Posted in Epistemology, Logic/Philosophy

Can We Know What Happened?

We all think about the past. We can do this to a great degree because of memory. We remember things that occurred in our personal experience. However, much of what we think about and talk about regarding the past has to do with things that did not come within our range of personal experience. Most of history that we study is in this classification of information. We do not remember these facts or alleged facts because we were never exposed to them in the first place. But in studying history, we come to learn and to know of things that we could not know about otherwise. The study of history is an enormously important branch of inquiry. The study of history is the key to our contact with most of what has happened in the past, since our experience with what is now the “past” is very limited.

At times more information regarding claims made about the past leads to correction of the historical record. And this is as it must be. If historians make mistakes or assume things or allege things that were not supported by actual evidence, then when further search leads to a correction of mistakes earlier made, we have an improved account. This is progress in the acquiring of truth from the past or a coming to knowledge with regard to what actually happened.

But sometimes, men begin to “rewrite” history. That is, instead of researching material and recording “facts as they are,” they insert into their writing of “history” views that they have not actually found in the material that they are studying, but rather they insert an “angle of perspective” that they already hold for which they are in search of support. Some men in looking at the past even go so far as to claim that we cannot really have any objective view of the past. Their claim is that it is impossible for us to really “get to the truth” of something long ago done, so that it is impossible for any person to have an objective look or view of the past. I remember in one of our debates years ago saying to the audience regarding my opponent at the time that he had no literary past. The way that he was looking at history prohibited him from having knowledge of the past. You cannot use the past against or even in behalf of the present if there is no objective knowledge of the past.

Must a person be personally present in order to have knowledge of a certain thing or event? No. We know a lot of things without being personally present when these things occurred because others testify or provide evidence to us of these things. This is knowledge by the testimony of other persons. Too, we have “testimony” by empirical data. When non-literary items are discovered such as pictures or pottery, etc., these become useful “witnesses” to us of things gone by.

To benefit from the past, we must not “play games” with the past. I used to asked my students, “How long must I be dead before my having been here becomes a matter of mere probability?” In one sense, such a question may at first seem silly. But at times positions are taken with regard to the impossibility of knowledge of the past that imply that the passing of time does render knowledge of the past impossible. But, if the present can be known (and this article is not proof of knowledge as such, though we have provided that proof in other articles), is there something about the past that makes it impossible for us to know absolutely and certainly something about it? Does the passing of time make it impossible for information once current to be recovered? Think of these classifications of the relationship that can exist between past information and us:

  1. Possibility (knowledge that is possible to have now, but not yet discovered so that this information remains non-knowable).
  2. Impossibility (knowledge that it is impossible to have of the past because no record was left so that this information is also non-knowable).
  3. Probability (certain information found leads us to draw a tentative conclusion, a conclusion that is bolstered by some evidence but which is not definite or conclusive; as things stand, this is yet non-knowable).
  4. Improbability (certain information found leads us to draw a tentative conclusion, a conclusion that is bolstered by some evidence, but the evidence is not sufficient to lead to a definite conclusion, though it does suggest that something likely did not happen at all; this intellectual conclusion of “unlikeliness” or “improbability” remains yet non-knowable).
  5. Falsifiability (certain information makes it necessary to draw the conclusion that something did not happen or was not the case in the past, which would entail any information found that conclusively proves that something did not occur or was not the case; falsifiability, unlike the other categories already listed is a matter of knowability rather than non-knowability).
  6. Verifiability (enough information is gathered and is of such a content as to make certain positive knowledge claims possible and actual).

Let us think, for a moment, about the status of the claim that a man makes when he suggests to us that none of us can actually know for sure anything in the past. What is he saying? He is saying that the past is “off limits” to human cognition or understanding. It is a category of information that is simply not available to us for comprehension. But what has he himself done in making such a claim? He has attempted to declare that he knows for sure that there is one thing about the past that he knows! It is one grand, summation point that he seeks to make, to be sure, but it is something about the past, after all! Furthermore, he is either saying something about the past or he is saying nothing about the past. He is certainly trying to say something about the past as we see in the formulation of his claim. He is attempting to enlighten us about our relationship to the past. And if he is saying something about the past (and he is), then he contradicts his own claim in the making of the statement that he makes. And affirming a logical contradiction is, in effect, the making of an irrational claim. It makes no sense! The claimant refutes himself in his own claim by affirming and denying the same thing. It is like this regarding the claimant: I know one thing about the past, and that is that none of us can know anything about the past! But if none of us can know anything about the past, then the claimant cannot know that none of us can know anything about the past.

Furthermore, if none of us can know that none of us can know anything about the past, then it is at least possible that one of us can know something or at least one thing about the past. And if we can know one thing about the past, perhaps there are other things about the past that we can know as well. Who can possibly prove that only one thing about the past can be known for sure?

It also needs to be noted that the very concepts of “improvement” or “correction” or “modification” with regard to the past in the rewriting of historical accounts entail the idea of actual historical fact and objective and absolute truth. Something either happened or it did not happen. Something is either the case, or it is not the case. And in both situations, just as the “fact” is not affected by the historian’s own point of view (any subjective bias or preference), so the “truth” about it is not affected by his own point of view either. The historian may or may not yet understand the fact, but if the fact is somehow revealed from the past, there is then a “record” of it, and if the historian comes into intellectual contact with the record of it, he is getting to the “truth” regarding the fact. And when he reveals that “truth” to the rest of us in speech or in writing, he is testifying to us with regard to what he has come to know about the past.

But every time that an historian attempts to “improve” the historical record in further research, the very idea of doing so implies the assumption that there is known improvement to be made. But if it is understood that known improvement can currently be made by the historian in the writing of history (writing about the past), then it is being implied that there is absolute and objective truth about past facts that can be objectively and absolutely currently known before the writing of the “improved” history can be made.

Let us give an illustration that might help us here. Let me suggest that I now say: “I like horses.” Now, there. I said it. That claim is already a part of history (the past). Now let us in analyzing that claim note that (1) if I presently say something that is the truth, and if (2) the truth is the unchangeable truth unaffected by any subjective viewpoint, and if (3) the present in which the truth is spoken (assuming I told the truth about my liking horses) now becomes the past, I can now accurately say something in this present moment about what I just said in the past moment. The movement of time that “carried” my claim from present to past did not affect its status as a claim, and my current or present relationship to the claim earlier made is one that allows me to know something about what I earlier said. In this case, I remember what I said.

But, as earlier mentioned, most of what we learn from history is not like that. We are having to deal with facts found and statements made by others. This makes the discovering of truth with regard to claimed facts and claimed truths more complicated, but it does not make the effort impossible. I am simply further removed, intellectually speaking, from the facts and truths that I seek, and I cannot use memory to locate them. The situation as it is means that care, much care, must be taken in attempting to contact the past. I must rely on something found outside my own experience but now located.

This is all very important because the past or at least some of the past can be enormously important to people presently alive. In the preface to his insightful and extraordinarily sobering 1973 book, The Gulag Archipelago, the Russian author, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, in revealing to the world the horror of communism, related the following:

By an unexpected turn of our history, a bit of the truth, an insignificant part of the whole, was allowed out in the open. But those same hands which once screwed tight our handcuffs now hold out their palms in reconciliation: “No, don’t! Don’t dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.” But the proverb goes on to say: “Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.” (p. x)

There are too many Americans today who are completely out of touch with the cruelty and danger of communism. So many of our young people now have been indoctrinated with lies about our past and that of some other cultures. In her excellent and informative book, Debunking Howard Zinn, Mary Grabar has done a great service in showing how, or at least partially how, America is now being subverted by so many of our own citizens. Why is it that so many young people now hate their own country? The subtitle of the book is “Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America.” Howard Zinn wrote a book entitled A People’s History of the United States. And on page 25, Grabar in her own book writes, “According to Zinn, there’s no such thing as objective history, anyway: ‘the historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released in a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.’” And by his own distortion of history, evidently Zinn has been successful in influencing thousands and thousands of our own young people whose current worldview entails a distorted view of America’s past that has now erupted even into violent destruction of the symbols of our past.

The Bible’s own view is that it is possible to know the past and to learn from it. Before leaving this earth, Moses told his people, “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee” (Deut. 32:7). Over and over in the book of Judges, we read of the sad history of Israel who as a nation moved through repeated cycles entailing national tragedy and misery for over three hundred years because the people kept on neglecting to learn the lessons of history. May God have mercy on our own forgetful and troubled land.