Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Anti-realism and Holocaust denial

To: Ryan S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and Holocaust denial
Date: 19 May 2001 10:21

Dear Ryan,

Thank you for your e-mail of 9 May, with your third essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, ‘If the anti-realist account of truth is correct, then it is possible that at some time in the future those who deny the existence of the Holocaust will be asserting the truth.’ - Discuss.

It is an excellent strategy, in approaching this question, to distinguish as you have done the three varieties of anti-realism - Evidential, Democratic and Individual - as you have done. It certainly seems possible, before going into the question, that different versions of anti-realism will give different answers to this question.

I do give reasons in the program why the anti-realist ought not to fall into the trap of trying to give an ‘anti-realist definition of truth’. An anti-realist can and should accept that truth is indefinable. However, there are plenty of anti-realists who do not accept that truth is indefinable. So let us look at each of the definitions which you give:

A. Evidential. ‘A’ is true if and only if there exists a possibility of finding conclusive evidence in favour of ‘A’.

Obviously, any old ‘evidence’ isn’t going to be good enough. The evidence has got to rule out the possibility of not-A. (You might be starting to have doubts about this. How can any evidence be ‘conclusive’ in the sense of being incapable, in prinicple, of being overridden? But let that pass for now.)

You say that we can’t rule out the possibility of time travel. In that case there would be no proposition whose truth could not be verified (barring ‘special cases’ of propositions which are designed to be unverifiable in principle, such as ‘I am surrounded by invisible, intangible, mass-less aliens’), and therefore little for the realist and anti-realist to disagree over. However, the realist can still say that in a possible world where time travel was *not* possible - even if the actual world should turn out not to be such a world - there would be propositions for which conclusive evidence could not be found.

Let’s move on to B. Democratic anti-realism. I agree with your claim that this version of anti-realism is ‘ill-defined’. Your thought on the question of experts seems to be this: What is an ‘expert? An expert is someone who is more likely to get hold of the truth. How do we decide that? By taking a poll and giving extra weight to the ‘experts’! This account does seem flagrantly circular. However, there are other ways of defining expertise. For example, in terms of the ability to cite relevant evidence. This still poses very real problems for the calculation of the appropriate ‘weighting’ for different levels of expertise, but at least it isn’t circular.

For the reasons which you give, the definition:

‘P’ is true if and only if the majority agree that P

seems grossly counter-intuitive. There are plenty of cases where the majority are in fact proved wrong. However, the same objection would not apply to:

‘P’ is true if and only if given unlimited time to discuss the question and gather evidence the majority will (are fated to) agree that P.

The problem now is that the reference to ‘unlimited time’ means that this definition could never be used to decide whether a proposition was ‘true’ or not.

What about C? Everyone is aware that they sometimes change their mind about the truth of a proposition. So it would be extremely counterintuitive to insist on the definition:

‘P’ is true if and only if I believe that P.

However, one might following the example of the previous definition say something along these lines:

‘P’ is true if and only if given unlimited time to think about the question and gather evidence I will hold that P.

In relation to the question whether ‘at some time in the future those who deny the existence of the Holocaust will be asserting the truth’ it *seems* that *if* truth could be adequately defined along any of the three lines you have suggested, or in any suitably modified version, then there would be a sense in which, at some time in the future, it will be ‘false’ that the Holocaust happened. (We would have to find a way to put an ultimate limit on the length of time for gathering evidence.)

However, as I said earlier, I don’t think that the truth can be defined in any of these ways. We can always make sense of the idea that ‘such and such conditions are satisfied but it is still not true that P’. However you build up the conditions, you can still add something extra in virtue of which ‘P’ turns out to be false after all, despite all the ‘evidence’, despite all the ‘agreement’.

All the best,

Geoffrey