|Thanks to OMAC for the great pic!|
This week I've been thinking about truth and lies and in particular what makes a lie, a lie? I'm not as concerned with whether or not it's appropriate or moral to lie, or whether a lie is wrong or right, although those are good questions to ask. I'm pondering about the nature of lies and how to define them.
Truth has consistency. Truth is an accurate description or definition. A statement that is false is one that fails one of these two criteria. 'An elephant is a small, fuzzy animal with tiny ears' is a statement that is false, an obvious lie. It is a description that does not match our knowledge of a kind of animal we have named 'elephant'. While the entire statement is false, each element in the statement is true. There is nothing inconsistent with any one of the qualifiers in themselves, but together they don't match our definition of an elephant.
In fact without true qualifiers we wouldn't be able to define falsehood. A false word is one that has no definition. It doesn't truly exist. If we use a false word in an otherwise true statement, the statement does not become false. As an example, “fifuba” is an imaginary word. Saying 'an elephant is a fifuba animal' would not make the sentence false. Such a statement actually gives definition to 'fifuba' imparting some shared qualities that an elephant has to the word 'fifuba', making 'fifuba' a true word and by implication 'an elephant is a fifuba animal' also true.
However, a true statement may actually be a lie. If we changed our original statement to 'Elephant is a small, fuzzy animal with tiny ears', it could be an entirely true statement if 'Elephant' was the name of a specific small, fuzzy animal with tiny ears; an animal such as a pet mole. But then we would wonder why the writer would continue to use the ambiguous term 'animal' instead of clarifying the potential confusion by changing 'animal' to 'mole'. This statement is completely true, but it could still be a lie because it could be said in such a way as to be misleading. If said to a person who does not know what an elephant looks like, it would be mislead the audience into thinking that an elephant is defined as a small, fuzzy animal with tiny ears rather that a small, fuzzy animal with tiny ears was named Elephant. Without further clarification the true statement becomes a lie. In fact it is misleading whether or not the speaker intends to be misleading. What constitutes a lie is whether the audience has falsely defined terms regardless of the intention of the source of information.
What creates the deception is partial knowledge. The audience doesn't know the definition of elephant, doesn't know that the subject is the name for a specific animal rather than a name of a kind of animal, and doesn't know that the word animal can be narrowed down to a specific kind of animal called a mole. The partial knowledge doesn't change the truth of the statement, but does make the true statement into a lie for the audience because the audience's understanding conflicts with (and possibly prevents) a more complete knowledge of elephants and moles.
None of us have complete knowledge. We all are in various stages of partial knowledge about any given thing. But that doesn't mean that we are necessarily believing lies. When we first learn about elephants we probably see a picture that shows a large, nearly hairless animal with big ears and long trunk and somebody tells us that that is an elephant. Our knowledge of elephants is limited to what we can observe from a lifeless picture. It's true knowledge in so far as it goes, but what an elephant is is much more than the picture can convey. When we are taken to the zoo or circus and can watch the elephant move around, interact with other animals or his or her keeper, and hear the elephant communicating, then our knowledge of an elephant improves and we have a truer understanding of elephantness.
If we become an elephant veterinarian such that we understand what makes an elephant sick, or how to help an elephant give birth, then we have a fairly in depth knowledge of elephantness in a general statistical kind of way. As an elephant veterinarian we would know where to find the heart, liver, or kidneys. We could look at the size, the teeth, toes, and tusks and know with a high degree of certainty how old the elephant was. We could examine the eyes, skin, tongue, and excrement and figure out how healthy the elephant was.
We could become an elephant historian and learn about elephants throughout time starting from when elephants became distinct from their mammoth cousins to present day struggles to keep them from going extinct. We could learn the history of man/elephant interaction, when and where elephants were domesticated and the kinds of work they did for their human caretakers. We could learn all the stories, songs, and ways that elephants have been incorporated into our culture. But until we became a trainer of a specific elephant, spending day in and day out with the animal our knowledge would remain broad and sweeping and might not be relevant to the specific elephant.
As a veterinarian, it would be no use to know the proper medicine to heal an elephant if you couldn't get the specific sick elephant to take his or her medicine. As an elephant historian, it would be of no use to know that hundreds of other elephants have carried massive logs, if it's not possible to get a specific elephant to do the same. Knowing an elephant is knowing the likes and dislikes, fears and desires, moods and movements that encompass who the animal is beyond superficial knowledge of the elephant's body or history. As a trainer we could know a specific elephant, but elephant personalities vary from elephant to elephant making it impossible for one person to completely know elephantness in all it's true expression for what is true for one elephant is not necessarily true for another.
A veterinarian might not know the history of the elephant the same as the historian. Nor the historian understand the biology and physiology of the elephant the same as the veterinarian. Each has a true understanding of elephantness to the limits of their discipline, but neither could claim a complete understanding of elephantness. Neither would be lying if they explained elephantness as they understood it, but if they presented their knowledge as the complete knowledge of elephantness, they would be considered liars. If the veterinarian, historian, or trainer were to tell a young child that the picture was an elephant, they would be telling the child the truth, even though it would only be a partial truth. The fact that they did not explain elephant physiology, history, or personalities to the child would not discount the truthfulness of the partial knowledge; the child could not absorb more knowledge than they were given. However, if the veterinarian, historian, or trainer limited the child's future acquisition of knowledge about elephants to the picture, we would consider their behavior deceptive, particularly if that knowledge would have benefited the child in some way or kept the child from making ill-informed assumptions about elephants.
The claims we make about knowledge and how we communicate knowledge transform knowledge into lies. These lies, intentional or not, are sourced in how the audience perceives the information given. It is important for those in the business of proclaiming the Truth to understand how their audience is processing the information that's being given otherwise they could be undermining their own credulity. It is also important to have humility to recognize other contributions of truth and one's personal scope of understanding, otherwise what was intended to enlighten may end up being deceitful.