The Mirage of Self-Understanding

What if I’m wrong about myself? What if I’m wrong, in fundamental ways, about who and what I am? What if—beyond the limits of whatever kinds of willful self-deception surely warp my self-understanding—there are structural and perspectival constraints that simply prevent me from ever seeing enough of me to grasp myself accurately? Or, more, what if my own self-understanding is so irreparably local that, from a God’s-eye-view, it will never be more than a gross misrepresentation?

For my part, all of the above seems not only possible but practically inevitable.

I will have been wrong about myself.

But if I’m wrong about myself—even fundamentally wrong about myself—does this automatically mean that my life won’t have been worth living?

I think the answer to this is no.

In fact, I think this is one way to frame what’s at stake in a genuinely good life: a life is only good when its goodness does not hinge on the accuracy of its self-understanding.

Can a life be good and also be accurate in its self-understanding? Sure. It may even be better. (Though this is complicated by the gesture of self-forgetting that love often requires.) But, again, I think we’d be wrong to claim that its goodness would depend on its successful self-apprehension.

I think the same, too, is true with respect to Mormonism.

What if Mormonism is wrong, even in fundamental ways, about what Mormonism is? What if, like all kinds of self-understanding, Mormonism’s account of itself is also hamstrung by structural constraints or even self-deception?

The same test applies.

It may certainly be true that Mormonism is totally right about itself—Mormonism may be exactly and precisely what it thinks it is, nothing more, nothing less—but I think it would be a mistake to think that it must be right about itself in order to be worth doing. Accurate self-understanding is not a decisive measure of any life’s (or any religion’s) goodness.

Now, again, Mormonism may well be fundamentally right about itself. But even if it is, it will still only have been worth doing if that worth does not depend on the accuracy of its self-understanding. Good things are good, regardless of whether they’re right about the nature of their own goodness.

Here, then, is a possible test of (any) religious tradition. Ask: even if this tradition isn’t what it thinks it is, is it still worth doing?

Mormonism, it seems to me, is certainly worth doing.



  1. hope_for_things says:

    Adam, thanks for the thoughts, I enjoyed your post. So what about Mormonism is worth doing? Is it worth being stuck in a rigid authoritarian structure that promotes obedience and conformance over unconditional love and inner spiritual journey. What about the patriarchy or LGBT discrimination. What about the sometimes harsh boundary maintenance and condemnation of others?

    To me, Mormonism is a conundrum. There are aspects I really like, that I could list out, just like the negative elements I listed above. The problem is you are saying Mormonism is worth doing in spite of the negatives. I work in the world of finance and I regularly evaluate projects based on cost/benefit analysis. Do the benefits of participating in Mormonism outweigh the costs? This is a question I’ve been asking myself, and I’m not sure the answer is yes.

  2. It took me 10 years of struggle to reach the conclusion you so simply explained here.

    It does come down to a cost/benefit analysis for me. The benefit on the internal and local level is worth the cost of putting up with all the crappiness. Part of the reason I feel that way is that I also realized that every organization I participate in (work/volunteer/kids) has a different if equal amount of crap.

  3. I think there’s a fundamental truth here, that goodness or worth does not depend on self-understanding. (But is self-understanding a help or a hindrance or irrelevant?)
    However, when applied to a religious tradition like Mormonism, if you take away self-knowledge you are left with an undefined or poorly defined term. The way I “do” Mormonism is probably not the way you do Mormonism and pretty clearly not the way Mormonism says to do Mormonism.

  4. I’d agree that “accurate self-understanding” is not requisite to having a “good” life, but having the humility to acknowledge this limitation just might be.

  5. Christopher Bradford (Grasshopper) says:

    What is unique about our fallibility in self-understanding as compared with our fallibility in everything else? We must certainly come to terms with our fallibility without becoming nihilists, but is there something special about applying this to self-understanding?

  6. So Socrates was wrong? The unexamined life is worth living?

  7. Clark Goble says:

    Socrates was wrong about lots of things. I think examining ones life can improve ones life and make lives perhaps poorly lived better lived. However clearly for many life is great without self-examination.

    I should add that what Adam says is basically part and parcel of the Articles of Faith. If we believe much is yet to be revealed that pretty well entails our self-understanding is wrong or at least incomplete. A Jew living in 1st century BC had a self-understanding of their place incomplete. So do we.

  8. My own take on the subject is that self-understanding and accuracy in general are very peripheral concerns for consciousness. That is the truth that I see in Argumentative Theory ( and Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of consciousness as a person’s Public Relations department. It’s about telling ourselves (so we can tell others) the stories that most further our (largely unconscious) interests.

    Of course this opens up all sorts of obnoxious opportunities for Marxists and the like to dismiss all other self-understandings as “false consciousness”… as if theirs alone was able to miraculously transcend such interests and limitations.

    Is short, all descriptions and understandings are interest and value-laden. But this does not make them all equally contestable for that reason alone. Just as some ways of pursuing our interests are far more acceptable than others, so too some self-descriptions and self-understandings (they being a sub-set of other interested pursuits) are more acceptable than others.

    What we are left to worry about is whose standards we will use to measure the acceptability of any such self-description.

  9. I argee, Clark. I don’t think that Socrates had examined very well at all his own reasons for “self-examination”.

  10. Ignorance is bliss?

  11. Rockwell says:

    If there is something else that is mutually exclusive from Mormonism and more worth doing, than this argument is not convincing. The question is what things that are good are mutually exclusive with Mormonism. Some would say Mormonism includes all good things, so there is no conflict. Others could argue that Mormonism is really so demanding of your resources and free time that it really has to be what it says it is (or at least close to what it claims to be) in order to be worth it. Ironically, I think that the latter group includes both apostles and apostates.

  12. This is excellent. I don’t see how you could be truly happy or truly saved without a fundamental recognition of your own inabilities.

  13. such a useful piece of writing, just passed it on to several friends. thanks.

  14. I really enjoyed this post, and I mostly agree.

    I think, for me, Mormonism has to be at least remotely close. I’m sure that there will be a lot of surprises after the resurrection (or even in the spirit world), but if there isn’t even a God or a chance at eternal life, then the good I do within Mormonism can probably be done within other organizations.

    An example of what “remotely close” would be for me:

    What if what Mormonism really boils down to is that mankind on earth is simply one of a billion iterations of an ancient race of beings that advanced enough technologically so as to be able to immortalize itself, organize planetary systems and guide evolution? What if all the immortals want to do is make sure that mortals show enough compassion, self control, and love to be able to handle the higher capabilities/technologies of those who have already transcended mortality?

    Kinda weird. Kinda cool. But putting Mormonism into scientific terms is what I would consider “remotely close” to the self-understanding it currently has. And that would be good enough for me.

    But if there weren’t higher beings offering anything to us at all? I would probably just join a different charity group.

    Of course, to each their own.