Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Anti-realism and inventing our own reality

To: Larry B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and inventing our own reality
Date: 6 April 2002 14:39

Dear Larry,

Thank you for your e-mail of 23 March, with your fifth essay for the Philosophy of Language program, in response to the question:

'Anti-realism about truth entails that "reality" is our own invention. When it comes to deciding what to believe, anything goes, for according to the anti-realist there are no objectively right or wrong answers to our questions. It follows that there is no difference between reality and a mere dream.' - Comment on this attack on the anti-realist theory of truth.

As you have used as your central example, the case where an investigator (or a jury) are trying to get at 'the truth' concerning a particular crime, on the basis of the evidence of various witness statements, it might be appropriate to quote the following story from the Metaphysics program (Unit 9 section (a) 'Can the past be erased?'):
Let me introduce you to a couple, Simon and Natalie. Simon is terminally ill with cancer, and has been given just six months to live. It is late evening and they are driving home after a meal at a country pub. Natalie is at the wheel of her brand new Ford Escort Ghia, a wedding anniversary present from Simon. They are not going particularly fast, but it is raining hard and visibility is bad. Suddenly there is a heavy thud on the near side, and the car lurches, then swerves to the right, scraping against overhanging tree branches in the narrow country lane. Seriously shaken, Natalie stops the car, leaving the engine running. The two sit in silence for a minute, two minutes, each imagining the worst. Finally, Simon’s hand reaches for the door handle: ‘It’s most likely a dog. Or a sheep, maybe.‘ A hundred yards further up the road a young girl with a backpack lies in the ditch with her head at an impossible angle. Her eyes stare fixedly at a point two feet above Simon’s left shoulder.

A year later, Simon is dead. So too, by his own hand, is the delivery-man wrongly imprisoned after the hit-and-run incident. Natalie knows nothing of what happened. More than that, all that Simon predicted on that rainy night has come to pass. Not a trace of evidence exists that could point the finger of suspicion at his wife. The past has been successfully erased. Natalie is perfectly innocent.

Just to forestall the obvious questions that arise about this sorry little tale, let us make it clear that the author has assumed – as he has the perfect right to do – the position of an omniscient observer of this imaginary world. When I say that ‘not a trace of evidence exists’, I mean just that. If the reader prefers, they can imagine Natalie meeting up with the delivery man’s grieving widow, and thereafter let events take their natural course. That would make a mildly gripping, if somewhat hackneyed twist to the story, but that is not the possible world I mean to describe.

A crime provides the clearest case of the difference between what an investigator or a jury concludes on the basis of evidence, such as witness statements, and what actually occurred. There are, of course, potential problems with vagueness which you allude to, involved when we try to use the law to decide exactly what crime was committed, or who, if any amongst the perpetrators should take the major share of the blame. In looking at witness statements, one can see how it can be wrong to put over-emphasis on the law of excluded middle. Sometimes, a description is not right or wrong but in-between: partly true, partly false. But I am thinking of a simple case, like in the above story, of 'Who done it.' Who was driving the car that hit the young girl?

How strong evidence has to be in order to secure a conviction 'beyond reasonable doubt' is a question for the philosophy of law. In general, how confident we can be on the basis of given evidence is a problem in the theory of knowledge. However, the realist vs. anti-realist debate is a dispute in metaphysics, not the theory of knowledge. Both the realist and anti-realist, we may assume, start of with *exactly the same* standards of how much evidence is 'enough'.

It takes a story like the one I told above to explain the difference in the realist and anti-realist views.

You start your essay by characterizing realism and anti-realism in terms of the traditional question whether there exists a world external to our experiences or whether the world is constructed out of our experiences. In the Philosophy of Language program, I explain how the modern version of the dispute does not talk about experiences but about the relation between verification and truth. So the anti-realist can be a 'realist', in the traditional sense, about the relation between experiences and the external world.

The reality of the past provides the clearest case the clash between realism and anti-realism. We, the readers of the story, know that Natalie was driving the car that killed the girl. In this imagined world, however, the sands of time have erased all evidence of her responsibility. The natural realist response is to say that the fact is still the fact, whether we can know the fact or not. Whereas the anti-realist will say that 'there is no fact of the matter'. Metaphysically speaking, facts disappear and are gone as the world moves forward through time. There is no recording angel. There is only 'what is there to be found out if we pursue our investigations long enough'.

It is *this* theory which the realist accuses of making reality our own invention. For example, consider the debate over Holocaust denial. Suppose that Nazi sympathisers managed to destroy all the archives of documents relating to the Nazi death camps, and all other evidence. Then at some time in the future there will be no 'fact' that the Holocaust happened. Surely something has gone seriously wrong here.

In your example, each witness has their own beliefs about what happened, constructs their own 'reality'. Yet we understand all the time that witnesses are not always reliable, or make false inferences which they mistake to be actual observations and so on. We also understand that it is possible for a number of witnesses to agree, and yet all be making the same error. What the anti-realist is saying seems to be tantamount to the claim that if you get enough witnesses to agree that *is* the truth, and not merely that their story gets to be accepted as the truth.

That's the problem facing the anti-realist. The question is whether the anti-realist is able to defend against this objection while still holding on to their theory. It seems that it would require some nifty footwork, to say the least!

- Well done for finishing the program. I shall be air mailing to you your Pathways certificate and a summary report listing the essays that you submitted for the program. If you still have a taste for more, you would be welcome to enrol for the Associate Diploma, or another Pathways program.

All the best,