Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Anti-realism and altering the historical 'facts'

To: David Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and altering the historical 'facts'
Date: 30 January 2007 11:02

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 20 January, 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 its truth.' - Discuss.'

In the unit which discusses the question of 'changing the past', I distinguish between two possible claims: the claim that, P being the case, if the evidence for P were to be tampered with, then at some time in the future it would not be the case that P; and the claim that it is possible to tamper with evidence with the intention of bringing it about that at some time in the future it is not the case that P.

Both these can be dismissed, using the argument that truth is not time-relative. However, without going back on anything I have said, I do have an uncomfortable feeling about this - as if it is just too easy a way to dismiss what seems to be a very powerful intuition: that nothing in reality is permanent. In the future, there will only be that future. Forget about the time we call 'now'. That isn't even water under the bridge because water under the bridge goes somewhere. In the vision of the anti-realist, the only reality is the view from the bridge.

This worry counts more with the idea of a possible future where 'it would not be the case that P'. I am still (relatively) confident that there is something self-contradictory about the intention to bring it about that in the future it will not be the case that P. The very destruction of evidence implies a consciousness of what it is evidence for which cannot be removed except by an act of double-think.

If the only reality is the view from the bridge - the view from where we stand now - then this could be seen as a defence of the argument that truth is not time-relative. We cannot make assertions 'for' the people who will exist in the future; we can only speak for ourselves. And yet (and this is my problem) we seem to be able to contemplate the possibility of such a future, to picture it in our minds as a possible reality which might well happen. Maybe this is just a paradox one has to live with.

In your essay, you suggest an argument which I don't agree with, but then immediately couple it to the argument given above about the impossibility of changing standpoints. The argument I don't agree with is, 'The existence of the Holocaust is (or would be) undecidable - because the evidence has been destroyed.'

Maybe you didn't mean this, but I did more than once come across the objection (I am recalling arguments over realism vs. anti-realism long ago with fellow graduate students) that the present is what it is BECAUSE of the causal chains that have brought us to this point. The innocent looking field which looks as if no buildings have ever stood there is in fact the site of the concentration camp huts and furnaces, every trace of which has been very carefully removed. The mound over there was actually man made, that's how it came to be the shape that it is. And so on.

The argument has no force with the anti-realist, who simply re-iterates that, even if we assume a deterministic world, the causal chains have no more 'reality' than the material objects which compose them. 'Either the mound is man-made or not,' but there is no answer to the question which possible causal chain is the 'actual' one.

I have reservations about your argument over the pronouncement made by Brigitte Zypries. In just the same way as one takes scrupulous care preserving physical relics in a museum, so it is reasonable to make efforts to counter false propaganda. No clearer case can be given than the current battle over the teaching of Darwin in American schools. The argument against Zypries is not metaphysical but rather the one that was powerfully voiced by J.S. Mill in 'On Liberty', in the section on the 'Freedom of thought and expression'. Maybe you are right that Zypries is tempted by metaphysics to see a 'threat' which is in fact not coherently expressible. But even without the metaphysics, the problem she is combating is very real.

I am not as optimistic as Mill that the 'truth will out', no matter what. Even Mill was prepared to prohibit expression of thought and opinion when this was deliberately intended as an incitement to riot. But passing laws against the expression of certain opinions sets a very dangerous precedent which would have Mill turning in his grave.

All the best,

Geoffrey