Truth, Lies, Deception, and Stories

Story Telling

Just after I published my previous essay ‘Children’s Games,’ and while bathed in the warm glow of brain reward, I told myself that I had written a pretty good story.  Then I asked “would a reader like it?”  Based on my own experience reading essays, a reader might like or dislike it, might accept or reject it.  The essay might resonate or dissonate in a reader’s mind.  Then I asked myself “would a reader find it to be a true story or a false story?”  And is it possible that a reader’s appraisal of the truth of the story might be simply that it resonated and that an appraisal of falsity may be that it dissonated?  My mind whirling and twisting, I then asked “what is a true story and what is a false story?” 

I have noted several times in my essays that the words appearing in my mind are accompanied with an aura of truth.  They are my words, and the children of my mind are true.  The words appearing in your mind, the children of your mind, might to me be false stories.   But true and false present as absolute concepts, neatly dichotomous and applicable to some exterior reality, not as being relative to their source, or to whether a story resonates or dissonates in another mind.  I began to wonder if the conceptual schema of true and false does not accurately represent our experience of truth and falsity.  The concepts tend to be hard edged.  Our experience tends to be nuanced, situational, personal, and relative.

I then did a ‘Pontius Pilate Moment’ and asked “what is truth?”  (In the Biblical story Pontius Pilate asked this famous question during the trial of Jesus.)  True and false began to appear to be odd concepts.  Where did they come from, how and why did we acquire them, what do they do?  Well, I thought that truth is the antithesis of lying and deception.  And that if we always told the truth, we would not have developed the concept of truth.  ‘Truth’ is based upon the experience and perception of falsity, of lying and deception, and could not have been developed without that experience and perception.  That renders falsity as the basis of the concept of truth, and falsity is thus primary and truth secondary in the conceptual ecology.

Truth is the inverse of falsity.  Truth is not-falsity – the negation of falsity.  I need to understand falsity and its inversion/negation to understand truth.  Deception and lying are a deliberate manipulation of the experience and perception of another animal for defense or personal advantage.  Deceit is developed out of the desire for advantage, or out of the perception of disadvantage and thus a need for protection or to rebalance the power relationship.  Deceit may be advantageous and protective, as is truth.

But what of the mind of the recipient as it perceives deceit?  I then thought that our minds are equipped to descry falsity, lying, and deception.  If you deceive me, that gives you some advantage.  If I detect your deceit, that counters your advantage.  Neural systems are then, at some level of development and complexity, deception generation and detection devices.  The concept of truth is then based upon the experience of the detection of deception, or of the failure of deception.  And that implies that neural systems are also truth detection systems.  Truth is then a measure of deception.  But those truth and falsity detection systems are themselves fallible and may not reliably render true judgments.

Other animals practice deception, but we take it to a new level with story-telling.  I next set a courtroom scene in my mind.  The clerk of the court is administering the oath of testimony to a witness, “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?  So help you God.”  What is, and why is there, all this formal procedure, this solemn swearing, and the invocation of a deity?  Because the individual on the witness stand may have a need and a motivation for deception, and for not telling a true story.  A lie, a false or deceptive story, may be more functional and useful to the witness than the truth.

The social need is to compel the testimony of the witness in violation of this motivation and need, because the social requirement is greater than the individual need.  Deception by an individual member of the group to gain personal advantage may be controlled or regulated by various mechanisms.  Compulsion in a courtroom is one of them.  H. sapiens is a social species with motivations that release behaviors that favor the individual, and motivations that release behaviors that favor the social group.  Those motivations may not be congruent, they may be very different and even conflicting.  The purpose of the courtroom formalities is to increase the ratio of social to individual motivations in the witness.

Deception is only one possibility, for a story may use either truth or falsity for its intended end.  This usage implies that there is some correlation between a story and some external reality that may be described as true or false and that there is some method of determining which.  It also implies that there is a motivation for the story, a reason for its existence, and a function to be performed.  True and false appears in the motivation of the story teller, in the substance of the story itself, and as resonance or dissonance in the mind of the recipient.  This is a description of communication: Information, true or false, is passed from one animal to another.  Stories communicated from one mind to another affect the mind of the recipient and/or effect a change in behavior.  A story may use either truth or falsity in its motivation and inception, and in its construction and message.  And the reader may experience the story as true or false entirely independent of its motivation and construction by the author.  There are interesting problems at every level of verbal communication.

In my essay “How to Make a Social Species” I used a photograph of chimpanzees grooming on the African savannah.  They communicate their immediate state of mind via various mechanisms: touch, gestures, facial expression – body language – and vocalizations.  These signals are real-time and honest.  There is no deception.  Then I wonder if body language can be deceptive.  It can be.  A fake or false body language such as an aggressive pose may be adopted despite an interior fear.  There is the possibility of conflicting body language, such as an aggressive body display accompanied by a fear face.  Body language may be intentionally deceptive.  But what cannot be faked or false is the motivation behind adopting the false body language.  That is honest.

Similarly, a story is an honest signal of the motivation of the teller and of the temper of the mind that constructed the story.  A story is constructed under a motivation and there is a tight connection between them even if the motivation itself is complex and possibly conflicting.  Further, the motivation of the author may be to eliminate, hide or obscure the motivation.  The author may be entirely unaware of motivation.  Motivation may be cryptic.

Motivation may be easier to discern in aural communication because it may be accompanied by body language and/or vocal cues.  In the written form there is no accompanying body language or vocal cues and thus the reader may be entirely unaware of the emotional, motivational and experiential paths, and the consequent pattern matching that generated the story.   The challenge to the reader is to parse the author’s motivation and that interpretation of motivation is itself done under the emotional, motivational, experiential constraints of the reader.

While a story is an honest signal of its motivation, that motivation may not be present in the story and thus not transmitted or communicated.  The story appears to stand alone and to present a truth.  It is not a story about the mind and motivation of the author but of some ‘reality’ that he perceives and wishes the reader to likewise perceive.  The intent of the author is to rewire the mind of the reader to be like his/hers whether under deception or ‘truth’: to communicate – an essential element for a social story telling species.


I began this essay asking simple questions about my previous essay ‘Children’s Games:’ would a reader like or dislike it and would a reader find it to be a true or false story?  Then I asked “what is a true story and what is a false story” and finally “what is truth?”  Simple questions, but quite important and rather difficult.  True and false began to appear to be odd concepts.  Where did they come from, how and why did we acquire them, what do they do?  Out of those puzzling questions I essayed the interesting answer that truth was derived from the experience and detection of deception and lying, and built my essay upon this premise.

There are other sources and uses for the paired concepts of true and false.  In the next essay I will take up the idea that true and false can in principle be applied to the ur-story about the play sequence, but that in practice they cannot.  There is no way to evaluate that ur-story as either true or false.  Further, true and false do not, cannot and should not be applied to the meta-story that interprets that play.  It is not a true story.  It is not a false story.  It is something else.

We are perforce social animals, story telling social animals, and we occasionally tell deceptive stories under a motivation that we may not know or understand – a cryptic motivation.  The purpose of deception is to control the perception and behavior of another animal to the teller’s advantage.  Rewiring other minds is an integral part of being a story telling social species.

We make stories and stories make us.  Stories define our personal identity and our tribal membership(s).  Stores tune our mental filters so that we apprehend, perceive and understand our sensory inputs in terms of those stories.  Stories incorporate our mental patterns and define our perceptions.  We make stories and stories make us.

And the story about a story telling social species is more complex than I have so far descried.  There is more to think and write about.