With language came lies

First came deception, then came language and then came lies.

A minuscule level of cognitive ability is sufficient for animal deception. Some animal mimicry and camouflage is probably at the instinctive level and requires no consciousness.

Some types of deception in animals are completely involuntary (e.g. disruptive coloration), but others are under voluntary control and may involve an element of learning. Most instances of voluntary deception in animals involve a simple behaviour, such as a cat arching its back and raising its hackles, to make itself appear larger than normal when attacked. There are relatively few examples of animal behaviour which might be attributed to the manipulative type of deception which we know occurs in humans, i.e. “tactical deception”. It has been argued that true deception assumes the deceiver knows that (1) other animals have minds, (2) different animals’ minds can believe different things are true (when only one of these is actually true), and (3) it can make another mind believe that something false is actually true. True deception requires the deceiver to have the mental capacity to assess different representations of reality. Animal behaviour scientists are therefore wary of interpreting a single instance of behaviour to true deception, and explain it with simpler mental processes such as learned associations. – Wikipedia

We have been using deception probably starting before we were primitive humans some 10 million years ago. Deceiving those who were hunting us, deceiving prey and even deceiving competitors of our own kind. Deception generally requires another mind to exist to be deceived (and self-deception is fanciful except for a schizophrenic). There is no deception involved in hiding from a tree or in avoiding a landslide or escaping a volcanic eruption. Deception lies in inducing the other mind to believe in something false as being true or in believing something true to be false. Before we had language, deception was confined to using behaviour and actions to induce the false belief. This could have been, for example, hiding from hunters or prey or of appearing taller and stronger than a competitor. Deception was a tool even for groups cooperating among themselves to induce a false belief in a third party. However the cooperative act of deception required communication between the cooperating parties – even if without language. This kind of deception was primarily about inducing a false belief about the present (and about the imminent future), but could not really address the past or the distant future or anything in the present which was not immediately perceivable.

And then came rudimentary language. That was more than 100,000 years ago and maybe even more than 200,000 years ago. But we already had some idea of the concepts of “good” and “bad”. It is not difficult to see that anything which helped survival would have been labelled good and the levels of goodness of any event would have been linked to its relevance for survival. This would have been the beginnings of the development of a value system. Good and bad lie as the foundation of any, and every, value system. There was surely communication before language, but without language there was no possibility of communicating about things past or things future. Life was in the now. What was, was true, and what was not was false. But the concepts of true and false had been established well before language was discovered.

Sometime after the world around us had been divided and classified into good and bad and all the shades in between, came language. First came the discovery that we were capable of language and then that language enabled communication. Then came the invention of various specific languages at different times. (I see language as being discovered and languages as being invented). Some were good and others were not so good. Naturally all those who spoke the same language were on the side of the good. Every language that has ever existed has an in-built logic which mirrors the logic perceived in the surrounding world. To begin with, language was anchored to perceptions of reality. But language opened the doors to the past. History could be communicated. Forecasts of future events could be made. The past could be connected to the now and the now to the future. As people communicated about the now, it would have become apparent that even events in the now were mere perceptions. And then came the dawning of the realisation that language did not have to be anchored in reality at all. Language could describe what was not. The concepts of true and false expanded to include the past and the future and the abstract. History could be guessed or invented. The future could be fantasy. Fake news became possible. Language made lying possible.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The most widely accepted definition of lying is ……. “A lie is a statement made by one who does not believe it with the intention that someone else shall be led to believe it” (Isenberg 1973, 248) ………there are at least four necessary conditions for lying.

  • First, lying requires that a person make a statement (statement condition).
  • Second, lying requires that the person believe the statement to be false; that is, lying requires that the statement be untruthful (untruthfulness condition).
  • Third, lying requires that the untruthful statement be made to another person (addressee condition).
  • Fourth, lying requires that the person intend that that other person believe the untruthful statement to be true (intention to deceive the addressee condition).

Lying needs the ability to make a statement which is enabled by language (condition 1). More than that, lying is endemic in the use of language. Lying, as a concept, is necessarily imbued with the intent to deceive (condition 4). Inevitably, given that intention, lying carries the (almost) universal value of being “bad”. Exceptions are made only when the intent to deceive is secondary to a more laudable intention.

All social interaction involves some level of lying. I suspect that “benign” lying is necessary for the human use of language. Every statement has a truth value. Any statement of belief (which includes also all “facts” which have not been personally verified to be true) is a lie to some extent. Most human behaviour is based on beliefs that statements, which are not personally verified, are true. We could not speak about the future, or of the past, or about abstract things, if language did not allow the lie. I suspect that modern humans would not have evolved, as we have done, if language was constrained to disallow anything other than true statements.


 

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