Join us on the patron only show as we look at the following cringe!
Join us on the patron only show as we look at the following cringe!
In 1905 a British Shopkeep named Paul Webb received a letter from a man named Luis Ramos.
Ramos, a revolutionary in Spain trying to overthrow a tyrant, had been betrayed and forced to emigrate to Britain to find safety along with his fortune of 37,000 pound. After the death of his wife he returned home to take care of his daughter. He and his daughter were then captured by his political enemies.
The dying Ramos, beseeched Mr. Webb from his jail cell:
“I feel that my life is going away. I have made my will by which I name my daughter my only heiress, appointing you her guardian. … All I need from you is 59 pounds to release her.”
The only problem is that this letter was addressed not to Paul Webb but Thomas McGill, a man Mr. Webb had never met.
The scam was revealed and Webb reported “Ramos” to the police.
The Spanish Prisoner Con and all of it’s variations including the modern Nigerian Prince scam is an example of how language and our naive belief in the truth of the things we’re told is used against us.
And also invites a question. How did we as a species ever come to rely on something so unreliable as words?
In the study of language this is called the problem of cheap signalling.
The problem is simple, a reliable signal in nature is either expensive to produce or easily verifiable.
An expensive signal seen in nature is the peacock’s tail. The peacock’s tail is a reliable signal of the peacock’s fitness because in order to produce and maintain such a resplendent, extravagant liability the peacock has to be in good health and has to be able to survive despite dragging around what is, in effect, a handle for predators.
Only peacocks with exceptional genes can manage this. Therefore the peacock’s tail is a dependable symbol of fitness. Which is very important for the peahen because verifying the truth of the peacock’s tail is nearly impossible. By the time she’s capable of verifying her mate’s fitness, she’s already committed considerable resources to laying eggs and raising their offspring.
On the other hand the Sparrow’s bib-a patch of darker feathers on a sparrow’s chest that indicates dominance, the larger the bib the more dominant the bird—is relatively easy to produce. It doesn’t inhibit the sparrow’s movements and costs nothing more in terms of metabolism, just a shift in feather pigmentation. However the sparrow’s bib as a marker of dominance is easy to verify. All another bird has to do is attack.
Reliable signals are like peacock’s tail, expensive. Or like the sparrow’s cheap bib, easily verifiable.
Therefore dependable signals in nature are either expensive or easily verifiable.
But what are we to make of language?! Human language is rife with concepts that are difficult or impossible to verify, conversations about distant places, events in the past or future, Gods and other supernatural entities. All of these things are covered fluently in almost every human language despite being on a spectrum from… not easily verifiable to can’t be verified.
Think about how many things you’ve read or been told that you haven’t personally verified yet likely consider absolutely true? The list is endless. In fact we rarely communicate things that are immediately verifiable, imagine if we did.
Did you know I’m in front of a camera? Did you know I’m speaking? Did you know the wall behind me is red?
Pretty annoying. In fact we don’t have an interest in being told things we can immediately verify for ourselves; we’re almost exclusively interested in things we can’t.
We want to know about things we don’t know. And we are particularly interested in things we can’t know.
At the same time human language is mostly unverifiable, human language is also cheap. And it’s not just cheap, it’s universally cheap. Every single signal in language is equally cheap, costing nothing but the effort to produce the sound. Therefore regardless of how expensive it could be for a person to trust someone else’s words, those words are always the same cost to produce. A lie is as cheap to produce as the truth.
The classic Spanish con illustrates just how easy it is to exploit our tendency to believe difficult to verify information.
So how does this impossible thing happen? How does language evolve when language involves almost exclusively cheap and difficult to verify signals?
Before we answer this question, let me give you a bit of science-stuff. I’m going to explain what a Signalling Equilibrium is.
Imagine we have a woman named Sue who knows about a really good apple tree along the river a few hills past her town. A fellow villager Stu is wanting to make apple cobbler for the village and he’s interested in filling a basket full of apples.
In response to his request for apples Sue chooses to provide information about the location of the tree. Stu receives the information and updates his mental map of the area to include Sue’s information about where the apple tree is.
Stu requesting information about the location of apples, Sue offering information about the location of apples and Stu updating his mental map of where apples are located is what is called a “Signalling Equilibrium.”
In a signalling equilibrium, the Signaller, Sue, chooses a signal and the Receiver Stu takes the same action every time in response to Sue’s signal.
In order to maintain the signalling equilibrium we just have to keep Sue offering the same signal in response to the same stimulus and Stu taking the same action in response to Sue’s signal. Now to generalize a bit, Stu can be asking all sorts of things about his environment from Sue and as long as Stu in turn trusts her statements and updates his mental map, they maintain their signalling equilibrium.
I say “just” but this is the real trick. Some force is keeping Sue and Stu in that signalling equilibrium. Some force is keeping Stu trusting Sue.
The force, it’s like gravity acting to tether the moon to the Earth or the Earth in orbit around the Sun.
And if we understand what’s keeping Sue and Stu in that signalling equilibrium when it comes to a single word, we understand it for all of language because language is an elaborate series of signalling equilibriums.
Now what could that force be?
One possibility might come from observing chimp signalling.
Like us, chimps use difficult to verify signals. Like us, chimps also con each other using difficult to verify information.
Specifically they use difficult to verify signals when alerting each other to potential threats, such as snakes. It’s hard to verify if an alarm call is accurate when you’re running away from a snake.
And chimps also often fake alarm calls in order to gain benefit for themselves. Sometimes its to scare off a rival from a mating opportunity or prevent them from exploiting a food resource.
When we look at alarm calls, the force keeping chimps believing each other’s alarm calls is their survival instinct. Even if 9 out of 10 alarm calls are self-serving lies, chimps can’t afford not to listen to them because the tenth time could be fatal.
In fact the only reliable difficult-to-verify signals they’ve evolved relate to survival. Chimps only listen when the cost of ignoring what another chimp has to say is death. But for any other unverifiable signal not related to their immediate survival chimps don’t have a reason to believe it because it’s more likely than not a self-serving lie and there isn’t a significant survival cost to ignoring it.
So Chimp signalling can’t really give us an explanation for how our cheap signalling evolved, except as a counter-example.
Since the reason why chimps can’t trust each other is because they lie constantly… maybe humans evolved the ability to detect and punish lies better than chimps?
Much of human communication is lies. White lies intended for the benefit of the recipient or grey lies intended as social lubricant; or things that aren’t lies but can’t be verified, statements about the past or the future, about other worlds, imaginary or supernatural, or gods or a god.
In fact human communication is rife with lies and unverifiable information, unrelated to our immediate survival, signals chimps would never trust coming from each other.
And not only is human communication rife with lies and pseudo lies, we’re terrible at detecting lies.
Human beings are worse than chance at detecting lies and slightly better than chance at detecting the truth, which might just be because we tend towards seeing things as truth. Even trained professionals are no good at it.
You would have a better chance determining someone was lying to you flipping a coin than trusting your own intuition.
Since we can’t detect lies the lies of others, we don’t consistently punish them.
Let’s take another look at the Chimp con artist.
Chimpanzees in zoos have been known to extend a hand with a flower towards zoo goers. Enchanted by the sweet display an unsuspecting human puts their arm into the chimp enclosure to receive the flower.
And that arm is promptly grabbed and yanked by the chimp as it attempts to tear it off.
Although human being often fall for this trick, another chimp is too wise to get taken in by such an obvious ploy.
The reason why is because human beings trust too easily. Which ties into the difference between Chimp con artists and human con artists.
Human con artists often incorporate an element of vulnerability. The Spanish prisoner’s wife is dead, he is dying and his child is in desperate need of a guardian. To ignore such dire circumstances is difficult for us because not helping makes us feel guilty.
Callously ignoring the chimp’s proffered flower also makes us feel guilty. How can we deny something so cute and innocent? How could we have known there was a violent sociopath lurking behind those brown eyes?
So if the force keeping Stu and Sue in their signalling equilibrium isn’t the usefulness of language, since language has to be dependable to be used and it has to be used to be useful, or their survival instincts or their ability to detect and punish liars… what is it?
The truth is we do punish lies constantly. We punish our own lies, through guilt. Not just those black lies we tell, but those black lies we could tell. As children grow and develop their theory of mind, they learn to punish their own self-serving lies, they internalize guilt over lying and over time that creates an attachment to a prosocial identity of truthfulness. Of service to others and the community.
The punishment that we deliver to ourselves is immediate, in fact it can occur even before the lie is uttered, preventing us from telling untruths. Guilt is a persistent torment impossible to escape, prodding sinners to repent and criminals to confess.
The same thing that keeps us vulnerable to the Spanish Prisoner con and all its variation is the same thing that keeps human beings in the signalling equilibrium that allows for language. Guilt.
There is a catch tho.
Sue will punish herself for lying to Stu… or at least she will as long as she feels guilty. But the guilt has to come from somewhere.
Letsay Sue and Stu are part of the same clan. Clans tend to be small enough that each member of a clan has a personal relationship with every other member of that clan. The average number of social relationships we can keep track of is called the Dunbar number and it’s around 150-250 people. Since Sue and Stu are part of the same clan, it’s likely Sue is related to Stu and has a personal relationship with him and her potential of harming her relationship with Stu by exploiting his vulnerability is what creates her sense of guilt. The disapproval of her clan will also play a part.
If Sue and Stu have never personally met but are part of a constallation of clans called a tribe, then the guilt becomes more abstract. Instead of directly modelling the harm done to Stu by her lie, Sue might model the displeasure of the tribal god, an ancestral ghost, or the ruling clan. All of which she shares with Stu.
But what if Stu and Sue live in a vast civilization full of different clans and tribes, what if they’re complete strangers to each other? What then? What’s keeping Sue from lying to Stu?
1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
— Genesis 11:1–9
If Sue and Stu are part of a large civilization with many clans, tribes, tribal gods and ancestral figures and a ruling clan vast enough no one could know all of their names, Sue might model the judgement of a universal, uniting God. A God she carries everywhere, a God who judges all lies equally, wether or not they are told to a clan member, a tribesmate or a random stranger in the dusty street beside King Nimrod’s tower to God.
God is the ultimate unverifiable concept. In fact an entity capable of thinking matter into being is beyond being unverifiable, it’s inconceivable. God by definition is ineffable and unknowable.
We go to the very edge of the unverifiable and the inconceivable and… something looks back at us. Something familiar.
As human beings we subjectify everything. So when we get to the very edge of the inconceivable to us the inconceivable itself must have a mind. But what kind of mind?
All cultures are convinced that they know what’s in the mind of God. Or at the very least they know what God doesn’t like.
There’s a trust exercise they use in the army. You climb up on a tall object, fold your hands over your chest and fall backwards into the hands of your waiting soldiers. The exercise demonstrates that you are willing to trust your fellow recruits, and therefore they can also trust you.
There’s another trust exercise that isn’t actually used by the army, in it people are separated into pairs and they are told to gaze into each other’s eyes. This exercise makes you vulnerable because someone staring at you feels like being judged. It’s almost impossible to escape the feeling that you are being judged. To allow someone to stare at you, is to allow their judgment of you.
What do trust exercises have to do with the mind of god? As a society we go beyond what’s unverifiable to the very edge of what’s conceivable. We stare into the abyss together.
And here’s where trust comes in. Sue and Stu listen to the teachings of their society about God’s mind and they trust in them.
We all come to the edge of the abyss and jump together.
And Stu and Sue’s society tells them God judges us for all the behaviours we need to avoid or need to do in order for society to function. Like “don’t lie.”
Collectively we trust in each other and call it God.
God is an eye in the sky. God is the guilt inside all of us. God is our collective choices to put the other first.
So what happens when you build a tower to verify the unverifiable exercise in trust that forms the foundation of your society and keeps people using a shared language?
Sue and Stu break out of their signalling equilibrium. And when Sue and Stu break out of their signalling equilibrium that means Stu no longer imagines an apple tree by the river when Sue describes it. In fact he imagines nothing at all and her words lose all meaning.
Sue’s words become gibberish to Stu. They become babel.
Cheap, hard-to-verify signals require trust in order to function.
When you see a cheap signal like language being used, there’s a force keeping us in the signalling equillbrium. Just like if you observe a planet in orbit around a sun, you know gravity is keeping it there.
For Nimrod the force keeping his kingdom able to use a high trust cheap signal, was a unifying, unverifiable concept that they all collectively placed their trust in. And when he ordered a tower built to God, he challenged the force keeping his society functioning and shattered language itself…
Next episode: The Tower that White Guilt Built