Monday, October 05, 2009
Ricky Gervais and His Pants Afire
Gervais started to lose me before he even appeared on screen. In the opening narration, he begins to tell us that the story is set in a world "where humanity never evolved the capacity for lying." Hooboy, that old chestnut again. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, is a result of evolution. Evolution is why men chase after women, especially blonde women with huge knockers. Evolution is why humans can swim and why apes can’t. And, mais bien sur, l’evolution is why there is conceivably a world in which people tell the 100% truth. Evolution simply makes it so. Never mind that a theory that explains everything is really a theory that explains nothing.
And, prithee, just HOW is evolution able to produce a society that in all other respects in identical to our own, with the only principal difference being the inability to lie? Seems to me, lying is just a manifestation of our ability to think in abstractions. If you only have $300 in your bank account and you need $800 to pay your rent (as RG depicts in his film, which, by da way, he co-wrote), you can still CONCEIVE of having the $800 you need; you can imagine yourself in that abstract world in which you actually have your $800; you can share that abstract idea with others; and you can even—evolution forefend!—pretend that your imaginary world is the ACTUAL world, and should you share that pretense with others… Behold, the lie.
But if human beings were unable to lie, they would be equally unable to think in such abstractions—mental constructs that do not harmonize with imminent reality. In such a world, human beings would be unable to envision, say, yesterday’s mammoth hunt and depict it in two-dimensional characters on a cave wall. They would be unable to watch a bird’s flight and wonder if man could imitate it. They would be unable to watch an apple fall from a tree and envision gravity. They couldn’t even anticipate the harvest available from planting a field of wheat. For that matter, they wouldn’t be HUMAN, just a bunch of forest-dwelling apes rutting around amongst the trees in search of food—most definitely NOT the sort of creatures capable of building roads and huts and war machines and pop-up toasters—oh, and civilizations.
So if we lack the ability to lie, and if lying is contingent upon our ability to think in abstractions, just how does evolution drive us from the trees and into cities? Short answer: it can’t.
But never mind all that, says Little Ricky. Let’s naught ge’ owl cought oop in deet-els (you have to imagine him saying this in that quirky li’l British accent). Gor! Whu are you on aboot, anyway?
All right, so give him his premise. Let’s not be distracted by the fact that evolution not only wouldn’t produce a world like he depicts in his film, but COULDN’T produce one, even if evolution were real. Give him his ball, and see where he runs with it.
All over the field, actually. Had he simply stuck with the aforementioned romantic comedy in which the hapless shmuck wins the girl of his dreams, that would have been enough. But no, he had to play the smug atheist dimwit, as all smug atheist dimwits are wont to play. Put a smug atheist dimwit in front of a camera, and he won’t be able to resist the urge to speculate as to why all the rest of us aren’t smug atheist dimwits like himself. Just what’s WRONG with the vast, vast majority of you? Why, it’s like you’re all crazy but for me!
So, midway through the film the story comes to a screeching halt so that RG can speculate on that very question.
Thus, he is called to the hospital, where he finds his mother dying. He takes her hand, and she trembles in fear of dying, saying “Ooh! An eternity of nothingness!”
Remember, now—this is a woman who is INCAPABLE OF TELLING A LIE, so “an eternity of nothingness” has to be the unblemished truth. And never mind just how a person incapable of lying would be compelled to believe in the absolute finality of death. At any rate, for whatever reasons, she is afraid. And so our Hero, in an attempt at assuaging his mother’s fear and making sure her last moments are peaceful and happy, “invents" the notion of an afterlife. “Naw, Mum,” he tells her, “ye go’ it all wrong. It’s naught an eternity of nothingness. You actually go to a wonderful place, where you live in a mansion, surrounded by everyone you’ve ever known and loved!” Riiight. That's all Heaven is, y'know—just a lie we tell ourselves because we're afraid of death.
Though what most smug atheist dimwits fail to realize is that Heaven is only a lie if it's untrue that there's a Heaven somewhere. If there's really a Heaven, then saying there’s a Heaven is not a lie. But in true smug atheist dimwit fashion, RG is certain he knows better than the other 90% of us. And he knows with one hunnerdmillion percent certainty there’s no Heaven, because otherwise he might have to admit to himself that he doesn't really know. And that ain't NEBBER GONNA HAPPIN!
Unfortunately, for our Hero, he neglects to see all the hospital staff listening in on him, and since any human being without the capacity to lie is, by extension (according to this film), also gullible and stupid, everyone believes him. So, to cover up his lie about there being an afterlife, he concocts a tale about there being a Great Big Man in the Sky, one you can’t see but who made everything and is directly responsible for every little thing that ever happens to you.
And if you think I don’t have a problem with this notion, you don’t know me at all.
First, there's a BIG difference between saying you have $800 in the bank when you know you only have $300, and saying there's a Great Big Man in the Sky when you can't say for sure that there's NOT a Great Big Man in the Sky. If there’s a God, the only thing you could ever prove is that He IS; you can’t prove that he ISN’T because it’s impossible to prove a negative. If you know for certain you have only $300 and you say you have $800, that’s a lie. Lying, by definition, is intentionally saying something you know isn’t factual, and, by extension, excludes the saying of things whose truthfulness hasn’t been established. If I were to say that the last thought going through anyone’s mind just before he dies is “Corn and cotton are two crops indigenous to North America,” even if it’s untrue, it’s not necessarily a lie because it would be something impossible to prove or disprove.
Second, presuming there is a Great Big Man in the Sky who made everything, just how does it follow that if you get cancer that he is the one who gave it to you, and that if you’re cured of cancer then he’s the one who cured you? This is just bad logic, borne from an inability to distinguish primary from secondary causation. Sure, God created planets and meteors, but if a meteor crashes into a planet, it MIGHT be because God woke up that morning and said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to crash a meteor into that planet over there?” But it might also be because God created gravity and physics which, working together, caused the meteor to crash into the planet. In this case, the primary cause would be gravity and physics; God would be secondarily responsible. If you rob a bank, do the police arrest your parents, because if your parents hadn’t conceived you, you wouldn’t have been around to rob the bank?
Third, even presuming that there could ever be a society composed of human beings who are incapable of lying, how by what logic do we presume that such a society would be devoid of religion? For argument’s sake, let’s suppose that in this society’s history, there was a guy, let’s call him, oh, “Moses.” Suppose one fine morning this “Moses” character is walking along and finds a burning bush that tells him “I am the LORD Thy God!” Let’s further suppose that he relates this event to a bunch of people—call them, oh, I don’t know, “Jews.” If he tells them the whole truth about what he saw and heard, and since no one would ever have a reason to doubt him, once the story got out, religion would take hold. And even if what actually happened were that this Moses guy drank some soured goat’s milk for breakfast which caused him to hallucinate a burning bush claiming to be God, he would still THINK he saw what he only imagined seeing and would still truthfully relate his encounter as he perceived it; in either scenairo, you’d get religion.
This movie isn't so much about the invention of lying as about the invention of saying things that are contrary to one's own beliefs—which isn’t necessarily lying, as anyone has the capacity for believing something which isn’t true. Darwinism, for instance.
And, to my thinking, it demonstrates—contrary to what RG thinks it demonstrates—the scads of nonsense you have to make yourself believe if you want to tell yourself that God doesn't really exist. When the Psalmist says "The fool says in his heart there is no God," he's not saying the fool's a fool for SAYING so, but for telling himself something he knows in his heart of hearts isn't true.
Ricky Gervais is a fool. And that's no lie.