Belief in Self-Deception

I spoke yes­ter­day of my con­ver­sa­tion with a nom­i­nally Ortho­dox Jewish woman who vi­gor­ously defended the as­ser­tion that she be­lieved in God, while seem­ing not to ac­tu­ally be­lieve in God at all.

While I was ques­tion­ing her about the benefits that she thought came from be­liev­ing in God, I in­tro­duced the Li­tany of Tarski—which is ac­tu­ally an in­finite fam­ily of lita­nies, a spe­cific ex­am­ple be­ing:

If the sky is blue
I de­sire to be­lieve “the sky is blue”
If the sky is not blue
I de­sire to be­lieve “the sky is not blue”.

“This is not my philos­o­phy,” she said to me.

“I didn’t think it was,” I replied to her. “I’m just ask­ing—as­sum­ing that God does not ex­ist, and this is known, then should you still be­lieve in God?”

She hes­i­tated. She seemed to re­ally be try­ing to think about it, which sur­prised me.

“So it’s a coun­ter­fac­tual ques­tion...” she said slowly.

I thought at the time that she was hav­ing difficulty al­low­ing her­self to vi­su­al­ize the world where God does not ex­ist, be­cause of her at­tach­ment to a God-con­tain­ing world.

Now, how­ever, I sus­pect she was hav­ing difficulty vi­su­al­iz­ing a con­trast be­tween the way the world would look if God ex­isted or did not ex­ist, be­cause all her thoughts were about her be­lief in God, but her causal net­work mod­el­ling the world did not con­tain God as a node. So she could eas­ily an­swer “How would the world look differ­ent if I didn’t be­lieve in God?”, but not “How would the world look differ­ent if there was no God?”

She didn’t an­swer that ques­tion, at the time. But she did pro­duce a coun­terex­am­ple to the Li­tany of Tarski:

She said, “I be­lieve that peo­ple are nicer than they re­ally are.”

I tried to ex­plain that if you say, “Peo­ple are bad,” that means you be­lieve peo­ple are bad, and if you say, “I be­lieve peo­ple are nice”, that means you be­lieve you be­lieve peo­ple are nice. So say­ing “Peo­ple are bad and I be­lieve peo­ple are nice” means you be­lieve peo­ple are bad but you be­lieve you be­lieve peo­ple are nice.

I quoted to her:

“If there were a verb mean­ing ‘to be­lieve falsely’, it would not have any
sig­nifi­cant first per­son, pre­sent in­dica­tive.”
—Lud­wig Wittgenstein

She said, smil­ing, “Yes, I be­lieve peo­ple are nicer than, in fact, they are. I just thought I should put it that way for you.”

“I reckon Granny ought to have a good look at you, Walter,” said Nanny. “I reckon
your mind’s all tan­gled up like a ball of string what’s been dropped.”
—Terry Pratch­ett, Maskerade

And I can type out the words, “Well, I guess she didn’t be­lieve that her rea­son­ing ought to be con­sis­tent un­der re­flec­tion,” but I’m still hav­ing trou­ble com­ing to grips with it.

I can see the pat­tern in the words com­ing out of her lips, but I can’t un­der­stand the mind be­hind on an em­pathic level. I can imag­ine my­self into the shoes of baby-eat­ing aliens and the Lady 3rd Kirit­sugu, but I can­not imag­ine what it is like to be her. Or maybe I just don’t want to?

This is why in­tel­li­gent peo­ple only have a cer­tain amount of time (mea­sured in sub­jec­tive time spent think­ing about re­li­gion) to be­come athe­ists. After a cer­tain point, if you’re smart, have spent time think­ing about and defend­ing your re­li­gion, and still haven’t es­caped the grip of Dark Side Episte­mol­ogy, the in­side of your mind ends up as an Escher paint­ing.

(One of the other few mo­ments that gave her pause—I men­tion this, in case you have oc­ca­sion to use it—is when she was talk­ing about how it’s good to be­lieve that some­one cares whether you do right or wrong—not, of course, talk­ing about how there ac­tu­ally is a God who cares whether you do right or wrong, this propo­si­tion is not part of her re­li­gion—

And I said, “But I care whether you do right or wrong. So what you’re say­ing is that this isn’t enough, and you also need to be­lieve in some­thing above hu­man­ity that cares whether you do right or wrong.” So that stopped her, for a bit, be­cause of course she’d never thought of it in those terms be­fore. Just a stan­dard ap­pli­ca­tion of the non­stan­dard toolbox.)

Later on, at one point, I was ask­ing her if it would be good to do any­thing differ­ently if there definitely was no God, and this time, she an­swered, “No.”

“So,” I said in­cre­d­u­lously, “if God ex­ists or doesn’t ex­ist, that has ab­solutely no effect on how it would be good for peo­ple to think or act? I think even a rabbi would look a lit­tle askance at that.”

Her re­li­gion seems to now con­sist en­tirely of the wor­ship of wor­ship. As the true be­liev­ers of older times might have be­lieved that an all-see­ing father would save them, she now be­lieves that be­lief in God will save her.

After she said “I be­lieve peo­ple are nicer than they are,” I asked, “So, are you con­sis­tently sur­prised when peo­ple un­der­shoot your ex­pec­ta­tions?” There was a long silence, and then, slowly: “Well… am I sur­prised when peo­ple… un­der­shoot my ex­pec­ta­tions?”

I didn’t un­der­stand this pause at the time. I’d in­tended it to sug­gest that if she was con­stantly dis­ap­pointed by re­al­ity, then this was a down­side of be­liev­ing falsely. But she seemed, in­stead, to be taken aback at the im­pli­ca­tions of not be­ing sur­prised.

I now re­al­ize that the whole essence of her philos­o­phy was her be­lief that she had de­ceived her­self, and the pos­si­bil­ity that her es­ti­mates of other peo­ple were ac­tu­ally ac­cu­rate, threat­ened the Dark Side Episte­mol­ogy that she had built around be­liefs such as “I benefit from be­liev­ing peo­ple are nicer than they ac­tu­ally are.”

She has taken the old idol off its throne, and re­placed it with an ex­plicit wor­ship of the Dark Side Episte­mol­ogy that was once in­vented to defend the idol; she wor­ships her own at­tempt at self-de­cep­tion. The at­tempt failed, but she is hon­estly un­aware of this.

And so hu­man­ity’s to­ken guardians of san­ity (motto: “poop­ing your de­ranged lit­tle party since Epicu­rus”) must now fight the ac­tive wor­ship of self-de­cep­tion—the wor­ship of the sup­posed benefits of faith, in place of God.

This ac­tu­ally ex­plains a fact about my­self that I didn’t re­ally un­der­stand ear­lier—the rea­son why I’m an­noyed when peo­ple talk as if self-de­cep­tion is easy, and why I write en­tire blog posts ar­gu­ing that mak­ing a de­liber­ate choice to be­lieve the sky is green, is harder to get away with than peo­ple seem to think.

It’s be­cause—while you can’t just choose to be­lieve the sky is green—if you don’t re­al­ize this fact, then you ac­tu­ally can fool your­self into be­liev­ing that you’ve suc­cess­fully de­ceived your­self.

And since you then sincerely ex­pect to re­ceive the benefits that you think come from self-de­cep­tion, you get the same sort of placebo benefit that would ac­tu­ally come from a suc­cess­ful self-de­cep­tion.

So by go­ing around ex­plain­ing how hard self-de­cep­tion is, I’m ac­tu­ally tak­ing di­rect aim at the placebo benefits that peo­ple get from be­liev­ing that they’ve de­ceived them­selves, and tar­get­ing the new sort of re­li­gion that wor­ships only the wor­ship of God.

Will this bat­tle, I won­der, gen­er­ate a new list of rea­sons why, not be­lief, but be­lief in be­lief, is it­self a good thing? Why peo­ple de­rive great benefits from wor­ship­ping their wor­ship? Will we have to do this over again with be­lief in be­lief in be­lief and wor­ship of wor­ship of wor­ship? Or will in­tel­li­gent the­ists fi­nally just give up on that line of ar­gu­ment?

I wish I could be­lieve that no one could pos­si­bly be­lieve in be­lief in be­lief in be­lief, but the Zom­bie World ar­gu­ment in philos­o­phy has got­ten even more tan­gled than this and its pro­po­nents still haven’t aban­doned it.

I await the ea­ger defenses of be­lief in be­lief in the com­ments, but I won­der if any­one would care to jump ahead of the game and defend be­lief in be­lief in be­lief? Might as well go ahead and get it over with.