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It's worth reading the article What a tangled web we weave by Robert Trivers, from last week's New Statesman. The article intrigued me and didn't end up where I anticipated from its opening paragraphs.
There is an interesting paradox at the heart of the idea that self-deception has evolved. Leaving aside the question as to whether self-deception is in fact an advantage, let's assume it is, then why do we believe it is not ethical? This is part of the problem with a lot of evolutionary theory. Most of us feel strongly that the desires we are told have some sort of evolutionary advantage are not desirable. Why do we think that?
Let me summarise how Trivers addresses this question. This summary is under the heading 'Fighting self-deception', towards the end of the article.
- To the question why, given self-deception can have evolutionary advantages, don't we simply ensure we practice it where it is advantageous, Trivers responds he does not believe in building one's life, relationships or society on lies.
- He argues self-deception is morally inferior to deception because it deceives not only the other person but also the deceiver.
- The consequences of deception intensify over time. The benefits tend to be more immediate but the cost of ignorance kicks in later.
- We have been selected to rape, wage war and abuse children (it seems) but we are in fact not obliged to do these things. Trivers writes: 'As one evolutionist told me, his genes could not care less about him, and he feels the same towards them.'
- It is possible ,Trivers has found, to compensate for self-deception. When he loses track of what he is doing, then his attention is distracted by self-deception. So when he stumbles or drops something, he asks himself what was distracting him at that moment.
- He goes on to suggest it is possible to correct for your own biasses and meditation, prayer, disclosure of trauma to a friend or through a journal can all help.
At their best religions aim to help people identify self-deception. It is altogether appalling where we find religion being used to reinforce self-deception. An example can be found the blog, Exploring our Matrix, where James McGrath explores The real reason some Christians oppose Halloween.
Religion can become a form of escapism, instead of being a means to perceive things as they are, it becomes a collection of fantasies to distract from the world. At the least a child dressing as Dracula, knows the difference between fantasy and reality. Would that more adults were able to make the same distinction.