

    And how is your dismissal of the validity of that flock of virgins or the sacredness of food animals any less cocksure than my dismissal of all theology? Have you studied and practiced all the world’s religions before you arrived at your own belief…or did you accept an approximation of the one in which you were steeped from birth by virtue of having been born in a largely Christian country? What makes you think you wouldn’t be a devout Muslim if you had been born in Iran, or a Hindu if you had been born in Mumbai? What basis other than convenience, habit, and emotional attachment do you have for dismissing Islam, Hinduism, or any of the other few thousand religions practiced on this planet?

    It seems that we’re both rationalists and atheists when it comes to most of the world’s religions…I just believe in one less god than you do. You use different yardsticks for different manifestations of faith, and I use the same for all.

  12. lenf says:

    “Knowledge is rooted in suffering. Ignorance is bliss.”

  13. pochp says:

    Marko- you assume too much. My statement was very simple and not ‘clever-sounding’.
    If you don’t get it, leave it.

  14. Teri Pittman says:

    Folks didn’t believe that Ted Bundy could kill anyone either. The fact is that serial killers tend to be very good at disguising their behavior, sometimes even fooling family members. It’s too early yet to know if this man is guilty, but there certainly is enough evidence to charge him, from what I’ve read.

  15. MarkHB says:


    Non-acceptance *is* intolerance in the eyes of religion. Remember, both Jahweh and Allah have nothing so hateful in their eyes as someone who *will not believe*. This is a core precept to both Muslim and xTian beliefs. The apostate – such as I – are intolerable, and our very existance is an insult.

    Well, sorry ’bout that. I plan to exist for a very long time, and their problem is not my problem. I merely exist – if that is an offence, then they’re welcome to try to do something about it, but don’t expect tea and cakes when you come to call.

  16. “No, jtc. Intolerance is not a card I’ll let you play on this turf.”

    sorry…i didn’t know the deck was stacked here. but intolerance is intolerance and i calls ’em as i sees ’em.

    but let me turn your question back to you:

    “Have you studied and practiced all the world’s religions before you arrived at your own (non) belief…or did you (reject) an approximation of the one in which you were steeped from birth…”

    if i am an accidental Christian, then you must be an accidental atheist…for context, what is the backstory of your religious upbringing which seems to have led to your vehement rejection?

    far from “protecting and defending” others’ beliefs, you actively belittle and berate them. and unless you have studied and practiced them all, what is the basis for that? how is that different from those who characterize believers in the second amendment as porch sittin’, bugger pickin’, bible thumpin’, cousin fuckin’ mouth breathers?

    the answer is, it’s not different at all. the existence or non of a supernatural plan for our existence and post-existence is neither proven nor disproven. and while this space is yours to make your own views known and censor as you please, the use of intolerance (and yes, that’s what it is) in the name of tolerance is wrong, hurtful, and divisive. i calls ’em like i sees ’em…i thought that’s what you wanted here.


  17. crankylitprof says:

    I have no use for faith at all

    I think what’s different here is that you have not (at least as far as I have seen) extended that, a la PZ Meyers, to “I have no use for anyone who has faith, either.

    I see it this way — and have stated it thus on my own blog more than once — I have more than enough to worry about in regards to my own faith and place in the hereafter than anyone else’s and I should tend to my own crap first. (See also: motes and beams; a concept a lot of my Catholic and Christian brethren forget conveniently.)

    It’s the essence of Libertarianism: a matter of respecting someone else’s right to be right or wrong, and being more concerned with taking care of your own issues before poking in to someone else’s.

    I also know that, if for some reason I left my kids in your care for a weekend, and asked you to please make sure they got to Mass, because it was important to us, that you or Robin would suck it up and take them, out of respect for me and my beliefs. Oh, you might spend the time rebutting (in your head) the readings and the homily, but you’d not lay in to the kids over it.

    Likewise, if the situation was reversed, I’d ask if you minded that your kids went to Mass with us (with the understanding that they wouldn’t have to participate, just come with). If you said it was a problem, then one of us would stay home with your kids and catch a Mass later.

    I can say that without reservation you, and for Angry Prof, and for a lot of my secular or Atheist friends. Sadly, I can;’t say the same for some of my Evangelical or Baptist friends.

  18. Marko says:


    I’d not only gladly take your kids to Mass, I’d also gladly let my kids come to Mass with you. And if my kids had questions about the whole process or the concepts presented, I wouldn’t mind at all if you answered their questions from the position of the believer without holding back or self-censoring.

    I will let my kids read the Bible, and any other holy text they want to read. I have no issue with them going to any church service they care to observe, regardless of the faith. That’s part of educating them–putting all the choices before them, and letting them make up their own minds on the matter. I’ll always argue the rational and secular side of the argument, and I’ll teach them how to properly employ logic and reason, but I’d not freak out if they started going to Catholic Mass, or the synagogue, or the mosque.

    If, after all the input I can provide, and all the answers I can give, Quinn comes to me when he’s eighteen and says he wants to become a Catholic pastor, Baptist minister, Muslim imam, or Jewish rabbi, I’d wish him well and help him to achieve his goal to the best of my abilities. That’s because he’s the only one who can be the master of his own mind and conscience.

    Do I think Carl Sagan or Albert Einstein did more to advance and dignify humanity than Billy Graham or any hundred popes that ever lived? Yes.

    Would I rather see my kids turn out to be the next Carl Sagan or Albert Einstein than the next Billy Graham or John XXIII? Yes.

    Do I have the right to deny my kid the opportunity and information he requires to become the next Billy Graham or John XXIII? Absolutely not.

    That’s because they have the right to their own minds, and the right to determine their own paths. If I truly believe that I have truth on my side, and if I truly believe in the superiority of reason and logic over faith, I need not fear exposing my kids to other viewpoints.

    I’ll tell you this, cranky: if more believers had your outlook on the subject, I’ll hardly ever have a beef with religion. I’d have a much more favorable opinion of Christianity in particular if more of its adherents actually tried to live up to the standards they profess as their core beliefs.


    find me a single comment, from you or anyone else, that I have altered or deleted. (Never mind that I can’t “censor” you, because I’m not the government.)

    the existence or non of a supernatural plan for our existence and post-existence is neither proven nor disproven.

    That’s why I consider it reasonable to not believe in any such thing until I have evidence for it. That’s how I can dismiss all religions out of hand–because they all build on the supposed existence of the “supernatural” in the absence of such evidence. You can’t even define terms like “supernatural”, “God”, or “afterlife”…why should I put my stock in any belief system that has those null words as a foundation?

  19. Dr. Feelgood says:

    In other words, people are still people. It’s not blind devotion that brings this self-deception out, it’s simple emotion. Dearly held beliefs are part of “identity,” and threats to those beliefs are rightly viewed with suspicion because they have painful consequences. But letting your mind be governed by your emotions is not the purview of religion, which aims to establish a standard of understanding quite apart from emotion (intuition, suspicion, whathaveyou). Self-deception is not the enemy of secularists alone. Indeed the struggle to overcome emotional “thinking” is the strongest point in common between secularists and religionists. We each seek Truth, we just differ on whose authority is supreme. Self-deception is the consequence of rampant individual subjectivity. Competing systems of understanding (“religions” if you will), however, argue from incompatible objectivities.

    It’s unfortunate that all debate on religion (or among religions) devolves into a race to establish the opposing side as subjective and therefore invalid. This is understandable, though, given that certain self-proclaimed true believers from all walks are equally self-deluded.

  20. MarkHB says:

    …or indeed that there is any such thing as a “supreme authority”, Dr. Feelgood. The only thing we can prove exists in the observable universe is dumb matter, and us lot. By proof I mean absolute proof, not lawyer-proof argued subjectively and taking a load of stuff (unavoidably) On Faith.

    The agnostic (such as I) doesn’t flatly deny the existance of your god, anyone’s god, a whole pantheon or nothin’ but hydrogen and unused real-estate. “Damfino, but damned if I think you do either” if I’m being militant about it – but if a person’s faith gives them happiness, it’s no skin off my nose. My own problems with religion stem from unwelcome interference, or pratting around in the affairs of government. When, that is, the Authority which I don’t recognise, didn’t vote for and does nothing for me affects me.

    A simple case of “You can’t help me, so please leave me alone”, if you will.

    As an honest agnostic, the moment I can detect one particle of Divinity, a gram of Holiness or whatever, then I’ll man up and say “Hey, there is a Gh0d after all!” I’ll probably still think he’s a bit of a dick, but that’s my own moral framework talking.

  21. what basis is there for your position that censorship being uniquely governmental? i quoted your statement that i could not turn your own accusation of intolerance back to you. yes, this is one of the most open forums i’ve seen for the exchange of ideas…that’s why i’m here. and maybe you made that statement in a more conversational than specific context.

    in fact, if your original post had been more in line with your last response to cranky, this whole exchange would have been different. but it wasn’t…the post intentionally an specifically compared faith in a deity to misguided belief in the innocence and purity of human evil.

    the point was also made (and inspired the post title) that hidden and repressed in the dark nethers of the brain is the knowledge that there is no deity…and i turned that back to you as well, inferring that that repressed knowledge is exactly the opposite.

    taking your most recent comment, and the perfect position of cranky as a more true indication of your thoughts and position, i am satisfied that your original intent was not the insulting taunt that i took it to be.


  22. Dr. Feelgood says:

    Yeah, MarkHB, I know. I could’ve written your response before you did (because it’s reasonable). In fact I had cooked up a whole other comment about the nature of humanist secularism and why it, too, is a religious system of understanding. It wasn’t totally salient to the original post, so I discarded it. My point still stands: what you accept as knowledge derives from faith in some supreme authority be it god, God, Vishnu, your own senses, your feelings, or the rules of logic. If that knowledge has an objective source then we can discuss our differences. When “knowledge” is rooted in feelings, well, we all have argued with those folks. It’s more productive to bang your head against a brick wall. You simply can’t reason with them.

    BTW, this is not to decry emotion, per se. I prefer reasoned discourse with folks who are passionate about their beliefs, especially when we differ. I will refuse to accept any line of reasoning that begins with, “I feel…” or “I just know…” I’m not interested in your intuition; I want to know what you think and why. Go ahead and persuade me, but do it the right way.

  23. MarkHB says:

    Dr. Feelgood,

    I will have to feel on this one, but I believe the Universe Itself asks nothing of us. It is utterly indifferent to our presence, because it is not capable of differing to it. It is insensate. It doesn’t care what happens to us, because it cannot care. It is dead. Unalive. Merely the functioning of the innate characteristics of energy and matter.

    Science exists to try to unravel these characteristics, and it tries to do so for our benefit, because we are the only ones to enjoy that benefit.

    The Universe is not cold and uncaring, any more than a brick is. It’s not harsh and judgemental, any more than a plank is. It just is. The only emotive or reasoning frameworks in it are those we impose upon it by the functioning of our minds and glands.

    On the bright side, think how terrible it would be if the bad things that happenned to us did so because we actually deserved it.

  24. “think how terrible it would be if the bad things that happenned to us did so because we actually deserved it.”

    terrible? that would be frickin’ awesome!

    and conversely, that good things happened to those who deserved it? even better!

    sometimes i wish “the functioning of the innate characteristics of energy and matter” that is us
    did not include the function of self-determination…the instinctual characteristics of the energy and matter the Creator used for his other critters would be so much simpler, and often so much more just.


  25. Dr. Feelgood says:

    Well, MarkHB, I can’t respond to that in any meaningful way. Once you qualify a statement with, “I feel…” then it’s merely an opinion–a matter of taste no more objectionable than saying “I like brocolli,” and it would be foolish to belabor the point with argument; although I would challenge you to ask yourself why you feel that way.

    I would like to address your comment on science, however, since it touches my earlier point. Science doesn’t merely exist, we created it. It is a specifically designed system of understanding with rules for acquiring knowledge. It operates (in principle) only on empirical observation to gain knowledge about how things work. When the rules of the system are followed to the letter you’ll find that only the most fervently deluded religionists are unwilling to accept it (think Gallileo and the Roman church). The rest of us are happy to appropriate new knowledge.

  26. MarkHB says:

    Dr. Feelgood – I know that a meaningful response to an emotive point is impossible. I can’t prove that the Universe asks nothing of us, which is why I self-describe as an agnostic, not an atheist. So feel free to take that part of my last post merely as the sprig of parsely atop my factual statements 😉 I feel that way, though, as the evidence I see leads me to think there is only dumb matter out there, or possible matter too smart to visit here yet. It’s a feeling, not a fact, because the data I have available is minute compared to the scale of the Universe.

    And yes, science is a created thing, you’re absolutely right about that. It’s humanity’s attempt to understand how things work. The province of why they work is the purview of religions – or the absense of them.

    With regards to the “most fervently deluded” religionists, I have to put capital-C Creationists in there, who insist that the world is 6,000 years old and that evolution is a load of bunk. I wouldn’t have a problem with it if they didn’t keep trying to legally ram it into the curriculum.

  27. Dr. Feelgood says:

    I am one of those Creationists 🙂 I can support my position with sound reasoning and geological evidence, but fundamentally I choose to believe it because Jesus rose from the dead and He said it was so. That’s supreme authority I can take all the way to the eternal bank. It’s also a rational conclusion justified by evidence for the Resurrection (and the stark absence of any evidence against). I’m aware of the compromises made by professing believers in the vain effort to reconcile naturalism with theism. None of them really carry any water, since they perform an inordinate (irrational, really) series of linguistic gymnastics with the source texts. By the time they’re done twisting the Bible it’s hardly worth having a Bible at all. Color me skeptical…

    I don’t want it taught in schools, though. Just what we need, some antagonistic teacher forced to teach Creationism or, worse, ID (which is also bunk, although information theory has some interesting aspects). I would, however, like for Evolution to be consigned to the domain of philosophy, where it rightly belongs. It is not a science, even if it has quasi-scientific underpinnings. Natural selection does not equal Evolution, which is a philosophical extrapolation (based on assumptions about the unobserved past) from the hard science of genetics. See Michael Ruse’s excellent book [i]The Evolution-Creation Struggle[/i]. Ruse is hardly a friend of Creationists.

  28. Balog says:

    I do wonder if the author includes himself in his own statements? Or does he merely mean “everyone (else) just kinda believes what they’re brought up in, and only me and guys who believe as I do have reason and logic on our side.”

    No one is being intolerant here, unless you use the liberal definition of “tolerance” as acceptance and admitting equal validity.

    Also, there’s a great deal of begging the question going on in this discussion.

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