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The Invention of Lying

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The Invention of Lying

Post by pjkeeley » December 14th, 2009, 4:01 am
(This thread contains spoilers, obviously.)

I thought this film had a great concept behind it, though I don't think it made the most of how great the concept was. Still, for a Hollywood rom-com it was certainly more thought-provoking than what is usually offered. The film is set in a hypothetical world much the same as ours, except that human beings do not possess the ability to lie. The truth is never concealed in this world; characters say whatever is on their mind no matter how offensive it might be, and they are unable to speculate on anything if they don't think it to be 100% true. The main character however, played by Ricky Gervais, spontaneously develops the ability to lie, with huge consequences for him and the world. It's a complete gimmick and doesn't make a lot of sense, but it works, and with it the film makes some witty and insightful comments on our world and the role that the truth really plays in it.

Physical attractiveness is a major theme throughout. In our world, of course, we can make things up and exaggerate in order to win people over and 'sell' ourselves to others in social situations. No such luck for Rick Gervais' character, who suffers regular humiliation by women he fancies and his coworkers due to being physically unattractive and lacking in wealth and other qualities perceived to compensate for attractiveness. The fact that physical attractiveness is so arbitrary is ignored (as in our world) yet emphasised throughout. The characters in Ricky Gervais' world are fully aware that attractiveness amounts only to genetic compatibility, yet still consider it to be more important than other forms of compatibility including mutual happiness, just as many people do in our world.

The film demonstrates to great comic effect the absurdity of advertising. Advertisers in Ricky Gervais' world casually admit that their product is not necessarily any better than their competitors; in one example a representative of Coca-Cola takes a sip of his own product and declares it to be 'a little too sweet' for his liking. He nevertheless implores people to continue buying it. The point here is that in our world advertising has almost nothing to do with the truth, a fact that we are all dimly aware of and yet continue to be suckered by. Advertisers in our world routinely portray products as if they exist solely for our benefit, when in fact they wouldn't exist at all if not for the profit they turn. Moreover, products are said to satisfy some need of ours that supposedly existed prior to encountering the product, but often the product itself creates a need that never previously existed. And of course there is the basic manipulation employed by advertisers in sneaking in some sort of association of a desirable thing with their product, often entirely unrelated to the product itself, such as beautitful people, a happy family life or, bizarrely, in the case of some ads, a sense of global community.

Another theme is the role of entertainment, which has such an impact on our real world that it is hard sometimes to acknowledge that it is entirely unreal by definition. In Ricky Gervais' world, the only entertainment that exists is to watch historical lectures being read. There can be nothing else because to enact anything, even real events, is a form of lying. Nobody can pretend, and their world is thus bland indeed. Our imagination consists of either conjuring things that don't exist, or speculating on things that might. The truth alone isn't very satisfying; we need imagination and make-believe.

More controversially perhaps, the film deals with religion, implying that faith is enitrely speculative. In the film, since nobody has the ability to consider that which is not known to be true, the concept of gods or a life after death never emerged. However, after Ricky Gervais' character gains the ability to lie, he comes up with the idea of what we know in our world as Heaven in order to comfort his dying mother. The doctor and several assistants overhear this and demand to know more about what, to them, is the truth about what happens when you die. When word catches on, Gervais' character is forced to expand on his lie, telling the world that when they die they will each get 'a mansion' in Heaven with whatever they want, and that there is 'an invisible man in the sky' who determines whether they go to Heaven or Hell. In order to satisfy the crowd that has gathered at his house, he announces that entry to Heaven is dependent on a 'three-strike' system. The consequences of these prounouncements on Ricky Gervais' hypothetical world represent Gervais' criticisms of religion.

Thinking they know for certain that an afterlife exists and that they will gain entry provided they don't do three 'bad things', some of the inhabitants of Ricky Gervais' world advocate using up two of the strikes. Why not, if entry to Heaven is dependent only on having less than three transgressions? Moreover, some of the characters become apathetic about the path their lives are taking. Why bother to achieve anything other than sitting around drinking beer, when entry to an afterlife much better than their current life is assured?

Obviously, you have to fill in the gaps a little to see how these criticisms of the religion that Gervais' character invents represent criticisms of religion in our world. Firstly, I don't think Gervais as filmmaker is trying to expressly accuse religion of being false. Gervais' point is not that religion is a lie but that, like the characters in his hypothetical world, if religion were based on lies or even just harmless speculation, we would have no way of knowing. We weren't around when the events of the Bible occured, so how can we take them to be anything other than speculation? I don't mean to suggest that people shouldn't speculate about things like God or afterlife, but that religion should not be taken to be anything more than speculation. It isn't, in other words, the same kind of truth as the truths we see around us everyday. Even if religion points to something as true as those common sense, observable truths that we encounter around us, unlike those common sense truths, we have no way of knowing whether religion is or isn't true. I think this criticism can be summed up thusly: it's okay to personally believe religion to be true, but don't assume it to be as true for everyone else as it is for you in your dealings with other people.

Of course, a valid criticism of the film's handling of the subject is that it assumes a moral order could have emerged without religion. I for one certainly don't think that that I could state with confidence that a moral order could have emerged in more primitive times without the authority that religion provided. However, realistically speaking, there is only so many lengths Gervais could go to in your standard length Hollywood rom-com in order to justify his position. I think due to the very nature of film making and its limitations, anyone who tries to make a point through film should focus on making that point, not on justifying the assumptions behind it. If it were possible to make films in the same way as a philosophical treatise is written, the filmmaker's message could perhaps be made more clear, but it certainly wouldn't make for good entertainment.

Despite assuming that a moral order could have emerged without religion, Gervais succeeds in making a good point about religion's role in moral behaviour. Religions that posit an afterlife, historically, have almost always defined moral criteria against which entry to the afterlife is judged in order to give an incentive for moral behaviour. But if moral behaviour is carried out purely with that incentive in mind, it is not really moral at all. It is merely opportunistic behaviour. An opportunist could thus get away with doing whatever he pleases so long as he satisfies the minimum requirements of entry into the afterlife, and this is indeed how many of the characters in the film see it.

The film uses a three-strike system as a stand-in for the afterlife beliefs of the various real-world religions, but it doesn't matter: as long as there are specified requirements of entry into the afterlife that someone believes to be true, that person is essentially given a free-pass to do whatever they please so long as they satisfy that minimum. Catholics for example are often parodied as anticipating their confessions before they even sin. The point that Gervais is making seems to be that, in our world, unlike in his hypothetical world, we don't know whether religious claims are true or not, so why should we base moral behaviour on them? If something is morally good or bad, it is morally good or bad in spite of what conditions religions specify for entry to the afterlife. Religions that do so are prone to reducing morality to a reward-punishment system, when in fact there are reasons to act morally that have nothing to do with Heaven or Hell.

Gervais makes another intruging point about religion's role in our lives: since religion is speculative, are its claims, especially in regards to a supposed aferlife, really something we should base our lives on? In the film, the other characters believe that everything Ricky Gervais' character says is unquestionably true; thus, they base their lives on his claims. When Gervais' character tells them that there is an afterlife that he describes as being better than their lives on earth, they become apathetic about their lives in ancipation of heavenly reward. This is a valid criticism of belief in afterlife: why should we care about living our lives to the fullest if something better awaits us when we die?

(Despite the attention I have payed to Gervais' treatment of religion, I am also interested in discussing the other points mentioned. However, much of the film was devoted to the issue and I felt that it needed to be addressed in detail.)

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Post by Belinda » December 14th, 2009, 7:55 am

I must see that film whe I get the chance. The converse of the theme is True Thomas, a Scottish traditional ballad.

Thomas the Rhymer
also known as "True Thomas"

1.True Thomas lay on Huntlie Bank,
A ferlie he spied wi' his eye
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by Eildon Tree.*

2.Her skirt was o the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o the velvet fyne
At ilka tett of her horse's mane
Hang fifty siller bells and nine.

3.True Thomas, he pulld aff his cap,
And louted low down to his knee
"All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see."

4."O no, O no, Thomas," she said,
"That name does not belang to me;
I am but the queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee."

5."Harp and carp, Thomas," she said,
"Harp and carp along wi' me,
And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your bodie I will be."

6."Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunton me;"
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips,
All underneath the Eildon Tree.

7."Now, ye maun go wi me," she said,
"True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro weal or woe, as may chance to be."

8.She mounted on her milk-white steed,
She's taen True Thomas up behind,
And aye wheneer her bridle rung,
The steed flew swifter than the wind.

9.O they rade on, and farther on--
The steed gaed swifter than the wind--
Untill they reached a desart wide,
And living land was left behind.

10."Light down, light down, now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies three."

11."O see ye not that narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.

12."And see not ye that braid braid road,
That lies across that lily leven?
That is the path to wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.

13."And see not ye that bonny road,
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

14."But, Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue,
Whatever ye may hear or see,
For, if you speak word in Elflyn land,
Ye'll neer get back to your ain countrie."

15.O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded thro rivers aboon the knee,
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.

16.It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light,
And they waded thro red blude to the knee;
For a' the blude that's shed on earth
Rins thro the springs o that countrie.

17.Syne they came on to a garden green,
And she pu'd an apple frae the tree:
"Take this for thy wages, True Thomas,
It will give the tongue that can never lie."

18."My tongue is mine ain," True Thomas said;
"A gudely gift ye was gie to me!
I neither dought to buy nor sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.

19."I dought neither speak to prince or peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair ladye:"
"Now hold thy peace," the lady said,
"For as I say, so must it be."

20.He has gotten a coat of the even cloth,
And a pair of shoes of velvet green,
And till seven years were gane and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen.

* Eildon Tree probably refers to Eildons Three which are actual three hills close together in Roxburghshire. There are other legends about the Eildons. Huntly Burn flows cose to the Eildons.There was an actual person called Thomas who made prophecies rather like those of Nostradamus.But I think that the practical wisdom in the theme of the old ballad is the best.
Last edited by Belinda on December 15th, 2009, 6:49 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Nick_A » December 14th, 2009, 11:28 pm

It is only through our ability to lie that life as we know it is possible. Without this ability one could easily go mad. For those that can survive the shock, the reality of the essence of religion would become obvious.

Our ability to lie to ourselves protects us from the psychological dangers of having to witness our inner absurdity. Our ability to lie to ourselves as inner protection is what gives us the ability to lie to others. At the same time it denies us the opportunity to open to the natural connection to higher consciousness and what it offers which the essence of religion offers Man.
Man would like to be an egoist and cannot. This is the most striking characteristic of his wretchedness and the source of his greatness." Simone Weil....Gravity and Grace

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Re: The Invention of Lying

Post by ape » December 21st, 2009, 6:40 pm

pjkeeley wrote:
(This thread contains spoilers, obviously.)

Hi Pjk!

Once God invented words, the next automatic consequence was mistakes in words. And since all mistakes in words are lies, and there is many a slip between the brain and the lip, there are lies.:)

Even God lies in Love! Pun also intended.:)
But He always lies in Love!
So we can easily find the truth in Love!

2 Chronicles 18:
19And the LORD said, Who shall entice Ahab king of Israel, that he may go up and fall at Ramothgilead? And one spake saying after this manner, and another saying after that manner.

20Then there came out a spirit, and stood before the LORD, and said, I will entice him. And the LORD said unto him, Wherewith?

21And he said, I will go out, and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And the Lord said, Thou shalt entice him, and thou shalt also prevail: go out, and do even so.

22Now therefore, behold, the LORD hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of these thy prophets, and the LORD hath spoken evil against thee.

Can you spot how God defines himself as a liar in this verse 17?

Romans 4:
17(As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.

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Post by Tragicjoke » December 29th, 2009, 11:20 am

Everybody hates a lie.

What people like-- and expect-- is quasi-truth (or the art of BS).

The truth about life is that death is around the corner and once we have had enough to eat and are healthy and safe there is really nothing else to do except invent quasi-truths like God, freedom, fame and fortune to keep us going in a world where once you know the truth ALL is a lie anyway.

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Post by Neverthink » June 2nd, 2010, 8:59 am

I personally hate liars and lies in general. I hate it when I am lied to, that is why I try to lie as little as possible and prefer to avoid the situations when I can't be honest and can't tell the truth. I prefer to know the truth, even if it is painful or offensive. I will get over it, just don't try to make it seem better by lying, you will only make it worse. But that's only my point of view.
I read an article by Tim C. Mazur about lying, which I found very interesting.
Here are some snippets:

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that lying was always morally wrong. To be human, said Kant, is to have the rational power of free choice; to be ethical, he continued, is to respect that power in oneself and others.
Lies are morally wrong, then, for two reasons. First, lying corrupts the most important quality of my being human: my ability to make free, rational choices. Each lie I tell contradicts the part of me that gives me moral worth. Second, my lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally. When my lie leads people to decide other than they would had they known the truth, I have harmed their human dignity and autonomy.

A second perspective, virtue ethics, also maintains that lying is morally wrong, though less strictly than Kant. Rather than judge right or wrong behavior on the basis of reason and what people should or should not do, virtue ethicists focus on the development of character or what people should be. This doctrine states that the virtuous person, the ideal person we continuously strive to be, cannot achieve one virtue without achieving them all. Therefore, when facing a seeming conflict between virtues, such as a compassionate lie, virtue ethics charges us to imagine what some ideal individual would do and act accordingly, thus making the ideal person's virtues one's own. In essence, virtue ethics finds lying immoral when it is a step away, not toward, the process of becoming the best persons we can be.

According to a third perspective, utilitarian ethics, Kant and virtue ethicists ignore the only test necessary for judging the morality of a lie - balancing the benefits and harms of its consequences. Utilitarians base their reasoning on the claim that actions, including lying, are morally acceptable when the resulting consequences maximize benefit or minimize harm. A lie, therefore, is not always immoral; in fact, when lying is necessary to maximize benefit or minimize harm, it may be immoral not to lie. The challenge in applying utilitarian ethics to everyday decision making, however, is significant: one must correctly estimate the overall consequences of one's actions before making a decision. The following example illustrates what utilitarian decision makers must consider when lying is an option.

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