The Psychology of Self-Deception

It’s one thing to be clueless. But have you ever known someone who was clueless about being clueless?

Maybe she saw herself as a great cook, but anybody who tasted her food would strongly object.

Maybe they figured they were the picture of health—despite what their friends (and doctors) kept saying about their diet and exercise (or lack thereof!).

Or perhaps he considered himself a fine handyman who never had to call the professionals—until he’d created a much more expensive problem than he originally had.

In another post I wrote about the New Testament’s strong warning not to let ourselves be fooled. In Hebrews 3:7-4:13 the pastor-author warns his beloved friends that, like the ancient Israelites, they too would fall short of receiving God’s promise of a secure resting place without each other’s help and encouragement. Here are the key verses:

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

—Hebrews 3:12-13

I’ve taught about the critical importance of the church in many contexts. I’ve used many different examples from Scripture and modern life to illustrate what the Bible’s saying. Like any teacher, I have a couple favorites. But as of today, they were all relegated to secondary status. You see, today I discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect.

For those (like me) who had no idea what the Dunning-Kruger effect is, here’s the briefest of explanations: a pair of researchers at Cornell University studied and described the phenomenon of highly incompetent individuals believing that they were, in fact, above-average at a given task. The researchers’ interest was inspired by the story of a man who was arrested after robbing two banks. The man was quickly apprehended because he had intentionally not worn a mask, only to have his face caught on security cameras. Why make such a huge mistake? Because the robber sincerely believed that rubbing lemon juice on his face would prevent the cameras inside the bank from recording any images of himself. When presented with the video evidence against him, he could only respond in disbelief: “But I used the juice!” This poor man’s mistake wasn’t that he was dumb; it was that he was dumb but truly considered himself to be clever. In other words: he was clueless about being clueless.

The researchers at Cornell found that this kind of behavior isn’t a disorder that’s unique to America’s dumbest criminals. In fact, all of us can have this cognitive bias. They convincingly showed that, in many cases, when incompetent people are asked how good they are at something, they don’t just fail to see their incompetency—they tend to think they’re absolutely great at it! The delusion is so powerful that, when another person performs the same task much better than they do, the incompetent person still can’t recognize the other person’s superior skill. It turns out that the worse we are at something, the more our deluded self-perception drives us to think we’re awesome at it. In fact, one of the researchers was saddened to realize that, no matter how inaccurate our view of ourselves is, we’re trapped in it. In order to see the truth about our lack of skill and self-delusion, we need someone else to point it out to us—and even then we might not see it. 1

I hope some of the applications of the Dunning-Kruger effect to our lives as Christians are clear:

  • It’s no coincidence that, before Paul instructs the Roman church in how to use their spiritual gifts, he first warns them, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). He has to throw in that warning because it’s far too easy for us to do just that: think too highly of ourselves!
  • How amazingly well these findings line up with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount! As he told the earliest disciples, it’s much easier to see the minor flaws of others while overlooking our own massive failings (Matthew 7:1-5). Be careful about judging others: it’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than to be a helper!
  • Notice what a scary position we find ourselves in a self-deceived sinners. We think we’re good, decent people. We sincerely believe we’re not as bad as the people God condemns throughout the Bible. We somehow trick ourselves into thinking that other people sin while we only “make mistakes” or occasionally “do things that are out of character.” On the contrary! Despite what we naturally believe, we are our own worst enemies. We can’t even grade ourselves accurately! How true, then, is the consistent message of both the Old and New Testaments: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).

If all that is true, and we can’t even know how bad we are—let alone fix ourselves—what can we possibly do? Three thousand years before the Cornell researchers came to the same conclusion, God himself gave the answer: our only hope is to stop trusting our own understanding and to put all our chips on God’s word being true (Proverbs 3:5-6). We need—and we have—a Savior who sees us for who we are but isn’t ashamed to love us anyway (Hebrews 11:16). What self-deceived, blind, ignorant sinners need isn’t more information or (God forbid) more affirmation that we’re okay. We need someone to give us the gift of faith and make us believe the truth despite ourselves. And that’s exactly what the good news of Jesus does for us (Ephesians 2:8-9).

And what else does the good news of Jesus do? It doesn’t just create a relationship with a God who sees us perfectly and teaches us how to see ourselves through his word; it creates a global community of others to help us. The ultimate solution to the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t becoming more mindful or self-aware; it’s choosing to be vulnerable and let others know us really well. It’s taking off our armor and handing other Christians a sword, knowing they can either defend us or run us through. God’s solution to our self-deception isn’t only giving us spiritual life from the dead—it’s the church.

Are you experiencing the encouragement of Hebrews 3:12-13? Are you practicing it yourself?

  1.  “Ignorance for Dummies,” This American Life 585. Accessed 25 April, 2016.

Genesis, Science, and Humility

According to many young-earth creationists (YEC), non-Christian scientists falsely interpret Nature, and they do so on-purpose.  This is because they have their own, unbelieving worldview, and they also are trying to make people not believe in God.  Now of course, there are some scientists who “have an ax to grind” (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, and the like come to mind).  If only they knew the Lord, so the argument goes, they’d interpret nature aright.  While that may be true for some scientists, is it true of all of them who aren’t YEC?  This claim is especially used with respect to the age of the universe and understanding starlight and time.  Let’s examine this claim from the perspective of  both YEC and OEC (Old Earth Creationism).

Navigating the turbulent waters of YEC and old-earth OEC creation is like trying to cross a stream on slippery rocks without getting one’s feet wet.  One false move, and whammo, you’re in trouble.  Whatever one’s position is, the important thing to remember is one’s metaphysics (theory of reality).  Along with metaphysics, comes one’s epistemology (theory of knowledge).  The crux of the discussion is the relationship of Scripture to Nature.  There is also the issue of arrogance, and there is a serious moral problem among many people in this discussion, of which I will comment toward the end of this post.

For many YEC’s, Scripture trumps nature every time, and is the lens through which Nature must be interpreted.  For OEC’s, Scripture and Nature are the “Two Books” God has given us, where both fit together in a mosaic, aiding human understanding of creation and Creator.  Now, given the fact that starlight takes millions of years to get to earth so that we can see it, YEC’s say God created the light in transit during the creation week.  Hence, we can now see such light.  OEC’s accept the prima facie understanding that because starlight takes millions of years to get here, that the universe is old.  I’m not going to discuss the science of that in this post, so much as the epistemological issues at stake. (For an easy-to-understand article on this see, Greg Koukl’s “Starlight and the Age of the Universe.” 1

The YEC view often says things that, in my opinion, are harmful.  For example, I’ve heard arguments that scientists who think the universe is billions of years old are “darkened in their understanding” (Ephesians 4:18) and are hostile to God.  They have an “unbelieving worldview” and therefore, their interpretation of reality (metaphysics) is untrustworthy.  Well, I have two issues with this.

First, as a rejoinder, I’d like to point out that texts like Ephesians 4:18, and others such as Romans 1:18, where unbelievers “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” are speaking of moral problems in men and women.  Of course, epistemology and ethics are interrelated, and unbelievers do “suppress the truth” and they do so in “unrighteousness.”  Hence, there is such a thing as “moral knowledge.”  Still, these texts aren’t indicting humans as to their interpretation of the natural order with reference to its age. Romans 1 is concerned with idolatry, lack of thankfulness to the one, true, God (v. 21), and immorality (vv. 18-32).   Romans 1 is concerned with humans’ interpretation of the natural order with respect to its nature and essence.  In Romans 1, the indictment is against the worship of nature, not age of it. Similarly, Ephesians 4:18 is about Gentiles who have a “hardness of heart” and live lives of greed, impurity, and “every kind of indecency.”  Again, this is more of a moral problem, than a “scientific” one.

Secondly, would we say that an unbelieving doctor, or engineer, or math teacher has a faulty interpretation of reality?  “But,” a YEC may counter, “If scientists really knew God, they’d believe the Bible and interpret Nature accordingly, as recent, young, and so on.”  Well, if that were the case, then why do so many Christians understand Genesis as teaching something different than YEC?  Do we want to say that they, too, have capitulated to unbelieving understandings of Nature?  The burden of proof here is then for the YEC to show that such an interpretation of Genesis is the only viable one available.  But this is biting off a lot to chew: it requires intimate knowledge of hermeneutics and Hebrew.  On that score alone, things get complicated, and the YEC faces the dilemma of this fact: due to things being complicated, the YEC view loses its power, because the thrust of its argument is that the beauty of YEC is how very simple and easy it is to follow.

For example, in Genesis 1:2, it says “the earth was formless and void, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  Here, the earth is in existence prior to the completion of Day 1 (v. 5).  How long was the earth there before the completion of Day 1?  I don’t know.  Do you?

Another example of how Genesis 1 and 2 are complex is the use of the word “day” (Hebrew, yom).  In Genesis 2:4, it says:

“These are the generations of the heavens and the earth, when they were created, in the day (Hebrew, yom) that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.”

Of course, in chapter 2 v. 4. there is no numerical adjective followed by the phrase “evening and morning” in chapter 1.  But that’s just the point, isn’t it?  The text is complex.  Further complexity is seen in that God made them male and female on the 6th day (1:31), but in chapter 2, Adam seems to have lived for at least more than a single day before the creation of his wife, as Adam worked the ground, named the animals, and listened to the Lord’s command about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Did all of this happen in a 24-hour period?  Maybe it did.  However, to say it is a hard-and-fast interpretation seems a bit stretchy, like those old toys I had in the 70’s.  (Stretch Armstrong.  Remember the weird, green goo inside of them?  I bet it was toxic, for sure.)

Does it make sense why some Christians see complexity in the text and have reasons to believe the YEC understanding isn’t as simple as it seems?

Now about the knowledge of unbelieving scientists.  Does my allergist not know that if she gives me my allergy shots that I’ll get better?  This is a common theme in presuppositionalism which feeds a number of YEC’s, that unbelievers don’t truly know reality, because they don’t know (or, rather, believe) that the Triune God is the author of that reality.  Ok. Here, we would get into some serious metaphysical and epistemological discussions about the justification of knowledge, univocal and analogical reasoning, and so on.  Do we really want to go there when talking about whether my Hindu, atheist, Jewish, or Muslim heart surgeon truly knows what he’s doing in making me better?  He understand my heart, and its mechanical workings, yes? This is a simple, practical question that has a simple answer, doesn’t it?

The OEC view follows the Belgic Confession’s “Two Books” doctrine whereby Scripture and Nature both speak of God’s acts and ways.  Scripture is special revelation, and Nature is general revelation (Psalm 19:1-6; Matthew 6:26; Romans 1:18ff).  Both Books inform us of what God is like, and what He has done, is doing, and will do.  Scripture, of course, tells us more about God’s actions and ways, and His future plans.  Nature, though, is something that humans, with the aid of their God-given reason, can discover, manipulate, cultivate, and use to His glory, and for the good of mankind. The Belgic Confession would seem to eschew the idea that in order to understand Nature on a practical, truthful level, we would need Scripture to tell us about it.  While it’s true that some in the unbelieving world hold to metaphysical notions that are untenable and indeed impractical, such as that reality is an illusion (some forms of Hinduism).  But that’s not everyone, and it’s still the case that such people eat, sleep, and carry on with their lives.  It seems to me then, that the YEC presuppositionalism needs to be jettisoned for a better fusion of Scripture and Nature as understood by the Belgic Confession.  Unbelievers do understand reality at a good, practical level and extent.  Agree?

Now about arrogance.  Without naming names, I have told people time and again, the main problem I have with YEC’s is their arrogance.  There is a flippancy in argumentation, and also an ungodly attitude towards OEC’s (and other brothers and sisters in Christ) that is prevalent among YEC’s.  It’s true that arrogance can be found among theistic evolutionists, OEC’s, and ID theorists.  That’s part of the human condition.  However, I have witnessed and have personally experienced terrible arrogance at the highest levels in the YEC movement.  I wonder how it can be, that if someone has the correct understanding of Scripture, that such an ungodly demeanor can be manifest so expressly among people?  Is it fear?  Perhaps it is fear.  For fear will override the rational faculties in people, and cause them to operate on emotion.  Maybe that’s it.  Whatever it is, it needs to stop, for “the Lord opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3:34, cf. 1 Peter 5:5).  There is a better way than to treat people with a different point of view who still hold to orthodox Christianity.  Take the Apostle’s Creed for example.  If we can agree on that, can we love each other, even as we are called to love our enemies–people who don’t hold to such a statement of belief?

This was originally appeared at Van Allsblog (www.vanallsblog.blogspot.com)

  1. Greg Koukl,  http://www.reasons.org/articles/star-light-the-age-of-the-universe

Darwinian Evolution and Knowing Truth

Last month on February 12 at the Ramada Inn in Fargo, N. Dakota, Drs. PZ Myers (atheist) and Fazale “Fuz” Rana (Christian theist) held a debate on whether there is evidence for God’s existence, based upon the notion of whether there is design at the microbiological level.  Myers (Ph.D., Biology, University of Oregon) is a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and Rana (Ph.D., Chemistry, Ohio University) is a biochemist by training, who works in research at Reasons to Believe, an old-earth Christian thinktank and apologetics ministry.

The debate is almost two-and-a-half hours long.  I’m only commenting on one question Fuz asked PZ during the ten-minute cross-examining portion of the debate just before the 1:30:00 mark.  Fuz’s question had to do with epistemology (the theory of knowledge), as it relates to the evolutionary process (by “evolutionary process,” I mean the undirected, strictly material process of evolving life-forms wrought by means of random, genetic mutations acted upon by natural selection.  In short, I mean materialism as a metaphysical worldview, or, the notion that only matter exists).  Earlier in the debate, PZ also said much of the debate regarding the existence of a Creator based upon observation of biological processes is epistemological in nature.  Hence, Fuz’s question about truth-identifying capacity given the evolutionary paradigm is very much in accord with the thrust of the debate.

To Myers comes essentially the question from Darwin himself with an echo from Patricia Churchland, a non-theist philosopher (Churchland’s quote will appear subsequently).  The question – or doubt – about the truth-knowing capability of the human species given materialism and hence, naturalistic evolutionary processes, is documented in a letter from Darwin to William Graham:

With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.  Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? [1]

In other words, if the human mind has developed over gradual eons of vast amounts of time from the primordial slime, emerging into more complex life forms, and morphing into the common ancestor from which all humans come, then this means that the human brain (or, mind – an oxymoron given materialism), has, as its genesis, a pool of slime.  Not much better for Darwin is the human “mind’s” near relative, the monkey.

Alvin Plantinga notes a number of “doubters” from the non-theist world of philosophy with respect to a naturalized epistemology wrought via materialist evolution: Nietzsche, Nagel, Stroud, Churchland, and of course, Darwin.  Churchland’s quote is as humorous as it is famous:

Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing.  The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive…..Improvement in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life and enhances the organisms chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost. [2]

For Churchland and others committed to a naturalistic epistemology, the notion of truth qua truth “takes the hindmost.” That is, truth is relegated to the unimportant back seat in the vehicle of existence where the driver is Four F, on his way to do a survivalist’s party.  Truth, according to Churchland, is a non-essential in the propagation of the human species.  Truth doesn’t matter, and neither should it.  In fact, evolutionary advantages have nothing whatever to say about truth.  Rather, they have everything to say about survival.  If truth happens, it happens not on purpose, by chance, and not with truth for truthfulness’ sake.

Myers’ answer to Rana (again, at the 1:28:50 mark and following) is rather simple (or, simplistic). While Myers agrees with Rana that the human mind – or brain, more accurately, given his materialist position – is subject to error such as logical fallacies, poor memory, and the like, his answer for the reliability of the truth-identifying capability of the human knower is Science.  Science, says Myers, is a coherent mechanism that exists outside of the human mind with the purpose of collecting and interpreting data, albeit on a provisional basis.  On the surface, this makes good sense.  Science is, after all, a coherent system whereby human knowers can build an edifice of knowledge by means of quantification of the individual species or things of the world, and also by noting their qualities as well.  Quantification and qualification are indeed part and parcel of the scientific enterprise.

However, we have to ask if Myers actually answered the question of Darwin’s doubt.  The question, basically, is, “How do we know truth, given materialism?”  The answer is, “Science.”  The answer may as well have been, “We know truth given materialism because we have a system (Science) whereby we know truth.”  But how do we know that the system is giving us truth?  Well, Richard Dawkins answers the question by saying, “Because it works.”  He pauses for a moment and richly adds, “Bitches,” in a near murmur, as if that settled the question.  But an appeal to pragmatism just doesn’t work (heh: a pun) in a question of truth given an naturalistic epistemology. We could play the child’s game and ask, “Well, how do we know it works?”  And of course, the appeal would be to observe the results, and we’re back to square one again.

Fuz’s question remains unanswered because he is asking not only an epistemological question, but also a metaphysical one.  From the vantage of metaphysics (study of the nature, essence, and existence of things as they truly are), Fuz is asking how truth can be known given the ever-changing material world of which we are a part.  If the material world is constantly changing, and only the material world exists, then also the human knower’s brain is a part of that every-changing world.  As such, knowledge remains not fixed, but unfixed and ever-changing along with the material world external to itself.  (I’m surprised Myers even accepted the term “mind” when debating with Fuz, due to its immaterial implications).

What Myers, Dawkins and others espouse is called Scientism. Scientism is an epistemic paradigm which states that only Science gives humans true knowledge of the world.  Of course, this “system” cannot prove itself without arguing in a circle: Science, and Science alone gives us knowledge about the world, and we know this because when we do Science, it helps us (by working) in order to thrive, survive, and flourish.  Stated differently:

1) Science (quantification and qualification) gives us knowledge 2) Science alone gives us knowledge 3) This knowledge gives us desirable results (It works…) 4) Therefore, Science alone gives us knowledge (see #2). This is a circular argument.  Theologian David Bently Hart also sees the circularity of the materialist worldview:

Physics explains everything, which we know because anything physics cannot explain does not exist, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by physics, which we know because physics explains everything. [3]

This is pretty much the answer that Myers offers to Rana.  Just insert “Science” for “Physics” and you have the skinny.  Now, ditching materialism for immaterialism (whereby a universal mind or intelligent agent exists as the primary cause of all that came into existence) is a constructive task for a different venue.  However, it should stand to reason that Scientism and its pretensions feign a superiority over “superstitious” non-naturalized epistemologies (ones that include a deity).  After all, Scientism cannot even prove its own tenet that Science and Science alone gives humans knowledge about the external world.  In doing so, it would have to submit to a source outside of itself.  Indeed it does and must, and that is where an immaterial world of universals (essences) of things come into play.  On that very playing field of course, come arguments from pure reason as to the existence of God from Aristotle to Aquinas, and it is this playing field where Myers’ dog will not hunt.  In fact, it can’t, but it isn’t allowed in that neighborhood.

*previously posted at www.vanallsblog.blogspot.com