by Alan Hall

Q: One thing that concerns me is the lack of honesty in some interactions. Why do people misrepresent themselves or their group and recreate truth only from their own points of view? Are they not mainly lying to themselves to sugarcoat a situation?

A: There are different ways people misrepresent themselves. The first, and in some ways the least complicated, is simply to lie: you know what the truth is and say something other than this. My son lies when I ask him if he has brushed his teeth. There are obvious reasons why he does this; he doesn’t want to brush his teeth or he is afraid I will be upset with him. But misrepresentation might also become more complicated.

The first part of your question is, “why do people recreate the truth from their own point of view?” It could be, of course, a variation of the simple lie above, motivated by wanting wealth, power, influence, or safety (for example). If a lie, or recreation of truth, is in service of your own self-interest, you are no longer after truth but after something else and the truth of things falls away as a concern.

But there is also a deeper question here. Is it possible to not re-cast the truth from our own perspective? I suspect that from the way you have phrased your question you worry that truths from our own “point of view” are partial, not objective, and therefore don’t really count as “truth.” Perhaps we could approach this problem from another direction. If you are actually concerned about the truth, and not self-interest, then you must attest to the truth from your point of view, as it is the only view available to you. What you choose to affirm as true and false is not something that can be done by anyone other than yourself.

But then our problems become deeper still with the last part of your question: are they not actually lying to themselves? Here is where it gets interesting — is it possible to lie to yourself? There is disagreement among philosophers. Plato would say that it is impossible to lie to yourself. He holds you may be wrong about something, but you cannot know you are wrong and still affirm the thing you are wrong about to be true. Try doing it in your mind: imagine knowing something is false and try to believe it is true … I can’t do it myself, my brain short-circuits. Something cannot be both true and untrue at the same time.

Other philosophers, such as Nietzsche and Freud, think it is possible to have “false consciousness.” Severe trauma (for Freud) or a kind of weakness of spirit (for Nietzsche) means that you are unable to apprehend reality even if it smacks you in the face. At some pre-conscious level, you are actively avoiding the truth. The truth is not able to swim into view in your conscious mind and thus is simply unavailable to you. There is a very real way, then, that you just might be unknown to yourself. The forces driving you to believe things and do things are invisible to you, even if they can be seen by others.

But I don’t think we need to be as radical as Freud or Nietzsche here. I think all of us must have experienced trying to convince ourselves of something for obscure or unknown reasons, or have experienced doing something when we don’t really understand our intentions. In this we remain slightly opaque to ourselves. My favourite observer of this was not a philosopher at all but Shakespeare. Hamlet is perhaps his best example in that he seems to be in perpetual contradiction, saying one thing and doing another, a mystery to himself both in his thoughts and intentions. But here Hamlet is believable to us precisely because of his paradoxical nature. He is not one thing, he is many things, as are we.

In the end, I might say this to your question: we should strive to tell the truth to ourselves and to others, not because the truth is obvious but because it isn’t. The search for truth is difficult enough without knowingly obscuring our way. There are, of course, many deep temptations to do otherwise and the world is full of very good reasons to ignore what we fear to be true, whether they be trivial lies, like whether we brushed our teeth, or difficult falsehoods, like whether we have truly forgiven a loved one’s betrayal. If the aim of our inquiry is the truth, we have a hard climb in front of us.