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Anti-realism and historical truth


To: David S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anti-realism and historical truth
Date: 31 May 2004 11:03

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 28 May, 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'

I am close to agreement with your answer to this question: 'Jill is a figment of Jack's imagination. Jack is trying to imagine what reality is like for Jill, but as an anti-realist he can say nothing about Jill's truths.'

'For an anti-realist to accept an historic truth there needs to be some experience or evidence to back it up.' True. But exactly the same thing applies to the realist. It is a given that the only basis on which to accept or reject an historical claim is historical evidence, whatever one's metaphysical persuasion.

There is no way one could conclusively prove that *every* Brontosaurus was green (advanced genetic science might possibly be in a position to prove that it was biologically impossible for every Brontosaurus to have been green, but it seems extremely unlikely that such evidence could rule out, say, a single freak albino Brontosaurus, or a brown brontosaurus genetic mutation which died out early on in the battle for survival). However, you are right that for the realist this is an 'unknown fact' while for the anti-realist, the hypothesis is merely 'true in some possible past worlds and false in others'.

The Holocaust is an example where we can be convinced that it would be possible to extinguish all evidence. This leaves the question whether one can say that the truth about the Holocaust would no longer exist once the evidence had been destroyed.

It is easy to fall into the trap here of thinking of 'the truth' as some kind of thing which exists or doesn't exist. The crucial point to remember is that, equally for the realist or the anti-realist, truth is tied to a proposition which we consider, or assert, or believe.

You and I can talk about what Jill will believe. The statement concerning an historian called Jill and her beliefs can be made now, and although it cannot be verified, that statement can turn out to be true, or false. (It is easier to be an anti-realist about the future - as Aristotle was in his discussion of future contingents in 'De Interpretatione' - than about the past. However, whether you are a realist or anti-realist, the same applies: we can make a statement which is 'true or false'.)

What you and I cannot talk about is 'what will be true' two thousand years from now, other than in the sense of what is, was and will always be true about how things will be. The Holocaust happened in the past. So any truth about the Holocaust 'is, was and always will be' true about how things *were*. That is simply a point about the logic of truth claims, which both the realist and anti-realist must agree on.

In the unit, I sum this up in the following way: 'We cannot speak for others, we can only speak for ourselves.' Jack can't 'speak' for Jill. Jack, in pursuing his evil project, knows what he knows. 'Truth will remain the same' for Jack because the basis for his beliefs is the evidence as presented to his eyes, not the evidence as presented to the eyes of those who will exist a thousand years from now.

But forget about Jack. There is still the worry that even if he cannot coherently formulate for himself the task of 'destroying the truth', it could still be that as a result of his actions it comes to pass that the truth is destroyed. Jill lives in a world where no trace has been left behind of the Holocaust. Can we not say that in her world there is no 'truth', unknowable to her, that the Holocaust happened? We cannot. If we attempt to 'speak for others' then all we succeed in doing is making statements about what they believe. What was, is or will be true in their world can only ever be what was, is or will be true in our world.

There are no words to express the idea of 'destruction of truth' in the sense implied by the original question, nor can any words be invented. There is no possible thought to express.

The aim is to defend anti-realism from the objection that it makes truth destroyable. Had the anti-realist had been unable to defend against this objection, that would not be a refutation of anti-realism. It would just make it extremely uncomfortable to be an anti-realist. (Ultimately, we want to show why both the realist and anti-realist are wrong - but that comes later.)

There remains the nagging sense that something is lost if we give up realism. Picturing the world two thousand years hence, the image of a 'hole' which was previously filled with solid fact irresistibly comes to mind. But this is only a picture. For both the realist and anti-realist, any proposition 'P' is true if and only if P. Any notion of 'truth' which fails to satisfy that simple formula simply isn't truth. Given that formula, both realist and anti-realist must agree that what was, is or will be true always was and always will be true.

All the best,