Buddhist Insight: Essays


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She is interested in Buddhist metaphysics and Buddhist ethics theory and application. Brought to you by Curio , an Aeon partner. Edited by Sam Dresser. Self-deception seems inescapably paradoxical.


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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.

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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.

Self-deception is so curious a thing that it is a source of intrigue in the arts and sciences alike. On the one hand, evidence suggests that specific instances of self-deception can enhance wellbeing and even prolong life. On the other hand, self-deception seems like the ultimate delusion. 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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Nourishing The Roots: Essays on Buddhist Ethics

S elf-deception belongs to a family of concepts involving psychological manipulation, such as wishful thinking, repression, denial and dissociation emotionally removing oneself from a traumatic experience to avoid confronting it. Skeptics about self-deception struggle with all these concepts because they normally think of the self as internally unified and self-aware, making concealment of unwelcome self-knowledge impossible.

However, this contradicts psychoanalytic theories on the conscious and unconscious mind. It also goes against experience. The fine line between ambition and self-deception is often manifest around New Year, when many of us are forced to concede that our goals have crumbled from the heady heights of self-improvement plans into delusional wishful thinking. If self-deception is paradoxical, the experience itself is even more perplexing. Unlike the immediacy of other experiences, how it feels to be self-deceived is knowable only retrospectively, after the spell has been broken.

Take Oedipus. Anxious that the prophecy of patricide and incest will be fulfilled, he leaves his home and family. Though he is genuinely shocked and sickened at the discovery of his true identity, there are indicators throughout the play to suggest his wilful ignorance. Given his fear of patricide, why does Oedipus continue blithely on his way after killing a man? Given his fear of committing incest, why does he marry a widow without first piecing the puzzle together?

Such neglect leads the audience to suspect that, somehow, Oedipus was dimly aware of his identity before its full disclosure, and that he either repressed this awareness or deceived himself to avoid the painful truth. Thankfully, for most of us, our small acts of repression, denial and self-deception are more mundane. It would be foolish to read self-deception into every omitted glass of wine or unrecorded biscuit — embarrassment and forgetfulness are equally plausible explanations. Even if self-deception is the root cause, this behaviour seems fairly harmless.

Devotional Buddhism and Insight Buddhism - Dharma Talk by Br Phap Dung, 2018 06 11

Strategies of postponement and misrepresentation allow us to conceal our true nature even from ourselves. Somewhere on the scale between extremely damaging and totally insignificant self-deception we find examples that resonate. Convincing ourselves of what is manifestly false or impossible is both existentially crippling and socially harmful. In Being and Nothingness , Jean-Paul Sartre invokes the concept of mauvaise foi, or bad faith, to explicate self-deception. He argues that many people are afraid to confront themselves, preferring to follow prescribed norms and fulfil pre-assigned roles rather than to strive for self-realisation.

These strategies of postponement and misrepresentation allow the person to conceal their true nature even from themselves. Sartre deplores this mode of life, for, while such strategies might serve as effective coping mechanisms in the short term, in the long run they are existentially paralysing. This kind of self-deception, the sort backed up by conformity to norms or stereotypes, is extremely difficult to detect.

And, naturally, the most pervasive forms of self-deceit are the hardest to root out. This is especially clear in cases of discrepancy between what a person professes, and how they feel or behave. Of course, the presence of a bias does not automatically imply self-deception.


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I t is a mistake to treat the philosophical and the practical aspects of the problem of self-deception as entirely distinct. For what use is an explanation of this phenomenon unaccompanied by a strategy for its alleviation? Prominent Western theories on self-deception tend to leave the practical problem unresolved. But there is an alternative, Buddhist approach. The artful combination of three Buddhist theories provides a philosophically therapeutic perspective on self-deception.

Skeptics about self-deception claim that any genuine examples would need to satisfy impossible conditions, such as the knowing-dupe or the contradictory belief conditions. Such skepticism represents the minority view, since so many examples of this supposedly impossible phenomenon are clear. Yet it remains a theoretical option. But if this is an argument against self-deception, it is time to revise our model of selfhood.

Indeed, far from precluding the possibility of self-deception, the multifaceted nature of consciousness might actually help to explain it. Western philosophy has produced several responses to the paradox of self-deception, the most recurrent of which are the temporal partitioning and the psychological partitioning approaches. Both challenge the still dominant conception of the self as completely internally unified and fully self-aware.

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They are designed to show that self-deception is paradoxical only if the Cartesian model of the self as a non-composite, immaterial substance — whose purity we imagine we partake of — is accepted. Without this idea of the self, self-deception is a puzzle, but it is not a paradox. Some leading philosophers in consciousness studies and the nature of mind reject the Cartesian concept of self. Aside from the lack of empirical evidence for such a self, it would surely be too abstract and impersonal to bear a connection with the individual of lived experience, who engages and interacts in the temporal world.

Buddhism and self-deception

But the influence of the Cartesian model has historically been so significant that it continues to shape the debate. Although both temporal partitioning and psychological partitioning proposals challenge this model of the self, they do not resolve the practical problem of eliminating self-deception. Advocates of temporal partitioning might invoke the appointment case to explain how self-deception works. This is supposed to show that self-deception does not require simultaneous belief in p and not-p.

Instead, all that is required is an intention to induce the belief not-p at the time of believing p. In this case, there is no time when Mary believes both that her appointment is on Thursday and that it is on Friday. Rather, she relies on her faulty memory so that, when she eventually consults her diary, she will have forgotten her act of deception. What matters though is that temporal partitioning challenges the idea that the act of deception and the experience of deceit must coincide.

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Deceiving oneself therefore largely resembles deceiving somebody else, and is just a more unusual case of lying. The obvious objection is that temporal partitioning seems not so much to explain self-deception as to explain it away. If we distinguish cases of self-deception from cases of self-induced deception , we might protest that the appointment case is an example only of the latter. And even if we are satisfied that temporal partitioning explains how self-deception occurs, it cannot tell us how to overcome it.

Another common explanation of self-deception appeals to psychological partitioning between the different facets of the self.

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On this view, self-deception does involve simultaneous assent to p and not-p but this is not paradoxical because of the multifaceted nature of the self. Rather than treat the self as fully integrated, we should see it as a process, the product of a complex structure composed of various elements. One part of the self can conceal its beliefs from another part, making self-deception possible. It is only in moments of introspection that the illusion of a unified self is cast into doubt. An advantage of this theory is that it accommodates different levels of self-awareness within one individual, explaining discrepancies between the conscious and unconscious mind.

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Buddhist Insight: Essays Buddhist Insight: Essays
Buddhist Insight: Essays Buddhist Insight: Essays
Buddhist Insight: Essays Buddhist Insight: Essays
Buddhist Insight: Essays Buddhist Insight: Essays
Buddhist Insight: Essays Buddhist Insight: Essays
Buddhist Insight: Essays Buddhist Insight: Essays
Buddhist Insight: Essays Buddhist Insight: Essays
Buddhist Insight: Essays Buddhist Insight: Essays
Buddhist Insight: Essays

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