Bill Dibb: Anti-realism and historical truth

‘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.

The choice of the Holocaust as the event to discuss the existence or non-existence of is a difficult one. The Holocaust evokes strong feelings in most people. Some groups have already denied the Holocaust for political reasons. Others, such as many of the citizens in the part of the world where I work at present believe that the Holocaust has been exaggerated as part of a Zionist plot.

For the purpose of this essay, one should be unemotional. It does not matter whether the existence of the Holocaust or a red, plastic toy bucket floating off Blackpool beach is the event.

Broadly, theories of Reality and Truth fall into categories of: Idealism which regards all Reality as being within our own concepts and ideas Reality principle which states that there is an indefinable Reality outwith ourselves and incomprehensible.

Anti-realism, primarily developed by Dummett. This theory of Truth states that We are talking of Truth in this essay. Is it true or not that the Holocaust happened. I, as an individual, have not experienced the Holocaust personally. If I had, according to the anti-realist the Holocaust would be true. There would be Evidence for the Holocaust, pictures, films, survivors. Importantly, I could also verify the truth personally by having a recollection of being in a concentration camp.

Being a third person who has not personally experienced, I can find ample evidence of the Holocaust. Auschwitz ruins, survivors with tattooed numbers. my viewpoint is, therefore, that the existence of the Holocaust can be verified. The hypothesis of it’s existence can be tested and truth conditions found. Even though it’s ‘degree’ of truth is less than that a survivor of the Holocaust would have. Dummett’s anti-realist requirement for truth conditions to be met are present.

Imagine now that I live in a Society that has just celebrated the year 3000. The Holocaust is over a millennium ago. The survivors are long dead as are there children who knew the story. The buildings are dust. The only evidence available is anecdotal and a few browned letters from Himmler. In this case the degree of truth, according to the anti-realists is diminished and as time increases will increase diminishing. This is presuming that Mankind by that time has not mastered time travel which would open a completely new dimension in metaphysics.

Putnam regards reality and truth as only definable within a framework of concepts. Perhaps in thousands of years the concept of millions of people being murdered because of their race would be incomprehensible in a Universe in which thousands of intergalactic species mingle. The existence of the Holocaust would be inconceivable and hence untrue. At a societal level, we see a similar phenomenon in sensitive issues such as incest. Until recently, it was inconceivable that ‘respectable’ members of Society could commit incest — nobody acknowledged the problem and it was not regarded as existing. Wittgenstein stated that ‘meaning is use’. This is one of the major statements upon which anti-realism is based. I understand this expression as proposing that if one knows the meaning of something, one by definition knows the truth conditions for the statement. It is debatable whether knowing the meaning of ‘there was a Holocaust a thousand years ago’ really proves it’s existence. No verification of the truth is offered even though one understands the meaning of the statement and what should have happened for this to be true.

The practical danger of an anti-realist attitude is that potential truth may be pushed under the carpet. Truths that cannot be verified may be disregarded leading to serious events being discovered late. Hegel stands central in any essay on the changing of Truth through time. Hegel believed that Truth could change through time. Hegel’s reasoning seems mainly though to apply to abstract concepts such as philosophical theories or viewpoints. For example, the death penalty may have been ‘right’ one hundred years ago but as humanity has evolved has now become ‘wrong’. It is more difficult to see how this can be applied to a concrete event such as the Holocaust.

The practical conclusions from the above essay can be summarised in a practical example set out below:

I read in a newspaper the other day that the government had plans of making the denial of the Holocaust a punishable offence. In terms of Truth, this attitude is not incorrect. The Holocaust can be verified and it’s existence would probably be agreed upon by the Realist and Anti-Realist. If we take a similar example, further back such as the denial of the existence of Jesus Christ, punishment would not be defended by the Anti-Realist. It is impossible to verify 2000 years afterwards. The Anti-Realist would not say that Christ either existed or did not exist but because neither can be verified, the Truth or not of the statement is irrelevant. Similarly with the Holocaust, 2000 years in the future, it will be impossible to verify the Truth. Neither:

‘The Holocaust did happen’

‘The Holocaust did not happen’

will be verifiable. Neither will be true. Neither will be false.

© Bill Dibb 2014