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A History of Lying by Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel

Stuart Hannabuss looks for truths in a book on lies.

Many of us would prob ably say that lying is a matter of moral choice – to tell the truth or not. We might go on to qualify this by saying that the morality of it depends on context – public or private, perhaps to protect or maintain a valued relationship – and intention – is it inadvertent or deliberate? There are weasel words and omissions, lies and statistics and white lies and false analogies. Then there are things we wrongly believe are true but accept in ignorance, or which rest on mistakes or on inadequate evidence. But mention lying and you trigger long-standing morally loaded arguments about right and wrong, good and bad, and ‘truth-telling and deceiving in ordinary life’ (which is the title of a useful study by David Nyberg, worth reading alongside books by Sissela Bok and Harry Frankfurt). In A History of Lying (2022), Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel takes us in a different direction, which he calls ‘non-moral’.

He takes several persuasive steps to redirect us. First, he asks us to consider how we become aware of reality – how we represent reality to ourselves, and how we see it in relation to the self. This entails us employing not just perception and awareness of the world but also language, for the concepts to describe it to ourselves and others. Moreover, the ‘reality’ we believe we see and know might be an illusion – as in Plato’s Cave or The Truman Show. So how do we even know when we’re telling the truth, and when we’re lying about it? In the interests of ‘getting real about the reality illusion’, he praises Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, for debunking some of the traditional paradigms of knowledge. Yet before venturing into idealism, he veers off in another direction.

Truman heads for the truth
Truman image © Paramount Pictures 1998

His second step is to say that for all that a sense of personal identity matters, it is nevertheless a form of self-referentiality or subjectivity, and as such should be treated with scepticism, since we are frequently wrong about our own experiences. If continuing personal identity might be an illusion, a fiction (as Buddhists, for instance, maintain), then it appears to follow that the reality we perceive might be an illusion as well. But we choose to take part like actors in this very illusion. This is an idea you may recognise from thoughts about virtual reality or hyper-reality from postmodernists such as Baudrillard and Debord. It also provides us with a theoretical backdrop to the ‘post-truth’ performative culture of modern life, and above all, to the relativism and subjectivism of current political discourse.

From here the author takes a third step, towards what he calls ‘evolutionary epistemology’. This is where his ‘non-moral’ approach to lying tightens its grip on his overall argument. It is an epistemology based on genetic and Darwinian principles. In other words, everything we claim to know should be evaluated through an evolutionary lens. Muñoz-Rengel argues, for instance, that what we think of as ‘romantic love’ is shaped all along by our biological drives – will he or she make good babies? Romantic love is an illusion, then: it is all lies. The truth is in any case that our species continues through natural and sexual selection processes. Our deaths too we make into something significant through our fear of having had little purpose or freedom in life. However, all that matters is the species. Individual significance is a lie. Only a few friends and relatives will weep at your death.

This perspective seems both gloomy and exaggerated, yet it follows naturally from the conceptual framework he’s already set up. He sets out to make this argument as universal as possible. The argument is in fact applied in an ambitious way to religion and science, art and literature, politics and business, and love and death – five arenas of contentious analysis well worth engaging with in a discussion of truth and lies. So religion, in particular the Roman Catholic church (understandably in a Spain increasingly being overtaken by secularism), is all based on lies – on an idea of God which, as Ludwig Feuerbach argued, was merely created in the human imagination. Yet science too is distorted, by the private interests of companies like big pharma; and it frequently operates on conjectures that don’t pass Popper’s test of falsifiability. As significant areas of mendacity, we must also include commercial marketing hype; and states engaging in deception where lies have strategic value (as before D-Day); and all the false promises and lies told by politicians. At least, Muñoz-Rengel suggests, art and literature know and do not disguise that they are fictions: that they merely represent reality is self-conscious and declared.

Yet before we see all this as a despairing rant against corruption, or even as a moralising critique - he says it’s not - let’s remind ourselves of what he claims it is: an argument for an epistemology not centred around the false assumptions of conventional moral theory, but informed by evolutionary biology. Thus he argues that we are biologically – and so pretty well inevitably – inclined towards deception. Animals use camouflage to stay safe and hunt prey; we will always try to take advantage of competitors in business; and so on. Equally, we grow myths to explain the natural world and our place in it: when we fall in love we want to think we’re free; and when we die we want to think we made a difference… As individuals and as societies, various forms of lies are built into our DNA. But this takes us full circle, back to the illusion of the self and the illusion of the reality we believe we inhabit.

The arguments in this book are strongly made, but more than a few of the author’s assertions need far more (and less eccentric) evidence as support, and the commentary on social media and virtuality is now over-familiar. The case he makes for a meta-language based on the aware self is promising, but is left undeveloped.

In detaching the discussion from conventional morality-based studies of lying, and in reminding us of the central relevance of biological necessity and sceptical honesty, Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel has produced a lively and distinctive work.

© Dr Stuart Hannabuss 2023

Stuart Hannabuss has been a Humanist chaplain, and is now a writer based in Scotland.

A History of Lying, Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel, 2022, Polity, $22 hb, 200 pages

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