The Evolutionary Basis of Self-Deception

James Sage

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

NOTE: This paper is an exploration of the possibility that natural selection could prefer non-
tropic cognitive faculties and that the systematic generation of false beliefs should not be understood
as pathological in the clinical sense. Self-deception is a case study of such a phenomenon. My larger
project is to undermine arguments for the evolution of rationality: it’s not clear that evolution by
natural selection can support the kind of claim that epistemologists need it to support (viz., that
Darwinian selection guarantees, or makes it likely, that human cognitive faculties are reliable with
respect to generating true beliefs). While it might be true, empirically, that human cognitive faculties
generate mostly true beliefs, this claim does not enjoy evidential support from the fact that human
cognitive faculties are the result of evolutionary processes. (For further details, please see my “Two
Senses of “Reliability” in Evolutionary Epistemology”)


Despite its widespread occurrence, self-deception is classified as a form of psychopathology. Because
self-deception regularly generates false beliefs, this figures prominently among the motivations for
designating self-deception as a form of pathology or malfunction. I argue that this is a poor reason to
classify self-deception as a form of psychopathology. From an evolutionary, Darwinian point of view,
we are not justified in concluding that self-deception is pathological. In particular, we are not justified
in concluding that the cognitive processes of self-deceivers are malfunctioning. Despite a long
philosophical tradition to the contrary, I conclude that self-deception may be indicative of a normally
functioning, evolved human mind.

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