Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Anti-realism and the Holocaust

To: Wendy B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and the Holocaust
Date: 9 February 2004 13:54

Dear Wendy,

Thank you for your e-mail of 1 February, with your third essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'If the anti-realist's account of truth is correct, then it is possible that at some future time those who deny the existence of the Holocaust will be asserting the truth.'

I am impressed by the research you have done for this essay. You have also shown a good grasp of the essential difference between realism and anti-realism.

You mention two issues which extend the question about the possibility of fabricating evidence: The first concerns the deliberate attempt, as described in Orwell's 1984, to change a vocabulary, in order to make it impossible to express thoughts, which previously were expressible. The second concerns the practice of writing school history books in order to further a political agenda.

Both of these are important, and both bear on the issue of anti-realism.

Contemporary philosophers Thomas Nagel and Colin McGinn have argued that our conceptual vocabulary is inadequate to tackle certain fundamental questions, such as the philosophical question of the mind-body relation. This is a clear example of a realist view. On this view, the concepts that really apply to reality may outstrip the concepts we actually use or have available for use.

There is considerable awareness amongst historians that the same evidence is on many occasions consistent with more than one explanation. Even when there is no political axe to grind, historians still have plenty to disagree about, just as much as, or perhaps more than, researchers in other fields.

However, for the purposes of the philosophical question whether the truth can be changed, it is sufficient to consider the simplest case, where what is at issue is not the concepts used, nor what counts as the 'best historical explanation', but simply whether a piece of evidence - e.g. human testimony, or a written document - is to be trusted or not.

Both the realist and the anti-realist can deliberately tamper with the evidence. On the face of it, the anti-realist, but not the realist, believes that by doing so the past itself has been changed. The realist, on the contrary, holds that it is only our beliefs that have been changed. Previously, our beliefs were true. Now, as a result of the evidence being tampered with, our beliefs are false.

My question is: Is this a correct claim to make about anti-realism?

In seeking to characterize the essence of the anti-realist view, we should be looking for is the most thoughtful, the most highly refined version of that theory. Is the possibility of altering the past really a consequence of anti-realism, or only a consequence of our incorrect interpretation of anti-realism?

Here is an argument which says that the anti-realism does not entail the possibility of altering the past.

I claim that there are just two ways of talking about truth and falsity:

A. I can say what I believe to be true, or false
B. I can say what X believes to be true, or false.

In saying what X believes, I am not committed either way. So, for example, we can say that there are people who believe that the Holocaust didn't happen. You and I believe that their belief is false.

What about the future? Suppose I say that in 200 years time everyone will believe that the Holocaust didn't happen? Once again, I am not saying anything about the Holocaust, I am merely saying what people will believe. My belief about the Holocaust is based on the evidence available now, not on the evidence that will or will not be available in 200 years time.

Now, let's look again at the question: '...it is possible that at some future time those who deny the existence of the Holocaust will be asserting the truth.'

Given what has been said above, there are just two ways of looking at this, as an A-type example, and as a B-type example.

As an A-type example, the statement is false, because I am in a position to know something which people living 200 years in the future are not in a position to know. As a matter of logic, *if* it is true today that the Holocaust happened, then it is true, full stop.

As a B-type example, on the other hand, the statement is true. It is possible that at some future time those who deny the Holocaust will be asserting what everyone at that time *believes* to be the truth.

This brings to light an important point about the 'logic' of truth. If I say that such-and-such is true, then that is not something which can be relative to time. Of course, 'it is raining' can be true now, but false in an hour's time. But 'It is raining outside my window at 12.20 am, on 9 February 2004' is a statement which is asserted as true, without qualification. A million years ago it was true that 'It is raining outside my window at 12.20 am, on 9 February 2004', and the same holds a million years from now. The logic of truth claims does not allow for relativity to time.

The problem is that the thoughtful anti-realist can take all this on board. In other words, what the anti-realist *means* cannot be captured in the way that the question implies.

That leaves us with the question how the anti-realist's meaning *can* be captured. But that is another story!

All the best,