Telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

Nov 1, 2011 by

A couple of articles in the latest edition of The Economist warn us about new technology currently researched that will be able to read what people are thinking (see here and here). One of the main implication of such technology that The Economist‘s writers highlight is that “it would abolish the ability to lie”. Not just hide the topic of one’s thoughts, but to lie.

Whether this is indeed true depends on the issue of whether we think through language or not, because the ability to lie (or more generally, the displacement property) is considered to be one of the major design features of human language. But at least some philosophers of language maintain that propositional thought, that is thought that can be true or false, is only possible when couched in language.

Lying is indeed commonplace in human interactions. To cite The Economist article,

“The occasional untruth makes domestic life possible (“Of course your bum doesn’t look big in that”), is essential in the office (“Don’t worry, everybody’s behind you on this one”), and forms a crucial part of parenting (“It didn’t matter that you forgot your words and your costume fell off. You were wonderful”). Politics might be more entertaining without lies-—”The prime minister has my full support” would be translated as, “If that half-wit persists in this insane course we’ll all be out on our ears”-—but a party system would be hard to sustain without the semblance of loyalty that dishonesty permits.

In fact, we humans “turned lying into an art” (again, a quote from The Economist), especially if we define lying loosely as not telling the literal truth. For example, poetry — a language arts par excellence — is full of such literal non-truths, only we call them “figures of speech”. And one does not have to be a poet to use them on a daily basis. Actually, our everyday speech is full of metaphors, metonymy and synecdoche.

For example, a number of other articles in the same issue of The Economist talk about “the Arab spring”, “the seeds of hope” and “axing the taxes”. All these are examples of a metaphor, a figure of speech in which a term is transferred from the object it ordinarily designates to an object it may designate only by implicit comparison or analogy. When you call a human being a “chicken”, a “goose”, a “cow”, a “dog”, a “cat” or a “bitch”, those are metaphors too.

An interesting subcase of metaphor is metonymy, a figure of speech in which an attribute or commonly associated feature is used to name or designate something. For instance, if I say Pat is parked around the corner, what I mean is that her car is parked there, or when a waitress tells a colleague The cheese omelet wants more coffee, she is referring to a customer, not a dish. Some examples of metonymy are so common we don’t even notice that they are not literally true, as is the case with using names of capital cities to refer to governments (e.g. Washington announced today… or London fears that…) or using the names of painters to designate their works (e.g. Chris has a Picasso in the den).

Another figure of speech that relies on stating what is not literally true is synecdoche, which is a special kind of metonymy, a figure of speech by which a more inclusive term is used for a less inclusive one, or vice versa. An example of synecdochy is I just got some new wheels — at least in most cases, one buys other parts of a car to go with the wheels!

Lying or not saying the literal truth has become a subject for the famous work by Paul Grice, who examined how we recognize and interpret implicatures due to our knowledge of how people interact. According to Grice, people generally make their contribution appropriate to the conversation at hand, by observing four maxims: the Maxim of Relevance, of Quality, of Quantity and of Manner. The maxim relevant to us here is the Maxim of Quality, which states (to paraphrase it in the Ten Commandments style): “Thou shalt not say what thou believe to be false or that for which thou lack adequate evidence”.

Various metaphors discussed above are examples of what Grice refers to as “flouting the Maxim of Quality”. Other examples of flouting this maxim include patent falsehoods, a technique well-known to teachers, as in the following dialogue:

[Student] Teheran is the capital of Turkey.
[Teacher] And London is the capital of Armenia, I suppose.

Yet another way in which we plausibly flout the Maxim of Quality is by asking a rhetorical question, such as the one in the title of The Economist article “South Africa’s opposition getting blacker?”. A “normal” interrogative is a request for information, but a rhetorical question is not.

Last but not least, let me note that not all statements can be directly evaluated as being true or false. As has been famously noted by Bertrand Russell, the sentence The present King of France is bald is not (currently) true, nor is it false. Similarly, its negated form The present King of France is not bald is neither true nor false. This is because both the affirmative and the negative presuppose the existence of the “present King of France”. Crucially, presuppositions (such as the one of existence) are preserved under negation: both affirmative and negative sentences share the same presupposition.

Presuppositions can be induced by different types of words or phrases, such as definite descriptions (e.g. the present King of France) or change of state verbs such as begin, continue, start, finish, carry on, cease, take, leave, enter, come, go and arrive. For example, if I ask you whether you stopped drinking cognac every morning, how can you respond? To say “yes” would presuppose that you used to drink cognac every morning and to say “no” would presuppose the same thing!

Other types of expressions that induce presuppositions include:

  • factive verbs/expressions such as be aware, be odd, know, be sorry that, be proud that, be indifferent that and be glad that: e.g. I am proud to have published a new book presupposes that I indeed published a new book;
  • implicative verbs/expressions such as manage, forget, happen to and avoid: e.g. John managed to open the door presupposes that John tried to open the door;
  • iteratives such as anymore, return, another time, to come back, repeat, for the nth time: e.g. The flying saucer came again presupposes that the flying saucer had came before.

All in all, the relationship between truth and language (not to mention thought) is more complicated than is implied by the oath “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”…

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