The Wolf who cried "Boy!"
    By Brian Taylor | August 17th 2010 03:38 PM | 10 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Brian Taylor is a writer of philosophy and a social critic. He can be reached at He blogs at

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    In my take on the classic fable of the Boy who Cried “Wolf” a young boy thinks he sees a menacing wolf and cries out to the townspeople, “Wolf!” The townspeople come to examine the danger and find no wolf, they presume he is mistaken. Soon thereafter the boy, sensing another menacing wolf, cries out again, “Wolf!” The townspeople again investigate and again find nothing, perhaps now they think the boy is doing it for attention. This continues on a few more times until finally, the townspeople no longer respond to the boy's cry of “Wolf,” because they believe they will again find out it is a false alarm.(They no longer even care why the boy is doing it, they no longer give it any thought at all.) One day a real wolf comes along and the boy cries “Wolf!” to no avail. The boy gets eaten by the wolf. The moral of the story is “if you are  a consistent liar, (or wrong,) you should not be surprised when people don't believe you.  (This is markedly different than Aesop's version where the boy is tricking the townspeople because he is bored. My version introduces error and belief into consideration.)
    So what is really happening here? What is the boy's intention? To make people aware there is a dangerous wolf and to be rescued from that danger. (Presumably.) However, we must only presume this, we can't actually know it because we have only the boy's word to go on. We must accept the boy's social engineering because there is no experiential wolf to be found. At first, the townspeople are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. In time, with repeated false alarms, the boys' intention begins to be seen as manipulation rather than persuasion. This is the product of reduced transparency, (we don't know what the actual intention is, because there is nary a wolf to be found, which would be the best experience of the intention) and increased force, (the repetition.) Finally, they completely ignore the boy who cries “wolf,” to his peril. The townspeople had the power to change the outcome and didn't, by doing nothing. The boy had the power to change the outcome and couldn't, even though he tried. There are two different interpretations of the boy's “crying wolf” paradigm. For the boy, for some reason unknown to us, his intention keeps demonstrating a false result to the townspeople. For the townspeople, this results in the boy's intention being considered false. The boy has changed the results of his intention and his conditions are no longer being satisfied.

        What if the boy wasn't crying “wolf” but instead “terrorist?” How many times could the boy cry out without showing any results before the people stopped coming to his rescue? Is this scenario any different? In both cases the intentions have come up false until action has taken place. In other words, due to so many false alarms, the wolf needs to eat the boy in order for us to believe him. On the other hand, the terrorist needs to terrorize if we keep getting false positives. Otherwise, we simply stop believing in the intention. Action speak louder than ideas unless the action is an idea. “Crying wolf” is only an action if the idea is understood and accepted. Once it is not, it has become something else. Not knowing the prior intention of the boy is a detriment because we are unable to evaluate it, however it is irrelevant because the intention in action has proven it false. We, as observers outside of the engineer of the intention, can only interpret it as we do. It should be expected that false positives would yield false responses.

        Simply put, we thought the wolf wasn't real. It turns out the wolf was real, we know this because we can go experience the boys' torn up, half-eaten corpse. In this way, it was the wolf that made the boys' intentions a reality, it is the wolf who cried, “boy!” However, this couldn't have happened without the demonstration of the intention, the rejection of the intentions meaning and finally the bloody proof. This makes the boy's death causally self referential. The boy had the “cry wolf” paradigm, used it, falsely, repeatedly, until it lost any meaning. Then when he needed it, it wouldn't work anymore and he was killed. If you didn't know the story, if you were a Detective showing up on the scene, you could assume that he was killed by a wolf and leave it at that. Once you were informed by the townspeople of how they didn't bother helping him because of all the false alarms, who would you blame for the boys death, beyond the wolf? I'm guessing the boy. After all it was his engineering that programmed the townspeople not to respond, or rather, to respond a certain way.

        In our fable, the wolf is the causation of the boy's intention. Regardless of whether or not there is a wolf present, that the boy is lying or otherwise wrong, or whatever might be motivating the boy to cry “wolf,” the response is to the idea of a wolf, any wolf. For the sake of argument let's assume there never was a wolf and the boy was doing it for personal reasons. What those reasons might be is still irrelevant. In this case it would be likely that we all would consider the boy more responsible than if there was a wolf present every time he cried for help and it just scurried away before anyone else could see it. What is being demonstrated here is the difference between Prior Intention and Intention in Action. Prior intention is just as easily a mystery as not. We (and the townspeople) only get to see the boy's intention in action. We know not his motivations and as philosophical readers of this story we can investigate no further. The townspeople can, but either they didn't or it's not part of my story, because we don't know about any such investigations.

        In reality, our modern life mimics this problem exactly, all the time. Somebody asks us to “think this about that” and we have to make a decision based on whatever we have at our disposal to help us decide. Perhaps we believe the intention and concur, perhaps we don't and hinder, either way, it only matters if something is being done. Acting is a question of doing and action is intention becoming real. We cannot say action is the only thing that matters because ideas direct actions, but action is what makes any intention matter. However, if we do not act, there is also the opportunity for the world to prove the intention worthy. This is achieved when the Prior Intention is exposed. In the case of the boy who cried “wolf,” the prior intention appears to have been to have help fending off a very real wolf. (I say 'appears to be' because the boy still could have been lying every time subsequent to the last.)

        If the Prior Intention and the Intention in Action are the same, or shall we say, appear the same, we shall accept this as reasonable proof of any stated engineering being honestly depicted. However, as demonstrated by our ignorance of the motivations of the boy who cried “wolf,” honesty doesn't matter as much as results. So it seems that being honest with yourself in terms of your own personal intentionality may be what someday saves your life, but it's much more likely that the only thing that matters is how your intentions are perceived. (In other words, it doesn't matter if you're intention was a lie or the truth, by design or accident, the only thing that matters to intentions are belief.)

        So what we have here are two rules: If an intention is unbelievable, it is irrelevant unless based upon fact. If an intention is based on a falsehood, it has to be believed to become real. The intention of the boy crying “wolf” is the responsibility of the boy, but the power of his intention is the domain of  the townspeople. The townspeople must decide:
    1.Do I believe this intention is truly stated?
    2.Is there experiential proof of the intention?
    3.Do I desire to believe the intention?
    4.How should I respond?

        The first question is one of validity. You might not be able to answer it, ever, with any degree of certainty. If we are considering the boy who cried “wolf,” the question becomes, “Is this boy crying “wolf” because there is  wolf?” This is a question of motivation or the causation of the intention. Short of having proof you can never actually know the answer. What you can do is investigate to the best of your ability. This is where you start looking to answer the second question. In the case of the boy who cried “wolf” the townspeople could certainly have done more investigation than we know of from the story. One could pull aside the boy and interview him thoroughly, one could search the area for the wolf or signs of him, etc. Finding no proof, all anyone can do is judge the situation. We might be able to do so  from a place of some relevant knowledge or we might just have to go with our “gut feeling.” If we have proof, there is no decision to make. (Although sometimes some people decide to believe things despite proof to the contrary.) There are countless associations at our disposal for this decision. (Perhaps we know the boy, know he's a liar, or know he's honest. Perhaps we can see the fear in his eyes and that convinces us. Perhaps we hate his Father and don't even want to believe the boy out of some bias. Perhaps we are the mayor of the town and want our constituents to feel safe, so we belittle the boys fears, etc...) All of these things come down to our desire to believe. It is not a case of simply believing the intention, if it were, this question was answered by number one. The third question is really a matter of “believing that I desire to believe.” All this means is, “Do I want to believe the intention?” The third question is really a matter of “believing that I desire to believe.” All this means is, “Do I want to believe the intention?” (You might term this decision a determination of “plausibility,” but the same things that move you toward this intention are the ideas you accept as reasons that you should or should not find such belief reasonable.) Once you have answered that, you should be much closer to answering the final question, “what am I gonna do about this?” This final question is the most important because, as we know, it was we do that matters, not what we think about what we do. What we do about any particular intention is much more effectual than what we think about it.

        So we can either act or not act based on our desire to either accept or deny the things that the world throws our way, be they wolves or weapons of mass destruction. We can also believe or not believe intentions based on our desire to find them either true or false, regardless of whether or not we know anything about our decision making process. Either way, our desire to think something is the only thing we need to make it so. If the reality of any particular intention is unknown, it has absolutely nothing to do with our decision making process. A great deal of our mental abilities are used to decide our intentional stance toward ideas that have no basis in reality. It doesn't seem to matter to us that we don't know what we're talking about. We'll make up an answer anyway.

    This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Anti-Social Engineering the Hyper-Manipulated Self

    Anti-Social Engineering


    Gerhard Adam
    Short of having proof you can never actually know the answer.

    So we can either act or not act based on our desire to either accept or deny the things that the world throws our way, be they wolves or stop signs or weapons of mass destruction.

    Actually there's one other factor and assumption being made here; plausibility.  Imagine if your story replaced the wolf with "bigfoot" and we suddenly have a completely different situation.  Similarly, if the boy crying wolf lived in Manhattan, it would also have a different twist.

    In all cases, our assessment is coupled with the plausibility of the scenario we're presented with.  In addition to the veracity of the boy and our personal opinions/beliefs, there's the plausibility element of it that suggests there is a third possible outcome that is somewhat independent of the other two parameters.

    In other words, if we have overwhelming evidence of a paranormal event, then our beliefs will dictate whether we investigate ghosts or look for how the illusion is being perpetrated.  This can then be driven by the plausibility of the explanations surrounding each approach.    In fact, in the original story, the point is specifically about abusing people's good will, while in your version there is a much greater onus on establishing the plausibility of the alarm (i.e. was the boy always in the same place, any external evidence, etc.).

    Similarly to use your point about terrorism, there is a tremendous difference to feeling threatened in downtown New York City than in a cornfield in Iowa.  The plausibility element is missing despite the primary point about terrorism still being true.

    As you mentioned in the article, there are many instances where no absolutely proof is available, in which case the only thing that can be done is to take the available knowledge one has and attempt to determine the plausibility of a situation.  It can certainly be wrong, but it does move it out of the realm of only being a belief or not.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thank you very much Gerhard, you are correct.
    It's not so much that it was my intention to leave out Plausability, but rather that I failed to mention it. In a way, I lumped it in with belief/opinion (in my mind) because it is up to me to determine the plausability, based on whatever info I have and the less info I have, the more I must believe.
    Of course, you'll have to take my word on that...

    It might also be that all that we are doing is determining plausability, that is to say, when we know not what we do.

    I will have to ponder this,

    Gerhard Adam
    The only distinction I would make regarding plausibility versus belief/opinion is that it is this characteristic that allows one to evaluate the likelihood of the various beliefs being correct.

    For example, I've engaged in a lot of different discussions with people claiming to be vampires.  So initially it comes down to what I believe versus what they believe.  However, the more their questioned their responses reduce the plausibility of their claims.  While they may still believe it, the more said, the less plausible the explanations become, which leads me to conclude that, whatever the reason for their belief, it isn't sufficient to make me question my own.

    It's similar to the arguments that invoke Occam's Razor, since that is ultimately a test of plausibility. 

    Mundus vult decipi
    Would it be possible for you to do a peice that deconstructs plausability?
    What is it we are doing when we determine plausibility?

    I can't get past plausibility being part of perception...
    Gerhard Adam
    What do you mean by perception?  Obviously everything we encounter is subject to our interpretation and we can certainly draw whatever conclusions we choose.  However, plausibility enters the equation only when we are attempting to evaluate our conclusions.  In some cases, it isn't subject to scrutiny, so whatever beliefs someone holds are sufficient for such an individual to make their own judgement.

    However, going back to your story, the townspeople would initially reach whatever conclusions they were already inclined to based on their knowledge of the boy, etc.  However, if the circumstances were subject to analysis, then one could determine which explanation was the most plausible by determining how many assumptions any conclusion hinged on.  Each assumption could be evaluated on its own plausibility and this would allow us to generate an internal view of what is the most likely explanation for an event.  This doesn't render it true, but it simply increases the likelihood that it is the best interpretation.  This is what Occam's razor does.

    The more assumptions made that are unsupported, the greater the likelihood that an error will creep in thereby rendering any conclusion subject to the same or greater errors.

    If we examine your story more closely we can see that

    (1) the boy is raising an alarm regarding a wolf
    (2) townspeople respond but find no threat

    So this reduces to only two initial conditions
    (1) There is no wolf.  In this case, nothing further is required since nothing can come of the alarms regardless of whether people respond or not.
    (2) There is a wolf. So this takes us to look for additional explanations.
            A.  Are there wolves around?
            B.  Why does no one see it?
            C.  Why are there no traces of it?
            D.  Why is there only ever one witness?

    You can see this leads to all kinds of secondary questions including is the wolf harassing other animals/livestock?  What's the likelihood of only one witness repeatedly? 

    As each of these questions are evaluated more closely, each helps us determine how likely any one explanation is over another.  Are we being asked to accept unlikely relationships?  Are we making assumptions that there is no evidence to support at all?

    In the end, the fewest assumptions are the most likely to produce the most plausible explanation.  This can't be determined from the story itself, since we aren't told anything about the circumstances.  Instead we're only told about the human conversations.

    So if this were a real circumstance, you'd likely find people changing the conditions to see if evidence can be collected.  Perhaps exploring surrounding wooded areas?  Perhaps setting up cameras (don't know the technology of the story)?  In other words, each additional piece of information is used to shore up or challenge our assumptions, thereby rendering one explanation more plausible than others.  Essentially even ordinary circumstances give rise to something similar to the scientific method in an attempt to gather the "facts" of an event.

    Certainly some people will assign plausibility to anything that they simply find "acceptable", but that's just lazy thinking.  Consider a popular example such as the Loch Ness Monster.  People will argue about whether it is possible for such an animal to exist, and then extend their speculations to a Pleisiosaurus, etc. etc.  However, simply examining the assumptions quickly suggests a fatal flaw in the argument.  It is clearly impossible for a species to survive 135 million years without a viable reproductive population.  So, regardless of whether anyone found a live Loch Ness Monster, the reality is that the loch (which is about 10,000 years old) would be strewn with the skeletons of its ancestors. 

    So despite all the "serious" attempts to investigate the Loch Ness monster, even a cursory analysis would have revealed that without evidence of ancestors and no breeding population, it would be extreme implausible for there to be a land-locked creature of any size, especially one of prehistoric origins.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Thank you for this.
    I have changed the post and my book to reflect your observation.

    third question is really a matter of “believing that I desire to
    believe.” All this means is, “Do I want to believe the
    intention?” (You might term this decision a determination of
    “plausibility,” but the same things that move you toward this
    intention are the ideas you accept as reasons that you should
    or should not find such belief reasonable.

    Further thoughts?

    Gerhard Adam

    "The third question is really a matter of “believing that I desire to believe.” All this means is, “Do I want to believe the intention?” (You might term this decision a determination of “plausibility,” but the same things that move you toward this intention are the ideas you accept as reasons that you should or should not find such belief reasonable.)"

    Well, we can always short-circuit the plausibility argument by simply pursuing our desired intention or letting our bias determine the outcome.  Similarly there are some things we don't want to examine too closely because they satisfy some other need or psychological objective.  In those cases, we aren't actually interested in plausibility, so we tend to ignore evidence or would likely not examine it even if presented with it.

    Plausibility only really comes into play when we are seriously attempting to evaluate a situation with minimal or no information.  As a result, we are attempt to construct a logical set of connections that helps us see whether the situation being examined can fit into the logical framework.  If it outside that framework, then we would tend to judge it as implausible.  If it dovetails into our sense of "factual knowledge" then we would tend to judge it more plausible.

    Mundus vult decipi
    How about this:

    Plausibility is determined by evaluability and desire. If we have little to no (ability to evaluate) due to lack of knowledge or because of an inability to investigate, we can only go with what we believe.
    If we have some knowledge of the situation we are examining, or are able to determine some likelyhoods via investigation, our logical arguments should bear sweeter fruit than they otherwise might. However, even by universal logic we are still only able to speculate, albeit with an expected higher rate of success. Nevertheless, this determination of "intentional integrity" it is still a belief we desire to have.

    The problem I'm most interested in exposing and discussing is how we do the exact same "desiring to believe" and in the same way despite having a complete inability to escape the practical logic we use in everyday life. In real life, we will give you an answer, regardless. It also turns out that we seek these answers: There is only a 2% difference in the acceptance rate of "any" excuse, versus a "good" excuse. (Danger!)

    The real trick is to create a practical evaluation that is also logical, which we may measure in degrees of rightness or wrongness, despite knowing nothing of the plausibility. Which I think is impossible, but I can't describe how.

    If I could describe how, I might be able to extrapolate.

    Gerhard Adam
    Well, I would first say that we don't have a "desire to believe", we simply believe.

    For example, if I hear a noise in my house that wakes me up, I didn't consider every possibility regarding the noise, I immediately determine a range of possibilities.  I don't consider ghosts or that objects are dancing around Disney style, I assume that the laws of physics are in place and something or someone made the noise.

    My belief is what determines the parameters of my assumptions.

    In my case, I would look at my dog (or listen for them) to see if they are barking or disturbed.  If not, then it lends plausibility to the point that I don't have an intruder.  If they are agitated or barking then I would assume otherwise.

    If it is the latter, I would consider whether they were outside barking or inside (I have multiple dogs).

    All of this allows me to construct a quick explanation for what is likely happening.  If all this fails, then I am forced to get up and investigate.  Why?  Because I consider that an intruder is possible, so to avoid being caught unawares, I make the effort.

    All of this is governed by my belief system at virtually every level.

    1.  I believe that supernatural events don't occur, so I look for physical causes.
    2.  I believe my dogs can detect an intruder so I trust their reactions
    3.  I get up if they are agitated because I believe people do break into houses.
    4.  I believe that people can be dangerous so I don't want to leave that to chance.

    Every one of these points are governed by my belief system and require no explicit knowledge of what is occurring.  However, as I investigate I'm looking to establish the most plausible explanation for the events I'm experiencing.

    In a different vein, imagine that we were watching a moving and saw a pile of rubble reassemble itself into a building.  We recognize the reversal of time and immediately regard it as an implausible set of images and thereby conclude that the film must be running backwards.

    This can often be seen in movies where the special effects aren't done well.  An individual that moves too fast to match their body's capabilities.  A jump that is too high.  An artificial movement that conflicts with the animals normal movements.  Each of these registers with us as being implausible and sets off our "phony" detectors.

    Consider the other case where we literally have no knowledge and can't obtain it.  This is typical of things like aliens visiting from another planet.  Whether we believe it is possible or not, there are some questions that can be asked to determine whether our assumptions are plausible or not.

    First we might consider the effort such a visitation would entail (on the part of the aliens) and we might conclude that it seems implausible to expend that much energy and then stay in hiding.  Someone might counter with something like the "Prime Directive" from Star Trek and say that they are trying not to interfere.  To which the counter might be ... then why do they let themselves be seen?

    Each side can make what appears to be logical appeals based on the belief system each observer holds.  However, in the absence of specific knowledge the matter can't be put to rest.  So we can continue with additional queries regarding the amount of energy involved, the size of the spacecraft, the level of technology, etc.  Each may be countered with a "how do we know they can't or perhaps they know something we don't".

    However, as the increasing number of questions leads to fewer and fewer actual answers, we are faced with determining what the plausibility of the original point is and we might conclude that there simply isn't enough evidence to warrant believing that aliens are visiting.  While someone else may still retain that belief, it will be clear that in order to do so they must increase the number of implausible items in their explanation to make it hold together (i.e. new laws of physics, etc.).  This doesn't mean they're wrong, just that their explanation requires much more effort to hold it together and thereby implies that it is less plausible than the more skeptical position.

    When an argument finally breaks down to where too many fantastic events have to occur, then we move from implausible to untenable.

    This is often what we observe in religious arguments where the argument progresses until someone invokes the "anything is possible, or the power is absolute" position.  At that point the plausibility of a position is solely determined by the belief of the people involved.  In effect, the inquiry has been terminated by a block from the belief system.  It's like saying that "anything is possible".  Since such a position allows any possible explanation (including those would render scientific laws invalid), then no further evaluation can occur.  It fails because we can no longer agree on what constitutes facts or truth.

    If we go back to the central point in the story, we have to consider that the boy was watching sheep, so even in your version we should maintain that element.  After all, it offers an explanation of why the boy would be alone and why he alone might see the wolf.  It would seem more plausible that the wolf was after the sheep rather than the boy, so we should keep that element as well.

    So, what are the consequences of the boy simply being wrong?  In the fable, the boy makes it a point of showing that he is fooling the villagers.  He laughs and grins at them, so there is no ambiguity about his motives nor the fact that he is lying.  Simply being wrong doesn't rise to that level and I'm not convinced that the reaction would be the same.

    There might be a rise in skepticism, but obviously someone in the village would have an interest in the sheep, so regardless of how often the boy cries wolf, if there is no evidence to suggest he is fooling anyone, then even the skeptic will likely respond (even grudgingly).  In the first place, given the terms of the story, it is plausible that a wolf might stalk the sheep.  Much like my example earlier, no matter how often a noise in the night is nothing, it's unlikely that I'll simply ignore it if additional evidence suggests that this might be different.
    Mundus vult decipi
    The noise you hear in your house in not a forced intention.
    The boy crying wolf is.
    We are not concerned with unknown intentionality (or unknown causation) but rather with unevaluable intentionality, thus it is imperative (to the story) that we know as little as possible about the boy.
    All social engineering is mind to world to mind, therefore it is not just a matter of desire nor a matter of belief, it is both, thus the desire to believe.
    I go into great (horrific) detail on this matter in my book.
    I look forward to your thoughts on it.