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Saturday, April 28, 2007 -- 8:31 am

I've often been puzzled by exactly what people mean when they refer to an afterlife. I asked a friend in Sunday school at one point, "but once we got to heaven, what would we do there?" He thought for a moment, shrugged, and said, "Sing hymns, I guess." In those days all I knew was the dreary, off-key homophony of a rural congregation, and shuddered. Since then, Bach has made the prospect of a heavenly chorus considerably less terrifying, and perhaps even pleasant but has not resolved the underlying problem.

I'm leaving aside, for now, various questions such as how we can establish continuity and identity between a living, corporeal being and a deceased and incorporeal one, and whether we're in a position to say anything meaningful about something so removed from our present knowledge and ordinary experience. I'm also leaving aside, for the moment, the somewhat baffling moral consequences of thinking about the afterlife as a situation of reward or punishment. My immediate question is what the afterlife might be and whether it is desirable.

I get the impression that many people think of the afterlife as some sort of continuation of their current existence, only with certain improvements: typically death, disease, discomfort, deprivation, and discord are removed, while our loved ones are restored to us, and certain other things, long hankered for, may be thrown into the mix. One thing curiously excluded is any expectation that we ourselves will change in any but the most superficial and cosmetic ways. So it's not that we lose our bad habits in the afterlife, but that our bad habits are no longer harmful to us (or others); our guilty consciences are whitewashed rather than atoned for; and our weaknesses are legislated away rather than overcome. Further, the afterlife so described seems to be removed of all serious challenges. There are no serious consequences to action or inaction, and no limitations on resources because there is no need for any.

In which case, all that's left is other people, each carrying the guilt, baggage, hangups, preoccupations, habits, predilections, and tendencies that made them so pleasant or unpleasant to begin with. Human nature being what it is, this starts to sound a lot like high school, with all of its juvenile politics, anxiety, and even boredom. No thank you. This is no paradise at all, even for fools.

Part of the problem, I think, is that human beings are not suited for paradise as most people think of it. Nor could nature reasonably be expected to make us so -- how do you evolve to adapt to a situation that won't exist until after the time for procreation is long past? To be happy, we need challenges, and opportunities to push the limits of our potential, and real consequences to motivate us. In short, unless we are to undergo some radical transformation (which I would not necessarily oppose), the only world we're really equipped for is the one we inhabit now.

Friday, April 27, 2007 -- 9:54 pm

I've commented previously on the basic human difficulty in entertaining the notion of discretionary liberty -- that the concept is unstable and tends toward compulsion or prohibition as a general matter. There's a similar thought process at work, I think, in inferences about people's motives. It seems quite difficult to persuade people that harmful conduct was accidental, or the result of neglect or incompetence -- to the contrary, the line between malice and incompetence is so fine that claims of inadvertent consequences are fundamentally implausible. There's a strong tendency to assumne the presence of motivation and intent, whether it take the form of discriminatory animus or an elaborate conspiracy theory. I suppose, on some level, that this represents a generalization of the fundamental attribution error. Not only do we tend to think someone believes the position we hear them arguing for, all evidence to contrary, but we assume that the person intends the actions they're perceived to have undertaken, and the concomittant results. This means that it takes a great deal of planning and prudence just to avoid the appearance of impropriety, because once there's an appearance of impropriety, or even as little as a suspicion, all evidence -- even exculpatory evidence -- becomes irrelevant.

Friday, April 27, 2007 -- 9:43 pm

As I'm (perhaps) coincidentally discovering as I begin to read Huang's Pragmatics, the principles of communication I was alluding to the other day come from Grice. That should help me refine my discussion as I move along. There are a couple additional points to make, or avenues to explore, though I probably won't tackle them tonight. One is that lies are a response to questions or statements; but the dishonest (or disingenuous) response to an imperative is disobedience. There is, of course, as wide a spectrum of types of disobedience as there is for lies-- from outright defiance to playing dumb to to foot-dragging to overt or covert sabotage. That will, I suppose, demand its own analysis.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007 -- 8:39 pm

As it happens, I've just reached the point in Aikhenvald's Evidentiality where she offers hypotheses on the purpose of evidential markers in those languages that have them. There's reference here to so-called 'supermaxims' of communication, which posit that speaking is not undertaken in a vacuum but is a cooperative enterprise; speakers try to make their contributions as informative as possible, omit what they believe is false and only say things for which they have sufficient evidence; include only relevant details, and avoid obscure or ambiguous expressions and to keep their speech brief and orderly. Aikhenvald has also noted that speakers of languages with mandatory evidential markings (apparently uniformly) regard the neglect (or misapplication) of evidential markers as a form of lying, even if the other facts reported in the statement are otherwise correct.

I suppose there are a couple points here. One is that some of the world's languages have forms of lying that can only awkwardly be replicated in English. The other, though, is that a theory of lying could be developed based on this (or a similar) theory of cooperative speech. After all, works of fiction are not considered lies, and intentionally false written statements are often considered acts of fraud rather than lies per se; lying is usually, I think, considered an act of speech rather than an act of language generally. But citation to these principles of communication wouldn't be enough -- ramblers are not liars, generally.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007 -- 8:44 pm

To follow up on yesterday's posts, there's plenty still to be said, and I figure I might try to elaborate on some of it.

One of the underlying issues here is the fundamental human tendency to put the tools at our disposal, including concepts, to uses other than those for which they were created and for which they may not be ideally adapted. Truth, I suspect, is no exception. There's what I tend to think of as a 'root' notion of truth, meaning accurate (subjective) knowledge of the world. But this is quite different from, and has altogether different applications from, truth as an accurate communication of knowledge about the world. And both of these seem to be different from truth as a notion revered in its own right. It's quite possible for someone to have true knowledge about the world and yet be unable to communicate it properly, or to see the point. And it may not be possible to define the third notion of truth, something revered in its own right, in the abstract, in any coherent fashion. And it occurs to me that there's a fourth notion of truth, which is largely political or mythological, which reflects whether something conforms, not to perceived reality, but to received orthodoxy. I'll leave that one alone for the moment.

And if our notion of truth is defined according to the purposes we see it as achieving, it's entirely possible that two people will disagree on whether a particular statement was a lie, because whether something is true or not then becomes, not an all or nothing proposition, but a matter of degree. A statement can be considered 'true enough' if it accurately conveys only the information the speaker considers important, or indicates that the speaker seems to have grasped the subject matter. An analogous if not strictly relevant situation arises when comparing the results of different legal proceedings concerning the same subject matter: whether a prior result is regarded as controlling and authoritative can depend a great deal on the burden of proof that had to be overcome and what each party had at stake in the outcome. None of that, of course, obviates the fact that any testimony in any of these proceedings must be truthful, but my understanding is that even there, it may matter whether the misrepresentation was "material." But it suggests that whether a statement is deemed to be "true enough", and whether there was intent to mislead (to pick one definition), will depend a great deal on the perceived context of the discussion.

And this brings me to a general complaint I've always had, and which is probably unique to me. Most people simple don't bother to use enough words to express themselves precisely and accurately. Or, if they use a lot of words, they tend to pick ones that do nothing to clarify the situation. I don't think this stems from a desire to mislead or deceive, necessarily, but many people seem to struggle quite a bit to find the right words to precisely express their thoughts. This seems to require a certain amount of time, attention, and effort on their part, and I imagine there's a strong incentive to economize on the exertion associated with self-expression. Economizing, though, means omitting detail, and without detail the statement may be false, misleading, or meaningless. Most often the problem is simply that the statement uttered is too vague to be meaningful, and when I object, my irritation is met with a shrug, a blank stare, and the comment "I don't see the distinction" or "I don't know how else I could say it." Even when it's something as basic as "Explain it again without using the word 'thing'", or "Are you saying it decreased by a third or decreased to a third", or better yet, "When you say it increased by 200% or to 200%", i.e., are you trying to say that it doubled or that it tripled? Should indifference to such niceties be considered lying? I don't know.

Monday, April 23, 2007 -- 8:29 pm

In my line of work I encounter a lot of liars. I'm not prepared at the moment to present a thorough typology, but there seem to be a number of different types. There are those who lie out of anger (see Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil), for no other reason than to assert the standing of the aggrieved. There are those who lie to avoid their own embarrassment. There are those who lie as a sort of bluff, gambling that they'll get away with it before they're found out. There are the people who lie because they firmly believe that anything done for the sake of The Cause is ultimately justifiable. There are those who lie because the only alternative would be an admission they could never accept (typically undermining their own self-worth; again, see Beyond Good and Evil for an epigram about memory yielding to pride). There are those who lie (wisely or not) to spare others pain or embarrassment. There are those who lie to make polite conversation. There are those who lie to inflict pain or embarrassment, or to manipulate the actions of others. There are those who lie to avoid admitting wrongdoing. There are those who lie because the truth would take too much time or energy to explain. There are those who lie because the truth is too painful to acknowledge, and they want the story they're telling to be true. All of which prompts the naive question: is truth-telling a default response, or something we have to actively undertake, given all these competing motives?

I don't think there's a simple answer to this. Part of the problem is simply understanding the question, which packs quite a few unfounded assumptions that manage to muddy the water a bit. Do we define "lying" as intentionally saying something we know isn't true, intentionally saying something we don't know is true (if that isn't the same thing), saying something without caring whether it's true or false, speaking with intent to deceive (whether the words we choose happen to be true or false, strictly speaking), or something else? Then there's the problem of what counts as "knowledge", and the speaker's certainty or confidence in that knowledge. So many witnesses are willing to be gulled into saying anything that sounds reasonable, or probable, whether they actually know and remember it to be true or not. It may not be an intentional deceit, but they've certainly forgotten the standard their words are being held to. "Intent", as I know from my day job, is also somewhat elusive a concept. Is a premeditated lie as bad as a spontaneous one? What about people who blurt out false statements when they're nervous and for no other discernible reason? What if they lie by reflex, and then the situation is too socially awkward for them to correct themselves afterward? Further, I would assert (though perhaps no one would believe me) that our mental faculties are not a unified and homogeneous whole. My own mind, at least, seems to operate less like a centrally-directed machine with integrated components than like a jumble of various departments that each have their own agendas and sometimes even turf wars. Cataloguing them would be a project for several other days, but suffice it to say that I could imagine some of them having competing agendas, and the impetus to deviate from the truth (say) stemming from only one of them. (This means nothing in the abstract, so I'll give an example: one department seems to be preoccupied with modeling the outlook, intentions, emotional reactions, and future conduct of others in response to various situations, another seems to be interested in parsing questions and statements of others for precision and truth, and a third seems to be devoted to divining the intended meaning of another's statement notwithstanding their poor choice of words. Do I nit-pick, knowing that my answer will probably mislead or confuse the questioner? Do I tell them the answer they expect to hear, even though it's inexact, because anything else would cause problems? Of course I remain responsible for my actions, but that doesn't mean all intentions the same. There's the web of social norms and expectations that inform our decisions as well: remember that in language classes, it's generally acceptable to lie as long as it's done in the language being studied. And then, of course, there's the whole problem of defining "truth"; 20th century logicians noted the apparently insoluble paradoxes associated with defining truth in formal languages, and I'll hazard that what can't be satisfactorily resolved for a sufficiently interesting formal language probably can't be done in a natural language, either. For that matter, I doubt that any formal system, be it knit in the most abstruse of modal logics, has been designed that's equipped to grapple with the problem of answering falsely because the witness wasn't paying attention and misunderstood the question.

Sunday, April 22, 2007 -- 10:01 am

That e-mail reminds me, though, that I often feel consigned to the ranks of the virtuous pagans (from Dante's First Circle of Hell, if not yet Solzhenitsyn's) when I venture into the academic sphere. Nature and Science always ask whether I'm an institutional library, a university professor, or a scientist working in industry. And many of the books I'm interested in are obviously priced for a deep-pocketed consumer, not the curious amateur. It's a bit like the science bloggers who take the position that non-scientists don't have anything meaningful to say or think on their topics of expertise, and should defer to their betters -- people who think nothing of venturing comments on law and politics. But charges of hypocrisy tend to bounce around a bit before they come to rest, so I'll leave that one alone.

It does make me wonder, though, whether the age of the productive amateur is gone for good. You don't really hear much about hobbyists who make meaningful contributions to science or technology, though some of it still happens in literature and the arts. And bloggers tend to comment mostly on themselves and on current events, rather than actually pushing back the fog of ignorance generally. Is this strictly a matter of economics? Because I imagine that's always been an issue to some extent -- I'm thinking of the minister in Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? who plays at whist to finance his pursuit of entomology, and the Erasmus quotation once frequent on Amazon.com bookmarks about how when he got a little money, he spent it on books, and if there was any left over, spent that on clothes and food. Has that phenomenon ever been common, and has its relative frequency changed over time? Is it possible to compare the census of interest amateurs over time between the United States, various European countries, and elsewhere? Has the price of scholarly resources (as opposed to pulp paperbacks) risen over time, as compared to the cost of living? Leaving expenses aside and considering the need for expertise for a moment, a facile answer, that might not explain the entire situation but nevertheless represent a kernel of truth, is that a lot of the preliminary work in these fields that can be accomplished by interested amateurs may already have been done, and much of the work that remains is quite specialized. I find this somewhat doubtful, considering how much of the search for knowledge lies in mundane tasks of organizing, cataloguing, systematizing, and careful thinking and writing -- which almost anyone could do well if only they could be bothered. And then there's the use of time. In the nineteenth century, I suppose it was socially acceptable (at least if you were rich, and had a team of servants assigned to housekeeping and child-rearing tasks) to devote your leisure time to eccentric intellectual hobbies. Now it seems to be considerably less acceptable, perhaps because people now associate eccentricity with illness and social upheaval, if not risk of violence. But more generally, it appears that intellectualism is an aristocratic pastime, whereas democracies tend to be anti-intellectual. I strongly suspect, at least in American society, that people are loathe to do anything to suggest, let alone advertise, that they spend time thinking about anything other than politics, sports, entertainment, or business. I wouldn't go so far as to claim the correlation is exact (France is reportedly famous for the prominence of its intellectuals in public awareness, for example, yet I'm aware of no reason to doubt that country's republican credentials), but I have written previously that the notion of liberty is an unstable one in any culture, and people tend to replace it with either compulsion or prohibition. A culture of equal say and equal opportunity may, if the same rules apply, naturally tend to create an atmosphere where only the widespread is permissible, and the unsual may be mocked as anti-democratic. (Or aristocratic minds may be embarrassed into silence by the content, tone, and manner of public discourse.)

This would tend to suggest, if it has any basis in fact, that the age of the interested amateur is likely over, and that we are now firmly entrenched is an age of experts. Fortunately I'm far too stubborn to regard that as any sort of reason to change how I go about my life.

Sunday, April 22, 2007 -- 9:20 am

Got my first e-mail at this site -- a query about Nama Hottentot resources. Very exciting. (Of course, I didn't notice it until about three weeks later.) I suppose I should do more to post the results of my own research (at the very least, my bibliographies). If my work schedule lightens up any time soon, I'll give that a try.