Consider the following two claims:
1) Sneezing could provoke an attack from Mars.
2) Anthropogenic climate change may have contributed to the civil war in Syria.
Both of these statements are undoubtedly true, since all they mean is
1) There’s at least one possible world in which sneezing provokes an attack from Mars,
2) there’s at least one possible world in which anthropogenic climate change has
contributed to a civil war in Syria.
What we want to know, however, is whether ours is or is not one of those worlds. Or, to use the language of modal metaphysics, what we want to know is whether we can move from the modal claim to a material one. And that requires something we call – evidence.
What evidence is there that there are Martians who will misinterpret the interplanetary vibrations produced by an Earthling’s sneeze as an insult of sufficient gravitas in the Martian language to warrant their declaring war on us? Very little. But, counter the Truth-About-Sneezing lobbyists, what evidence is there that there aren’t? Just as little. So, they claim, they’re as entitled to believe there are as we are to believe there aren’t.
Okay, so we all know that this way lies madness. In some cases, like whether the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son or just from the Father alone, or whether the Holocaust is or is not a Zionist myth, it really doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s just fun to argue about these things. Or at most, which side one takes identifies to which tribe she belongs, and maybe that matters, as it did during the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, or as it does, vis a vis the Holocaust, to how many dinner invitations one’s likely to get. But the first order issue – that is the issue itself – is pretty much a who-cares.
But in other cases – the ones I want to talk about here – the first-order issue does matter. If sneezing is going to provoke an attack from Mars – and assuming the Martian military has us outgunned – we might want to up the budgetary allotment for developing more effective sneeze suppressant technology. If anthropogenic climate change is contributing to civil wars, we might want to … Well now, that, as they say, is a ‘whole nother story’, grist for the blog I’ll never write. So let’s stick to sneezing and Martians.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So there could be a God, there could be Martians, and there could be an international Zionist conspiracy that cooked this whole Holocaust thing up. If the Zionists are filing six million missing person reports, don’t they owe us six million birth certificates? Obama produced his. Why aren’t the Zionists getting on this Birther thing to put it to bed once and for all? How many Jews were gassed at Auschwitz? Really?! That many?! So where are the bodies? They burned them, you say? Well now, isn’t that convenient?!
Of course this is absurd, not to mention sick. We reject this style of reasoning, and rightly so. And yet this is precisely the style of reasoning we employ when we go after the 9/11-Truthers. Of the hundreds of people who would have had to have been involved, why hasn’t a single participant made a post-coital or deathbed confession? Because, answers the Truther, not unlike the Pharaoh’s entourage, they were all lied to about the timing, and so were buried under the rubble when the towers came down. So why are the Nazis allowed to cover their tracks but the 9/11 conspirators aren’t allowed to cover theirs?
Appearances notwithstanding, my point is not that 9/11-Trutherism has as much epistemic warrant as belief in the Holocaust. Rather it’s that those of us who’ve never studied the Holocaust but believe in it nonetheless, have exercised no greater epistemic responsibility than those who deny it, or than those who subscribe to 9/11-Trutherism, or than those who subscribe to the Truth-About-Sneezing. And that’s not a whole lot. The justification of our beliefs is just as jejune as theirs is for theirs.
We’re right and they’re wrong. I have absolutely no doubt about that. The problem is that they can and do say the same thing about us. And we have nothing to say to support an epistemic asymmetry claim that they can’t match with an epistemic asymmetry claim of their own.
Is there a way to resolve these matters? Of course there is. There’s got to be! But it would take research. Moreover, it would take research into how to do research, a.k.a. into the philosophy of science. In short, it would take work. But be honest. It’s not work you’re prepared to do. You’re, well, let’s face it – an epistemic sloth.
What’s interesting – and this is a sociological point, not a philosophical one – is that they’re not. Or at least they’re far less slothful than we are. I’m not sure how one quantifies these things, but from the little I have read I’m guessing there’s about tenfold the literature denying the Holocaust than there has ever been certifying it. This is because once something is accepted as historical or scientific fact, historians and scientists have very little reason to revisit the issue, since for them it’s not an issue. Not so the revisionists. They do have reason to revisit it. And they do. And the like can be said about 9/11, about anthropogenic climate change, and now, because of this blog entry, about the fledgling Truth-About-Sneezing movement.
So if I have no advice to give about this – and I don’t – why am I bothering to write this? I think it’s because I’ve recently had a 9/11-Truther to dinner – an affable enough fellow – and he in turn has a Holocaust denier as a lover, and so by transitivity of the proximity relation I’ve now come uncomfortably close to Pure Evil. So I guess I’m just looking for input on the appropriate protocol should my Truther bring his Pure Evil with him next time he comes to dinner.