We’ve evolved a neocortex that presents us with an awareness of past and future at the cost of forgetting where we are right now.
-- Salvatore Scibona, “Think Like a Fish,” New York Times (June 28, 2009), “Week in Review”
My cat knows to how to hide if he sees a big dog. But if I say to him, “There may be a big dog here,” he hasn’t got a clue. That’s what language is about – representing to the mind an image of what may or not be true, might be true in the future, or might have been true at the time the image was formed. The image stands separately from the state of affairs that it purports to represent. Kitty’s life is all about states of affairs, and not about freestanding images of possible states of affairs.
For a cat, my cat is very smart. He knows how doorknobs work; God only knows what he would do if he had opposable thumbs. We think he may have learned that the word “supper,” spoken in a certain intonation and with direct eye contact, precedes the gift of scrumptious and medication-soaked wet food. But on the whole he is not a linguist. We are eager to buy the wet food he likes. But he doesn’t sniff it, roll a bit in his mouth and say, “An insouciant and full-bodied formula, with hints of blackberry, pepper, and caramel.” He just eats it. Quickly.
I heard a man interviewed on the radio, an expert in the social behavior of prairie dogs. He spoke at length about their “language:” he meant that they react collectively to threats. If one prairie dog sees an intruder – coyote or hawk or human being – he squeaks in a certain way and all the others react appropriately to the specific danger. He said they can even distinguish between a big coyote and a little one. Because of the suppleness of their signaling system, he called it “language.”
“Ha!” I said to myself. “Caught you, Mr. Expert, in the act of anthropomorphizing! Yes, prairie dogs react specifically to specific threats; and yes, because they are social animals, they react specifically to each other’s reactions to specific threats. But” (and here I raised my forefinger, looking solemnly over my spectacles at the radio), “Can they lie?”
Aha! Mr. Expert had said nothing about untruth-telling among prairie dogs. Not a single incident in which, for instance, Mr. Squeak shouts “Coyote incoming! And a big one!” then watches all his mates dive for cover while he steals their nuts (or whatever it is that prairie dogs gather to eat). Prairie dogs can’t deceive each other. Therefore their signals, though intricate, do not amount to language.
The fundamental human ability is the ability to lie. Only because we are liars does our truth have any value. In order to lie, we must do the thing that separates us from the natural world: we must create and communicate the record of a state affairs, knowing that the record can exist even if the state of affairs does not. Civilization began when, instead of merely reacting to every bear that came over the ridge, we made a plan to protect ourselves if, by chance, a bear should come over the ridge, even though right now no bear was in sight. Civilization took another step when, instead of hoping we would each day run across enough fruits and berries to keep us alive, we made a plan to create and nurture a regular supply of fruits and berries and – mirabile dictu – grains and livestock, even though we weren’t starving at the moment. We can only make such plans at times of peace, when we aren’t being starved to death or eaten by bears. We have to do what cannot be done when we are fighting or fleeing. We have to think of what is not true at the moment. As soon as we know how to do this, we know how to lie. And when we know how to lie, we know that we can be lied to. We know that a person – you, I, he, she – can seem true and be false. In that moment, the notion of good faith is born. We start making big promises to each other.
There’s no going back on this knowledge. An angel with flaming sword protects the gate.
My cat still lives in Eden. He doesn’t lie to me about his food or his good taste, but that’s not a sign of good character. He’s not truthful exactly; he’s just not a linguist. “For God has bless'd him/In the variety of his movements,” wrote the mad poet Christopher Smart, observing by candlelight his companion Jeoffry “wreathing his body/Seven times round with elegant quickness.” We’d like to go back there, “For there is nothing sweeter/Than his peace when at rest.”* But if we went there we wouldn’t be human beings any more. So we keep our little Jeoffrys around, planning and providing them a life much better than nature would give. They remind us of that little town we came from, that we can’t go back to.
*Rejoice in the Lamb
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