Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Anti-realism and the truth about the Holocaust

To: Ochieng O.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and the truth about the Holocaust
Date: 30 September 2002 12:17

Dear Ochieng,

Thank you for your e-mail of 20 September, 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.'

This is a fascinating essay which I enjoyed reading. There is a lot of scope for further developing the point about oral vs written history.

However, the essay never quite gets to the point of answering the question. At the end of the essay, you conclude, 'So today, 20th September 2202, those who are fifty two years have never heard of anything to do with the Holocaust, and those who would have told them are all dead already. They all find themselves in a position similar to that of the blind and deaf man. So, their only tenable position is that there was no Holocaust, because there is nothing to show that it was there, and there is also no inkling of an idea that such an event might have ever happened.'

The first point to make is that the fifty-three year olds and older who remember vividly seeing the CD-ROMs of the Holocaust will protest loudly against the claim that 'there is...no inkling of an idea that such an event might have happened'. But rather than get bogged down in the question of what status we should give such second-hand testimony, let's skip forward a further 10,000 years, and suppose that all physical evidence (for example, personal memoirs, magazine articles etc.) of what the people who saw the CD-ROMs remembered has been destroyed. Now it is really true that 'there is no inkling of an idea that such an event might ever have happened'. Or, rather, we can allow that the Holocaust *might* have happened - anything might have happened - but there is no inkling of an idea that such an event *did* in fact happen.

Well, what else can the anti-realist and realist do but fully agree on this conclusion? That is not the point at issue. The point at issue is whether, as the realist believes, *if* the Holocaust happened then it continues to lurk in a 'hidden dark corner of the was', whereas according to the anti-realist, there *is* no such place as 'the perpetually hidden was'. There is only the sum total of what, using all the resources available, we can remember or establish about the past.

Or, at least, that is the claim alleged in the words of the essay question. The task is to establish whether the anti-realist is committed, as seems to be the case, to the view that it is possible, by destroying evidence to bring it about that the Holocaust never happened. There is a subtle point here which, arguably, the sophisticated anti-realist could use in their defence. In speaking of what is 'true' we can only speak for ourselves. If I say that '10,000 years in the future when all the evidence has been destroyed it will be true that the Holocaust never happened' all I can mean is that this is what will be *accepted as true*. This is what people will believe. But I, the person making this judgement, am not situated 10,000 years in the future. I am here, now, in a world where ample evidence is still available. So it is perfectly consistent, with the anti-realist view to say that, based on this knowledge, I can assert that the people of the far future who believe the Holocaust never happened will believe something which is in fact false.

The very fact that it is so hard (in fact, impossible) to find a factual claim that the realist and anti-realist can disagree on points to something. It points out what is wrong with the realist's emphatic insistence that there exists a place where all past facts exist eternally, or "there exists a perpetually hidden was" or other similar metaphysical assertions. It is impossible, in fact, to state what the realist *means*. That is my argument against realism.

One of the fundamental things both the realist and anti-realist ought to agree on, in my view is the law of excluded middle. Both the realist and anti-realist can say, 'Either X happened or X did not happen' irrespective of what we put for 'X'. However, whereas the realist wants to say that what makes this assertion of the law of excluded middle true is 'the facts that exist eternally' or 'the perpetually hidden was' the anti-realist will accept the assertion as meaning that in every possible history of the world, either X occurs or X does not occur. In a similar way, to use Aristotle's example, the statement, made about the future, 'Either there will be a sea battle tomorrow or not' does not commit the speaker to the fatalist view that the question whether or not there will in fact be a sea tomorrow has already been decided.

You say, 'From [realist and anti-realist] positions, we end up with the statement "either the event took place or the event", the law of excluded middle. According to the above, this is a misunderstanding. However, there is an excluded middle that we can consider here, namely, 'Either realism is the correct metaphysical theory or anti-realism is the correct metaphysical theory'. The law of excluded middle is universal, so it should apply to metaphysical theories just as well as factual statements. However, there are grounds for suspicion that the statement I have just made is *not* a valid example of the excluded middle because there is a third possibility. Logically, we can say, 'Either realism is the correct metaphysical theory or it is not the case that realism is the correct metaphysical theory'. But it is consistent with this claim to hold, (a) that neither realism or anti-realism is the correct metaphysical theory, or, more radically, (b) no metaphysical theory is correct because metaphysics is meaningless.

All the best,

Geoffrey