Clarification On Self-Deception

In my debate with Ben Wallis I answered the following in response to a series of questions asked of me during the cross-examination period.

“It is correct that I believe that in their heart-of-hearts everyone believes that God exists…I apologize for the poetic language. Belief in God is a first-order belief of everyone; every human…I believe that when you state that you do not believe that God exists that is a claim based upon a second-order belief that you have concerning your first-order belief in the existence of God.”

The phrase “heart-of-hearts” is by no means philosophically precise language nor was it intended to be. Mr. Wallis was right to not let me get away with using it during cross-ex. The phrase is an idiom which roughly means that someone truly or firmly believes something. If someone knows or believes something in his or her heart-of-hearts then he or she has some sort of certainty about it (and here I do not mean to imply that “certainty” should carry any strictly philosophical meaning either!) even though he or she may not want to confess to believing or knowing whatever it is that is believed or known. It is not difficult to imagine telling someone, “You don’t really believe that…” or “You actually do believe…”

Mr. Wallis recently wrote the following to me.


In the debate you said that, in my ‘heart of hearts,’ I really do believe in God. I asked you, what is the difference between heart-of-hearts belief and the ordinary belief I refer to when I call myself an unbeliever (in Yahweh). You responded that the heart-of-hearts belief is first-order, whereas my unbelief is higher-order.

However, first-order belief is just what I’m talking about when I call myself an unbeliever. That is what I consider to be the ordinary, everyday belief to which we refer in natural language. So, it seems there is nothing special about your phrase ‘heart of hearts.’ It does not distinguish some kind of deeper, ingrained belief. It’s just plain-jane, ordinary, first-order belief.”

Mr. Wallis is correct in writing, “You responded that the heart-of-hearts belief is first-order…” as I stated, “Belief in God is a first-order belief of everyone.” However, Mr. Wallis is incorrect in writing, “…whereas my unbelief is higher-order.” I stated no such thing, but rather said, “I believe that when you state that you do not believe that God exists that is a claim based upon a second-order belief that you have concerning your first-order belief in the existence of God.” At the beginning of my closing statement I made this even clearer. Whether or not first-order beliefs may be held with differing degrees of certainty, tenacity, etc. is another matter. Analogies are useful to a certain extent but eventually break down. Analogously; idioms are useful to a certain extent but eventually break down.

Mr. Wallis continues.

“The problem with this is that, as I said in the debate, it strains the imagination to think that I could be so wrong about something so basic. For perspective, try taking some belief which you do not hold, and considering the possibility that you’re wrong about not holding it. The example can be anything—perhaps you could take your (presumed) unbelief in extraterrestrial civilizations. Now consider the possibility that you really do believe that extraterrestrial civilizations exist, but you just deny it in your heart (much as the Psalmist’s fool). Do you take that possibility seriously? I wouldn’t. Or consider the shape of the earth. Suppose I told you that you really believe the earth is flat, even though you openly affirm that the earth is a globe. Could you be wrong about that? Is it possible that you really do believe that the earth is flat, but you just won’t admit it in your heart?”

The examples provided by Mr. Wallis assume that unbelief in God is similar to unbelief in extraterrestrial civilizations or unbelief in a flat earth. This assumes that God shares an evidentiary status with such entities (which I do not believe to be the case), but this is not as important as the next point. A workable model of self-deception involves some motivational factor which is absent in the alleged parallels provided by Mr. Wallis. Given this crucial element I may in fact be more willing to accept that I am self-deceived with respect to the belief/unbelief in the alleged parallels. Of course I would need something by way of argument here as well. However, Mr. Wallis has not provided either of these and I doubt that he could. Meanwhile the Bible teaches that the reason we want to suppress our true beliefs is because of our sin and that knowledge is only possible given the Christian worldview. Insofar as Mr. Wallis implies in his statements above that he cannot take the possibility of self-deception with respect to his beliefs about God seriously he affirms Atheism rather than Agnosticism as pointed out during the course of the debate.

“In the end, I can only assure you that I really don’t believe in God. Similarly, you can only affirm your unbelief in a flat earth, and in extraterrestrial civilizations.”

Of course I will just reassure Mr. Wallis that he really does believe in God. I can affirm my unbelief in a flat earth and in extraterrestrial civilizations in terms of more general epistemological principles. I have pointed out that the examples are not analogous to alleged unbelief in God.

Mr. Wallis concludes.

“If you want to insist that I really do believe in God, I can’t stop you, but I hope you can see how bizarre that claim is. Indeed, I hope that it gives you some clue that you might be on the wrong track with Christian theism.”

Of course if Mr. Wallis wants to insist that he really does not believe in God I cannot stop him either. I can, however, provide him with arguments that he must believe in God in order to render human experience intelligible, and this is what I strove to accomplish during the course of the debate. Mr. Wallis believes my claims concerning his belief in God to be “bizarre.” I find his claims that he really does not believe in God to be bizarre, but none of this furnishes any argument against either of our positions. Mr. Wallis has expressed his incredulity but has not pointed out any contradiction at all in my description of his beliefs. He has repeated his claim that he really does not believe in God. Of course, an individual who is self-deceived about his belief in God would do exactly what Mr. Wallis has done here. There really is no actual objection in what Mr. Wallis has written, but perhaps there was need for clarification.

Mr. Wallis thinks that the explanation I provided is “bizarre” and he hopes it gives me some clue that I am on the wrong track with Christian theism. Unfortunately Mr. Wallis is employing a textbook example of the fallacious argument from incredulity here and I try not to take clues from fallacies! If anything Mr. Wallis should see that his position with respect to the Christian God is not actually Agnosticism at all, but Atheism. If I remember correctly he admitted as much during the debate. Unfortunately for him he does not find Atheism to be a tenable position. I would suggest that perhaps this should give Mr. Wallis some suspicions concerning whether or not he is on the right track with his own position. Perhaps we can talk more about that in another debate in the future.




Thanks for responding to my post! It was a pleasure to work with you for our debate, and I have enjoyed our blogging correspondence, as well. However, I just have a few follow-up comments of my own to add:

Firstly, I’m sorry that I mischaracterized your response to my question about the difference between the sort of belief I deny and that which you attribute to me. I try to always interpret my opponents charitably, and, in this case, that meant supposing your response addressed my query directly. However, my point remains that there seems to be no substantive difference between the belief of which each of us spoke. I want both you and our audience to appreciate that. As I mentioned in my last post, there is no deeper, ingrained belief at issue, here. All we have is the ordinary belief we talk about in natural language.

Secondly, please don’t mistake my previous message for an attempted argument against the existence of God—or anything else, for that matter. I was merely voicing a few observations intended for your benefit. In other words, there was no opportunity for me to employ a fallacy, because I didn’t even present an argument!

Finally, I’m sorry you don’t agree that my observations have relevance to your religious doctrines. (Also, without going into too much detail, I should remind you that denying them doesn’t make me a strong atheist.) I had hoped that they might help you along to seeing what I think are errors in your position; then again, perhaps they may yet, as you consider them over the long-term. Whatever happens, though, I am glad we have shared our perspectives on the matter.

Take care,

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