Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Invention of Lying

This philosophical movie asks the question:

When a society invents the idea of lying, can religion be far behind?

My wife, Vi, and I saw it yesterday and it is highly recommended!

What if there was a society exactly like ours but with absolutely no lying?

Of course, no society could develop, exist and survive without lies - even chimp societies have the equivalent of lying. However, once you get over the basic premise of a society where there is not even a word for "lie" (or "truth") the rest follows naturally.

The main character, played by British comic Ricky Gervais, is a classic loser. He works as a writer for Lecture Films. Since there is no lying there is no fictional dramatization. All films are rather dry recitations of historical facts. Gervais's character has been assigned the 13th century and all he has to work with historically is the Black Plague - not a very inviting subject for a factual movie.

He gets a pity date with Jennifer Garner's character and admits that he is about to get fired and his finances are so poor he is behind on his rent. She tells him frankly that she has superior looks and genes and he is way out of her league financially. She cannot marry him because their children would be stub-nosed pudgy losers.


Gervais goes to the bank to withdraw the $800 rent money. The bank's computer system is down but the teller implicitly trusts him (no one has ever lied). She gives him the $800. A moment later the computer comes back up and reveals he has only $300, but she assumes it is a computer error. He goes along with he "error" and slowly realizes that he can say things that are not true that everyone will believe. For example, he tells his friend that he invented the bicycle, his hand is artificial, he is wearing a wig, and so on. His friend believes him! He goes to a casino and distracts the dealer and moves his bet after the roll. He puts his roulette winnings in a game of chance worth $1,000,000 and claims he won but the machine malfunctioned. They give him the money and an apology! He is rich and buys a mansion!

He is the only person in the world who knows how to lie and he can get anything he wants! But, can he get Jennifer Garner's character? Is he willing to lie to her and suggest that wealth can change genes? Sadly, no.

I don't want to give away the whole story, but there are a few events worth mentioning.

1) Since he can lie, he finds it easy to forge a document from the 13th century and use it to write a blockbuster Black Plague movie. He gets his job back with a promotion!

2) His mother is dying. To comfort her, he tells her that there is a "Man in the Sky" and that dead people go up into the clouds and are restored to full health and vigor and are reunited with relatives and friends who have passed on.

3) His "Man in the Sky" story is picked up by the news media without question. No one has ever lied so this must be the absolute truth! He becomes a media sensation. To satisfy their curiosity and interests, he writes ten commandments (like Moses) to guide society. They are written on the backs of two pizza pie boxes. An image of him holding the two boxes with outstretched arms becomes a cross-like icon worn by believers.

4) Despite his success and surprising charm for a loser, Jennifer Garner's character is still unwilling to marry him because of his inferior genes. Rejected and dejected, he grows long hair and a beard (like Jesus).

How does it all end? GO SEE THIS MOVIE!

Ira Glickstein


Anonymous said...

This is a rather light movie. The concept of "how it'd be like if lying does not exist" is an interesting one. But I think that the producer has wasted the whole idea, which otherwise other wiser producers could have expanded the concept better.

The producer is careless in scripting the dialogues with no defined concept of what a society would be like without lying.

He takes away ine thing in the society -- lying and many other things such as judging and questioning. Characters keep on using the statement of "what is right", but they don't question in other scenes. The bank lady could have trusted that the man is honest about the money in his bank account, but has she thought of the fact that our human minds sometimes make careless mistakes and are sometimes forgetful? Without further thought about our imperfect memory and judgement, the bank lady ignores the computer and gives the man the money. Then why did they need a computer to record down eveything if they assume that we speak total truth with 100% accuracy?

The public becomes naïve and insensitive. They believe everything the man said with no proof of evidence. Does science exist in that society? If each scientist is correct, then what happens when a theory is proved wrong and renewed? Doesn't that create a sense of "filtering" in the society of what could be right and wrong?

Everyone becomes blunt and mean, whereby empathy does not exist. It could have worked out in the script as, "I think that you are fat and stupid but because I don't want to hurt your feelings I'd just not say anything / I'd just say that you are not that bad." Not saying anything is not lying.

How about the concept of internal psychological struggles that most of us have when we put down others to keep our ego high up? The honest mean colleague should be insulting the main character as, "I think that your success at the office is making me feel inferior, therefore I'm going to call you names.". As all the characters are pretty much speaking from inside their minds, shouldn't they be saying these kinda things too?

The producer fails to look into the concept carefully. I couldn't get into the movie because he does not define what the society would be like in a concrete and consistent way.

Yes, "it's just a movie", but let's not destroy a wonderful plot line if you were going to take it over with a movie production.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks "Anonymous" for your serious and thoughtful comments on the movie "The Invention of Lying".

I agree with you that it is "a rather light movie" and not at all realistic. The whole premise, that a successsful technological and commercial society much like ours could come into existence without lying (or religion) is absurd.

However, once that premise is accepted, I think everything else in the movie can be rationalized.

For example, you object that the bank teller could have attributed the difference between the computer balance and the withdrawal request to a forgetful customer. Yes, she could have, but (given the premise that no one ever lies) a customer who is not absolutely sure he has an adequate balance would not try to withdraw in excess of that amount. In that society, if you are not absolutely sure, it would be lying to pretend you are sure, and therefore (absent lying) a withdrawal request must be absolutely valid!

See how easy it was to rationalize the bank teller's trust in the customer rather than the computer? Especially since the computer had just recovered from an outage! Yes, both computers and people are imperfect, but (absent lying) people do not pretend to know something when they are not sure.

Why does a non-lying society need computers at all? Because people forget. Computers, though imperfect, are much more reliable than people.

Yes, science must exist in the non-lying society since technology exists. The scientists must never lie, but science is always incomplete. Newton did not lie, but Newtonian physics is incompete and does not apply exactly to travel near the speed of light, as Einstein showed.

Therefore, even though scientists in the non-lying society never observed "the man in the sky", they could not disprove it either. When the hero of the movie claims he communicates with "the man in the sky", he cannot be lying because no one has ever lied in that society! Therefore, the nurses and doctors accept the story of "the man in the sky" as the truth. The media and even scientists must also accept it since no one has ever lied.

You claim "not saying anything is not lying". Well there are lies of commission and of ommission, and not saying you think someone is fat is the latter type of lie. Perhaps saying he is fat to his face will get that person to reform their eating habits and live a more enjoyable life?

I look forward to your further comments on this issue!

Ira Glickstein

Anonymous said...

Hi Ira, you've made some interesting points there!

With your thought about the bank lady trusting the man purely because lies don't exist, I still don't agree that the lady should have believed in his words. It is not to say that he may be lying, but again comes back to my point about forgetfulness. In the movie, if someone does not how much money he has in the account, he'd probably straight out state, "I am not 100% sure, but I think I have X amount of money". But as a reminder, there are times when we are absolute sure of ourselves but later find out that we have made a mistake. An ignorant man could be sure of something that others recognize as wrong but that does not mean he should be unsure of himself or be judged as lying. But I like how you reminded us that we are imperfect, and so are computers. Also,if everyone believes in statements made by others, then shouldn't have the main character give up with his so-called-loser life 5 minutes into the movie instead of striking back like this? Or is really he exception of all things in the movie?

With the point that I was trying to make about falsifying a scientific theory is that when a theory is renewed or falsified, that should create a sense of doubt and questioning in a society. In this movie, science didn't seem to have that effect on the society.

I want to understand what the opposite of non-lie is. It's definitely not truth or fact. Being honest would be what I see as the closest concept. With that being said, it's important to remember that honesty is subjective and is therefore not necessarily the truth or fact that anyone should just believe 100% like all do in the movie. When I say "I honestly think you look good tonight", it is still subjective. This causes others to question their own belief/opinion upon the same matter before agreeing/disagreeing. How come it never happened in the movie? It looks like honesty brings absolute truth to the people who believe in the man in the sky. If subjectivity is the ultimate truth, then shouldn't they all wear the same stlye of clothes -- doesn't everybody just want to look good at the end?

Let me take back what I said about "the characters don't judge" because they do so throughout the movie -- but only on appearances. Interesting how judgment only applies this way.

Lastly, the reason why I think the movie script is somewhat inconsistent is because what I mentioned about characters frequent use of what is/this is "right". No one ever used the term "wrong". Then how does the "right" come about?

I apologize that my thoughts are all over the place with no structures! The concept of the movie is really bothering me -- not so light of a movie at the end! But I don't want to talk to my friends about this movie the way I do 'cause I'd definitely look like a fool for that!

Ira Glickstein said...

Good points, "Anonymous". Most comedy does not stand strong scrutiny.

However, the idea of a society without any idea of lying could be an important PHILOSOPHICAL idea. That is why I included it here at the Philosophy Club! I agree that idea is worthy of a much more reasoned script that "The Invention of Lying".

For example, Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels Houyhnhnms, an advanced horse culture where there is, in effect, no lying, is much better done. But, I do not know if the 2009 movie audience would go for something that deep. (And, come to think of it, Swift's concept of a society where horses are cultured and humans are crude "Yahoos", is aout as absurd a premise as an advanced human society without lying!)

Ira Glickstein

PS: Please consider coming out from behind that "Anonymous" veil and revealingyourself to us and perhaps becoming a regular commenter here or even an Author.