On Lies and Liars

Avid readers of my blogs will probably remember that one of my most-often-used aphorisms is a saying that I regularly and faithfully attribute to Ludwig Wittgenstein (LW), even though my best endeavours have failed to trace its origins:

“All the really important decisions tend to be taken right at the very beginning, when we hardly realise that we have begun.”

Sometimes I imagine that Wittgenstein was not the person from whom I first learned this principle, but if so I am unable to trace an alternative author. Perhaps, then, the attribution to anyone other than myself is mistaken, and I am in reality the author of my own aphorism? What would follow? That the attribution to LW is a lie? A mistake, perhaps, but not a lie; not something deliberately manufactured to deceive; on the contrary, something intended to dispel any supposition that the insight is attributable to me, even if it is not attributable to LW either. I have no desire to earn undeserved credit for something that I originally acquired from someone else.

Elsewhere I have quoted the same sentiment somewhat differently.

“It is often the case that the really important decisions are made right at the beginning, when we hardly know we have begun.”

Either way, the sentiment is the same.

Whatever the origins of this mantra, and whoever originally said or penned it, it is incontrovertible that it has now been said. It may, just conceivably, be the case that nobody has ever said it before, in which case it is indeed attributable to me; I cannot say. All I can say is that I believe that I learnt it from LW even if I have somehow mangled the true attribution, or woven together many other skeins of thought to produce the idea myself.

What of it? To be mistaken about an attribution is not the same as to lie about it. We might lie about it in order to try to raise its authority; we might be mistaken merely because we have forgotten or misplaced the original. So let us start again.

  1. Someone who lies demonstrates that she has not understood the world.
    1. To the response “On the contrary: she may demonstrate that she understands the world better than others” we have no reply. Someone who does not understand that to lie is to misunderstand the world does not understand the world well enough to understand an explanation of the same claim.
  2. To lie is to injure oneself.
    1. To the response “On the contrary: it may be to injure another” we have no reply. Someone who does not understand that to lie is to injure oneself cannot be protected from such injury by means of explanation.
  3. To lie well we need to become a lie ourselves in order that we can believe the lies we tell and make them sound true.
    1. To the response “On the contrary: someone may become a very good accomplished liar while knowing perfectly well that everything she says is a lie” we have no reply. Someone who believes that we can lie consistently and persuasively while not being ourselves a lie does not understand what lying is or how difficult it is to do extremely well has not understood lying and so cannot understand an explanation of what it takes to be a liar.
  4. The most accomplished liars are those who believe their lies absolutely.
    1. To the response “On the contrary: there are accomplished liars who know very well that they are lying and do so specifically to deceive us while remaining themselves in possession of the truth” we have no response. Someone who lies to great effect must believe their own lie or they could not persuade other rational persons that it was true.

When we say that someone who lies, and especially someone who lies effectively and skilfully has “not understood the world”, we are not suggesting that their lying does not in some measure advance what they take to be their cause. We are rather saying that their lying can only further a cause that is itself mistaken, a result of a misunderstanding of the world. The alternative would be to allow that lying could produce a desirable effect that is based upon a proper understanding of the world, which would be to make the world itself a lie.

Many, of course, have argued over the centuries that the world is indeed a lie. This concept lies at the heart of a religious notion of the imperfection of the world brought about by corruption. But such a notion is clearly nonsensical, whatever its religious credentials: the nature of the world cannot be contaminated by human corruption, even if the nature of human society and our dealings with the world can. We are reminded of what Richard Feynman wrote as the concluding sentence of his part of the report on the Challenger disaster:

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”


There is an important distinction here between something that is used to ill effect and something that is corrupted. If I administer cyanide to you and kill you, I have put the cyanide to ill effect, but I have not corrupted the cyanide, which does what it does in the way it has always done it. The notion of a corrupt world or a corrupt universe makes no sense scientifically: things do what they do, acting always according to the laws that have emerged in nature. (The word “nature” is also problematic, but we will park that concern for now.)

A natural inference is that, since human beings are products of nature, human beings are similarly incapable of corruption: they simply do what they do; if their doing includes lying, then lying is also no more than the actualisation of a possibility inherent in nature as it has evolved to produce human beings. On such an analysis, for which we should have considerable sympathy because it obviates the need to the vocabulary of sin and evil, corruption and salvation, our response to lying should be the same as our response to flood, fire and pestilence: they are the consequences of nature doing what nature does; our task is to control their impact by implementing those skills and powers that have accrued to us through our owe development as we in our turn do what nature allows us to do to curb their deleterious influences.

Imagine, then, that we could somehow eliminate the vocabulary of good and bad, corruption and saintliness, and respond to all human actions as we would to natural events exactly as we should, for they are natural events. Then, when something like 9/11 or the Las Vegas shootings occurs, instead of reaching for the vocabulary of sin and evil, which achieves absolutely nothing, we should reach instead for the armour of analysis and correction: something has happened we and people like us deem undesirable and contrary to human well-being; we should take steps to ensure that nothing like it happens again.

The vocabulary of evil and corruption only serves to inhibit implementation of appropriate remedial strategies. It suggests that the origins of the behaviour are to be sought and found solely in the mind of the culprit and not more widely in the movements of ideas and values in the society that created him. It suggests, in other words, that nature can be fooled by a suitable application of human will accompanied by something called evil intent. But nature cannot be fooled: bullets will injure and kill people because it is their nature to do so; take away the bullets and nobody can be killed by bullets.

As someone put it on a news programme yesterday, the NRA believes that the solution to a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun. The mistaken and misleading vocabulary of “good” and “bad” is rehearsed. That only means that we are farther way from understanding that a culture that regards owning and using guns as in some sense “cool” creates a climate in which the notion of killing 58 strangers and injuring hundreds more is even thinkable. And before we are too quick to point the finger, we should ask ourselves how much of our entertainment, particularly in film, consists in the glorification of violence and guns. We are brain-washed into believing the NRA lie: that the solution to a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun. This is the Schwarzenegger logic, the Die Hard logic: be tougher and bigger and toting a bigger gun, and you can subdue evil. But the enemy is not evil: the enemy is the vocabulary of good and evil that separates human conduct from natural processes and pretends that the way to deal with bad people is to point fingers at them and call them “evil”. We might as well try to divert a hurricane by praying, calling it names, pointing fans or – heaven forbid – shooting at it. Then again, we could apply some of our enormous economic resources to building houses for people that can withstand hurricanes. It’s actually not that hard. But instead we prefer to speak of bad men and storms using the language of evil, forgetting that nature is not evil and that nature cannot be fooled.

It is of course cheaper both economically and politically to label certain people “evil” than to address the social problems and attitudes of mind that made gun-carrying societies think they are cool. “This was an evil act”, “an act of pure evil” makes it seem like the fault of some malignant force, some Devil or Satan, a consequence of some original sin committed so long ago that nobody can now remember when and nobody today can bear responsibility for it. It may even be suggesting that nature herself is evil or capable of evil. But nature is incapable of evil, and nature cannot be fooled.

It is easy to try to find counter-examples in the many things we experience as great evils, tragedies, and sources of suffering: cancer; plague; some viruses; Altzheimer’s Disease; even death. But these are not examples of nature being evil: they are just examples of conflicting trajectories in which the success of one process causes the failure of another. Reaching for the language of good and evil to explain or accuse diseases achieves nothing: viruses do what they do and degenerative diseases arise from natural wear and tear in exactly the same way that floods devastate communities and hurricanes demolish houses, by virtue of nature doing what nature does (assisted or not by other things like Climate Change and unhealthy human lifestyles, because nature cannot be fooled).

So how does all this connect with our title, “On Lies and Liars”? Imagine that our first epithet, that someone who lies does not understand the world, were to be applied not to an individual, but to a whole society, perhaps a whole species. What happens when an entire species learns and takes as given what is in fact a lie, comes to believe the lie, and employs the lie in its entire analysis of the world?

What happens when an entire species learns and takes as given what is in fact a lie, comes to believe the lie, and employs the lie in its entire analysis of the world?

The lie we have in mind is the claim that there exists something called “evil”. There is no denying that there are unspeakable, despicable and utterly reprehensible acts, and that they are all undertaken by human beings. If all we mean by “evil” is this, then there are evil acts. But that is not all we mean: to invoke the language of good and evil is to appeal to an ancient and cosmic dualism in which good and evil originate in opposite poles of a metaphysical universe that lies beyond our world. But there are no such cosmic powers: there is only nature and what nature does; and nature cannot be fooled. “Evil” acts  are human acts perpetrated by human beings who are the product of societies that are themselves the product of natural processes that cannot lie and will not be fooled. They are not “evil” because there is no force for and source of evil other than our own deployment of natural processes that just do what they do.

To invoke the language of good and evil is to appeal to an ancient and cosmic dualism in which good and evil originate in opposite poles of a metaphysical universe that lies beyond our world.

Invoking the language of good and evil is the equivalent of throwing up one’s hands in horror and disclaiming all responsibility: the source of this great tragedy lay outside the earth and beyond human control; therefore there is nothing to be done and nobody we should blame. “Evil” becomes a catch-all that absolves us from all responsibility. As such it is a lie into which almost all of us have at some time bought, and the benefits of which we have all at some time sought to enjoy: “I don’t know what came over me; it was as if I was possessed”.

So what does happen when entire societies and perhaps entire species come to believe and adopt the language of a lie? What happens is that they become blind to the causes of their own misfortunes, absolve themselves from responsibility for things that are entirely of their own making, and blame cosmic forces for things whose origins lie at home because the lie they so completely embrace leads them to seek the causes of all these things in entirely the wrong place. Using the language of evil we seek to exempt ourselves from responsibility for anything and everything that is too difficult, too inconvenient, too politically costly, or too embarrassing to address directly. And so we are all in our own ways consummate liars who have learned how most effectively to lie to ourselves by allowing ourselves to become a lie.

Fundamental lies, lies that is which permeate societies and find themselves endorsed by most members of those societies, lie so deep in our psyches that we find them almost impossible to detect and identify. The suggestion here is that the notion of “evil” is such a lie, and that we each inherit that lie with our culture and our education, especially our religious education, and until we address that problem many other things in society will be impossible to rectify.

“All the really important decisions tend to be taken right at the very beginning, when we hardly realise that we have begun.”



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