Self-Deception and Self-Construction

A few years back, I had the opportunity to help organize a conference on self-deception with Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson at Mercatus. I’m now at a Liberty Fund conference in St. Louis on “Liberty, Responsibility, and Lying.” All our readings have been about prohibitions and justifications for lies, deception, etc. The idea that self-deception can drive other-deception has come up a number of times, and this brought me back to the self-deception conference, and some thoughts I’ve subsequently had about it.

Tyler & Robin have a paper that says, very roughly, if we were rational, then we would be Bayesian updaters. If we were Bayesians, every conversation with someone who disagrees with us about some proposition, but who has access to equally good information, and is able to process information at least us well as us, and who is therefore at least as likely as us to be right, ought to lead us to revise downward the probability of truth we assign to the proposition in question. In which case, we would end up changing our minds a lot. (If Tyler or Robin, say, who are each way smarter than I am, and have each forgotten more about economics than I have ever learned, disagrees with me about a proposition in economics, I certainly ought to take that as evidence that I am wrong.) But we don’t really change our minds that much. Instead, we’re fairly instransigent. And sometimes we even revise our probabilities upwards in the face of contrary evidence. So, they argue, we must be pretty self-deceived about the relationship between our beliefs and the truth.

I’ve long been intrigued by this argument. And I’ve actually taken it to heart, to some extent. I’m convinced that I do overestimate the probability that my beliefs are true, and I’m convinced that I ought to take other people’s comparative epistemic advantage more seriously than I am inclined to. (And you too.) And I think this has made me a marginally better person. But I’m not convinced that our failure to be good Bayesians implies self-deception so much as self-construction.

In The Mind’s Past, Michael Gazzaniga argues forcefully that the function of part of the mind/brain (he calls that part the “interpreter”) is simply to make stuff up, to confabulate, in order to create narrative coherence in the stream of consciousness. There is a sense in which the self just is the narrative. But the narrative is constructed in part by confabulation on the part of the interpreter. There is a temptation, but I think it would be a category error, to say that the self is a “fiction.” Compared to what? A really real self? The point is that there is no such thing. No. Rather, the point is that the really real self, the only kind of self there is, is a narrative construction that is built by the mind/brain with little concern for veridical representation. The truth about us is that we, our selves, are streams of truth mixed with untruth. And that is just the way it is.

Now, this is narrative coherence at a very basic experiential level. I think we need it at higher levels, too. Agency requires it. If we’re going to be active units that can choose ends, make plans, enact those plans, and coordinate with others in a way that benefits us, we need a relatively stable self-conception. If our plans, say, are a partial function of our beliefs, but we are willing to change our beliefs every time we confront somebody who knows more than us, then we will keep changing plans. But if we keep changing plans, we will never enact one. But we need to enact plans or we will cease to exist as active units. And, coordination . . . if I come home on Tuesday and announce to my wife that I am now a Democrat, and then come home on Wednesday and announce I am now a Seventh Day Adventist, and then come home on Thursday that I am now an ethical vegetarian and cannot eat the meatloaf, well, my wife isn’t going to be my wife for long. If we were good Bayesians, we would be schizophrenic, we would disintegrate, the self would dissolve. Maybe you reach Nirvana when you destroy the self and become a true Bayesian. But you are not self-deceived in virtue of having a self.

We often associate integrity with being true to ourselves. But when ourselves are, in some sense, false, integrity is. . . what? Integrity, self-coherence, requires . . . falsehood. To be true to the self is to endorse the fabric of truth embroidered with untruth that is the self.

We all self-mythologize and confabulate to varying degrees. People with delusions of grandeur and convictions of surpassing personal exceptionalism may be annoying to the extreme. But there is no escape from some self-constituting delusion. (In my experience, some of the people with the grandest delusions are those living out a narrative of unflinching commitment to authenticity and truth. ) If selves are constructed in part by untruth, it raises vexing questions about our duties to the people we love. (And to ourselves, if we love ourselves.)

When are we required by love or the obligations of friendship to puncture their illusions and press them to center their selves more firmly in truth or more forgiveable fantasy? When we are openly disturbed by their illusions, can we be sure our complaints amount to more than a request that they exchange theirs for ours? When are we required to pass over benign self-constituting myths in silence? Are we required to reinforce and positively encourage them when self-constituting myths are a source of what we admire and love, even if we do not ourselves believe them? Are we required to amend our narratives so that we come to believe them, the better to reinforce and support the best in those we love?

I suspect that the answer to the last two questions is “yes.” And that makes me exceedingly uncomfortable. Because I like to think I have an unflinching commitment to authenticity and truth. But the present deliberation is in part a process of reconsidering the meaning of authenticity and the meaning of truth with regard to the self. So what is it exactly I am committed to? The standards have readjusted. Though a distinction between good self-constitution and bad self-constitution remains, I am wary of allowing too much and acquiescing to what is self-indulgent, rotten, and ignoble. So, we must go forward with wariness, and, let’s hope, good faith.