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The Apologetic Implications of Self-Deception by Greg Bahnsen


The Apologetic Implications of Self-Deception by Greg Bahnsen Summary

The analysis of self-deception fostered here maintains that when S deceives himself:


  1. S believes that p,
  2. S is motivated to ignore, hide, deny (etc.) his belief that p, and
  3. By misconstruing or rationalizing the evidence, S brings himself to believe falsely that “S does not believe that p.”


In order to preserve something about his own self-conception, S engages in motivated rationalization of the evidence so that he relies in his theoretical and practical inferences on the proposition that he is not relying in his theoretical and practical inferences on p. He is morally culpable for this lie about himself because it is engaged intentionally, and yet he may not be aware of his intention since it has become habitual or, being self-covering, has become something he no longer thinks about (like falling asleep). S obscures his dreaded belief that p, as well as his intention to obscure it by rationalizing the evidence. Self-deception involves deception of the self, by the self, about the self, and for the sake of the self.

This analysis of self-deception in terms of iterated beliefs, corrigible disavowals, motivated rationalization of evidence, and self-covering intentions is adequate to explain the common illustrations of self-deception which we encounter. Recall the example about Mrs. Jones. The principal calls her to say that her son Johnny (her pride and joy, her only child) has been caught stealing lunch money out of students’ desks. The evidence is plain that Johnny is a thief, and this is the third time she has received such a call from the school. She has also noticed money missing out of her own purse at home, and Johnny has been coming home with expensive items from the store. Mrs. Jones shows the affective symptoms of believing the proposition that Johnny is a thief. She tries to avoid situations where she is likely to be reminded of his dishonesty. She moves to a new neighborhood, transferring Johnny into a new school, and refusing to put a phone in her new home. She keeps an unusually attentive eye on her boy, but will not admit that she does so, etc. Yet on the other hand, since nobody in the Jones family has ever stooped to dishonesty, and Johnny is her one reason left for living in the cruel world, she persuades herself that Johnny could not have done the dishonest deeds reported by the principal. She forgets the past evidence and supplies “more credible” explanations of present evidence (e.g., money is missing from her purse because she is so careless or forgetful). She goes out of her way to express confidence in her son to others, makes a show of giving him mature responsibilities, and tries to do only what one who believed in Johnny’s virtue would do. She avers that she has a fine boy who is a joy to her, a regular paragon of virtue. Nevertheless, she flies off the handle at him over trifling matters (in a way unlike the way she related to him prior to the principal’s phone calls). She astonishes and embarrasses others by seizing on every oblique innuendo to defend Johnny’s honesty. When neighbors get curious over her missing cash and Johnny’s new acquisitions, Mrs. Jones fidgets, blushes, looks away, answers in halting fashion or changes the subject. She treats the evidence broached in an unusual and distorted way, all the while apparently satisfying herself that her interpretations are quite plausible.

In this situation we find it very natural to express the view that Mrs. Jones is self-deceived. The affective symptoms justify us in attributing to her the belief that Johnny is a thief. Because she cannot stand that thought with its attendant psychic discomfort, she is motivated to hide this information from herself and direct her attention to the evidence in odd ways. She dissents from believing her son is dishonest. She claims the school officials had a vendetta against Johnny and were framing the poor boy. She leans on implausible interpretations of facts, ignores the best and most obvious indicators, and brings herself to believe that she does not believe in Johnny’s dishonesty. (She is not the mother of a crook!) She fools herself about her awareness of the truth. The symptoms of this false second-order belief are nearly identical with believing that it is not the case that Johnny is a thief. She conceives of herself as trusting this untrustworthy son, and while guarding herself against his untrustworthiness she enthusiastically affirms her belief in him to others. She meets all the criteria of self-deception as proposed above, and we are able to describe what she is doing without resorting to paradox.

The analysis of self-deception offered here not only is adequate to account for mundane and well-known cases of self-deception, but more importantly, it is adequate to explain Paul’s description in Romans 1 of men who know (believe) that God exists and yet suppress that belief unrighteously. The analysis thus strengthens, defends and advances the cause of Van Til’s presuppositional apologetic.

All men know and hence believe that God exists. The revelational evidence is so plain that nobody can avoid holding the conviction that God exists, even though they may never explicitly assent to this belief. We are justified in ascribing such a belief to men on the basis of their observed behavior in reasoning (e.g., relying on the uniformity of nature), in morals (e.g., holding to ethical absolutes in some fashion), and in emotion (e.g., fearing death). Nevertheless, all men are motivated in unrighteousness and by fear of judgment to ignore, hide, and disavow any belief in the living and true God (either through atheism or false religiosity). By misconstruing and rationalizing the relevant, inescapable evidence around them (“suppressing it”), men bring themselves to believe about themselves that they do not believe in God, even though that second-order belief is false. Sinners can purposely engage in this kind of activity, for they also deceive themselves about their motivation in handling the evidence as they do and about their real intentions, which are not noble or rational at all. Thereby they “go to sleep” (as it were), forgetting their God. Because the evidence is clear, and because the suppression of the truth is intentional, we can properly conclude that all men are “without excuse” and bear full responsibility for their sins of mind, speech, and conduct.

Given the elaboration of self-deception offered here, we can better appreciate what Paul says in Romans 1, namely, that “knowing God,” all men “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” And we can assert non-paradoxically that unbelievers culpably deceive themselves about their Maker.

Recently it has been brought to my attention that despite his lengthy work addressing the concept, there are still people today who will make the claim that Dr. Van Til was an idealist (or suggest an influence on him and him unaware of it). This is because of similarities people project between Immanuel Kant and Van Til concerning transcendentalism. Rest assured, Dr. Van Til not only was not an idealist, but clearly against idealism, and quite aware of idealism, as you will be able to prove with this work. On with the formal details…

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IF KNOWLEDGE THEN GOD: THE EPISTEMOLOGICAL THEISTIC ARGUMENTS OF PLANTINGA AND VAN TIL James Anderson Abstract The two Christian philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Cornelius Van Til have much in common in terms of their religious upbringing, their education, their approach to Christian philosophy, and their work on the relationship between epistemology and metaphysics. In particular, both have claimed that the existence of God is in some weighty sense a precondition of human knowledge. In this paper, I review and compare a selection of epistemological theistic arguments inspired by their writings — three from Plantinga and four from Van Til — and through drawing attention to significant points of similarity and difference suggest some ways in which such arguments might be further developed with an eye to insights gleaned from these two thinkers.

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No Dilemma for the Proponent of the Transcendental Argument: A Response to David Reiter James N. Anderson David Reiter has recently argued that presuppositionalists who champion the transcendental argument for God’s existence (“TAG”) face a dilemma: depending on what conclusion the argument is supposed to establish, either TAG is inadequate to deliver that conclusion or else TAG is superfluous (thus bringing into question claims about its importance and distinctiveness as a theistic argument).1 By way of reply, I contend that several plausible lines of response are available to the proponent of TAG in the face of this purported dilemma.

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Do Christians use circular reasoning when they presuppose that God exists? Is circular reasoning a logical fallacy? Darius and Karin Viet explain.

Hi AiG,

My question is regarding presuppositional apologetics. I’ve read the article at this link http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v2/n4/presuppositional-apologetics and I whole heartedly agree with what it teaches. I know that I’m not a strong debater and so I need to anchor myself to God’s word to have a hope at defending our faith.

However, in a recent discussion with a non-Christian, where I was using presuppositional apologetics, I was accused of using circular reasoning to argue my case. He claims that it is invalid to assume God exists to argue that God exists. On the surface, this seems to make sense. But I still firmly believe that it’s valid to presuppose that God exists.

How should I respond to his claims that my arguments are invalid due to circular reasoning?

Btw: Thank you. Your ministry has greatly encouraged and strengthened my faith.

God bless you.



Continue your page here…

Douglas Wilson, John M. Frame and James N. Anderson answer the typical refutation of presuppositional apologetics that it is circular reasoning and begging the question.