Accepted Paper:

Uncertain others: a quantum theory of truth and its Moroccan advocates  


Matthew Carey (University of Copenhagen)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the epistemological implications of highland Moroccan Berbers' claims that other people's thoughts and intentions are almost wholly inscrutable. Accordingly, people's statements are best thought of as neither true nor false, but as existing in a state of “suspended veracity”.

Paper long abstract:

This paper explores the epistemological constraints on communication in the Berber-speaking highlands of Morocco, focusing on local people's insistence 1) that the thoughts and intentions of others are almost perfectly inscrutable; and 2) that any attempt to pierce this "hermeneutic veil" is fundamentally immoral.

Together, these two claims have a significant impact on local concepts and practices of truth and lying. In line with the first, people suggest that their interlocutors are properly speaking unpredictable and rhetorically stress that "there is no such thing as trust". The truth or falsehood of other people's statements cannot be known or even guessed at, except on those occasions when unfolding events confirm or deny them. Otherwise, though, they exist in a state of "suspended veracity" (like quantum particles whose properties are uncertain). The second claim, meanwhile, both condemns attempts to pierce the veil and encourages people openly (and amusedly) to dissemble about their plans and intentions when these are unverifiable. I suggest that such speech acts are best understood not as "lies" intended to mislead or misinform, but as examples of obfuscation designed to protect their autonomy and whose truth value is null because they cannot be disproved. These strategies are magnified by modern forms of communication (mobiles, msn, facebook), where greater anonymity equals greater unverifiability.

Finally, the paper addresses the implications of this cultural complex for people's assessments of the reliability of news media and the nature of the information they convey.

Panel W015
Living uncertainty: navigating gray-zones of unreliable realities in the Middle East (EN)