Why the physical world is a lie

There’s a lot of paranoia going around about ‘fraud’, ‘lying’, and ‘deception’, sometimes encapsulated by the term ‘abuse’. These are certainly ugly, often evil, realities — but not for the reason we usually imagine. In David Runciman’s seminal Political Hypocrisy, the Cambridge Professor of Politics draws a distinction between first- and second-order hypocrisy. The first-order hypocrite is one who lies, because they see some reason — political, economic, or moral — to mask the truth in the veil of deception. They want to tell a story, which Plato called a ‘noble lie’, somewhere between the modern ideas of a ‘white lie’ which only subtly spins the truth and a ‘dark lie’ which radically undermines truth, turning it on its head as Marx did with Hegel. For Plato, the physical world itself is a lie, a shadow of the conceptual truth of pure ideas, abstracted from all physical instantiation. Mathematics and morals describe this perfect non-physical realm, reigned over by the ideas of truth, beauty, and (above all) goodness. For Runciman, a sceptic of ancient ideas in modern politics, second-order hypocrisy involves the denial of the importance, relevance, or necessity of hypocrisy. A second-order hypocrite lies without knowing they are lying, or without acknowledging that they are not bastions of perfect truth. There seems to be an affinity between these ideas — politics supervenes on the physical; and if the physical world is a lie (Plato), then politics is inevitably trapped in a web of lies, too (Runciman). The question, as both Plato and Runciman argue, is: which lies are we willing to accept? Which hypocrisy is honest (first-order hypocrisy), and which is doubly hypocritical (second-order hypocrisy)? And which lies are noble, and which are ignoble? How can politics turn the lie of the physical world into a shadow of the good?

Immanuel Kant, philosopher of the modern world.

Modern philosopher Immanuel Kant thought lying was always wrong, but caveated that this is only if we act as if we are in a ‘kingdom of ends’ — i.e., as if we were not trapped in the physical world, where everything is turned into a ‘means’ towards something else. But we are trapped in the physical world — no amount of pretending is going to get us out of this. Kant is therefore entrapped in a second-order hypocrisy, a pretence that we can escape, at least conceptually, from the physical bonds to which we are tethered. But this is a dangerous lie indeed. Equally, however, lying recklessly — as some might deduce from Plato, or Runciman — is hardly ideal. We must strike a balance between the truth of theory and the fiction of stories, while also acknowledging the truths of stories that theory can miss. Plato, ironically, condemned poetry as a deceptive art which should be replaced by the illuminating reason of philosophy. But then Plato tells his own poetic story, a ‘noble lie’ about the necessity of philosophical rule over a city. Aristotle takes this one step further, making an ignoble lie of the idea that class division is ‘natural’. Plato anticipated this move, acknowledging that his perfectly imperfect city of Callipolis would decay into increasingly decrepit forms, and that philosophy would follow this political decay — although perhaps his hope in philosophy meant he did not quite see how much philosophy would accompany politics down the road to hellish deception. In Plato’s analogy of the cave, the philosopher returns from the illumination of the sun to the deception of the cave. In order to avoid being killed by the jealous prisoners, who do not understand what they are hearing from the philosopher (‘your world is fiction’, etc.), the philosopher has to speak the language of the shadows. To bring light to the darkness, the philosopher must become one with the darkness. Two mistakes are likely:

1. The philosopher is too honest about their hypocrisy, and fails to convince the prisoners to build a new polity based on truth, rather than falsity; and

2. The philosopher becomes too hypocritical about their hypocrisy, and starts to believe the lies they are telling, leading to the embarrassing failure of their project, much further on than an earlier failure, but much more catastrophic in its consequences.

As Runciman predicted, the first option is much better than the second. First-order hypocrisy is much better than second-order hypocrisy. But both forms of hypocrisy will fail. It is therefore Plato’s recommendation to balance between extremes, to tell a ‘noble lie’ that is partially true, but partially false. Runciman’s clever caveat is that we must be truthful about fiction, acknowledging that it is fiction we are telling — which is perhaps reflected in Plato’s idea that all words are shadows of ideas, and therefore always conceal more than they reveal, with or without our intentional deception.

So if lying, deception, manipulation, and all sorts of conceptual evils are inevitable in this physical realm, why do we need philosophers at all? Plato tells two narratives in answer to this question, which vary in their optimism about the role of philosophy. In the Gorgias, Plato straightforwardly says that rhetoric will alienate the truth, and will therefore be self-destructive to the benign intentions of a philosopher politician, who becomes lost in their poetic fancies (or ‘Lost In the World’, in the words of philosopher Martin Heidegger and musicians Bon Iver and Kanye West). In the Phaedrus, Plato is more optimistic about philosophers’ rhetorical power, suggesting that the philosopher will use rhetoric for the good but also in an effectively persuasive manner. Since only the philosopher knows the true distinction between fact and fiction, since the philosopher sees clearly the lie at the heart of the physical realm and the conceptual truth it imperfectly reflects, the philosopher is best able to persuade others as to what is true, and what is false. The philosopher will fail, it follows, if either they themselves reveal their lies to be fiction, not fact, or if they believe their own lie to the extent that the lie becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to a higher end.

The first failure is simple — a collapse of the project early in its development, or immediately prior to its maturation. The second failure is complex, and much more damaging — a fundamental flaw in the project’s substance, rather than just its style, resulting from a confusion of the two: a collapse of fact into fiction, and vice versa. Success resides in both balance, and a priority for what is true over what is false — which, paradoxically, rests on an acknowledgment of the inevitability of lying. Only then will we avoid the worst lies imaginable, and prevent smaller lies from enlarging in size and proportion. We could paint this as spinning the truth, but this concedes too much — the truth is not spun. It is either true, or it is not true — though the sense in which it is true may indeed vary. Reality matters. Truth matters. That is why we need fantasy, and fiction — if only to remind us that what we usually interpret as real is, in fact, a dream; and our dreams are closer to reality than anything in this mistaken physical realm. The closest to reality is philosophy itself, followed by physics, followed at last by poetry. But in the unreality of poetry is discovered the keys to reality itself.

In the shadows we rediscover the path to the sun — if only we acknowledge that we are living in shadows, and must try to find a way out. It is never too late to wake up — but there may be such a thing as sleeping for too long. We must time our awakening in exactly the right way, at the right time, in the right manner (like an archer aiming their arrow by considering the wind and visibility, as Aristotle argued, finding a ‘golden mean’ between deceptive physical extremes). Perhaps, to fully realise the lie of the physical world, we must embrace nature as it is, in order to fully ascend to what ought to be. As Kant suggested, art may bridge between nature and freedom. But it can also deceive. We need philosophy to make this bridge work. Or, perhaps, we must lose ourselves in the art, and let go of these tethers to truth. If this is true, then what I have said up to this point is indeed misled. To find the right balance, we may have to stop trying to find it at all, and let go of the delusion of control, philosophical or physical. Perhaps poetic imagination will lead us from this quagmire of philosophical insight. And politics can wait. Perhaps, so must we. Truth is revealed in time. Perhaps all we need is the space to accept this. Then, we can begin.

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