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Who’s Lying, Then?

David Pitts on Epimenides of Crete and his infamous Liar Paradox.

I was thinking about those Cretans. A whole people stigmatised as liars! And it was one of their own who said so. The archetypal whistleblower. The Cretan poet who said, “All Cretans are liars.”

Of course, it was only because a Cretan wrote this that this statement has caused so much philosophical excitement. If I or most of you had written it, it would not have mattered, libel laws apart. But since he was a Cretan himself, then he must have been one of the liars; and so he was lying when he said that all Cretans are liars; and so they are not liars; so he isn’t, and he was telling the truth after all; and so they are all liars – and round and round we go.

His careless remark has reverberated down the centuries, through its descendants ‘this statement is false’ and Bertrand Russell’s set paradox, until now a mountain of logical and mathematical constructs have been erected elaborating the conundrum involved and its consequences.

Actually, we’re pretty daft if we suppose Epimenides (yes, he’s the culprit) necessarily meant it that paradoxical way. He more likely meant his reader to think that his statement was an exception to the general rule of Cretans being liars: either that he was telling the truth precisely when he said Cretans were (otherwise) liars, or that he himself was always an exception to the general rule he was propounding. But that would spoil the fun completely, wouldn’t it? So let’s go along with the idea that, either inadvertently or deliberately, Epimenides meant to include himself among the liars. Even so, the idea that what he wrote is a nonsense is itself a nonsense, because liars don’t always lie. I challenge you to show me a single person who always lies. We distinguish between liars and habitual liars, but even habitual liars don’t always lie. They are very disposed to lie, and often do so, but they sometimes say, “It’s not so bad today” when the weather is not so bad, and “I’ve got a train to catch” when they have a train to catch, and so on. So even if all Cretans are liars, while it follows that Epimenides, being a Cretan, was a liar, it does not follow that he was lying when he made the notorious assertion.

If I want to be really awkward, I’d say that Epimenides did not write “All Cretans are liars” anyway. Yes, I know many reputable books of philosophy say that he did, but they’re misquoting him. What he wrote was “Cretans (are) always liars.” He did not include the word ‘are’, but that’s because some languages don’t think it worth wasting powder and shot on the present tense of the verb ‘to be’ when it’s obvious that that is what’s meant. So we can accept “Cretans are always liars” as being a valid quote, but not “All Cretans are liars.”

Some of our philosopher friends seem to think this makes no difference, and if a liar is someone who often lies but does not always do so, then indeed there is no difference. Whether all Cretans are such people, or Cretans are always such people, comes to the same thing. The snag is that some of our philosopher friends read even the correct quotation, “Cretans are always liars” as meaning “Cretans always lie.” And that, for the reason given above, is different in meaning from “All Cretans are liars” or “Cretans are always liars.”

So where have we got to? Well, let us go along with our new friends – we don’t want to offend them – and pretend that what we have is a Cretan saying (or writing – that makes no difference) that Cretans always lie and not meaning that he himself is a temporary (or permanent) exception to that rule. Does the universally taught logical conundrum follow?

Surely not. Surely the suggestion it does is based on a fallacy.

The first stage in the conundrum is that Epimenides was necessarily himself lying when he said that Cretans always lie. To keep the peace, we are going along with that. But the next stage is to assume that if Cretans do not always lie then they always tell the truth; and so Epimenides, being himself a Cretan, was after all telling the truth. And that does not necessarily follow. It is one (pretty unlikely) possibility that Cretans always tell the truth. Much more probably (although whether or not it is more probable does not itself matter, only that it is a possibility), Cretans sometimes lie and sometimes they tell the truth. There is therefore no logical necessity for Epimenides to have been telling the truth. Epimenides himself could have been lying when he said that Cretans always lie. There is no logical necessity for there to be a logical problem here.

So have our paradoxical philosophical friends been building their (hugely impressive) castles on sand? Well, possibly not. This particular alley is, I suggest, a blind one; but you can always use language to produce logical nonsenses (eg, “I am now lying”) and then tie yourself into intellectual knots trying to sort it all out.

Is it, the mental exercise apart, worth doing so?

I’m not going to answer that question, thank you very much. I leave that to someone else.

© David Pitts 2012

David Pitts M.A. studied Literae Humaniores at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was the top Classical Demy (Scholar) of his year.

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