Tuesday, January 17, 2017

First person pronouns and lying

Suppose that I have Alister, who is an identical twin of Bob, registered in my class. One day, Alister is not feeling well, but knowing about Baylor's absence policy, he asks Bob to attend in his place, and while he's there to tell me, quite correctly, that the term paper that Alister is working on is almost finished. So, Bob comes class, and at the end says to me: "I'm almost finished with the paper for you." Bob is deceiving me by pretending to be Alister. But is he telling a truth or a falsehood at the end? That depends on what the referent of "I" is. If the referent is Bob, then Bob is telling me something false, but if the referent is Alister, then Bob is telling me something true. I take the referent to be Alister, and Bob expects me to take the referent to be Alister. I form the belief that Alister is almost finished with his paper for me, which is true. On the other hand, I also take the referent to be this man, and Bob expects me to do so. I also form the belief that this man is almost finished with his paper for me, which is false.

I think that in this context, what matters, what is salient in the communication, is that Alister---the guy registered for my class---is almost finished with the paper. That this guy is finished with the paper is not relevant. This suggests that there is no lie. But I am not sure.

6 comments:

Heath White said...

Surely the referent of "I", in this and every other case I can think of, is the speaker. So he is deceiving by uttering a falsehood, and that is lying.

Alexander R Pruss said...

We do have special conventions allowing one person to speak for another. (For an illustration of the awkwardness this can have, though, see this Star Trek episode: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loud_as_a_Whisper ).

In some cases, we know that the convention is in used. In others, one might not. Email to some "important" people may be answered by a secretary, whose use of "I" refers to the "important" person. But the recipient may not know that this person has a secretary answer emails, or even be expected to know that.

This could happen in voice, too. Suppose I yell across the house to my big kids to ask if they've done their homework. As a prank, the daughter responds: "Yes, I've done it", simulating the son's voice in a way that fools me. Assume she knows all about what homework was done by whom. On your reading, she's lying iff *she* hasn't done her homework. But that doesn't seem right to me. It seems to me that whether *she* has done her homework is irrelevant to whether she is lying. If she hasn't done her homework but he has, then I think she is not lying. (I don't know whether she's lying if neither has done their homework--that may be like the case in my previous post.)

Richard said...

Let us suppose that you had become aware that a number of your students are, for whatever reason, writing other students’ papers and that your habitual attitude of trust has given way to one of deep suspicion. Then, when you heard Bob say, “I am almost finished with the paper for you,” you might well have thought to yourself that, while it might well be true that the paper is almost finished, it might also be false that Bob is the one who has almost finished it. (That Bob and Alister are twins is a bit of a red herring.) You might then, still trusting in logic if not in students, have further reflected that Bob’s statement implies the conjunction, “The paper for you is almost finished and I, Bob, am the one who has almost finished it.” You might then have observed that, if the latter conjunct is false, then, even though the former is true, the conjunction as a whole is false and then that the original statement implying it would therefore be false too. Moreover, you might well reason bitterly that Bob had to have known that it was false that he was the one who had almost finished the paper and that, therefore, Bob was a liar.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Sure wish I had a twin. :-)

Richard Davis said...

What if Bob just says, "I am Alister"? It looks like the same features should be at work. If Bob can make "I" refer to Alister, not to himself, when he says "I finished the paper" and so avoid lying, then he can make "I" refer to Alister, not to himself, when he says "I am Alister" and so avoid lying. But he can't avoid lying when he says "I am Alister," so by modus tollens, he can't avoid lying when he says "I finished the paper."

Unless something more subtle is going on?

Maybe Bob actually has a choice of two ways in which to deceive you. One way is for him simply to inform you that he (Bob) finished the paper. In acting and speaking thus, the personal pronoun he utters ("I") refers to Bob. Bob is lying: intentionally trying to get you to believe something false, while knowing that it is false, by way of informing you that it is true. The false thing Bob is trying to get you to believe is that he (Bob) finished the paper. BUT Bob is not only after falsehood. In addition to gaining a false belief (that he, Bob, finished the paper), Bob also hopes you acquire a second true belief: the belief that Alister finished the paper. He intends for you to get that belief as well by way of deduction: you deduce it from your false beliefs (i) that Bob finished the paper (a belief you hold because he just told you so, and you believed him) and (ii) that Bob is Alister (a belief you hold because Bob is impersonating Alister convincingly enough to persuade you that he is him).

But maybe there is also another distinct alternative in which for Bob to endeavor to deceive. Instead of lying, Bob might instead *act out a fiction*: a play, so to speak, in which Alister (as played by the actor Bob) says that he, Alister, finished the paper. If Bob takes this approach, then his goal is to get you to mistake a certain fiction (namely, that Alister is at that moment standing before you telling you about his paper) for reality.

In this second case, Bob is deceiving, but maybe he's not (more specifically) lying. I don't take actors typically to be lying when they speak their lines during plays.

Alexander R Pruss said...

You're right that "I am Alister" would be a lie.

But what if we think of the communicative point of an assertion as what is determinative of meaning, where the communicative point as what you'd *directly* come to believe if you trusted the assertion.

When Alister or Bob says "I am Alister", the communicative point isn't that Alister is Alister, since that's trivial. Rather, the communicative point is that *he* is Alister.

On the other hand, when Alister or Bob says "I finished the paper", it could be that in at least some contexts the communicative point is that Alister has finished the paper. When you hear "I finished the paper", you *might* of course go through this quick line of thought: "He finished the paper. He is Alister. So Alister finished the paper." But perhaps you go directly to: "Alister finished the paper" without any inference. When you're really familiar with Alister, maybe "I"-with-that-voice-and-face *means* Alister to you. But of course not if the words are "I am Alister".

I am far from confident that this is the case. But I think there is something phenomenologically plausible about this.