Your young daughter believes you are wise and all knowing and asks you what the weather is going to be like tomorrow. She has big plans for outdoor activities with her friends. You answer that it is going to be a beautiful sunny day, but morning brings dark clouds and cold rain. She is heartbroken. “You lied to me, daddy!” Did you? It depends. Was your errant forecast intentional or simply an ignorance-based mistake?
The difference between deception and a mistake comes down to intent. A mistake is an error in judgment or of a wrong opinion unsupported by facts. It is inadvertent, not deliberate. A lie or deception is an intentional misstatement of facts or the creation of a false narrative in order to gain a perceived advantage or to avoid a painful outcome. Humanity is rife with both. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone lies. The difference in people is only a matter of degree.
The ability to deceive has evolved to serve a purpose sometimes with good intent and sometimes to satisfy the mischievous cravings of deprived individuals. You might lie to an enemy about your strength or intentions in a life or death situation in order to increase your chances of survival. You might tell a lie to catch another in a more destructive lie. You may deliberately inflate your qualifications or appearance to a prospective mate in order to increase your chances of copulation and spreading your ‘seed’ into the next generation. You may deliberately create a false narrative of your relationship to your god, which has been the tactic of many emperors and kings and religious leaders throughout human history, in order to secure a position of absolute authority and the worldly plunder it brings.
Lies have a strong self-serving component, whether to gain an economic advantage, a sexual advantage, a social advantage, or to take the edge off emotional events that might otherwise cripple one’s psyche. When my wife died unexpectedly, I tried to console my 8-year-old granddaughter by explaining grandma was still alive in her. Her face lit up. “Where is she?” But as accurate as that may have been from a biological perspective, my granddaughter did not understand genetic transfer from one generation to another. She wanted to hug the ‘real’ grandma and to have her read stories and play games with her.
When a loved one dies, it is common for someone to say to especially a youngster, grandma is sleeping or has gone to a better place. Death has a hard edge and the statement is understandable. But the statement is made as much for the adult in an attempt to avoid the painful prospect of explaining death to an eight year old child. The reality is grandma is not sleeping for if she were, it implies she could wake up any moment and be her loving self again. The self-deceptions we create serve as a buffer to allow time for loved ones to come to terms with their loss.
There are those who say that it is better to be up front about death, especially with children, as the various cultural adaptations it produces may create a false illusion about the finality of death. Suicides have happened in an attempt to be with the departed. Yet the human mind, taken as the totality of the species, is extremely fragile. Every culture has developed traditions and ceremonies and beliefs and stories associated with the departed from reincarnation to ‘heaven’ to getting your own planet in the Cosmos to becoming a star beyond the firmament. From an objective distance, none of these are supported by facts, but all serve a purpose for the majority of people, which is to reassure and ease the pain of loss.
The ability to create fabrications also leads undeniably to destructive tendencies including greed and other of the ‘deadly sins’. People, as a group, are followers and throughout history charismatic liars have seduced billions of people into accepting the lie as truth. For now and into the foreseeable future, humans are going to be liars, and the challenge will continue to be separating fact from fiction. Science based reasoning or painful experience are about the only mental tools we have for doing that.
Despite the tone of the foregoing text, we live in an era of ‘truth’ or at least in a time when facts matter to most people. It may be hard for us to comprehend but this is a fairly recent development in human social evolution. For most of human history and for most cultures there was little or no difference between truth, myth, deception, or outright fraud. Facts and objective truth were often irrelevant and the guiding principle was ‘the ends justify the means’. While enlightened individuals throughout history challenged this view, for the great mass of humanity it has only been in recent times that questioning that assumption has taken root. But for most of human history, what you did or how you did it mattered little if you achieved your goal. To be continued….