31 January 2010

The Invention of Lying

I finally saw the recent Rick Gervais movie, "The Invention of Lying," on Friday evening.

Here's a link to the wikipedia article, though let this be a 'spoiler' warning before you click it.

Anyway, the movie is very funny. It is also gutsy, because it is an implicit philosophical argument of a sort that would be extremely unpopular in the U.S. were it a tad more explicit. The movie protrays a society much like the contemporary northeastern US within an alternative universe in which humans have never lied, never created any fiction for that matter, and don't even have words to explain the possibility of doing so. Their movies are filmed lectures about dramatic events from the past, and indeed we catch a quick reference to an upcoming film that will be called "The Invention of the Fork."

The protagonist of "The Invention of Lying" evidently has some neurological quirk that makes him different from everybody else, in that he can "say something that isn't," as he puts it at one point, trying to explain it to a friend.

That protagonist, Mark Bellison, played by Gervais, is surprised to discover this difference about himself, and for the most part he uses it benignly. He does con a bank out of some money -- but that is presented as due to desperate circumstances. Later he helps a homeless man, and offers his mother consolation on her deathbed.

Here we get to the crux of the matter. There is no evidence in this film that any sort of religion existed prior to the "invention of lying." His dying mother is expressing the predominant view of this alternate world's human species when she tells him how frightened she is at the imminent prospect of entering "a giant everything of nothingness." Gervais makes her final moments comfortable by telling her that she is going to a wonderful place where all the people she has loved and lost over her lifetime are waiting for her -- a place without pain or want.

It is important to the philosophical weight of this movie that the reason that he starts telling stories about the nice place we all go to after death is a benevolent one, told by a guy with whom we can't help but sympathize. Yet it is still a lie. And one with unexpected consequences.

Unbeknownst to Mark Bellison, the doctor and a handful of hospital staffers are behind him, listening to this conversation. They hear all these things about the life after this one, and since there is no concept of "saying what isn't" in their world, they believe it. They want to tell people this wonderful news. Word spreads, and soon the protagonist is a prophet. Everybody wants to know more.

One incidental oddity that struck me is that their world has a history to it very much like our own. From various references one gathers that there was a "black plague" that took place in the 14th century, and that the use of terms such as "14th century" or "1st century" for that matter, mean pretty much to them what they mean to us. But why, in a world without religion, would the "1st century" be called that? Why would a count have begun then?

Another less-incidental oddity (it may be considered part of the film's message) is that the ability to lie is connected to an ability to consider the subjective aspect of other people. Mark and his love interest (Anna, played by Jennifer Garner) have an idyllic moment in a public park, which turns into his effort to explain to her that people are not solely what they seem -- that, for example, the overweight fellow lying on the grass to their left may not be the lazy loser he seems, but may be "the world's greatest poet," who gets his inspiration in this way.

Over time, Anna grasps the seeing-beyond-the-surface part of Marks' message, although she never does really grasp the 'lying' thing. So: are those two memes closely connected, or not?

There's something else that sticks with me. At some point soon after his first lie, Mark decides to help a homeless man -- a guy who has been sitting on the street with a sign that says, "I don't understand why I'm in the street and you have homes." This fellow is played by Michael Patrick Gough according to imdb. Mark takes him into the bank, says something to the clerk (we can't overhear this bit) and the clerk hands the homeless guy a large chunk of money.

Leter, we see a homeless man again. The shot comes and goes so quickly that I'm not sure whether it was the same guy, and/or the same sign (though another wordy sign was involved). What is the message there? That lying doesn't realy solve social problems? Or does this imply also that money doesn't really solve social probelms, and that even if the money had been given honestly the original homeless guy may have difficulties, such as an expensive addiction, that would have put him back on the street anyway?


Henry said...

Interesting post, about a movie I haven't seen. It prompts two thoughts. First, in a world without lying, history would be utterly different from what it has been, in many more significant ways than when the calendar began. What would the world be like today if no leader of a state, from ancient times down through Hitler, not to mention Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and more recent presidents, had never lied?

Second, I presume that, even in a world without lying, people could make honest misstatements, some of which would be discovered to be misstatements. Therefore people, such as the doctor and handful of hospital staffers you mention, would not automatically believe everything they hear.

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Christopher said...

Anon, If this post helped you in your college assignment, colleges are less rigorous these days than I'd like.

Henry, good points. Watching the movie, I didn't even think of the possibility of honest mis-statement. Which is a good thing because it complicates the premise considerably.

In this world, when one makes a statement, one generally doesn't include a "probability estimate" with it. "I am 90% certain the last public restroom I used had green walls." No -- if there was some reason someone cared about those walls -- I would just give the best recollection and leave it at that. Would statements in the world where lies are unthinkable include probability assessments though?

Henry said...

Let's assume that the walls are green but you are only 90 percent sure that they are. If you say, "I know the walls are green," then you are lying. If you say, "The walls are green," then you are lying if you are implying that you are sure. Whether you are so implying depends upon the context, including the timbre of your voice. If someone really cared about the color of the walls, then, unless you wished to mislead him, you would say something like, "I'm pretty sure that they were green" and thereby avoid lying.

Regarding my other point -- that world leaders' lies have changed the world -- so have many other seemingly less consequential lies. Suppose that Napoleon's mother had induced Napoleon's father to marry her by lying that she was pregnant. Later, after the marriage, Napoleon was conceived. If she hadn't lied, then she might never have slept with Napoleon's father, and Napoleon would never have existed. According to Tolstoy in War and Peace, however, this wouldn't have mattered, because someone else would have played Napoleon's role, as the causes of history are too complex to depend upon one person's actions.

Christopher said...

Ah, Tolstoy's theory of history. See in what directions this innocent seeming romantic comedy can lead one's thoughts? That's heavy stuff.

As to Napoleon, I think we can say that the French Revolutionary period was bound to lead to a period of consolidation, and that some sort of military "strong man" doing the consolidating was likely. (The "strong pig" in Orwell's Animal Farm, who takes over as revolutionary fervor wanes, obviously modelled in important ways upon Stalin, is named Napoleon precisely to encourage this generalization.)

But I think Tolstoy was wrong to suggest that the particulars don't matter. For example, I don't see how it was predestined that the French post-revolutionary strong man would try to nullify promises of freedom recently given to the slaves in Haiti, and would fight a war in that effort. The alternative world's Napoleon might have saved those troops -- which in turn might have made him an even more dangerous foe in Russia.

Without lies, though, we probably wouldn't have sovereignty as we know it at all. The state has always rested on lies and is hard to imagine without them. That, in a sense, is THE case for anarchism of one form or another.

Henry said...

That may be the case for anarchism, but it is also the case for a state without lies. The two seem equally hard to imagine.

Henry said...

Tolstoy didn't argue that the particulars don't matter. After all, the complexity of history consists of innumerable particulars. Napoleon's decision might have been necessary to fight the war in Haiti, but it wasn't sufficient, because the multiple decisions of French soldiers to obey his orders to fight in Haiti were also necessary.

Also, Napoleon presumably did not decide to fight a war in Haiti on a whim; rather, that decision had multiple causes, not all of which was Napoleon necessarily aware. Therefore, Tolstoy might say that Napoleon was a puppet of these causes, as would any alternative leader of France have been at the time. If I'm right about this, then Tolstoy would be going too far, because, despite the multiple causes of the decision to fight a war in Haiti, Tolstoy or another leader could have decided not to fight a war in Haiti.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.