Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lies and nonsense

To lie is to assert falsely, though what exactly it is to assert falsely is unclear. It probably doesn't mean to assert a falsehood. Some say it is to assert what one doesn't believe. Some say it is to assert what one what one disbelieves. Some say that it is to assert without believing that what one is asserting is true. Some add the condition that it is to deceive. But a common denominator in all of these is that a lie is a special kind of assertion.

But suppose I deliberately and deceptively start spouting pseudoscientific nonsense to my students, in aid of some argument I am pushing—nonsense in the literal sense of the word, namely stuff that has no meaning at all. I tell my students: "The paramorphogenophilic field surrounds us all and photons are submorphizations of that field." I am not lying, since I am not asserting anything. If it were the case that I was asserting something, one could ask: What am I asserting? And the only potentially possible answer would be: "He is asserting that the paramorphogenophilic field, etc." But this answer is itself nonsense—nonsense in indirect quotation renders the whole sentence (if one can even call it a sentence) nonsense.

So I am not asserting. But what I am doing is surely just as wrong as lying and for the same reasons.

What then are these reasons? It is not the production of false belief. For the students would not form a belief, at least not directly. There is no belief that the words which they then could parrot on a test express. The best account here seems to be that of Jorge Garcia's account of lying. I am inviting their trust and simultaneously breaking it.


Andrew M. Bailey said...

This doesn't seem to be a case of lying, but it does seem to be a case of bullshitting---roughly, speaking without regard for the truth. Further, it's plausible that bullshitting and lying are both wrong for the same reasons (e.g., they both manifest the same intellectual vice).

Jarrett Cooper said...

Maybe one can say that you don't necessarily have to assert something for it be a lie. Why couldn't it be possible to convey some statement(s) and for it to be be considered a lie?

In the example to your students you "conveyed" that such and such is the case, which would make your statement be a lie (given the view you don't have to assert something for it to be lie). Even though you did not assert such and such, and even if you did -- whatever you asserted would be nonsense.

However, there are problems with the convey approach to lying. Often educators have to convey old, outdated, and incorrect information to make a point, lesson, illustration, and etc. So, one would have to make distinctions on certain usages of conveying for it to be called a lie. Nonetheless, I think having to asset (whatever) is not the only category for something to be a lie.

In the end, lying will have to come down to intention. Take this scenario: A parent teaches their child about the operations of a car. The child is eager to share his knowledge with his friends. However, the child confuses the fact that you need gasoline (in the tank) for the engine to work with needing water (in the radiator) to keep the engine cool. Even though when the child tells his fiends of this false information, it cannot be said to be a lie because the child does not intend to speak falsely.

Anonymous said...

Is calling your example "nonsense" maybe too oversimplified? In this example, I think that the various connotations and implications are relevant because there are all sorts of indirect meanings that can be got out of the nonsense sentence. It conveys the belief that there is such a thing as a paramorphogenophilic field; and furthermore that "paramorphogenophilic" is standard accepted scientific terminology; and so on. Such claims are meaningful, and since there's no hard and fast line between "direct" and "indirect" meanings, I don't see why it shouldn't be called lying.

To say something really nonsensical, you'd have to resort to utterances like "ergle blergle schlaw", and I don't think that could be considered a lie at all. (And even there, I guess there's the possibility that the context suggests you're actually trying to recite the scat routine from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon or something.)

Alexander R Pruss said...


I am not expressing a proposition if I utter that pseudosentence. I may be implicating falsehoods, including the falsehood that what I am saying is making sense, but implicating falsehoods is, I think, a different species of deceit from lying.

On the other hand, here's another interesting case which fits with what you say about indirect meaning. I say to my students, who know no better:

(*) Last year, Professor Xyz committed plagiarism in order to get a grant to buy a paramorphogenophilic field generator from Xantham Labs.

What I say is, strictly speaking, nonsense. But it's nonsense from which it "follows", or maybe even follows, that Professor Xyz committed plagiarism. It is nonsense that I could be sued for libel over.

Maybe what we can say about this case is this. While strictly speaking nothing follows from (*), since (*) fails to express a proposition, from the second-order sentence

(**) Utterance (*) is true in English

it relevantly follows that Professor Xyz committed plagiarism. Sentence (**) is a perfectly fine, but false, sentence.

I find it hard not to say that (*) is a lie. So maybe to lie you don't have to assert. All you have to do is to put yourself forward as asserting. So, here's a definition. I don't think it's exactly right but it does handle the above cases: You lie iff you put yourself forward as asserting in saying something, and you believe what you say not to be a true sentence of the contextually relevant language.

Jarrett Cooper said...

Prof. Pruss,

One problem (though as you said it's not exactly right) with your new definition is it doesn't take into account of playing Devil's advocate. When one argues, just for the sake of argument, for a belief she does not hold, surely we wouldn't say she lied. Or would we?

Now, I would say said she lied if she intended to make one believe such and such.

Alexander R Pruss said...

When one argues as a devil's advocate, and it's clear that one is so doing, then one is not asserting or putting oneself forward as asserting. I don't know exactly what kind of speech act this is. (It's like a step in a subproof.)

You can lie without intending to make the listener believe the content of your lie. You might instead want to make the listener believe that you believe the content of your lie, without trying to make the listener believe the content itself. For instance, suppose I am a flat-earther, and I know you will have no respect for me if you think I'm a flat-earther. So I say: "The earth is round." I am not trying to make you think the earth is round. I am trying to make you think that I believe the earth is round.

Jarrett Cooper said...

I haven't looked at it that way. I never differentiated between lying and the actual content of the lie (its truth and falsity); and a lie that one tells in which that particular individual doesn't believe (even though the content of the lie could actually be true. Like your case of saying the earth is round).

In both cases, and possibly in all cases of lying, in the end it comes down to where the individual acts to "put forward" (advancing?) something which is contrary to what he/she believes -- even though the content of the lie could be true (it could also be the case that the lie doesn't have a truth value, like your first example), nor does it matter if the lie is said to make the other(s) believe the lie or not.

My only problem is how would one, given the above view of lying, say that all cases of deception are not lies. I remember reading your example where a man escapes prison (or was it a concentration camp?) and when escaping creates another trail to throw off the men chasing him.

How would that not be considered a lie? The individual is certainly conveying something which he knows is not the case. I'd hate to call the man a liar. I'm missing something, but am not quite sure what.

Jarrett Cooper said...

The wording is off on one part. It should read: "My only problem is how would one, given the above view of lying, say that not all cases of deception are lies."

Randy Everist said...

It seems we intuitively know it's a lie, and I think the reason we think it is a lie is because the pseudo-scientific sentence which conveys no information is used as a proof of something which does.

Suppose I have claim X, and I offer in support of claim X nonsense sentence P. I think it's clear I am attempting to convey that "P explains X," or "P suggests X," or "P proves X," et al. It is the entire situation, which indeed conveys real information and has real referents, which is a lie--but it is so precisely because the nonsense is given to indicate a relationship not present.

Daniel Hill said...

Could you give us the reference to Gracia, please? (I take it you meant Jorge Gracia, right?)

Alexander R Pruss said...

It is Garcia: Garcia, J. L. A. Lies and the Vices of Deception, Faith and Philosophy (1998, 15:4) 514-537.

Heath White said...

If we can unmoor 'assertion' and 'belief' from 'propositions' and tie them to 'sentences' then it can be lying in a straightforward sense.

Also, if we focus on 'not true' rather than 'false' you get more room to say that it's lying.

As for Gracia's theory, I haven't read it, but I wonder if it's possible to detach "trust" in this context from the notion of truth.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks, Alex. And I apologize for getting J L A Garcia and Jorge Gracia confused, and imputing the confusion to you! Sorry!