Philosophical Speech Acts

Philosophical Speech Acts

What is characteristic of the philosophical speech act? Here again I will divide the question into three parts corresponding to the locutionary, the illocutionary, and the perlocutionary.[1] First, what is the locutionary meaning of the philosophical speech act—what kind of proposition does it express? Is it a report of fact, a presentation of evidence, a formulation of an empirical theory? It is none of these; rather, it is a proposition about logical relations. I mean this in a broad sense: relations of compatibility, consequence, argumentative support. The characteristic philosophical proposition, as expressed in the typical philosophical speech act, has the form “This follows from that” or “That does not follow from this”; not the sole type of philosophical proposition but the characteristic type. We are much concerned with logical relations because we are much concerned with argument—with what establishes what. Our propositions are also often concerned with language, i.e., meanings and concepts; more so than in the sciences (not counting linguistics). So, we are often talking about logical relations between meanings, the chief of these being definitional relations: can this be defined as that? Thus, we say things like “A is not a sufficient condition for B” or “B is not a necessary condition for A”. These are the types of propositions whose truth-value most concerns us. We are logic choppers in our locutionary acts. We delight in the detection of non-sequiturs, logical fallacies, circular arguments, surprising deductions.

            With respect to illocutionary force, there is also a marked difference from scientific speech. Philosophers are much more prone to confident outright assertion, as opposed to tentative citation of evidence, or reports of falsification not confirmation. The assertion sign is ever-present in philosophical discourse: “I hereby assert that p!” Philosophers are typically very confident of their claims to refutation, and also of their positive arguments for (often outrageous) conclusions—as in, “Have you heard my proof of the existence of other minds?” We are like mathematicians but without the formal rigor. Indeed, we are often overconfident, even dogmatic and bombastic. Oh, we are sure of ourselves! The illocutionary force of our utterances is along the lines of “Dispute this if you can?” or “Any fool can see that p”. We are hyper-assertive. This can produce incomprehension or distaste from outsiders, who don’t see it as part of the language game: for logic is surely the domain of assertion par excellence. I once heard a philosopher assert in public that he had “ground to a fine powder” his opponent’s position. And this is not merely faux confidence designed to mask uncertainty; it is deeply felt, entirely genuine. Philosophy invites such confident assertion, however misguided it might be, because logical knowledge is of a type to lead to certainty, unlike scientific knowledge. To the scientist, philosophical speech looks like so much groundless hot air—“Where is your evidence for that claim?” Meanwhile the philosopher refuses to moderate his mania for assertion; it is his default illocutionary force.

            How about perlocutionary effects? The philosopher does not have the ethical responsibility of the scientist, since he has no results that can make atomic bombs or combat disease. So, what kinds of effect do philosophical speech acts have and are intended to have? I think the answer is simple: persuasion. The intended effect of a speech act of this kind is to change the outlook of the audience, to convince them of something contrary to what they already believe. It isn’t simply to inform, thereby installing a new belief: it is to undermine prior belief and supplant it with a new belief system—a new ideology, if you like. Thus, the philosopher might set out to persuade a dualist that dualism is false and materialism is true. This is an upheaval of thought not just a painless act of belief revision: think of logical positivism or ordinary language philosophy or phenomenology or existentialism or Wittgenstein’s move from the Tractatus to the Investigations. It is indeed like the inculcation of an ideology (not all ideologies are bad). This is why the philosopher’s speech behavior can lead to the formation of a cult (again, not all cults are bad). The philosopher often creates disciples, and that is one type of perlocutionary effect. Wittgenstein had a cult, Austin had a cult, Heidegger had a cult, Nietzsche has a cult, Quine had a cult, Davidson had one, David Lewis had one to some extent. It’s all a matter of persuasion, the commandeering of belief; and it results from speech acts (including writing). The habit of endowing every utterance with the illocutionary force of hyper-assertion no doubt contributes to this perlocutionary effect (people are suckers for overconfident assertion).[2]

            Then too, we have the obscure speech act, the pretentious speech act, the bullying speech act, and my favorite the faux modest speech act. The least said about the first three of these the better, but I cannot refrain from commenting on the fourth. This is the type of speaker who begins his paper by saying in a quiet voice, “I wish to offer a few remarks on the question of…” He is characteristically English, probably at Oxford, and deeply desirous of not being refuted. He might go on to make waspish “remarks” about colleagues and rivals, but he acts the part of the put-upon, decent, and very nice philosopher-next-door. He is, above all, cuddly. His speech acts are precisely acts—theatrical performances. At Oxford people would ask me whether I was “performing” in the seminar that day—not giving a paper or teaching a class but performing. Austin himself used to perform in this way (he had an abiding interest in the theatre)—hoping no doubt to enunciate a few performatives that achieve the result of gaining new converts. I used to bridle at this description and icily respond that I was indeed reading a paper. It is perhaps analytically true that speech acts must be “performed”, but must we also accept that they are a performance? Yet this is what the perlocutionary effects of philosophical speech often depend on, deplore it as one might. The ethics of the philosophical speech act could bear examination.[3]

[1] It’s a good idea to be self-consciously aware of one’s habits of philosophical speech, since they are apt to be absorbed by verbal osmosis at an early stage (mainly in graduate school). You might be horrified by the way you talk in philosophical contexts once you gain some distance from it. I often shudder at the way my fellow philosophers talk (perhaps they shudder at how I talk).

[2] I haven’t discussed the role of intonation and word emphasis in philosophical speech, or the place of wit in philosophical discourse, but they too play their part in the creation of perlocutionary effects. Bernard Williams was adept at both these things, as was Austin.

[3] Nowadays the form of at least written philosophical speech mimics the style of the social sciences, probably because this is thought to raise the status of philosophy. This is disingenuous and should be discouraged. Of course, verbal style in philosophy has changed over the years; some philosophers made a point of it beginning around 1950. To my ear, though, it has remained pretty constant since the seventeenth century.

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Scientific Speech Acts

Scientific Speech Acts

How do scientific acts of speech differ from other kinds, say political? In analyzing speech acts Austin distinguished “locutionary meaning”, “illocutionary force”, and “perlocutionary effect”: how do these categories manifest themselves in the speech of scientists? Locutionary meaning pertains to the propositional content of speech acts irrespective of the communicative intentions of the speaker (assertion, command, conditionality, warning, etc.). Here we can say that scientific speech acts typically have theoretical or explanatory locutionary meaning—for example, propositions about planetary motions or the origin of species or the nature of photosynthesis. They are not typically simply reports of observable fact, except when functioning as evidence for hypotheses. They are not like the proposition that the cat is on the mat; they are more general and explanatory and “scientific”. Still, they are propositions equipped with truth conditions, so don’t differ in this respect from many other types of locutionary meaning. It isn’t as if we express propositions in scientific speech but not elsewhere (elsewhere it’s all emotive exclamations or some such). Scientific speech does not differ from other types of speech at the level of locutionary meaning, or not fundamentally. However, things change when we come to illocutionary force: here we have a significant shift in speaker intention. For in scientific discourse we are admonished to limit ourselves to what the evidence strictly warrants; we must be epistemically responsible. In this respect scientific speech differs dramatically from political speech. Thus, we find speech acts that begin “The evidence suggests” or “Experiments indicate” or “It is consistent with available data that”. The mark of such statements is that they are tentative, cautious, provisional. According to some views of science (Popper), we can never assert any general proposition because of the problem of induction; we can only assert statements recording episodes of falsification. The illocutionary force of a scientific speech act is captured in the formulation “So far p has not been refuted”. Scientific speech acts have the illocutionary force of conjectures not confident assertions of fact. This can be confusing to outsiders, because they are used to more committed forms of speech. The scientist really needs a special sign for his habitual illocutionary force: not Frege’s assertion sign but a sign meaning “I conjecture that the following may be the truth based on the evidence I have so far”. The scientist is engaged in a different type of language game, as Wittgenstein would say. His speech intentions differ from those of less responsible speakers. In this he is following the rules of scientific discourse and may be punished for violating them (expulsion from the scientific club).

            But it is in the area of perlocutionary effect that the most marked difference shows up. This is because science is, or can be, subversive, revolutionary, earth shattering. I don’t need to dwell on this story: Galileo, Spinoza, Darwin, Einstein, Dr Fauci, and many others. These effects are not all of the same kind. Some involve religion, but others involve technology and politics: I am thinking in particular of Einstein’s statement that his theories could be used to construct an atomic bomb. The scientist must be careful what he or she says, because the effects on hearers can be momentous. Think of the speech acts performed by scientists during a pandemic: they can save the lives of millions of people, and yet the scientist must stick to the illocutionary force that defines his calling. He must steer a fine line between securing the requisite perlocutionary effect and not overstating what the evidence warrants (and the evidence can change over time).[1] I was struck in reading Darwin’s Origin of Species by his careful acts of written speech: he wants to urge a specific theory of the way species come to exist, but he must be scrupulous about the evidence for his theory and the evidence (apparently) against it, because the perlocutionary effects are potentially so large. The scientific speech act becomes fraught, risky, possibly devastating. It almost becomes a performative, because it foreseeably performs an act of revolution (“I hereby destroy established religious orthodoxy”). Darwin’s speech is both scientific and activist, given its predictable perlocutionary effects—as was also true of Copernicus and Galileo.

            We can thus see how Austin’s threefold speech act theory, though designed for ordinary language, can be made to apply to the speech of scientists, revealing it as susceptible to the same basic treatment as others forms of speech, but also demonstrating interesting variation. This is an example of the general project of applying philosophical analyses of language to the case of scientific language, with an emphasis on pragmatics. Obviously much more needs to be said, but it’s a start.[2]

[1] We might say that the pure politician is concerned only with perlocutionary effect, targeting a specific audience.

[2] This kind of study might be useful to scientists in understanding and regulating their habits of speech (“Watch out for those perlocutionary effects!”). At present, speech concerning climate change is of particular concern.

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Science Philosophy

Science Philosophy

How exactly should Scientific Language Philosophy proceed? First, it need not be the whole of philosophy: we can still discuss traditional philosophical problems that may have nothing to do with science or any discipline distinct from philosophy itself. Second, it is not the same as philosophy of science as this phrase is normally understood: it is restricted to questions concerning the language of science—its semantics and pragmatics. It is not concerned with scientific method or questions of scientific realism (except in so far as word meaning bears on this). Third, it should be conceived as an interdisciplinary effort involving linguistics, sociology, psychology, and philosophy—as well as the sciences being studied. We might call it “science semantics” just to have a catchy label.

            How would this type of study approach its subject matter? The most obvious first step would be to compile a list of all the technical terms used in a given science. This list would no doubt be long and various, and range from basic vocabulary to terms of abbreviation. Then we could set about determining synonymies and near synonymies, entailments, and semantic groupings (maybe a bit of syntax). We might now turn to questions of etymology—when and how the word was introduced and how it was understood in the past. No doubt dictionary definitions would be part of this exercise. We would proceed to determine which, if any, words admit of straightforward definition and which do not. We could next try to identify ambiguous or vague or otherwise defective expressions. We could investigate the relationship between the word used in its technical sense and the sense it has (if it has one) in natural languages. More ambitiously, we could inquire into the truth conditions of sentences containing the word in question, as well as attempt to set out criteria of application. Also, which words are metaphorical or chosen for poetic or humorous reasons? Can those words be replaced by more literal equivalents? We would do well to conduct surveys of how scientists understand their preferred vocabulary—what do they mean by their words? How much interpersonal variation is there in this? What is the role of fashion in shaping scientific vocabulary? Which words and phrases do they find repellent or otherwise unsatisfactory? In other words, we could do a scientific study of scientific language as used by scientists. How do individual scientists define the words they use every day—can they define them? Can physicists define “physical”; can biologists define “life”; can psychologists define “mind”?

            Let me give an example: the word “plant”. A standard botany textbook opens with these words: “Your present concept of plants is probably quite accurate. Most plants have green leaves, stems, roots, and flowers. But you can think of exceptions immediately. Conifers such as pine, spruce, and fir have cones rather than flowers, and many cacti and succulents do not appear to have leaves. But both conifers and succulents are obviously plants because they closely resemble organisms that unquestionably are plants. Similarly, ferns and mosses are easily recognized as plants. Fungi, such as mushrooms and puffballs, were included in the plant kingdom because they are immobile and produce spores, which function somewhat like seeds. But biologists no longer consider fungi to be plants because recent observations show that fungi differ from plants in many basic biochemical respects.” (Botany: An Introduction to Plant Biology by James D. Mauseth, 2003). The author then goes on to report that algae are “more problematical”, with some biologists classifying them as plants and some not. This is a rich passage for the philosopher to get his teeth into, aided by the linguist and psychologist. One is tempted to suggest that every science department should have a philosopher in residence dedicated to such semantic and conceptual questions. The botanists are too busy with their empirical research to bother with such footling questions; much better to leave them to those desk-bound philosophers.

            Apart from anything else, this kind of collaboration between scientists and philosophers would do much to bridge the divide that has separated them for lo these many years. This strikes me as an exciting new field for philosophers to flex their expertise (and find steady employment). The philosopher can benefit from the work already done by the scientist while adding a welcome dose of conceptual clarification. Ordinary language was studied by philosophers with limited (though not insignificant) results; now is the time to switch to scientific language, which contains the most advanced knowledge yet acquired by human beings. No one can accuse the study of scientific language of neglecting science. It might even help the sciences make further progress.

Colin McGinn

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Scientific Language Philosophy

Scientific Language Philosophy

We are familiar with Ordinary Language Philosophy, an Oxford product of the 1950s (perhaps partly derived from Wittgenstein in Cambridge). This approach has been criticized for its neglect of science, as if common sense is sufficient for a modern style of philosophy. But what about a different kind of linguistic turn—towards scientific language? We grant that ordinary language is an unsuitable focus of philosophical inquiry, but assert that the language of science provides the raw materials of philosophical reflection. We aren’t doing empirical science, to be sure, but we are scientifically informed: our focus is empirical scientific theory. We are a combination of Austin and Quine. Strangely, such a meta-philosophy has never been advocated, explicitly anyway. Yet it puts philosophy in close touch with science while still being recognizably philosophical. Such a philosophy could claim to be a priori and even to consist of analytic truths, but it takes its rise from the most modern of empirical theories. Scientific language has its place in the highest form of human knowledge (not in the metaphysics of the Stone Age, as Russell complained of ordinary language philosophy), so it provides the best possible basis for a scientifically informed philosophy. But it doesn’t collapse philosophy into a mere branch of empirical science, as a posteriori as science itself. Doesn’t this give us the best of both worlds? We lavish Austinian care on the language of science while taking Quinean delight in limiting ourselves to the scientific view of the universe. Now we know what to do with ourselves! Is philosophy, under this conception, “continuous with science”? Not if that means it is just more empirical science (it is still linguistically oriented and a priori); but it is certainly up to its neck in science, and hence shaped by the best empirical knowledge we have. We can still claim (if we like) that philosophy is concerned with “linguistic phenomenology” and that our focus is on the use of scientific language, but we cannot be charged with ignorance of science and slavish attachment to common sense.

            What form would this type of linguistic philosophy take? It need not be concerned with words as such: it can be directed towards meanings and concepts however these are to be understood. It can be concerned primarily with scientific sentences not individual scientific words (following Frege’s context principle). It can involve classical conceptual analysis (necessary and sufficient conditions etc.) or adopt a more relaxed view of conceptual elucidation (criteria of assertion or some such). It can emphasize the social aspects of scientific speech acts or it can remain resolutely individualistic. Presumably it will divide into subspecialties: some people will specialize in the language of physics, others the language of biology, others psychological language. We already have quite a bit of this going on, though without the overarching meta-philosophy I am outlining. Perhaps some concepts in science will be deemed bankrupt, or unhelpful, or obsolete. Perhaps there will be philosophical factions urging the superiority of some scientific words (and concepts) over others (no more talk of particles in physics just fields of force, for example). The linguistic philosopher need not be content to be merely descriptive; he or she can advocate for some linguistic usages over others. Philosophers and scientists can thus collaborate with each other. The result will be scientifically accurate and precisely formulated. Ordinary language can be left to its own dubious devices, according to this conception.

            For historical reasons, the linguistic turn is thought inseparable from ordinary language philosophy, but actually these are quite distinct ideas. In fact, the very distinction between ordinary language and scientific language is overblown and historically relative: words are often imported from common speech into scientific theories, and scientific words find their way into ordinary speech (“gravity”, “DNA”, “unconscious”). There is no principled opposition between the ordinary and the scientific (this is an “untenable dualism”), so there is nothing to impede the move towards a more science-oriented linguistic philosophy. I think a lot of good could come from systematic analysis of scientific terms, particularly in biology: verbal self-consciousness is always a useful antidote to confusion. Psychology was held back for a long time by uncritical use of the terms “stimulus” and “response”. So, let’s forge ahead with Scientific Language Philosophy (possibly supplemented by studies of the language of the humanities, as well as morals and politics). Botany would be a good place to start, given that botanists can’t even say what a plant is (it’s not an easy question).

Colin McGinn

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Mark Rowe’s “Austin”

I have just finished reading Mark Rowe’s Austin, a 660 page study of the eponymous philosopher. It is a superb book in every way: exhaustively researched, insightful, expert on both the Second World War and British philosophy, and exceptionally well written. I hope it is widely read both within philosophy and by outsiders.

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Note to Other Philosophers

I don’t know how many professional philosophers read this blog, and hence how widely read my writing of the last ten years is, but I expect the answer is “Not much”. I wish to put it on record that I think this is a grievous mistake. My exclusion from professional philosophy in America over the last decade has in my view damaged the subject (I say nothing of damage to myself). It is shameful, ludicrous, and meritless. It should not go on.

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Quantifiers Deconstructed

Quantifiers Deconstructed

How should we interpret the quantifiers of the predicate calculus? Here is one suggestion: “Ex(Fx)” should be read “There exists an individual, call it x, such that Fx”.[1] There is an obvious problem with this: it commits a use-mention fallacy. The first occurrence of “x” should be in quotation marks so that the whole reads “There exists an individual, call it “x” such that Fx”. Then the first “x” is mentioned and the second used: the reference of the first “x” is the letter “x”, but the second refers to an object x. This is like saying “There exists an individual, call it “Herbert”, such that Herbert is F”. This is not what the original formula attempts to say, since it uses “x” throughout and does not mention it, thus securing co-reference. Further, who is calling this existing object “x”? It is likely not itself already called “x” by anyone, so we are being invited so to christen it; it is nowcalled “x”. That is its name. But the original formula says nothing about naming an object “x” thereby creating a new name. What we have here is an unholy mishmash of use and mention not a case of anaphoric co-reference. And what about the universal quantifier—does it say “For all individuals, call them “x”, x is F”? Why call them all “x”—what purpose does this serve? And how can the first “x” co-refer with the second? This is clearly a hopeless way to gloss the original formula.

            But we might take a hint from this failure and go metalinguistic throughout. We might paraphrase the original formula as follows: “There exists a term such that substituting this term into the open formula “F” gives a truth”.[2] Here we don’t incoherently combine a mentioned expression with a used expression: we speak ofexpressions throughout, never of objects. We quantify over expressions, affirming the existence of at least one that produces truth when joined with “F”. Thus the “x’s” of predicate calculus never actually range over objects; the only reference that is going on is to symbols. Is this the correct way to interpret the usual formulas? There is the problem that not all the relevant objects might have terms denoting them: not every object has a name. We might get over this problem by exploiting the descriptive and demonstrative resources of language, but a more fundamental problem remains, namely that the formulas we are aiming to gloss are plainly not intended as metalinguistic statements. They say nothing about language, terms, substitution, etc. They purport to speak only of objects in the extralinguistic world. We don’t want the formulas themselves to commit us to an act of semantic ascent, i.e., reinterpreting them as really about language. That is not what the inventors of the standard notation intended to convey. So this way of trying to make sense of “Ex(Fx)” is not going to work. We are left with no satisfactory way of reading the formulas of the predicate calculus. The only reason students manage to read meaning into them is by tacitly appealing to the underlying proposition, whose form they do not reveal. This is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. We really have no logic of “all” and “some”.

[1] I came across this formulation somewhere on the Internet but can no longer trace where. It did occur in an otherwise expert piece of writing. At least the author realized that he or she had to say something to explain what the standard formulas mean.

[2] This is the way Russell tended to think about quantification: statements of existence were supposed to be about “propositional functions” and to involve inserting terms into their argument places. He was never very careful about use and mention. The notation we now have reflects this sloppiness.

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Truth, Lies, and the Internet

Truth, Lies, and the Internet

Two things compete for control over our beliefs: facts and falsehoods. That is, people form beliefs sometimes as a result of facts—in which case their beliefs are true—and sometimes as a result of lies they have been told—in which case their beliefs are false. The factual falsehood of lies is no impediment to their being believed; indeed, it sometimes seems that the efficacy of lies in producing beliefs is at least the equal of the efficacy of facts. Why is this—what accounts for the efficacy of lies in the formation of human belief? Why are lies such efficient shapers of belief? The main reason is surely that lies are commonly designed so as to conform to human psychology: the liar constructs his lie so as to fit the emotions, prejudices, tribal loyalties, and wishes of the recipient of the lie. Facts, on the other hand, enjoy no such power: the world is not designed so as to accommodate human psychology. Facts are what they are independently of human psychology or individual preference. They are not agents at all; they don’t set out to generate beliefs intentionally. They are not a type of propaganda. So, they don’t have the advantage of catering to what people want to believe, or can’t help believing, or are amused to believe. But the lie can be calibrated and calculated to reflect the vagaries of the human mind; so it enjoys a power not possessed by facts. Facts can easily produce cognitive dissonance in the human mind, but lies can readily be constructed so as to soothe and satisfy the mind. We can be reluctant to accept the facts, given our antecedent state of mind, but the skilled liar knows how to make his falsehoods welcome. Thus, lies have an inbuilt advantage over facts as belief generators. Facts are not even trying to convince you of anything, but liars use every resource to get you to accept their assertions.

            In addition to this, there is an asymmetry in the consequences of challenging facts and challenging lies. No fact is insulted if you challenge it: the equal lines in the Muller-Lyer illusion are not affronted when you claim they are unequal, but the liar will take umbrage if you suggest that he is purveying a falsehood. There is a social cost in challenging the liar that does not exist in the case of facts. If you call someone a liar, expect them to take offence (or pretend to): for it is generally regarded as wrong to lie (but it is not wrong of physical objects to mislead you by their appearance). This is because (as Kant insisted) lying takes place against a background of generally accepted testimony: we hear what people say and we generally accept it as truthful. Society depends on such a practice (which is why the habitual liar is abhorred). The liar is parasitic on the truth-teller. And the lie is inherently indistinguishable from the true statement: there is no mark or sound to signal that a lie is being told. The lie takes place within a respectable social context, it carries no sign of its status as a lie, and it is designed so as to accommodate human psychology. But the fact enjoys no such privileges: facts don’t care about the social costs of disbelief, or about whether we trust them or not. Lies, on the other hand, carry heavy psychological baggage: it is difficult to recognize them as such, and there are social costs to calling them by their proper name. Then too, lies can be targeted toward susceptible groups, whereas facts don’t do any targeting at all (though truth-tellers may select which facts to convey to recipients). Nor can facts avail themselves of the devices of rhetoric, not being linguistic items at all, while lies can dress themselves in rhetorical finery. The fact is on its own, so speak, in generating belief, and it is indifferent as to what beliefs it generates. It is underpowered compared to the lie, lacking in belief-generating resources. Nor is it always accessible to our cognitive faculties: many facts are completely unobservable and can only be known by shaky inference. It can be a laborious process to discover the facts, whereas the lie promises to give us the truth with no effort at all—just believe what you are told! Thus, lies seem to have a distinct advantage when it comes to belief formation: facts can’t compete with their inherent power to persuade. And, of course, we are fallible about facts, so we can’t guarantee that truth will be the result of seeking them out; the lie, by contrast, is presented immediately to the mind, inviting belief. No wonder lies are so widely believed and facts regularly ignored or denied.

            The Internet is well designed to capitalize on these properties of lies. For it allows lies to be spread with all the resources of propaganda; it allows for targeting of susceptible recipients; and it promotes lies without the possibility of cross-examination. This last point is important: one disadvantage of the lie is that an audience can challenge the liar by asking questions; but on the Internet, there is no such confrontation. The liar can be anonymous, and he is not face to face with the person he is trying to mislead and thus open to cross-examination. Couple this with judicious targeting and you remove the possibility of exposing the lie. What the Internet has added to traditional lying is distant lying: lying with minimal risk of embarrassing exposure. The Internet liar is spared the problem of defending his lie in the face of skeptical listeners, or at least this problem can be more easily deferred and deflected than in a face-to-face encounter. The Internet has greatly empowered the liar, given him greater scope and immunity to correction. What we now call “social media” is the perfect environment for the propagation of lies. The lying meme survives and spreads in this digital ecosystem. Facts are remote from it; words are the medium in which belief is formed. The virtual world is thus a world of lies, or can easily become so. One wonders whether facts can retain their old hold on belief in this new world, or whether lies will maintain their grip on belief, even strengthening it. We must not underestimate the power of lies given the right environment. Lies are actively opposed to facts, but facts are not actively opposed to anything, and don’t have the best PR.

Colin McGinn

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