Posted by: aboutalbion | September 20, 2012

Self-deception: a working suggestion

How can I deceive myself without knowing about it?

I am returning to the post on self-deception of a couple of days ago with this fresh question.    David Livingstone Smith asks this question in the article cited below, and then suggests an answer to it.

“On the face of it, the very idea of self-deception seems incoherent.  How can one and the same person be both the perpetrator and dupe of their own deception?”

Livingstone Smith suggests that this impasse arises from a false premise.  Namely, “that thinking is an intrinsically conscious process, and that we are aware of our thoughts at the very moment that we think them.”

He recalls that Freud proposed that all cognition happens in the unconscious.  So for a more evidenced based premise he makes the suggestion that a great deal of complex cognitive action takes place in the unconscious.  This latter premise means that most of what goes on in our consciousness is (to a large degree) a (subsequent) echo of thought processes in our unconscious.  That is, we only become conscious of our thoughts after we have thought them.

“Freud reasoned that there must be a mechanism that translates unconscious neural activation … into a medium that we can understand … that we call conscious thought.”  And apparently some neuroscientists are now researching the neural mechanisms of conscious and unconscious thought, and the dynamic interaction between them, using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Livingstone Smith’s suggestion is that self-deception occurs because this translation (between the unconscious and the conscious) is not reliable.  More than that, this translation can be most usefully thought of as “an invisible hand” which has the task of transforming neural activity into “linguistic symbols” that the conscious can work with.  I find it more helpful to replace “an [unreliable] invisible hand” with an unreliable translator – a translator who has all the characteristics of a numinous agency with a hidden agenda of its own.

He proposes that this unreliable invisible hand, this seemingly unreliable translator, examines and edits what is in the unconscious before passing it on to the conscious in a form that the translator believes will be acceptable.  As this translator is acting as a censor, research is being directed towards the processes that keep thoughts from entering consciousness – including repression, suppression, and dissociation.

What all this seems to mean is that the acceptable streams of ‘thoughts’ in my conscious no longer accurately represent my actual thoughts in my unconscious.  So I am no longer aware of what I am truly thinking.   And there is no way for me to become aware of what I am truly thinking because there is no way for me to compare the hidden data in my unconscious with the concurrent data in my conscious.

Livingstone Smith proposes this as one possible way to understand how self-deception occurs.

It may not be correct, but it is at least a suggestion that I can get my head round …

[Livingstone Smith, David (2006) ‘In Praise of Self-deception’ Entelechy Journal Spring/Summer No 7, pp5-13.]

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