You will remember that the word English is autological because it describes itself; it refers to a language and it is a word in that language. Spanish is heterological because it does not refer to itself. ‘Word’ is autological, but not ‘verb.’ This is known as the Grelling-Nelson paradox which was formulated in 1908. A question I want to address is whether ‘self-deception’ is in a sense autological , even if that sense is a rather special one. I want to argue that the problem or problems with self-deception are based in language and not in the philosophy of mind, intention or consciousness.
In other words, self-deception is one of those philosophical problems we are “bewitched …. by means of our language,” Wittgenstein, Investigations §109. maybe not so much bewitched but certainly confused. However, I want to first give a very quick intro to the problem of self-deception (Self-Deception; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Traditionally, self-deception was considered to be that the self-deceiver believes that P while knowing or believing that –P. Hence self-deceivers must hold contradictory beliefs and intentionally get themselves to hold such beliefs. This, of course, is based on the way we interpret deception of others: A intentionally tries to get B to believe that P when all along A knows or believes that –P.
Some philosophers claim that this traditional view of self-deception introduces two paradoxes. The ‘static paradox’ asks, how can someone be in a state of mind where they hold contradictory beliefs at the same time. The strategic paradox asks, how can someone try to deceive themselves without making their intentions ineffective?
Although a minority of philosophers have argued that self-deception is not possible, the mainstream thinking is that self-deception is possible and therefore our project is to deal with the paradoxes. The intentional models of self-deception try to deal with the problem of how is it possible for someone to intentionally get themselves to believe something they know or believe very well not to be true. Some have argued that the self-deceiver introduces some form of psychological partitioning that will protect them from their deceptive strategy. Loss of memory or maybe “accidentally” changing the facts are two ways of doing this.
The non-intentionalist approach does away with the intentional interpersonal deception model (deceiving ourselves as when we deceive others) and opt for some form of motivationally biased belief. Hence, to be self-deceived is nothing more than to believe falsely. In other words, we desire ourselves to have false beliefs. Some intentionalists object that introducing motivation or desire fails to distinguish self-deception form wishful thinking or daydreaming. The encyclopaedia entry has a very detailed review of the modern debate on self-deception.
Of course, the non intentionalists seem to have a point, something is going on here and the evidence points more towards the existence of this something rather than the paralysis of a paradoxical state of affairs. The problem for the intionionalists is of course the intention. However, we can only assume that intention is involved because of two basic facts: 1) interpersonal deception (deception) does involve intention on the part of the deceiver; I would even go so far as to say that we probably reach this conclusion from some personal experience. 2) the self-deceiver behaves as if they are acting intentionally and acting intentionally to deceive themselves. I will leave item 1) for later, but as far as 2) is concerned “acting as if..” is not the same as “acting from..” or “being..” Of course, this takes us more towards the non-intentionalists solution.
Thus behaviour is not necessarily always a good indicator of what the intentions are or, better still, the cause of the behaviour. We can, however, say that this contradictory behaviour, or attempted behaviour, is probably some sort of conscious-unconscious battle. We might go a bit further and suggest that some beliefs are caused mentally or psychologically while others might be due to some “brain” activity. With the conscious self-deceiver being unaware of the latter cause. It might be objected that this might take us outside the scope of deception altogether. At least, motivation or desire do leave some scope for consciously causing an intentional act. We usually allow some form of intentional will to desire something.
Maybe by going too far into reductionism (unconsciousness, brain activity and so on) we might not only miss the wood for the trees but might even exit the forest altogether. One question that does not seem to be asked in a debate on self-deception is this: who benefits from self-deception? Does the self-deceiver behave and act as if they were deceiving themselves to influence others or to influence themselves?
Although this line of thought might introduce a dimension about the motivation of behaving “as if” one is self-deceiving one’s self, it might explain certain instances, if not all instances, of self-deception.
Take the following scenario: A knows that x is dangerous, but if A believes that x is not dangerous, others will believe the same as A. Maybe, if everyone believed that x is not dangerous than we won’t have to deal with the implications of the danger. This example might be regarded as straight forward deception, but the point is that the others know that x is dangerous, but because A now behaves as if they believe that x is not dangerous the others might follow. After all, as I have just said, behaviour is the only practical way we have to discover someone’s intentions. And even if they honestly say that they intended something, but behaved in an other way, we would still rely on the behaviour most times rather than the honest words.
We can look at the question, who is benefiting? from a different point of view. We can reasonably assume that manifestations of self-deception are also public. We can see and observe that someone is acting as if they were or trying to self-deceive themselves. If we didn't have this evidence we wouldn't know what was going on with the other person; especially if they behaved consistently.
In other words, self-deception can be seen as an act of communication whether it is done intentionally or not. If we accept this step we must also accept the next step that an act of self-deception is also conveying information; information that in principle can be processed and understood by observers. But as Dawkins showed us, the purpose of communication is to manipulate others; of course manipulation can, in this context, be morally neutral.
This argument, if we accept it, points more towards self-deception being there for the ''benefit'' of others than the self-deceiver. But it does not follow that the self-deceiver automatically wants “to deceive” others in a negative way. Take for example the parent who suffers from fear of dentists. They know that they are going to feel pain when they go to the dentist; maybe they might even have a clinical condition that limits the use of anaesthetics, whatever. But this parent wills themselves to believe that it is not painful to go to the dentist. This is not done so much for their benefit, but to give their child the impression that going to the dentist is no big deal, and the child won't, therefore, create problems going to the dentist.
But if we accept this positive argument, can we seriously continue talking about self-deception? Of course, if the self-deceiver hopes to manipulate us in a negative way (e.g. to defraud us), then holding contradictory beliefs should be a warning sign and maybe proceed with caution, treat them as unreliable or simply let the men in white costs to sort it out. But if this were the case, are we still talking about self-deception?
So how did we get into this mess in the first place? This is where Wittgenstein’s observation comes in, although what follows are my arguments.
Autological words refer to themselves. Hence, is self-deception, as a noun group, something that refers to itself? In other words, does self-deception deceive itself? I said that I was using autological in a special sense. What I mean by self-deception deceiving itself is for it to change its meaning whilst still maintaining an impression that it is following the semantics and syntax norms of these types of noun groups.
Hence, if self-deception is to be understood as, desiring to hold contradictory beliefs, or neural or mental blocking of ideas or deception of others, or oblivious to reality or unreliable or just crazy, then self-deception is autological. It has changed its meaning.
Mind you, this is not the same situation as those sentences or phrases that refer to themselves and create an identity, logical or semantic paradoxes. For example: ''This sentence is false.'' Or, “This sentence is objective.” Don’t forget that traditionally, the paradox of self-deception was one of intention and not of meaning.
If self-deception applies to itself, in the meaning I have outlined, then surely, the non intentionalists have practically won the argument and Wittgenstein was right about philosophy and language. All we have to do now is to discuss what people try to do to themselves and others, and forget about intention and all that.
If, on the other hand, self-deception is heterological, it does not change its meaning and applies the norms relating to the use of self as a combined form or as adjective in an adjectival noun group (or combined form groups); what are the implications?
The character of the prefix “self-“ or adjective in these groups is that in the most commonly used groups the noun/verb does not change the meaning or use . Thus, self employed, the employed part does not change the meaning when combined with “self.” The same with self service, self mutilate, self assessed /as in tax forms/, self assured and so on. Basically, What we do for others we do the same for ourselves.
There are of course, some exceptions. The one I can think of now is self-made, as in self made millionaire, meaning to achieve a grand success without the help of others, certainly by not being employed. But the curious thing about 'self-' is that there are a group of words that cannot be combined with 'self-'. Or rather, they make no sense if combined. For example, self conceive; self create; self stalk; self back scratch (is this English?), self manipulate; self elect and so on. Some members of this third group might even be oxymoron. My favourite example is to perform a self autopsy.
The question is, where does self-deception fit, in all of this? In all the normal examples in the first group, there is no question that the act being performed is one based on intention; irrespective of whether it is rational, irrational, positive or negative. Moreover, nothing is done by accident. It is also evident that there are examples of words which we cannot apply self- to. Hence, is self-deception a member of the first group, common combined group, the middle group, like self-made, or the third group, the excluded set of words.
This leaves us with deception; I now continue with item 1) above. Of course, this is not the place to go into an in depth analysis of deception. However, we are interested in some important features of deception. Deception is not only about intention, although it is does play an important part. Sometimes deception is about morally unacceptable actions, but not always. Principally, deception is about disinformation to obtain some advantage over someone else. I use disinformation specifically to exclude accidental misinformation. Hence deception is about communication to manipulate others. In a way, it is about creating an impression of cooperation, maybe even in an evolutionary sense, but in fact it is a trap to disadvantage the other person. The serenading of the male cricket or the camouflage of a soldier, the objective is the same, to manipulate the actions of the receiver of the message. To bring the female to the male cricket in the first place, and to keep enemy soldiers away in the second. Deception is also used to obtain an advantage immorally; for example to defraud someone of their savings or to sell them poor quality products; whatever.
When a person is deceived they are, however, deceived not because someone intended to deceive them, nor because the deception was neutral or immoral, but because the deceived person received false information (disinformation) and this information was interpreted as if it was genuine information. The deceived person is not in a state that they know or believe –P, but that the deceived person believes that it is the case that P.
It is not clear how disinformation fits in with self-deception. What is its like to disinform one’s self? (see Nagel: What is it like to be a bat? for the thinking behind this question). it would be interesting to find out how it is possible to disinform one’s self when the key factor of disinformation is that the person being disinformed does not know that they are being disinformed.
The self-deceiver is also not in the same epistemological state as someone who is being deceived: i.e. the deceived person believes that P, but the self-deceived person is supposed to believe P & -P. But as I said earlier, P & -P implies either that the person is unreliable or worse, crazy. I would therefore say that the “deception” in self-deception is not the same deception as the interpersonal deception. Self-deception, in my view, does not contravene Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction which states that something cannot be and not be at the same time. The self-deceiver is either unreliable or crazy if they hold P & –P. Hence, self-deception does not imply that P & -P, because deception (of others) does not imply the deceiver holds –P. As far as the deceived person is concerned they believe that P.
Moreover, disinformation is missing in self-deception which is present in deception. In any case it is not clear how we are supposed to manipulate ourselves when we disinform our selves.
It seems that Wittgenstein was right, because the fuss about self-deception seems to be really based on a language problem. The combined form of self and deception behaves in the same way some combined forms of combined form groups behave in English. The new group does not inherit the individual meaning of the words when they are used independently. Self-deception as a combined form group not only changes its meaning, but has got us fooled all along. The non-intentionalists seem to have a point.
Conclusion: self-deception is all about good old fashioned communication.