Fake lies?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about truth, but not for the reasons you might expect. Not because of the abundance of ‘fake news’ about which we seem to be constantly reminded, and not necessarily because I’ve been occasionally embarrassed in a lie, nor because of the tangled web you wove when first you practiced to deceive.

Fake news and deception, not to mention outright lies, have been in the headlines in recent years, but deception is certainly not unique to our era -nor even our species. Think of bird behaviour to distract predators from their nest, cowbirds that lay their eggs in other nests to trick the foreign mothers into raising the alien young, or squirrels that pretend to bury acorns in one place, but in case they were observed, actually keep them in their mouths while they find another spot to cache them.

I grant almost universality to the practice of intended deception -especially where there is something being protected, if only reputation or status. And, given its ubiquity and seemingly relentless practice in humans, it has a long history of ethical debate. Deception, of course is different from lying -deception is more a case of misleading, whereas lying is saying something known to be false.

I am concerned by something a little different, however. I am vexed by what, at first glance, would seem to be a more trivial concern: does a writer of fiction actually lie? And if the medium is one that does not purport to be factual -a novel, say- is it even possible? How important is truth in a fictive world -as long as it is internally consistent? A character in that story can lie, to be sure, but how analogous is that to a real-life character doing the same thing?

Writers have strange thoughts -perhaps that’s why they end up writing- but nonetheless I have been curious about this for some time now. I wonder about the ethics of fiction -not malicious, or scandalous fiction, you understand (although I suspect even those are merely the far edge of the spectrum). As it applies to writing, the very definition of ‘fiction’ -from the Latin fingere, to contrive- suggests imaginative creation, not investigative reportage where false attributions are indeed ethically problematic.

I’ve written fiction for years now (putting aside the fact that I am not at all widely published) so have I been lying all these years? If one of my characters lies, or deceives, and it happens to be read by someone in the ‘real-world’ -trespassing, in other words- have those lies in some sense transgressed the real-world ethics? Soiled our nest?

You’re right, it is perhaps a trifling concern, and yet bothersome nonetheless; I despaired of ever seeing it as the subject of an understandable evaluation. But, on one of my wide-eyed explorations, I happened upon a thoughtful essay by Emar Maier, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Groningen. https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-tell-fact-from-fiction-in-fiction-and-other-forms-of-lies

He starts by considering the work of another philosopher, H.P. Grice who considers that ‘it all comes down to the assumption that communication is fundamentally a cooperative endeavour,’ and postulates what seem to be almost ‘Golden Rule’ maxims of quality in communication: ‘‘do not say what you believe to be false’ and ‘do not say that for which you have insufficient evidence’.’ And yet, we violate these all the time -we tell jokes, we exaggerate, we deceive, we use metaphors, we use sarcasm, and, of course, we tell stories. ‘In all of these cases there is a clear sense in which we are not really presenting the truth, as we know it, based on the best available evidence. But there are vast differences between these phenomena. For instance, while some constitute morally objectionable behaviour, others are associated with art and poetry.’

There is a difference, though, between violating one of Grice’s norms, and flouting it with, say, a sigh and rolling of the eyes. However untrue the assertion, it is readily recognizable as an exaggeration or even a lie that is not meant to be taken as true. On the other hand, ‘Liars… violate the same maxim, but they don’t flout it. Theirs is a covert violation, and hence lying has an altogether different effect on the interpreter than irony, sarcasm or metaphor.’

Fiction, however, is more complicated. A work of fiction ‘consists of speech acts that, for the most part, look like ordinary assertions.’ And yet, ‘As with lies and irony, there is no dedicated grammar or style for constructing fictional statements that would reliably distinguish them from regular assertions.’

So, ‘Is fiction more like the covert violation of the liar, or like the overt violation of the ironical speaker? Unlike the liar, the fiction author doesn’t hide her untruthful intentions.’ There are two ways to look at this, Maier says: either that ‘both fiction and lying are quality-violating assertions – ie, speech acts presenting something believed to be false as if it’s known truth’ or ‘we can analyse fictional discourse as constituting a different type of speech act, where the usual norms and maxims don’t apply in the first place.’

‘[T]he idea that both lying and fiction are just assertions of known falsehoods can be traced back to eminent philosophers such as Plato, who wanted to ban poets from his ideal society, [and] David Hume who called them ‘liars by profession’’.

I, however, am more convinced by the opinion of Albert Camus, who believed that ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’. At any rate, Maier goes on to observe that a ‘striking difference between fictional statements and lies is the fact that, while most lies are simply false… many philosophers have argued that the statements making up a work of fiction, even those involving clearly nonexistent entities, are not really false, but at least ‘in some sense’ true – viz… true relative to the fictional world in question.’ Now we’re getting somewhere -it’s context that matters.

A second difference between fiction and lies, is the emotional response -the paradox of- fiction. ‘[W]orks of fiction induce… a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, allowing us to be emotionally engaged with commonly known falsehoods. Lies evidently lack this property: once a lie is exposed, suspension of disbelief and emotional engagement in accordance with the story’s content become impossible… the difference between fictional statements and regular communicative assertions lies not in some hidden logical operators in the fictional assertion, but in the fact that telling fictional stories is an altogether different speech act from the act of assertion that makes up our talk about the weather, or our newspaper reporting.’ Kind of what I suspected all along. ‘As the English poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney put it in The Defence of Poesy (1595): ‘Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.’

So, ‘it seems that fiction and lying are mutually exclusive, for they belong to distinct speech act categories, conform to different norms, and affect different cognitive states… since it is the text itself that generates the fictional world, the statements that make up that text should automatically become true in that world. When George Orwell wrote that ‘the clocks were striking thirteen’, it thereby became true in the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) that the clocks were striking thirteen. Unlike for the historian or the journalist, there is no relevant world outside the text, relative to which we could fact-check whether Orwell miscounted. This line of argument can be summed up in the principle of authorial authority: the statements that make up a work of fiction are true in that fiction.’

Of course there are things like ‘imaginative resistance’ where internal inconsistencies disrupt belief, but writers -and certainly proof readers and editors- are pretty good at resolving these gaffes before they are hung out to air on the clothesline of publication.

At any rate, I’m not sure I’ve discovered many immutable truths in Maier’s treatment of fictive lying, but I feel better about my own ethics of make-believe. I do still wonder about the boundary markers at that razor-thin edge where well-written fiction seems real and induces real emotion. I suppose edges are usually like that, though: porous…

Is your wisdom consumed in confidence?

How do we know what we know? It’s a question I used to think was obvious: if we cannot investigate the answer ourselves, we turn to others –somebody will know. Even the polymaths of old relied on other people for the groundwork on which they built. Nobody can know everything -knowledge is a jigsaw puzzle, the integral pieces of which make little sense on their own. We have to know what fits, and where.

But how do we know who to trust? How do we know who knows? If the foundation on which we construct is badly planned -or worse, wrong– the building will not last. Think of Ptolemy and his epicycles that became hopelessly complicated in a vain attempt to explain celestial movements and maintain earth as the center of the universe.

And it’s not as if Scientists are always reliable anyway. Consider the disappointment of Fleischmann-Pons’ claims that they had produced ‘cold fusion’ -a nuclear reaction occurring at room temperature? More ominous by far, however, was Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent 1998 paper in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet that claimed that the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella) caused autism. The paper was retracted by the journal in 2004, but by then, the damage had been done.

My point is that if we are not careful about the source -the reputation- of our information we may be led astray. It’s an almost trite observation, perhaps, but in this era of ‘Fake News’, one best kept in mind. I was again reminded of the importance of this in an essay by Gloria Origgi, an Italian philosopher, and a tenured senior researcher at CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research) in Paris. She was writing in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/say-goodbye-to-the-information-age-its-all-about-reputation-now

As she observes, ‘[T]he greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced … we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others … reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today. It is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others. The way in which the authority of knowledge is now constructed makes us reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know … In the best-case scenario, you trust the reputation of scientific research and believe that peer-review is a reasonable way of sifting out ‘truths’ from false hypotheses and complete ‘bullshit’ about nature. In the average-case scenario, you trust newspapers, magazines or TV channels that endorse a political view which supports scientific research to summarise its findings for you. In this latter case, you are twice-removed from the sources: you trust other people’s trust in reputable science.’

So how do we ever know whether we are building on sand or rock? Let’s face it, few of us are competent to judge the raw data of a scientific study, let alone repeat the experiment to verify the results. And how many of us would be inclined to repeat it even if we could? No, some things we simply have to take on trust.

Even so, Origgi offers us another option: ‘What a mature citizen of the digital age should be competent at is not spotting and confirming the veracity of the news. Rather, she should be competent at reconstructing the reputational path of the piece of information in question, evaluating the intentions of those who circulated it, and figuring out the agendas of those authorities that leant it credibility.’ As the Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist and political philosopher wrote, ‘civilisation rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.’

I’m trying to learn from Origgi, though. I’m trying to pick my filters carefully. Figure out their agendas. Sometimes you can even do that by listening.

I was sitting in my favourite dark corner of Starbucks the other day when two women sat down at the table next to me. I’m not sure they even noticed my ears in the shadows because they seemed to be in the middle of a conversation about technology as they each held their phones in front of them like crucifixes warding off the devil.

“I got a new running app, Fran,” said a tall thin woman with short curly dark hair and attired in expensive looking running gear.

“Which app you using, Dor?” her friend responded, equally attired and reaching for Dor’s phone.

“It’s a new one,” Dor said, holding it out of Fran’s reach. “Supposed to be the best at approximating calorie expenditure. Takes account of your weight, leg length, and then adds in changes in altitude on the run, as well as the time taken.” She looked at it again. “Even asks for a picture so you can post.”

Fran smiled benevolently. “Your IP address and Email, too?”

“Huh?”

“Privacy, Dor. Privacy.”

Dor stared at her quizzically for a moment. “I just figured they were being thorough, eh? More accurate… Anyway, they know all that other stuff nowadays.”

Fran stared back, and then sighed. “I suppose they do, but I refuse to make it easy for them… Sometimes you’re so naïve, my friend.”

“But…”

Fran shook her head. “I’ve just got a simple running app. And they didn’t ask for my picture.”

Dor blinked -rather provocatively I thought. “The more info, the more accurate the assessment, don’t you think?”

Fran rolled her eyes. “Well, we’ve just run together this morning -let’s see if the calorie count is the same.” She glanced at her screen. “I’ve got 725 cals. And 5K. for distance. How about you?”

“1100… and 4.85 K” Dor smiled. “I like mine better.”

Fran leaned across the table and peeked at the other screen. “Your app looks pretty well the same as mine… Yours play music?” Dor nodded. “And give verbal encouragement?”

“Uhmm, well I don’t turn on all the audio stuff… But I had to pay to download this one so it probably does.” She started tapping and then turned the screen so Fran could see it. “See? It won some sort of award for excellence.”

Fran sat back in her seat, her expression unreadable. “You paid? Mine’s free…” She began a similar tapping frenzy. “Mine won an award, too… Who makes yours?”

Dor started scrolling down her screen and then turned it towards Fran again. “Can’t pronounce it, but here…”

Fran showed her own screen. “It’s the same company, Dor!”

They were both silent for a moment. Then Dor smiled contentedly. “You get what you pay for, I guess, eh?”

I smiled to myself, still hidden in the shadows, and wondered what Origgi would make of the effort of these two mature citizens of the digital age. At least they were trying -and after all, they had pretty well figured out the intentions and agendas of their source…