A lie is not a statement to be analyzed logically

This will begin a trilogy of thoughts on the problem of lying, one of which will, hopefully, appear on another, more general site (but if it is not accepted there, I’ll post it here). Hopefully, recurrent readers of this blog will recognize the relation between this discussion and a recent post on collective fiction making – https://nosignofit.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/collective-fiction-making-as-reality/ (and other posts here concerning the fictive nature of much of our story-telling, rhetoric, and presumed knowledge).


After reading an article by Gerald Dworkin ( http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/14/can-you-justify-these-lies/  ), considering the possible ethical justifications for telling a lie, I realized that the Analytic philosophy tradition’s efforts to develop an adequate theory of the lie – as logically analyzable statement – is frankly rather impoverished.

From Dworkin: “John lies to Mary if he says X, believes X to be false, and intends that Mary believe X.”

This is the baseline definition of the lie, at least in Analytic philosophy. See James Mahon’s SEP article: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lying-definition/

Unfortunately, this definition, while useful in a dictionary, is misplaced in an encyclopedia. It is woefully incomplete.

From Mahon:
“Consider the following joke about two travelers on a train from Moscow (reputed to be Sigmund Freud’s favorite joke) (reference: G. A. Cohen):

Trofim: Where are you going?
Pavel: To Pinsk.
Trofim: Liar! You say you are going to Pinsk in order to make me believe you are going to Minsk. But I know you are going to Pinsk.

Pavel does not lie to Trofim, since his statement to Trofim is truthful, even if he intends that Trofim be deceived by this double bluff.”

Actually, Trofim is correct, Pavel is lying. The problem with the Analytic theorizing over lying is that, despite needing to contextualize lying, especially when considering it’s moral or ethical justification in certain situations, it doesn’t really grasp the profoundly social underlying structure, which necessarily includes audience expectations and the liar’s manipulation of these. Pavel knows Trofim doesn’t trust him, and so effectively lies to this expectation (not knowing how deeply Trofim distrusts him, to the point that he reveals the lie as a truth). This sort of situation, wherein a sentence can be both truth in one sense, and yet lie as to audience expectation, is not accountable in most Analytic philosophy, where the matter should be decidable on the basis of sentential analysis, predicated on a justified true belief model of knowledge. Real lying is not about sentences, and it isn’t even about what anyone believes; it’s about social relationships and expectations. One can speak a lie without needing to believe the sentence spoken to be untrue – or indeed, without believing anything about it at all. (Pavel may not believe he’s going to Pinsk, he just wants Trofim to think he’s going to Minsk.) What’s important is the expectation of the audience within the context.

So: when considering the ethics of lying, one has to approach the matter on a case-by-case basis; otherwise, injustice will be done to those who behave in good will, or those who feel socially compelled. I’m not sure a sustainable universal or general theoretical statement on the matter is even possible, given the social contextualization of the behavior.

Those wishing to maintain the purity of the logical analysis of lies as statements seek to maintain a rigid distinction between the lie and other forms of deception. In practice, this distinction cannot be maintained. Elsewhere in the SEP article, Mahon writes:

“If it is granted that a person is not making a statement when, for example, she wears a wedding ring when she is not married, or wears a police uniform when she is not a police officer, it follows that she cannot be lying by doing these things.”

But I do not grant this; or, rather, I hold that its incompleteness trivializes it *. The notion that an unmarried woman wearing a wedding ring (aware of how others will perceive this, in a given cultural context) is not a kind of lie, is uninformed as to how humans communicate through non-verbal signification, and the complex ways that the verbal and non-verbal relate.

Now, is the woman wearing the ring engaged in cruel play on innocents for the sake of vanity? or is she protecting herself in a threatening social context? That depends on the context, and on the expectations others have for her.

(Which. BTW, also tells us a little something about the social usefulness of cosmetics and apparel, doesn’t it?)

* As a matter of social fact, everyone who is not a professional Analytic philosopher knows full well that fashion makes a statement.

Developed out of a comment made at: https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/platos-suggestions-9/

Reality has no name

We find it so easy to use words as the ‘names’ of things that we don’t recognize when these ‘names’ over-extend their ‘nameness’ or naming function into generalities that cannot possibly be considered as actual entities.

It seems to make sense, and it is even commonplace, to refer to that tall woody thing that dumps leaves on my lawn every autumn a ‘tree.’ further extending that to other entities like it, collectively, as ‘trees’ is simply grammatical pluralization, again making sense according to the rules of both classical logic and modern biology. But – what is a thing called ‘forest’? where is such an entity? Is it just more ‘trees’? A spot on a map? Something that isn’t a desert? What’s a desert?

Most people are not aware that the Antarctic is considered a desert by scientists. ( http://www.answers.com/Q/Is_Antarctica_a_desert ) I think most of us believe that ‘desert’ signifies a geographical space that is hot and sandy. And because most of us use the word in this way and refer to images, and experiences, and narratives including these qualities, we would be right. The Antarctic is something else. But only in so far as we imagine it, and experience it (if we are fortunate enough). Otherwise – well, scientists have agreed to call it a desert. Fine; who would argue with science? But it’s no ‘desert’ as most of us who use the term would imagine it to be.

The fact is, language is not about naming objects; it is not a mirror of nature, it does not validate ‘justified true beliefs’.

I see no difficulty in saying that forests don’t exist in nature.

We walk among these tall, rough-shelled things with irregular poles sticking out of them, all covered with thin green things. We’ve come to call these things ‘trees,’ with their ‘branches’ growing ‘leaves.’ To the extent we can differentiate a large number of these ‘trees’ from areas without much of them, or any of them, we have come to call the area with the ‘trees’ a ‘forest,’ so we have a location in space to which to refer for the sake of directions.

There are a number of ways we’ve developed to address these phenomena, including careful dissection and analyses of activities and events that permit the objects under study continued existence. But do ‘forests’ exist? Do even ‘trees’ exist except within the discourse of humans needing to refer to ‘those things there’? I confess I doubt this.

What we call tomatoes are fruit, and watermelons are vegetables – until we get to the table; then it is neither wrong nor nonsense to toss the tomato into the vegetable salad, and afterwards, enjoy the fruity flavor of the watermelon.

Individuals cannot define words arbitrarily. But the meaning of words is found in their usage, not in the existence of objects to which they are used to refer. That gives us some collective power over how we can or should use words. So distinctions between words and their references are very important.

Do forests exist ‘in reality?’ I’m not sure I recognize that as a legitimate question.

Animal rationality



Consider my dog: Through habit and with repeatedly renewed rewards, the dog ‘knows’ (whatever that means for a dog) that when I open the refrigerator door, there’s a good chance food will come out of it, and so she wags her tail in expectation of some flotsam or jetsam that might come her way when it does.When I just check the refrigerator before shopping. and nothing food-like comes out, the tail gradually drops, along with her ears, and she lowers her head. I take these to be signs of disappointment. If so, they indicate that she considers the rate of incidental relationship between opening-refrigerator-door and food-taken-out-and-distributed to be very high. I think she over-estimates, since I take cold drinks out of my refrigerator more often than I take out food. But she does appear to recognize the sound of a can or bottle being opened, so I could be wrong.

My dog senses food, moves towards it, and, for all I know, never bothers to ask if she’s hungry. Yet she feeds until she needs no more, so apparently there is some measure to her eating, some ratio between hunger and satisfaction.

Food may not be god to my dog, but eating may be the holiest canine sacrament.

William James posited that when we humans notice a danger, we first move away from it and only secondarily feel fear. Our baseline responses to the world are fundamentally the same as those of other animals. Even our much vaunted powers of reasoning may be really an extension of what is most animal about us.

We can suppose that, in our over-complicated brains, our responses to experience include intellection; we should even allow that such intellection could be supplanted by, or coordinated with, imagination, such that conceptualization would emerge.  (Concepts are generalizations, and how can we generalize without imagination?)  And conceptualization necessitates language – There is no ‘all,’ some,’ or ‘none’ without these words to signify them.  We speak because it is the kind of animal we are.

As we all should know, the classical definition of the human species is ‘rational animal.’   I personally see nothing wrong with this; Aristotle liked the idea, and so did the great Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. The voices protesting against this definition, or offering touchy-feely alternatives, about our existence as spirits or embodiments of love, would leave us in a cloud of unknowing as to our own natures. Mysticism is often merely a kind of self-generated psychedelic trip.  (Oh, those wonderful endorphins!)

However, the term ‘rational animal’ has two words in it. To assume that, since rationality is what makes us special among all other animals, we must therefore concentrate our understanding of ourselves on reason itself, in order to know ourselves fully, is to make a similar error to redefining us as walking spirits or embodiments of love.  We are not programmed, we are not programming; neither is the dog.

Let us pay heed to one of the most impressive rational animals the West has produced, and a sometime mystic as well, Thomas Aquinas. No one could believe more fiercely in the spirituality of the human species; and, as G. K. Chesterton points out in his biography of Thomas, The Dumb Ox, no one could love more passionately as Aquinas loved his god. And was there ever another thinker who could construct a grander, more complicated, more subtle an artifice of reason than Thomas’ Summa Theologica? Yet his calls for a celebration of the body, as presumed gift from god – not our prison, but our enjoyment – are well known. So let us take anti-animal rationality into the court of Aquinas:

“(A)nimal is predicated of man essentially and not accidentally, and man is not part of the definition of animal, but the other way about. Therefore of necessity by the same form a thing is animal and man; otherwise man would not really be the thing which is an animal, so that animal can be predicated of man.” *

To think the human is to think the animal, first and primarily as a material entity. The notion, that we should understand human nature in its rationality as apart from its animality, is irrational. For Aquinas, human rationality derives from an infusing force which, following his tradition, he calls “soul.” But he also says, with Aristotle, that even metal has some ‘soul,’ so he cannot mean by this what we have come ‘spirit.’ Instead, it is a term for a principle of the rational ordering of the universe (which rationality, for Aquinas, would arise from the mind of the divine). Humans among all animals partake of a power of rationality that conceives, that articulates itself linguistically – an intellective soul; but nothing may exist that insults rationality as order. Nihil est sine ratione.

Here, consider a remark by Martin Heidegger:

“The path led through the tradition according to which ratio in the double sense of reckoning speaks in the words ‘ground’ and ‘Reason.’ But logos, when thought in the Greek way, speaks in ratio. Only when we contemplated what logos meant fro Heraclitus in early Greek thinking did it become clear that this word simultaneously names being and ground/reason, naming both in terms of their belonging together.  (…)  Nothing is without ground/reason. Being and ground/reason: the same. Being, as what grounds, has no ground; as the abyss it plays the play that, as history, passes being and ground/reason to us.” **

I have elsewhere rejected the ‘panpsychism’ implicit in Aquinas’ thought, and I don’t believe in god; but while denying that there is any ‘design’ to the universe, I also accept that our lives follow discernible rational pathways, however seemingly inarticulate, because there just is an ordering of the universe, and an ordering of our responses that are quite part and parcel with our animal being.

My point here is simple: The study of rationality as systematization of thought – logic, mathematics, etc. – can certainly be separated from the study of human being. The study of human being, however, cannot be separated out from the study of animal being. It is rationality itself that demands this of us. Order, measure, response – rationality was once a term for understanding the structure of being.  And if we have a hard time seeing this, we may need to redefine rationality itself so that we can; for it seems that the term was used somewhat differently, long ago, than how we use it today. And I for one will not say we use it any better.


* Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 76, Article 4, Answer, second argument; trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, rev. Daniel Sullivan.

** The Principle of Reason, trans. Reginald Lilly; Indiana, 1991; pgs. 112, 113; slight modification for clarity.

God’s temporal dilemma



At his Asifoscope blog this week, nannus posted an interesting essay, “Omniscience and Creativity – A Note on Creationism” *, in which he points out the logical problems in assuming that the Abrahamic god is omniscient and creative (since an omniscient god already has all possible information available to him, and thus could not create any more; and a creator god would be bringing into being information not previously available as knowledge). In the part of his discussion concerning the nature of change between information states that god would have a difficulty with, he remarks “(An infallible god) would not even have a history. A history requires change.”

This reminded me of a moment in my own thinking that finally closed all doors to belief in such a god, leaving not even the trace of a doubt that the ‘god’ idea was at best incoherent, at worst simply rubbish.  (If what follows reads as though occasionally self-contradictory, please understand that the self-contradictions come with the presumed beliefs – that’s the whole point.)

The problem of an infallible god without history that still somehow brings forth the history of creation, was not unknown to the Father’s of the Church. Augustine, the brightest mind among the Fathers, attempted to resolve the problem by arguing that god existed outside of time itself, that ‘time’ is an aspect of created existence, which thus gives us the spiritual history of god’s relationship with his creation – which, by the way, comes to an end at Judgment Day. (In this schema, ‘eternity’ is not eternal; as a temporal qualifier, it belongs to the realm of creation and cannot be ascribed to the creator. Eternity itself therefore comes to an end on Judgment Day.)

This argument has held forth throughout the history of Christianity, and is, unsurprisingly, recurrent in Judaic and Islamic thought as well. God, among these religions, is considered so ‘outside’ of anything that no human qualifier should be able to describe him, but only hint at his divine qualities.

Well, maybe. But if we remember we are discussing qualities of existence per se, and not any particular existing being, infallible or not, then our inherited image of the Almighty begins to shimmer out of focus, like a cgi figure on a monitor suffering pixel decay.

A basic problem with Augustine’s argument is that it conflates time and history. History is the knowable path of entities in motion; but the baseline of time is simply motion per se. If an entity follows a path from point A to point B to point C, it has a history, whether that motion changes the entity or is simply a pathway of points of existence. But any motion at all will deliver an entity from moment A to moment B, even if this is a slight shimmy in place without any change in points.

This, I suspect, is one reason Kant came to hold that, along with space, time was a necessary form of sensible intuition, without which it would be impossible to say whether any entity existed or not. Even should we stare at an entity seemingly stationary in space, or hold in our imaginations such an entity, time would be necessarily attached to these activities; for while the entity itself be motionless, our minds are not; we would be aware of time, have some sense of it, however distorted by the unusual concentration of the activity.

And of course at the level of quanta, we know that no entity, whatever its appearance, is strictly motionless. And any entity that moves has a temporal aspect to its existence. Thus every entity we know – any we can know – will exist ‘in time.’ Time is thus a fundamental category of existence. The mechanical reversibility of time presumed in classical mechanics and its descendents doesn’t change that. In certain processes time can be reversed, but it cannot be removed or denied.

So here’s god’s problem:

In order to be outside of time first, in order to create temporal existence, and then to have complete knowledge of it, god has to be completely motionless. This means he can’t even think, since thinking is an activity – thoughts are in motion. So he can’t know anything, either, since knowledge necessitates thought. Nor can he create temporal existence, since that too is an activity, and thus the act of creation is necessarily part and parcel of temporal creation. So, we are left with the possibility of a god outside of time, incapable of doing anything (and thus, just by the way, utterly powerless), or a (presumably all-powerful) creating god that must exist within time and thus cannot be separable from his creation.

If god created the universe, he must be part of the universe; if he is not part of the universe, then he cannot have created it.

Once this dilemma is spotted, the coherence of the ‘god’ idea quickly falls apart. For instance, an ‘all powerful’ god should indeed have the power to place himself out of time; but he can’t, because power – the ability to move or shape reality – is itself temporally bound – to have power means, in part, to be able to do something in time.

And of course if god cannot get himself outside of time, he can’t have foreknowledge in the way that the Abrahamic religions have insisted since Augustine – by being outside of time, god supposedly sees all the history of his creation at once. But ‘seeing’ is an activity, and thus temporally bound; if god acquires foreknowledge of history thereby, he effectively becomes a part of that history, and this ‘seeing all at once‘ is clearly a moment of god’s own history. (And this history assures us that god cannot even be said to be ageless, since aging is a inevitable function of history.) Unless god wants to abandon the claim to foreknowledge, in which case he cannot be all-knowing.

This is where we at last see the intersection of the problem of temporality with the problem of history. If god does have any power at all, in order to do something, this ‘doing something’ will have its history.

Which returns us to nannus’ point, according to which god can be all knowing and not have a history (and thus cannot create) or he can have a history (including creation), and then can not be all knowing.

The point I add is that omniscience would still embed god into his creation’s history, and that to be free of history, – outside of time – god would have to know nothing and be completely powerless.

So is god omniscient and therefore without a history of his own, yet completely embedded in creation’s history? Or is he powerless and unknowing, yet somehow the origin of all creation, even time itself?

None of this is making sense; the very idea of god is simply incoherent. None of the ascriptions of qualities he is said to have, thought through reasonably, hold up as propositions proper, once linked to logical implications of other asserted qualities. And time is the wrench that undoes the whole works. Because none of the active qualities ascribed to god can be realized except in time – and god is supposedly outside of time. But if this were so, his existence would be completely moot.

Time is thus the irreducible absolute of existence, the inescapable necessity of fundamental ontology, that undoes the whole of the ‘god’ idea, revealing it as a portmanteau of ancient myth and uninformed metaphysical speculation, patched together from the fabric of human hope and suspicions concerning the unknown. Its a superstition transmuted into an ideal , the re-assuring parent in the sky who will love us despite our flaws, and receive us into his embrace after we have survived all the tests he has given us.

I can hear the protests of theistic believers – ‘You don’t understand, god is beyond our comprehension entirely!’ If so, then he is also beyond our caring or concern. A god we cannot talk about is a god that has no relevance for us – a mere hope, a mere suspicion, a mere sense of re-assurance that may help one get through the day, I suppose, but provides no adequate ground for belief.

* http://asifoscope.org/2015/06/15/omniscience-and-creativity-a-note-on-creationism/
(The graphic above is borrowed from nannus’ post; it’s from wikimedia.)