The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 11:23:42

Not all pursuit of truth is good

Katie van Schaijik, Apr 22, 2013

After posting the other day about Simcha Fisher's article on a disturbing streak of holocaust denial in traditionalist Catholic circles, I was drawn into an email discussion with a fellow FUS grad, who defends the type.  It's been eye-opening.  I begin to worry that it's more than a streak.  

I am under no illusions that my arguments will break through to this group. Some forms of traditionalism have all the earmarks of a cult. Reasoning doesn't avail against it, which was partly Simcha's point. But I'll publish some of the exchange here, in the hope of helping inoculate others against the oh-so-plausible arguments justifying holocaust denial. 

I'll offset his comments (which I quote only in part), following with my response in italics.

Katie, you should spend time researching the claims and arguments of people like Germar Rudolf because the truth matters. The truth about everything matters…

Yes, truth matters.  But it doesn't follow that we do well to dedicate time to researching every claim out there.  Lots of truth is none of our concern—it may, for instance, be private, or outside our competence, so that to pursue it is to be irreverent or blundering or rushing in where angels fear to tread, or just time-wasting.  Some truth shouldn't be pursued because the pursuit of it is basely motivated.  One person may study genitalia because he's an ob/gyn.  Another may study genitalia because he's a pervert.  One person wants knowledge in order to be able to serve; another wants knowledge in order to be able to exploit.

"Knowledge puffs up." Pseudo-knowledge does worse things to the moral imagination and the moral being of a person.

So, while we can say abstractly that truth matters, we cannot say that every concrete pursuit of "truth", or the investigation of particular claims, is praiseworthy, or even morally valid. What I choose to pursue, and why, matters in the moral equation.  And it says a lot about who I am and what I care about.

What motivates a German chemist to spend his career trying to debunk the historical consensus on Nazi atrocities?  What motivates non-chemists to look into his claims and arguments?  Why are so many traditionalist Catholics attracted to the thesis that the holocaust was not really as bad as the Jews say?  What morally sober person could write that the idea that the Nazis may have killed only 4 or 5 rather than 6 million Jews "fantastic news"?

If you love and respect the truth you will not be afraid to go where the evidence might lead you. 

It is revealing that you talk this way—as if the only reason for not pursuing the demented thesis of a holocaust minimizer is fear of where the evidence might lead.  Thus you not only give yourself license to wade into matters that are outside your professional competence and reek of evil associations, but you make it a virtue to do so.  You make declining to do it unvirtuous—a problem of cowardice.  You've "puffed yourself up" before you've even begun.  You puff yourself further when you imagine yourself persecuted for your devotion to truth, rather than deplored for a fascination with ugly things.  You are afflicted with a double conceit of moral superiority and victimhood.  

Phenomenological realism requires that we always subordinate theory to evidence and never evidence to theory. Refusing to re-examine any historical claims in the light of evidence is radically anti-phenomenological and basically means that one is uncritically committed to the claim (probably for ideological, psychological, or other practical reasons). 

Phenomenological realism is concerned with philosophical truth, not historical truth. Their respective modes and methods differ dramatically, as should our treatment of their respective "theories."  In philosophy, which deals in rational essences, consensus is irrelevant.  In history, consensus  is practically all we have to go by.

Let me make things clear: just as people who evince principled opposition to same-sex marriage are often labeled "homophobic" (whatever that really means), people who question, with good reason, the official historiography regarding the holocaust are labeled "anti-Semitic".

This is a specious analogy, for the same reason.  Homosexual marriage is a moral question, about which once can have philosophical insight, and hence "principled opposition."  To call a person "homophobic" because she opposes same sex marriage is to implicitly assert a falsehood, namely that opposition to it is essentially irrational.

The Nazi atrocities are a matter of historical record, not rational insight.  We learn about them by the accumulation of evidence: physical evidence, official records, countless eyewitness accounts, and so forth.  At a certain point, that accumulation is so massive and converging as to be overwhelming, so that it is virtually impossible to doubt it "with good reason".  One can't call the "narrative" into question without calling one's self—one's motives or one's sanity into question. 

The official holocaust narrative is, I think, an instance of the phenomenon that Alice von Hildebrand calls the 'pseudo-obvious'. The official story is hardly self-evident, but it is presented as such. Unfortunately, the number of people who are capable of liberating themselves from this type of hypnotism would appear to be few and far between.

Here again, you conflate philosophical and historical questions, and the modes and categories proper to each.  "The pseudo-obvious" is a term Alice von Hildebrand attributes to false philosophical claims, such as that "everything must be proved" or "we only know the contents of our consciousness." These are claims that can be addressed and refuted on philosophical grounds.  Historical claims are entirely different.  Being contingency-based, they are never "self-evident" or "pseudo-obvious" in the von Hildebrandian sense.  No one thinks the claim that that Nazis murdered 6 million Jews is "self-evident", they only take it as a "best estimate", given the available evidence and the consensus of the relevant professionals.  

Well, I am very sorry, but 2 and 2 are 4. They are not 3 and they are not 5. Freedom is the freedom to say that 2 and 2 is 4. As far as the Church is concerned, if we lived in a healthy church which did not overstep its bounds (I am speaking now of the institutional church), Catholics who held different historical beliefs on the holocaust would be respected as free to hold those beliefs provided they were sincere.  

You do it again.  Mathematical truths are the stuff of rational insight.  We have not only the "freedom" but the rational ability to perceive that 2 + 2 is 4. No professional expertise is needed for us to judge intelligently for ourselves. This can't be said of historical matters. Unless we are historians, our "belief" in a historical claim is a matter of relying on the consensus of experts.

It’s a question of whom we believe and why.  You suggest that belief in the consensus (which you strangely persist in calling “the official narrative”) can be put down to moral and psychological weaknesses, or political interests.  At the same time, you are scandalized and outraged when others suggest that morality, psychology and politics might be at play in holocaust denial or diminishment.

You called it “evil” that a holocaust denier is jailed for publicizing his “findings”, even though there are good reasons—don’t you think?—that holocaust denial is a crime in Germany.

So, why do “normal people” trust the consensus?  Because we have no reason to doubt it.  Why do we mistrust the "deniers"?  Because we see that they are a fringe, and we suspect that they are motivated by anti-semitism, with which we want nothing to do.  

We also intuitively grasp how ugly and threatening the attraction to such theses must feel to Jews, living with still-fresh wounds.  

During the rise of Naziism in the thirties, Dietrich von Hildebrand would tolerate no criticism of Jews.  This was not because he thought they are above reproach, but because, as he said, the "theme" of the moment—the moral imperative of the historical circumstances—was to denounce unequivocally the evil threatening them.  To entertain thoughts of how they might have brought things on themselves was neither innocent nor wholesome, however "sincere" it may have been.  The same is true of holocaust denial.  

The fact that a belief is sincerely held, doesn't ensure that it's respectable or morally valid.  Millions sincerely believed Walter Duranty when he "reported" that the forced starvation of the Ukrainians was a myth.  They believed Alger Hiss was innocent.  They reviled Whittaker Chambers.  Why?  Not because the evidence was so strong, but because they were leftists at heart and they wanted to believe that Communism and its defenders were good.  Think how many in the antebellum and Jim Crow south “sincerely” thought that blacks were a lesser race.

The right pursuit of truth and goodness involves the shunning of evil and error.