Monday, 23 November 2015

A Philosophy of Untruth

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
Untruth has to do, not with greed or with need, compulsion or coercion, but with my life-view – and my life-view begins with my conception of the world. From this arises every untruth.
Psychologist Richard Gregory puts it in a word: we, as humans, are motivated by the “unexpected”. That is, whenever and wherever I hold up my personal conception of the world to the world itself, and there discover a disjoint, I am moved to act. Therefore, prior to all of my actions is the way in which I arrange the world in my mind.

Supposing then that, in my imagination, my life is a happy family in suburbia – a friendly dog, fresh muffins on the table, and daisy-chains and laughs. Then I look from my kitchen window, to see my little girl with her face down in the grass. Suddenly there is a disjoint, and I spring into action. Of course, different people will spring into action for different reasons, and this reveals their various conceptions of the world. Some may not want a happy family in suburbia, or a dog, or fresh muffins on the table. Some may want to be loose and wild, and some may want to immerse themselves in figures. The possibilities are as many as the people.

And so, on the one hand, our conception of the world may be balanced and broad – or on the other hand, short-sighted, self-interested, and parochial. Some will live a “large” life, which is well-rounded and meaningful – while others will live a small-time existence, a self-destructive life, as fools or bunglers. In short, some will become wise, and some will become fools. With these simple observations, we may now describe the first of three forms of untruth we shall survey: namely, foolishness. Foolishness is rooted in the “small” view life – and where we find it, we tend to pity it, laugh at it, or denigrate it.  But we don't much take it to heart. It matters little to the rest of us.

Now consider that all of us arrange our worlds differently in our minds. And, again, from these conceptions of our world, our motivations arise. But now, given different conceptions of our world, and different motivations, it stands to reason that my own motivations may come into conflict with the motivations of another.  And if I do not yield to the other, then the other must yield to me. This must mean that if the other cannot, through natural processes, change my own conceptual arrangement of the world, they may yet be able to change the conceptual stuff that I have to work with. With a few targeted ruses, they may change the world I think I live in.

I may feel passionate about the village duckpond, for instance, while another person wants to build a helipad there. But if they cannot overcome my passion for the pond, by fairly changing my own conceptual arrangement of the world, they may tamper with the conceptual stuff I have to work with. They may tell me (falsely) that permission for their helipad has been granted on high authority, or that duckponds are death-traps for children. This now differs from mere foolishness, in that it seeks to manipulate what I know – and it happens all the time, whether on the personal level of lies, or on the political level of propaganda. It is our second form of untruth: namely, lies and deceit.

But further than this.  Not only may one change the way in which I arrange the world in my mind. One may change the world itself – through force and through violence, or comparable actions. Think again on the person who wishes to create the helipad. In the dark of night now, they send a small-time crook with a dump truck, to fill in the duckpond in one dramatic act. Now my conceptual arrangement of the world must change, because the world itself has changed. I have no pond left to defend, and no more purpose in opposing a helipad.

The dynamics of course may be more complex in the real world. It may be easy to see that a pond was filled in on the orders of the person who had a vested interest in it. It may be less easy to see that running me out of town with false rumours had to do with the pond, or that someone now drives a new Bentley on this account. And so the world of untruth may become tangled and dark, and as vast as the ocean. One finds it in lies and in half-truths, bluff and deceit, rationalisation and subterfuge – and now, thirdly, in violence of many kinds: physical, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual.

Now notice what has happened in the course of this short post. By means of some basic principles, all manner of evils in this world have been reconciled. Whether someone is reckoned to be a fool, a liar, or a thug, these are all basically one and the same. It is through a false conceptual arrangement of the world that people fall prey to each one. And notice something else: something about human nature, which seems to speak louder than words. Our moral integrity (or not) lies beyond our immediate control. It lies beyond all moralism and legalism. It changes only if our very life-view changes.


  1. This is a very complex post, Thomas. I've read it several times and I'm still not quite sure what it all means. Could we have an executive summary?

    "It is through a false conceptual arrangement of the world that people fall prey to each one" - meaning each evil? Evil's in the shale of untruths and falsities? But then there is something perhaps circular in your reasoning...

  2. Thank you, Martin.

    Originally one of twenty-nine chapters of a metaphysic, I sought to make this essay self-contained. This may partly account for any difficulty. The post seeks to do two things above all:

    1. to understand what untruth is, among a variety of possibilities, and
    2. to understand the relationship between the various forms of untruth: namely, foolishness, deceit, and violence – and their various forms.

    The post briefly explores how we are motivated to act:

    1. We hold up our personal conception of the world to the world itself.
    2. Where we find a disjoint, there we are motivated to act. And
    3. Since our individual conceptions of the world are different, our motivations and actions may conflict.

    From this follows that we may:

    1. Treat with integrity of other people's conceptions of the world,
    2. Seek to falsely manipulate their conceptions of the world, or
    3. Defeat their conceptions of the world through manipulating the world itself.

    The best actions (and this, in particular, is where this essay's original context would help) are based on conceptions of the world which are balanced and broad. The opposite is also true, that the worst actions reveal conceptions of the world which is narrow or self-interested.

  3. Thomas, your post reminds me of something Dostoyevski mentioned: if you have to sacrifice one child to save other children, that one child should however never be sacrificed. The idea in itself is distorted and foolish in its concept.

    1. I think Thomas’ idea of untruth is another attempt to explain morality with ontology, i.e., there is nothing right or wrong about motivations, as they are caused by different views of the world. Socrates believes that wrong doings were because of ignorance. Religion, to enhance faith, also mixes knowledge and moral: the infidels are not only ignorant but bad – a bad person can’t hear the truth. Kant distinguished virtue from truth, making things clearer since.

    2. Poke a bear with a stick and you get some pots of honey! At least in this case (thank you Thomas)

      But Chengde is surely right to say theat Thomas is rehersing an old view: there is nothing right or wrong about motivations, as they are caused by different views of the world. Is this what Tessa is also rejecting? In any case, if we say motivations are always right from their holder's perspective), don't we just push the right/ wrong issue back a stage and start arguing about better and worse viewpoints and perspectives?

      The bear offers "conceptions of the world which are balanced and broad" are better than those which are "narrow or self-interested.". The language is value-laden, (it is surely better to be balanced than unbalanced?) but undernath that I find it unconvincing too.

  4. Ethics today has a problem. It has no foundation – if indeed it ever had one. David Hume bedevilled the situation: Drop the Bomb, and you have a fact – but as to whether you SHOULD have dropped the Bomb, or should have had a lazy day on the Reviera instead, who can tell.

    Imagine a canvas, an infinite canvas, on which are drawn all the possible relations one could trace in the universe. Ecosystems, trade relationships, stars and galaxies, quarks and leptons ... Now let's start somewhere to make sense of it all, by joining the dots. Where do we put down our pen?

    We can immediately see: there is no reason to give priority to any particular point on the canvas, nor to any stable centre. The sun, say, or the king, or my mistress. Human sacrifice to the sun, massacres in the name of the king, or a broken heart – we all know the stories. To make things worse, my canvas has an infinity of relations on it, while I myself am finite.

    Finite: this means that there will be relations which everywhere lie beyond my power to explain – and control. Therefore, whatever I do must have unintended historical consequences. Invent a car, and I am surprised by smog. Split the atom, and I discover radioactive contamination. Worse than this, this dynamic introduces a powerful totalising urge. We now need infinite control.

    Let us look again at the canvas. We dare not get stuck on stable centres. We dare not shut out the whole canvas to focus only on one small part of it. We dare not seek to possess what we see, or to control it. And it seems to stand to reason: we ought not to invent relations which are not there – for instance, sell people tickets to the planet Vulcan.

    What, then, is the best way forward? Trace relations broadly. Not narrowly – like my neighbour, whose whole world turns around how many whiskys he downed at the pub last night. Be wary of totalising urges. Don't venerate stable centres. And there you have the makings of a universal ethics. With this one has, at least, some crieria for deciding what represents better or worse behaviour.

    TESSA: I imagined that you were saying that one sacrifices others through one's manipulations of reality. If so, yes. My own selfish game puts others at risk.

    CHENGDE: I would agree, by and large, with Socrates. Knowledge has a lot to do with a satisfactory ethics. Aristotle, though, may have put it in better perspective. He said that we err 'whenever some question is left out'. This, he said, is the root of fallacious thinking – apart from what he called 'stupidity'. In other words, we ought to think more broadly.

    MARTIN: The language is value laden yes, yet not on the basis of returning to origins, to use Derrida's term. Rather, on the basis of standing back and surveying the whole of that infinite canvas, and asking: what else can we do with this, other than planting a starting point here?

    I hope this makes some sense!

  5. The actual character obviously might be more complicated within real life. It might be easy to understand that the fish-pond had been stuffed within about the purchases associated with the one who experienced the vested curiosity about this.

  6. Thank you Crystal. You perceive rightly that this is the case. I briefly noted that things "may be more complex in the real world". But I hope that the essay was able to cast some light on the basic dynamic.