Michael Faraday on Mental Discipline and How to Cure Our Propensity for Self-Deception
“That point of self-education which consists in teaching the mind to resist its desires and inclinations, until they are proved to be right, is the most important of all.”
By Maria Popova
The pioneering English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (September 22, 1791–August 25, 1867) planted the seed for the study of electromagnetism — a cornerstone of our present understanding of the universe, without which Einstein wouldn’t have been able to link space and time in his seminal theory of special relativity. But Faraday, like many great scientists before the dawn of psychology, was also a man of enormous insight into the human psyche and its pathologies. On May 6, 1854, he delivered a lecture at the Royal Institution on the subject of “mental discipline,” later included in his volume Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics (public library | public domain).
Two centuries before modern psychologists coined “the backfire effect” — the root of why we have such a hard time changing our minds — Faraday captures our profoundly human propensity for self-deception when it comes to confirming our convictions and indulging our desires:
Among those points of self-education which take up the form of mental discipline, there is one of great importance, and, moreover, difficult to deal with, because it involves an internal conflict, and equally touches our vanity and our ease. It consists in the tendency to deceive ourselves regarding all we wish for, and the necessity of resistance to these desires. It is impossible for any one who has not been constrained, by the course of his occupation and thoughts, to a habit of continual self-correction, to be aware of the amount of error in relation to judgment arising from this tendency. The force of the temptation which urges us to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in favour of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them, is wonderfully great. In this respect we are all, more or less, active promoters of error. In place of practising wholesome self-abnegation, we ever make the wish the father to the thought: we receive as friendly that which agrees with, we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very reverse is required by every dictate of common sense.
More than two hundred years before the term “confirmation bias” entered the popular lexicon, Faraday extols the essential self-discipline of continually questioning even our most dearly held beliefs and probing whether what we desire to be true is actually true:
The inclination we exhibit in respect of any report or opinion that harmonizes with our preconceived notions, can only be compared in degree with the incredulity we entertain towards everything that opposes them… It is my firm persuasion that no man can examine himself in the most common things, having any reference to him personally, or to any person, thought or matter related to him, without being soon made aware of the temptation and the difficulty of opposing it… That point of self-education which consists in teaching the mind to resist its desires and inclinations, until they are proved to be right, is the most important of all, not only in things of natural philosophy, but in every department of daily life.
Complement with Carl Sagan’s indispensable Baloney Detection Kit and Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means.
Published September 22, 2015