Uncovering the hidden theft of deception

There is a logic puzzle that dates back at least to 1931 and probably earlier. There are many variants including the one used in the 1986 fantasy film Labyrinth. The most common form, and the one presented by Raymond Smullyan, who popularized the puzzle, goes like this:

You are on an island. All you know about the island is that there are two types of inhabitants, a kind and peaceful tribe that is always truthful and a savage and barbaric tribe that is always deceitful. As to what they are called, versions vary. Raymond Smullyan called them Knights and Knaves, Nelson Goodman called them Nobles and Hunters and of course, there is a version out there that labels them simply as Liars and Truthtellers. Those are the names I will use.

You come across a fork in the road and there are either one or two of the natives there. One road leads to the Truthtellers’ camp and safety. The other leads to the Liars’ camp and death. You have to quickly decide which road to take but, for whatever reason contrived by the storyteller, you can only ask one question. If there is only one native, as in some versions of the story, you could ask: which road leads to safety? That gives you a fifty-fifty chance of survival. The answer is a slightly more complex question. Instead you ask: If I were to ask you which road leads to safety, what would you say?

If the native is a Truthteller, they will tell you the truth. They would tell you that they would tell you that this road leads to safety, which it would and you would be safe. If, however, the native is a liar, then they would lie about their answer which would, in itself, be a lie, thus cancelling it out and telling you the truth. They would say this road leads to safety when, in fact, if actually asked outright, they would say that road leads to safety. Therefore, this is the safe road.

If there are two natives then the answer is even simpler: just ask one of the natives what the other would say, and do the opposite (which is what Jennifer Connelly did in Labyrinth). If you ask the Truthteller what the liar will say, he will tell you the lie (he will be truthful that the Liar will lie). The Liar, of course, will lie about what the Truthteller will say (doing something else even more heinous in the process, that we will examine shortly). Either way, you’re hearing the lie and the opposite is safe.

But something else is going on when there are two natives. While it is all very well to ponder the logic of how to extract the truth from a reliable liar, the fact remains that no such creature exists. Liars do so at their convenience, thus clever tricks like double questions do not work. When asked of someone bent on your destruction, the answer isn’t driven by an impulse to lie. It is driven by an impulse to destroy you which results in whichever response effects that result, truth or lie.

Even worse, when coming into the situation, you have already been informed that there are Liars and Truthtellers but don’t know which is which. The Liars have already seeded their destruction. There is an unrecognized consequence of the liar: they have stolen credibility from the truthteller. Truthtellers are noble creatures. Their camp is safe and they are honest. The liars say they are deceitful and vicious. Now, the Truthtellers have to prove their honour, which they would never have to do unless implicated by false allegations of the malicious Liars.

When I ask my double question, I am telling the Truthteller that I suspect that he may be a Liar. Imagine how that poor person feels. They have gone through their entire lives upholding the virtues of truth and now, that reputation is being challenged, simply because of a selfish group who want dominance at any cost. Liars are thieves. They steal credibility which they have not earned and do not deserve. They make good people look like bad people, stealing reputations. It’s a dilute form of identity theft and is as, if not more, nefarious.

Our poor Truthteller now has to work twice as hard to overcome the bad reputation that has been placed upon them by the liar. There is no damage to the Liar’s reputation (assuming they haven’t been outed), therefore, they get an advantage which the Truthteller doesn’t. This may sound like being a liar is a prudent course of action for self-improvement, but it isn’t. There are a couple of other things to consider.

First of all, lying and deception is simply dishonorable. Few employers in few professions will hire known liars (advertising and politics are possible exceptions). Secondly, according to Samuel Clemens (otherwise known as Mark Twain), if you lie then you don’t have to remember anything. That is true. Liars tend to set themselves up for situations where they have to lie more to cover up other lies being exposed. The whole thing becomes a house of cards. But even when a house of cards topples, there are often surviving substructures. The liar simply starts building again. However, reputations do get destroyed after a while. The old saying “once bitten, twice shy” rings true and, eventually, a person loses credibility, altogether. Like the boy who cried wolf, they often find themselves in the cold when real trouble comes. And, finally, it is theft. It is taking away something from a fellow human that you have not earnt and that they have. That is also dishonorable.

Liars don’t stop being liars. In that regard the puzzle is correct. Liars will always lie. It is in their nature. Like in the puzzle, generally speaking the world divides into two classes of people: those who try to expose liars and those who try to find better ways of lying. These categories can also be described, due to their nature, as honorable people as opposed to selfish people, people who respect the society which they live in and those who are contemptuous towards it and seek to use it for their own advantage, regardless of the cost.

Is it ever okay to lie? That is a very deep and complex question that deserves far more attention that I can give it in this sermon. That deserves a Monday all on its own. Suffice it to say, however, that there may be very extreme circumstances but the danger is in projecting every circumstance to be extreme and using it as an excuse to be a dishonest person, and the upshot is: there is no excuse for being a dishonest person.


Published by The High Priest