Twin Medics

I’m generally a fan of thought experiments (see the blog title, for example), whether about the nature of reality, ethics1, language and meaning, technology, or anything else. They may be called by various names: experiments, paradoxes2, dilemmas, problems…

The advantage of a thought experiment is that it allows one (or many) to consider the nuances and implications of a situation before getting into it. This is especially handy if the situation is one that requires quick decisions, or has a high cost. Plus, it’s just interesting to consider what might be, and what are the implications and ramifications of a decision.

I find scenarios a little frustrating, however. There may be a good point behind them, but the way they are presented means the immediate solution is a matter of grammar or semantics. For example, the “Omnipotence Paradox”, usually expressed as (something like) “if God can do anything, can he create a stone too heavy for him to lift?”. Whether the answer is yes or no, it establishes something that God cannot do, thus God cannot be omnipotent. It’s really about the logical inconsistencies of our concept of omnipotence, and the limitations of our language in expressing certain concepts. Which is fine, those are worthy topics of discussion, but we shouldn’t claim it tells us anything useful about the nature/existence of God.

Another famous one that doesn’t really hold up is the “Epimenides’ Paradox”, named after a Cretan philosopher who claimed that all Cretans were liars. But he was a Cretan, so he must have been lying. So Cretans are not liars, so he was telling the truth, so … 😕

But that's a false dichotomy. The statement “All Cretans are liars” is not the same as the (more specific) statement “All Cretans always lie”. In the real world no-one lies all the time (despite recent evidence). Of more relevance is the (somewhat blander and more formal) “Liar Paradox”, encapsulated in “This sentence is false”. This has been the basis of much discussion of the problems of self-referential language.

Speaking of lying, though, I saw an article purporting to list the 5 lies you are allowed to tell in a relationship. The morality of lying has been a hobbyhorse of mine, so I was intrigued. But ultimately disappointed. Their list of acceptable topics to lie about was:

  1. Whether you liked the meal they cooked
  2. Whether the hotel room is okay
  3. Whether it’s fine for their family to visit
  4. Whether those clothes look good on them
  5. Whether they’re right (in an argument)

In general, this seems to be mistaking lying for diplomacy. In all these situations, lying about your feelings to spare theirs is a bad idea. Again, it’s presenting a false dichotomy: you have more options than lying through your teeth, or giving it to them with both barrels. Telling the truth can (and should) be done gently, and with respect for the person you’re talking to. It’s a lack of that respect that makes the truth blunt and rude.

A specific note on outfits: they advise praising an outfit that works and saying nothing about an outfit that doesn’t (i.e. lying by omission). Again, the truth would be better, but this is a scenario where you have to show you deserve the right to tell the truth. The stereotypical girlfriend’s “test” (“Does this make my bum look big?”) isn’t about the clothes. It’s not a yes/no question. You pass by showing that you want her to look good, and can say something’s wrong without hurting her feelings.

Ultimately, don’t you want those close to you to respect and value your feelings and opinions? How can they do that if you’re not being honest?

1 A topical example is the Trolley Problem—first popularised in the late 1960’s—which directly relates to the decision-making of automated vehicles in potential crash situations (do you drive into the other car, or the pedestrian?).

2 Yes, the heading is a dreadful pun. No, I’m not sorry. 😛

Are Lies Ever White?

For a long time I’ve been puzzled by the idea of lying. Various moral philosophies have fairly clear edicts on the matter (i.e. deceit = bad) and this seems to be the prevailing opinion. Sure, there are those who see absolutely no problem with lying, but they’re generally either fictional, psychopaths, or both.

But at the same time, this suggests that most people are hypocrites, in that they decry lying with one hand, and indulge in it with the other, justifying things as “social niceties” or “little white lies” (textbook denial-by-diminishing). But I tend to agree: there are plenty of times that to tell the truth would be impolite, unwise, in some way less good than not doing so.

So what’s the deal? Are we all filthy liars, or is lying not as bad as it’s portrayed?

Actually, I think there’s something else involved (from my perspective at least). Part of my confusion has been due to my perception of what a “lie” is, which has been influenced more than the average by “Knights and Knaves” logic puzzles (e.g. the two doors, two guards scene in the film Labyrinth).

The effect being that I had a very black-and-white view of lying: any false statement is a lie. More recently, harkening back to my thoughts on morality, I’ve realised that this neglects the “liar”‘s intentions. Do they realise what they’re saying is false? Or are they mistaken? Misinformed? Deluded? Why are they making a false statement?

Another distinction that should be made is between lying by commission (stating something false) and lying by omission (leaving out something true). It took me a while to come to grips with the idea that someone saying “How are you?” is just making conversation, and you don’t need to feel uncomfortable about saying that you’re fine even though you’re actually traumatised over yesterday’s episode of Days Of Our Lives. There’s nothing wrong with keeping private things private.

Another situation that seems, at face value, to be lying is the whole area of fiction: literature, theatre, comedy, etc. Knowingly asserting things that are not true, but without malice. Indeed, there is an implicit assumption that both parties know the story is false. Similarly in various types of games, deliberate deceit is a component (e.g. bluffing at poker, dummy passes in football), but it’s under specific conditions.

I don’t want to suggest by this that lying is a good thing; merely clarify the definition. Much of the function of society depends on there being a level of trust between people. What got me (back) onto this topic was an episode of the tv show Perception (another in the “abrasive, mentally-ill, but brilliant layman* helps solve crimes” genre – this time with a schizophrenic neuroscience professor) which mentioned that we react to lies with the same part of our brains that process pain: discovering you are being deceived literally feels uncomfortable. I also vaguely recollect reading (somewhere) that when we hear a statement, our brain processes it as though it were true (which I suspect is why rumours can hurt so much), and we have to actively refute it (literally have second thoughts about it).

To conclude with a metaphor (because I like metaphors**): tigers are dangerous, but we shouldn’t treat zebras the same way just because they’re stripey.

* Because they’re almost always men (which is a whole other kettle of worms).

** I’m rather fond of footnotes, too.