Self-Deception and the Evasion of the Future
I have nearly finished writing my book Our Terrible/Wonderful Future. This is the beginning of Chapter 9
Deception and Self-Deception
Great as the technical problems of the next twenty years will be and difficult as it will be to solve them, they are, nevertheless, all capable of solution while we still have a window of opportunity before they become insoluble – provided, that is, that we want to solve them. By far the greatest challenge that we face is from ourselves. But how can this be? Who would willingly consign their children to the unthinkably dreadful future that the scientists are now so unanimously warning us of? Well we can and we are doing. How can we explain this? Few people do evil things knowing they are evil. They do them because they have persuaded themselves that evil is good. Nor do we do stupid things because they are stupid. We do them because, intricately complex as our natures are, we are clever enough to decive ourselves into thinking that they are clever. Human beings easily deceive themselves and at the moment of writing, in July 2017, there is every reason to believe that we are expending immense energy, which could be put into solving our problems, into deceiving ourselves that we don’t have any problems, or if we do they are soluble without much effort being made to solve them. Self-deception is by far the greatest problem that we face, and for that reason I want to devote a whole chapter to it, for if we cannot take possession of ourselves we have little hope of mastering anything else. Why is self-deception so deeply rooted in human beings, and in any case how can you deceive yourself?
It is only when we realise how commonly decption is practised by countless multitudes of living forms, and how advantageous it has been in their evolution and development, that we come to appreciate its importance. For the very reason of Darwin’s great discovery that human nature is as much shaped by the same evolutionary forces and constraints as any other organism, it is of great importance too in explaining human behaviour. In the competitive self-serving struggles of human beings with each other, deception, and its subtler offspring self-deception even more so, has proved of almost incomparable advantage. There is a further reason, however, why it is of especial significance in the human case. Like other animals we see and know, but unlike them we also imagine. It is very easy indeed to imagine that what is the case is not the case, and vice versa, or to deceive somebody else into imagining a misleading falsehood when it is to your own advantage. The imagination is a centrally important human faculty because it links the physical and emotional structures that we share with other animals with the intellectual faculties that we do not. This is why myths, condensed distillations of forces that move and empower the imagination, are so intrinsic to human life.
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