Thursday, January 9, 2014

Holocaust denial and anti-realism about truth

To: Andrew A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Holocaust denial and anti-realism about truth
Date: 13th May 2011 12:46

Dear Andy,

Thank you for your email of 2 May, with your second 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 very good answer to the question which makes two important points. First, you distinguish between the question of competing interpretations, from the question of the truth or falsity of factual statements as such, prior to interpretation. Secondly, you argue that we cannot, as the question seems to suggest, speak for those who will exist in the future, because the meaning of a statement is tied to the time of utterance. 'The meanings of our thoughts and assertions -- including those about truth -- depend on the time at which they are thought.'

Both of these points are worth expanding on.

Just as one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter, so one person's genocide is another person's removal of a cancer from the body politic. The Nazi propaganda films of the time depicted Jews as a plague of rats. Yet, non-revisionist historians seem to be agreed that elaborate steps were taken by the Nazis to cover up what was happening in the death camps. What did the Nazis have to hide if they really believed that they were merely doing necessary pest control?

It's not necessary to answer that question. There are various possible explanations, nor is it necessary to assume that Nazis were consistent in their views or practice. We can accept that, extreme as this example may be, there are many cases where a difference in perspective or interpretation can completely alter the so-called 'historical facts'.

How far is it possible to distinguish between 'bare narrative' and the various competing interpretations placed on that narrative? It could be argued that in pursuing the idea of 'bare narrative' were are merely repeating the errors of the sense datum theory of perception. The truth is there is no such thing as 'uninterpreted sense data', because you can't describe the data of perception without some degree of interpretation (at the very least, as Kant argued, you have to locate the perceptions in space).

On the other hand, it does seem plausible that there are questions of bare fact to consider, such as, how many died in the camps. Was it less than 20,000 or more than 2 million? There's no question here of interpretation, or a penumbra of vagueness, it's a simple question of fact. Yet this is in fact one of the issues being contested by deniers/ revisionists.

The paradox implied by an anti-realist view of truth is that a thing as hard and definite as a number is only a 'fact' relative to our viewpoint in time. How can that be? Our realist intuitions are very powerful. I remember once trying to explain the realist/ anti-realist debate to a physicist. He replied that 'the universe must have a memory', i.e. determinism must be true, because facts such as these can't simply go out of existence. There would be no question of recovering such facts, and no recording angel, but at least they would be 'preserved'. They can't just disappear, can they? But that's exactly what does happen if we allow that some physical processes do not fall under deterministic laws, as many physicists believe (contra Einstein) is in fact the case.

This brings us to point two. You say what has to be said: that we can only think and speak from our current position in time. We cannot speak for those who will be living in, say, 200 years when all the evidence has been destroyed or successfully faked. The person doing the destruction or the fakery knows, but that person's views aren't in question. They are dead too.

That may be the right thing to say, but it doesn't remove the sense of paradox. It is not, as you observe, as if the paradox is all on one side. Even though our untutored intuitions tend towards realism, on further reflection we realize the absurdity of believing in facts 'outside of time untainted by the unfolding of events'. For whom do these atemporal facts exist, if not God or the recording angel? As one of my Birkbeck lecturers once commented on an essay I'd written, 'I'd rather defend the necessary existence of God than the necessary existence of facts.'

I find this question gripping. As you will see, one of the conclusions of the program is that both the realist and anti-realist are wrong, but in a way which, if anything, results in a more extreme anti-realism where we cannot even talk of 'the truth' as such. I can't say I'm happy with this conclusion. It's my job as a philosopher to follow the argument wherever it leads, and I am just doing my job.

All the best,

Geoffrey