Are We Humans Better Liars than Thinkers or Sages?

I am all but certain that, somewhere lying around in the minds of certain scientists today, is an hypothesis that accurately describes the origins of language.  That is, I’m nearly sure the origins have already been largely figured out by now.

I am also all but certain that, unless we invent time travel, or the gods both exist and decide to reveal their knowledge of its origins, or a genius quite improbably comes up with a mathematical proof of its origins,  or — most likely these days —  a FOX News personality stumbles across its origins while searching for ancient dirt on Barrack Obama’s alleged War on Adam and Eve,  it will never be much more than an astute guess whether the correct hypothesis of language’s origins is truly correct.

Yet, despite the improbability of actually discovering the origins of language,  various things about the fundamental nature of language and its uses suggest to insightful and very learned guess-a-tators such as myself that language might — or might not — have evolved from mating calls, that it might — or might not — have been preceded by singing, that it might — or might not — have evolved faster in women than in men, that it might — or might not — have had multiple causes for its development from mating calls (such as its use in promoting group cohesion and cooperation), and that it surely, certainly, and absolutely was used almost from “the very moment it was invented” to tell lies.

There are a variety of reasons to tentatively think that particular use for language developed early on.   Of all those various reasons, the only ones that interest me here are these two:  Humans lie with ease and great frequency, and they begin playing around with telling lies at tender ages. If lying didn’t develop early on, then why is it so behaviorally advanced in us?  Why are we so good at it?

It seems obvious to me that our brains are more advanced at lying than they are at many other things — such as doing math or science, for nearly everyone of us lies with ease when he or she wants to, but so many of us struggle with critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking.

It also seems obvious to me that our brains are even less developed for wisdom than they are for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking.  There are whole, vast areas of life in which, at most, only about one in ten or one in twenty of us frequently behave in ways that consistently show great wisdom.  That is, I’ve observed that even the village idiot now and then acts wisely, but I’ve also observed that the large majority of us have blind spots — whole areas of our lives — in which we are inconsistently wise, or even frequently fools.

Human relationships are usually a person’s most easily noticed blind spot.  Indeed, relationships are an area of life in which even those folks who most consistently behave towards others with great wisdom often stumble or fall, and if someone has learned to dance among us like a sage, you can be sure it took her an age of clumsy mistakes to learn her grace.

It seems likely that many people believe on some level that popularity is a sure sign of wisdom in dealing with others, and — if that were indeed the case — there would be a lot more people in this world who are wise about relationships than there really are, for there are certainly a lot of popular people.  Indeed, I myself can believe there is some small link between wisdom in relationships and popularity, but I cannot believe that link is more than a small one, if only because I’ve known too many fools who were popular, and too many comparably wise people who were not.

So I think the human brain is least of all evolved for wisdom, somewhat more evolved for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking, and most of all of these evolved for lying.  And, likewise, it seems to me that language is best suited to lying, less suited to the sort of precision and exactness that one so often needs to communicate critical, mathematical, or scientific ideas, and least of all suited to communicate wisdom.  In fact, I’m pretty certain wisdom is not merely difficult, but extraordinarily difficult, to communicate, if it can be communicated at all.

For instance, this morning I came across a meme post to a website that stated, “It’s better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship”.  The first thing I thought was, “That’s true for a number of reasons”, and the second thing I thought was, “Among those reasons, it is better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship because, ironically, we are more likely to suffer from intense loneliness when we are in a bad or abusive relationship than when we are by ourselves and alone.”  But the third thing I thought was, “If one does not already know the truth of these things, then one is unlikely to learn the truth from either the meme or from any other words spoken about it.   How often have I seen people plunge themselves into bad or abusive relationships, or refuse to leave one, primarily out of fear of being lonely?  At least a third or half of the people I’ve known well in life have had at least one story of getting into a bad or abusive relationship and then delaying or even failing to leave it largely out of fear of being lonely.  Yet, nearly everyone who actually left such a relationship has looked back and said to me, ‘I only wish I left sooner, or not gotten into that relationship at all.’ Not a single person has yet told me that being alone has turned out to be lonelier than was being in the relationship.”

Now, I have heard people say that wisdom is “subjective” because there are no objective means for determining what is “right or wrong”.  But I think that might be a half-truth, and perhaps only a quarter-truth.  In many cases, all we need for wisdom to become objective is pick a goal.  Once we have picked a goal, it so often becomes possible to know with a fair amount of assurance which actions will bring us to our goal, which actions will not, and even which actions will be more efficient or effective than others in doing so.

For instance, if our goal is to avoid for ourselves the worst of loneliness, then it is obvious that choosing to get into a bad or abusive relationship is not the wisest decision we can make, while remaining alone or getting into a healthy relationship is a wiser choice.  Of course, this assumes that it is true for us, even if for no one else, that we will feel lonelier in a bad or abusive relationship than we’d otherwise feel.  But that question can be answered objectively.

The choice of goal is ultimately subjective (but that should not distract us from the fact that we can many times objectively determine the wisest means to that goal).  And yet, it is only ultimately subjective, for goals themselves can be arranged in hierarchies so that a higher goal might determine whether or not one expresses or attempts to actualize a lower goal.

In this blog post, I have been using the word “wisdom” as nearly synonymous with the phrase “most effective”.  Which, if I am being logically consistent, means that I harbor the somewhat dismal notion that our species of super-sized chimpanzees relatively excel at lying; perform mediocre at critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking; and suck the big potato at assessing the comparative effectiveness of various relevant behaviors, and then acting in accordance with those assessments, in order to bring about the most desired outcome.  If all of that is substantially true, then it naturally raises the question:  Why is it that we’re better liars than “thinkers” or sages?

Bernie Sanders Tells the Truth, But Does it Give You Hope?

Perhaps like most members of our species of incredibly sophisticated poo-flinging super-apes, I am fully capable of taking pleasure in imagining  things that happen not, in fact, to be true.

Often enough, my imaginings are clearly fantastic: For instance, the extraordinarily pleasant fantasy that I have been elected Emperor of the Planet, and have managed to end war, involuntary poverty, disease, crime, and vicious paper cuts while at the same time justly employing my imperial powers to at last wreak final revenge on that hideous Brian T. Jurgens, who unfairly and outrageously gave me a black eye in third grade before I could unfairly and outrageously give him a black eye.

Not that the memory of losing a distant childhood battle to a person of no consequence such as Brian could possibly still rankle even in full adulthood a man of my dignity and advanced wisdom: In truth, I’m only dispassionately interested in doing justice, you see, and the uncontrollable cackling you might now hear if you were nearby has nothing at all to do with obsessed glee at the merest fleeting mental image of sauteing Brian in a man-size pan of boiling dragon’s pee.

In addition to all my other noble accomplishments as Emperor, I also once tried fantasizing that I got imperially laid without, however, inflicting insufferable boredom on the lady who laid me, but even in fantasies there are limits to what a person is able to consider imaginable.

Or are there limits?  I was reminded just yesterday morning of how flimsy is the notion of limits to what we can think conceivable when an old priest approvingly quoted a statement once made by Pope John Paul II on the topic of homosexual marriage:

 “It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this [gay marriage] is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man.”

Now, I think the Pope’s statement is fantastic.  That is, it seems to me right up there on the same level of fantasy as my imagining I am the Emperor of the Planet.  For, so far as I can see, the two claims have in common that there is not one single bit of sound evidence in support of either one of them.    But the fact the Pope’s statement is bunk isn’t what really struck me about it.

What really struck me was how the statement is just one small drop in a daily flood of nonsense. Some long time ago, I stumbled across a beautiful book of Native American poetry.  One of the poems spoke powerfully of someone who was a pathological liar: “And your words when you speak are like a wind from four quarters that carries the dust to my eyes no matter which way I turn.”  It can seem like that — seem like there’s no direction you can turn, nor place you can go in society today, that you are not being told nonsense.

Nonsense such as the Theory of Evolution is scientifically unsound, there is little or no climate change brought about by our burning fossil fuels, abstinence-only sex education works as advertised, cutting taxes on the rich will bring jobs and prosperity for all, and even that there is a War on Christmas — among many, many other such things.

And that, in a rather round about way, brings me now to Bernie Sanders.

Sanders seems to me usually honest, especially for a politician.   And — apparently by telling the truth (!) about such things as the nature, causes, and consequences of income inequality — he has become quite popular.

When the old priest quoted John Paul II yesterday morning, I at first reacted like I usually do when told a lie:  I internally sighed because I thought of how so many of us  believe such lies.  For perhaps what is most overwhelming about the daily flood is not so much the lies themselves but that so many of us swallow those lies.  How can one view with optimism the long term fate of our noble species of advanced spear-chuckers if we are basically such fools, such simple-minded fools?

But then along has come Sanders who both tells the truth  and, apparently, has struck a chord with folks by telling the truth.  He not only draws people to his speeches in record numbers, but he is also surging in many polls.

In a way, whether Sanders wins the nomination or the presidency matters less than the extraordinary response he’s gotten to speaking truth:  Speaking it — not to the powerful — but to common people.  To people that so many of our powerful elites these days seem to contemptuously think of as easily manipulated and exploited dolts.  Yet I think people’s response to Sanders permits us cautious hope for a better future, for it possibly bodes that sooner or later the truth will prevail among us despite the daily flood of lies.  However, another part of me worries that I am once again only fantasizing, and that the people’s response to Sanders means no such thing.  I suppose time will tell which part of me is correct.

Rush Limbaugh — Master of Creditability

As I turned on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program today – randomly – I was met by Limbaugh saying that liberals have been openly advocating communism for two decades now and that Barack Obama wants to be re-elected so that he can install a communist regime.

Hume’s Ghost from The Daily Doubter blog.

Are there still some folks left who are naive enough to unquestioningly believe Rush?  Or has he finally reached the point that even the biggest, most gullible fool among us no longer believes him?

“Tell Me Lies! Tell Me Lies! Tell Me Sweet Santa Lies!”

America is a diverse nation and only the naive person believes that almost all Americans share a ton of values in common.  However, one of the very few things that almost all American adults have agreed to do is to lie to young children about Santa.

I do not mean to imply that almost all American adults approve of lying to young children about Santa.   Many of us don’t.  Yet, rather than become pariahs in our own homes or communities, we go along with the social demand that young children should be lied to about Santa.

For instance, this morning, Doug at Groping the Elephant, wrote about a news anchor, Robin Robinson, who was pressured by public outrage to apologize for having announced during a broadcast that there was no Santa Claus.    Regardless of Ms. Robinson’s own views on the subject, it’s unlikely she’ll anytime soon try publicly debunking the myth again.

A surprising lot can be said about the custom of lying about Santa.  Obviously, one can argue over whether it is morally right or wrong.  But beyond that, one might speculate why such a hugely diverse nation is nearly unanimous in its support for the custom.  One might ask whether figuring out that we have been lied to by our community is a rite of passage — one of the very few rites of passage left that nearly everyone goes through.  One might ponder why no one has figured out a way to commercialize lying to Santa in a nation that seems able to commercialize everything else.  Indeed, the ways of discussing lying about Santa might seem endless.

I can’t recall at what age I figured out there was no Santa, but I can recall what it taught me.  That is, I can still even to this day recall marveling over the discovery that I had believed something — not because I thought it was true (I had suspicions it wasn’t true even before I confirmed it wasn’t true) — but because I so deeply desired it to be true.

That was an important life lesson for me.  Over the years, I have benefited again and again from knowing that I am capable of believing something to be true simply because I want it to be true.

So, what lessons, if any, did you yourself learn upon discovering that your community lied to you about Santa?  Were any of the lessons you learned especially useful to you?   Did any of them stick with you?

“For All Have Sinned”

Have you noticed some people seem to think their god has the morals of an abusive spouse?

I ran into one of those folks last night.  Let’s call him, “Jeff”.   Jeff was saying how according to his standards — which are not really his, but the standards of his god — he is not a good person.  That’s because he has done at least one wrong thing in his life.

In other words, Jeff was arguing the same as, “According to my god, you are no good at math unless you have never, even once, made a mistake at math.”  Or, “You are no good as a painter if your work has ever failed to move someone.”   Or, “You are no good as a blogger if even a single person has been left in full possession of their senses after reading one of your posts.”

Of course, in the real world, the most likely persons to set such high standards are abusers, for such standards are traps.  You cannot live up to them, and so your abuser will have plenty of excuses for criticizing you when you don’t.  Is that how Jeff sees his god?  As an abuser?

Apparently.  While I doubt Jeff would use the word “abuser” in reference to his god, he does seem to think his god behaves like one.  That is, first he sets impossibly high moral standards.  Then he eternally damns you to hell when you fall short of them.

Yet, according to Jeff, his god is a loving god.  He’s a loving god because he has created an escape from the trap he’s set for you.

I can think of a hundred things that show more love for you than:

  • Setting impossible to achieve standards for you,
  • Damning you when you fail to achieve them,
  • And excusing your failure if you maintain a psychological and emotional dependency on me.

I can also think of interpretations of the story of Jesus that do not spin the story in a way that parallels the behavior of an abusive parent or spouse.  So I’ve been wondering what the point is of Jeff’s approach?  How does it make sense?  And is his approach in any way mainstream?

Edward Abby on the Surface of Things

I am pleased enough with the surfaces – in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on the rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there? What else do we need?

Edward Abby

Marriage Through a Child’s Eyes (Guest Post)

In the following post, guest author S. W. Atwell writes about her young daughter’s surprisingly sophisticated views of marriage.  — Paul Sunstone

My daughter was seven when she decided that having a Canadian mother meant that she was a “Canadian American” and began noting differences between the United States and Canada.   Mimi has Asperger Syndrome, which causes her to obsess about odd little areas of interest.

AS also makes Mimi prone to utter her thoughts with disarming frankness.  She sometimes at a disadvantage when it comes to interpreting new situations.  That is why I wondered what Mimi would make of it the evening she walked into the living room, where I was watching a commitment ceremony for two women characters in a favorite sitcom.

Mimi stared at the television, taking in the wedding finery as she moved her stare from the center of the screen to the top of the screen, from the top of the screen back to the bottom.

“Mother,” she stated, hitting each consonant with a precision that nearly pulled the syllables of her words apart.  “There are two ladies getting married on the television.”  (“There are two lay-ties ge-ting married on the telee-vision”).

Her face still and concentrated, she resumed scanning the screen.  Then, her eyes widened, she pressed the palms of her hands together and bobbed forward slightly with the delight of discovery.  “Oooh.  This wedding must be in Canada!”

She asked no questions, nor offered any comments.  She had categorized the phenomenon and that was all that mattered.

That was the beginning.  Weeks later, Mimi called me into her bedroom.  “Come here, Mother!  Two Canadian girls are planning a wedding!”

Indeed, Barbie of Swan Lake was about to marry Barbie with the Dolly Parton hair and the peacock blue eye shadow.  It made me wonder if intercultural marriage could go too far.

Then came the evening when I lost patience with Mimi for repeatedly interrupting my housework. “Mimi!  Why do you keep coming to me for help with something new every two minutes?”

But rhetoric falls flat when directed at the literal-minded.  “Because, Mother, you are my mother and you are supposed to help me.”

“Yes, sweetheart, I realize that, but right now I am so tired and overworked that I feel like I need a mother to come over and help me.”

“But Mother, your mother lives in Canada.”

“Yes, dear, I know–”

“And she has a job and cannot come here.”

“Pussy Cat, I understand this–”

“And my daddy says she does not like you anyway.”

“Oh my!”

“And anyway, now that your father is dead, your mother could get married again.  And if she is in Canada, she could marry a lady.  And that lady would be your step-mother.  And maybe she would love you and come here to help you.”

I was speechless.

It took me a long time to understand that something was working in my daughter beyond a fascination with differences between American and Canadian culture.  It was broader than the differences and similarities between gay and straight marriage.  Mimi had the makings of small social engineer and marriage was her engineering media.  She knew about relatives who were unhappy about the marriage between her Jewish mother and her Christian father.  I assured Mimi that love was the important thing and it was nobody else’s business if people came from different religions or had different skin colors.

Mimi was usually the second arrival at day camp that summer, the first being a four year old biracial boy.  Perhaps Mimi considered the little guy “black,” as Americans do when a person’s ancestry is partially African.  In any event, Mimi’s eyes lit up the morning he and his very Nordic mother arrived a few minutes after we did.

“Wow!” she told the little boy.  “Your parents are different colors, but they still got married!  That is so good!  Did you know nobody is supposed to tell other people not to get married because they are different colors so long as they love each other?”

The boy was speechless.  His mother held her laughter and gave me a “thumbs up” sign as she walked out the door.

As proud as I was of Mimi’s tolerance, you can only imagine my chagrin the day I learned she had mocked another camper because of his religion.

“Over religion?”  I spluttered.  “But Mimi, of all children, should know better than that!  Her father and I are of different religions!”

“That seems to be the problem,” explained the camp director.  “Mimi made fun of the boy because his family only has one religion and hers has two.”

I read Mimi the riot act, ending with an order that she apologize to the other child immediately.

“I am sorry,” Mimi began, “for making you cry because I said it was better to have two religions in your family instead of one.”

Then, leaning in confidentially and dropping her voice to a whisper, “But do not worry!  Maybe someday your parents will get a divorce and one of them will get married again to somebody who has a different religion and then your family will also have two religions!”

That was when I finally understood that Mimi considered marriage the panacea for all social conflicts.

Liberal she might be, but she would agree with conservatives any day of the week that marriage is the basis of American society.  Perhaps one day she will decree that Democrats and Republicans must intermarry.  Mimi may be generations removed from the shtetl, but never mind.  She is truly a matchmaker for the twenty-first century.

© S.W. Atwell, 2011