Liar, Liar

I am not here arguing what consciousness is or is not: I am merely presenting evidence of consciousness without descending into the quagmire of exposition. Define consciousness as you may: you must admit that at one point our ancestors were not human at all and at another point they became fully human; at one point we were not conscious, and at another point we were. I submit that consciousness enters our species at much the same time as true language, which may well coincide with and be indicated by evidence of symbolic art.

Lying is a demonstration of consciousness. Odysseus the Cunning, the Trickster, is according to Greek tradition the first liar, and thus also the first truly conscious man. He lies for both personal advantage, as when he feigns madness to avoid military duty; and for the collective good, as when he lies to Clytemnestra by telling her that her daughter Iphegenaia is to be wed to Achilles when in fact she is to be sacrificed to appease the goddess Artemis. He lies to defeat Greek enemies, as when he devises the trick of the Trojan horse; he lies to defeat personal enemies, when he tricks Palamedes to his death. He is valued for his diplomacy, which is the art of lying to appease contending parties. Odysseus was also reputed to be an eloquent speaker and a dangerously tricky opponent.

The evolution of the species is recapitulated in the evolution of the individual, only a lot faster because the path has already been marked. A newborn baby is not in any proper sense conscious. At one point, consciousness arises, and it follows a strict timeline. I submit that the rise of consciousness is reflected in the manipulation of language for the purpose of deceit.

Little children recapitulate the process of becoming conscious through learning the art of lying: they announce their emergence into consciousness by discovering that language is more than simple communication of wants and needs: language alters reality. They are initially not very good at it, but get better as they learn to manipulate language while they learn to control their environment, the most important aspect of which is the human community of which they are an increasingly active part.

The "terrible twos" are marked by both the word "no," which indicates a growing awareness that their boundaries are separate from other peoples'; and an increasing ability to manipulate reality through lies, which shows an understanding that one's own reality is different from that of others.

Lying plays a positive role in normal development. Essential human skills--independence, perspective, and emotional control--are the same skills that enable children to lie. When a child lies, he is essentially trying to change reality, making it more like what he wants it to be. He is saying something that he knows to be false in order to gain some personal advantage.

Most children learn to lie effectively between the ages of 2 and 4. Lies are not only a manipulation of reality to serve the child's own ends, but are actively encouraged by adults to teach the child to get along in society. That honesty is often not the best policy is emphasized when the child shouts out his true feelings and observations: "That lady is really fat!" "I don't like Johnny." "Grandma smells funny." The child is taught to dissimulate, to disguise his true feelings and not hurt other people; what we call "white lies," the purpose of which is to make society work more smoothly. Adults teach children to tell lies of politeness and convenience, but the child may not clearly differentiate between lies that benefit him alone and lies that make human interactions smoother and easier.

Not only that, but there exists no real wall between fantasy and reality, and by lying the child is exploring and discovering just how solid that wall actually is. Are fairies as real as butterflies? Do you have a playmate that only you can see and interact with? Is hide-and-go-seek a form of lying? Are games with rules--rules that you sometimes break in order to gain an advantage--a form of lying? What's the difference between bedtime stories, movies, moral tales and lies? Is behaving different ways in different situations a form of lying? Are good manners a form of lying?

Although the tale of "The Three Little Pigs" is not a lie, it is also not true. The information presented in the story contains enough evidence (talking pigs that build houses) to make it clear that the story is not be taken literally, but as entertainment or as a moral tale. Truth may be contained within such stories, but they are not by their nature true.

By age 4, children know the difference between telling the truth and lying, but increased understanding is accompanied by a growing grasp that there are good lies and bad lies, and that getting either one of them wrong can result in punishment or ostracism.

Between age 6 and 8, children understand that it is not just the content of the lie, but the motive or attitude of the speaker that can be doubted, as well. He begins to understand that everyone, including himself, has an inner life that is secret and hidden.

By 9 or 10, the child's consciousness has fully kicked in, as has his ability to lie through his teeth, for reasons both good and ill.

Which brings us nicely to the question: are other animals conscious? Can an artificial intelligence (AI) ever be conscious?

Insofar as animals demonstrate the learned ability to deceive other animals, and also others within their own species, yes. Crows and pigs are my own candidates for consciousness. An artificial intelligence, on the other hand, has little in common with an animal: it does not fear death; it does not need nourishment nor does it need to compete for it; it does not have an imperative to procreate. It does not need or want anything the way we do. Therefore, I submit that since there is no reason for an AI to develop consciousness, there is similarly no reason to suppose that it will do so. Though we may program an AI to provide the simulacrum of consciousness, it will nonetheless remain un-self aware. It will be a very smart machine and nothing more.

If Google futurist Ray Kurtzweil ever manages to get his mind integrated with a computer intelligence, he will become a computer intelligence, not a man with a computer intelligence. He will have no loves, no hates, neither hunger nor thirst, no lust, no pain, no sorrow and no happiness. He will have no feelings and no desires. In short, if he attains his Augustinian ideal of leaving his body behind, he will also have left his consciousness and humanity behind. To be human, you need a human body.

(May 29, 2014)

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Liar, Liar

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