Ignorance and self-delusion

Nicholas Turner considers why the term ‘self-ignorance’ seems to have fallen out of the language and returns to the seventeenth century when it was better understood

Does belief in God make any difference in the so-called human sciences such as psychology? I don’t mean in the obvious and explicitly religious areas of life, and I don’t mean in areas which may include a straightforward difference of moral judgement, important and widespread as these may be – abortion, marriage, euthanasia.

The philosophical question would be something like, ‘Is there a bias towards certain conclusions, if one approaches the question from a Christian or theist perspective, and vice versa?’ Does the way of observing things as traditional believers offer insights which may be missed by contemporary agnostics? Or back to the original question: does belief in God make any difference?

Role of the self

Try this one as an example. What exactly is self-delusion? Who is deceiving whom, and how? Richard Holton is an American professor of philosophy in the Mid-West who, though not a believer himself, has studied the Christian witness on this subject and, while he does not quite put forward the suggestion I have outlined, gets close enough to be most instructive.

The question he asked was ‘What is the role of the self in self-deception?’ From his reading of these earlier writers, he had become convinced that self-deception is more concerned with the self’s deception about the self, than with the self’s deception by the self. It is more akin to ‘self-knowledge’ (which involves knowledge about the self) than to ‘self-control’ (which involves control by the self).

False beliefs

What goes wrong, when we are self-deceived, is that we lack self-knowledge; or, more accurately, we have false beliefs about ourselves. But not, as he puts it, ‘any kind of false belief about oneself; I am not self-deceived when I mistake my shoe size. Rather, self-deception requires false beliefs about the kind of subject matter that, were one to get it right, would constitute self-knowledge.’

As it stands, self-deception can mean either deception by the self or about the self. Modern psychology, with its understanding of the power of the subconscious, of schizophrenic tendencies and split personality, has discovered a great deal about deception by the self. To the neglect, Holton seems to suggest, of deception about the self.

The Oxford English Dictionary has some 300 terms made up of ‘self-’ and another word, but not self-ignorance. What in the seventeenth century was the most widely used and accepted opposite of self-knowledge has now, in effect, fallen out of the language. This is a serious mistake.

God alone knows

Daniel Dyke was a Puritan incumbentduringthe Commonwealth who wrote in The Mystery of Self-Deceiving, ‘God alone knoweth the heart exactly and certainly: Man and Angels may know it conjecturally, and by way of guessing.’ If there is a God, it is he who has complete access to who we are as persons. For us such knowledge (even of ourselves) is only partial and must be worked at. And it is God who can help us to find greater knowledge.

By contrast, if there is no God, there may be a strong presumption that the self is supreme: if nothing else, it has no master. Self-deception is therefore principally seen as something done by the self, rather than a problem we have about the self. The problems of human behaviour are the same; but the explanation, and therefore the solution, may be very different.

You will find perceptive analysis and strong exhortation against the dangers of self-ignorance in Bishop Butler’s sermon Upon Self-Deceit, but perhaps the best source is a surprisingly readable self-help book, written by another Puritan preacher of the Commonwealth, Richard Baxter, On the Mischief of Self-Ignorance, which urges the reader to become better acquainted with himself. As he announces from the start, ‘He that is a stranger to himself, his sin, his misery, his necessity, etc is a stranger to God, and to all that might denominate him wise or happy.’

Ignorant of our sins

Part of the reason we are unable to find salvation by our own efforts is that we are so ignorant of our own wants and desires, let alone our sins and failings. We fail less often than we suppose by not doing right, and far more often than we suppose by not knowing right. ‘Know thyself’ is an ancient injunction we too often disobey or ignore.

No one is suggesting that agnostics are not earnest in their desire for self-knowledge, but if the believer has an advantage it is that he or she already knows that God knows better, and that he has given us the means by which we may share some of that greater knowledge. Self-examination of our sins and failings, in the light of Christ, in the faith that he will teach us of ourselves, is a powerful expression of what our Self truly is.

Let us take note of and seek to remedy the danger of self-ignorance. Let us, in Baxter’s words, ‘cultivate self-acquaintance’. ND

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