Buddhism and Self-Deception

January 25, 2019

How can I logically manage to deceive myself? Buddhist thought offers a way out of the philosophical paradox.

Self-deception seems inescapably paradoxical. For the self to be both the subject and the object of deceit, one and the same individual must devise the deceptive strategy by which they are hoodwinked. This seems impossible. For a trick to work effectively as a trick, one cannot know how it works. Equally, it is hard to see how someone can believe and disbelieve the same proposition. Holding p and not-p together is, straightforwardly, to contradict oneself.

Despite its seemingly paradoxical qualities, many people claim to know first-hand what it is to be self-deceived. In fact, philosophers joke that only prolific self-deceivers would deny that they experience it. Nevertheless, there are skeptics who argue that self-deception is a conceptual impossibility so there can be no genuine cases, just as there can be no square-circles.

Yet self-deception seems undeniable in spite of its alleged incoherence. For the fact is, we are not always entirely rational. Certain situations, such as falling in love or being in the frenzied grips of grief, heighten susceptibility to self-deception. Betrayed lovers everywhere, anxious to discard the damning evidence of infidelity, know precisely Shakespeare’s meaning at sonnet 138:

When my love swears that she is made of truth, 

I do believe her, though I know she lies

Self-deception is so curious a thing that it is a source of intrigue in the arts and sciences alike. Biologists such as Robert Trivers, for example, have begun to investigate self-deception’s evolutionary origins, probing its function and potential value.

On the one hand, evidence suggests that specific instances of self-deception can enhance wellbeing and even prolong life. For example, multiple studies have found that optimistic individuals have better survival rates when diagnosed with cancer and other chronic illnesses, whereas ‘realistic acceptance’ of one’s prognosis has been linked to decreased life expectancy. On the other hand, self-deception seems like the ultimate delusion. Simultaneous belief and disbelief in a proposition is surely symptomatic of irrationality, placing one’s mental health and capacity for reason in jeopardy.

Existing debates face the challenge of connecting the philosophical and the practical aspects of the problem. Either self-deception is ruled out as incoherent, or it is accepted as a brute fact. If the former, the skeptic must justify the countless cases where it appears to occur. If the latter, some serious revisions to our conception of self are required.

Ideally, we should seek a single solution to both dimensions of the problem so that our explanation of self-deception also points the way to its prevention. For, while deceiving ourselves might occasionally seem to our advantage, in the long term it is self-alienating. And as we shall see, Buddhist approaches to self-deception achieve the synthesis of practical and philosophical resolutions more fully than do the dominant Western theories.

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