Friday, August 5, 2011

Realism vs. anti-realism and the Holocaust

To: Joanne B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Realism vs. anti-realism and the Holocaust
Date: 4 March 2004 10:54

Dear Joanne,

Thank you for your email of 22 February with your third essay for the Pathways 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.'

Part of your essay is taken up with expressing your strong belief in realism. 'One cannot simply change an event by denying that it ever happened just as one does not need to witness everything that happens in the universe in order to make it a reality or for it to become true.'

That is ONE way to respond to anti-realism. It is the most direct response, the response which argues directly against the anti-realist's claim. Are there any other ways in which one might respond? Yes. The essay question is an example of one of those ways. 'If you are an anti-realist then you have to believe that XYZ (where XYZ is a proposition which jars strongly against our intuitions, or which few people could ever persuade themselves to accept).

Of course, If you use this second type of response, the anti-realist can tough it out by embracing these unwelcome consequences. 'If that's what anti-realism involves then I accept it.' However, another possible response for the anti-realist would be to deny that these unwelcome consequences follow from anti-realism. An anti-realist might refuse to accept, e.g. ,that 'at some time in the future, those who deny the existence of the Holocaust will be asserting its truth.'

That question interests me, because in presenting the anti-realist theory, I want to give the best version of anti-realism, the version which is must difficult to refute, not a 'straw man'.

But let's start with your direct argument against anti-realism. Does it work? Here's where the anti-realist gets rather subtle. 'Of course, events can happen without leaving behind any evidence. That's just the way the world works.' However, using your formula of an 'infinite number of possible truths', the realist will deny that there is, in reality, an answer to the question which of these infinite possible truths corresponds to the actual world.

For example, a pebble falls into a pond. The ripples die away. This is the kind of event which leaves no trace, there is no way to determine when the pebble fell by examining the pebble or the pond or anything else. However, the anti-realist will say that there is a possible world where the pebble fell at 8.00, a possible world where it fell at 8.01, 8.02...and so on. There is nothing in reality, the anti-realist claims, which marks one of these times out as the 'actual' time when the pebble fell, and all the others as 'possible but not actual'. All the possible times have the same metaphysical status, they are all equally 'real'.

Now let's look at the holocaust argument. Here's how I think the anti-realist can respond:

When someone asserts ''The Holocaust did not occur' will be true', that is not like asserting, ''It is not raining' will be true.' Suppose you are standing in a bus shelter, waiting for the rain to stop. Without a doubt, the rain will stop some time. So this is a perfectly reasonable thing to say (even if the way of expressing it is rather stilted).

However, the two cases are not the same.

'The Holocaust did not occur' contains an implicit reference to a historical period: 'The Holocaust did not occur during the Second World War'. Whereas, 'It is not raining' is a statement which is true at some times and false at other times. To make the cases analogous, we have to give a date, e.g. 'It is not raining at 8.30 pm' (obviously, you also need to specify the place and the date). Can this proposition change its truth value? No. If it is true that it rains at 8.30 pm then it is true that it rains at 8.30 pm irrespective of when the statement is made.

This illustrates a logical point about the concept of truth. To say now that it is true that the Holocaust happened during the Second World War commits us to a truth which holds irrespective of the time at which this statement is uttered. And this is something which the anti-realist can ACCEPT. Suppose that in 100 years time no-one believes that this statement is true. Well, that's just their belief. In talking about what's true or what's false, we can only speak *from where we are*. If we attempt to speak for people at other places or times, then we are not talking about truth but only about belief.

This explains why I disagree with the conclusion of your essay.

Interestingly, though, your conclusion *also* disagrees with the statement quoted in the question!

You say, '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 one of an infinite number of possible truths.' I disagree with this because if you are prepared to say that it is true that the Holocaust happened then you are committed to saying that it will be true that it happened a hundred years from now, for the reasons given above.

However, your point anticipates a claim made later on in the program, that the anti-realist cannot speak of 'truth' at all. Instead of the picture of an 'island of truth' surrounded by an 'ocean of possibilities', the anti-realist is led to see reality as nothing but an ocean of possibilities. But this in turn transforms anti-realism into something quite different - as you will see.

All the best,

Geoffrey