Chapter 10

Opinions

One other thing we haven't investigated about that tiresome phrase, "Everyone has a right to his own opinion" is what is meant by "opinion." It's significant that"opinion" is used here, because it sounds funny to say, "Everyone has a right to his own knowledge."

Why is that? Because we still have enough linguistic integrity to think that "knowledge" refers to facts (and not "facts for"); and if you have knowledge, you don't have a "right" to it, you just have it; you know what the facts are.

But we "have a right" to our opinions, because, obviously, they're not that way; they aren't knowledge but something else. They're like knowledge, in that they seem to deal with facts; but these "facts" are the ones that are "facts for," and mustn't be tampered with.

And why? Basically, because when we have knowledge, we have evidence of what the facts really are. Thus, we know that there is something because the knowledge itself is something, as I said earlier. We don't have an opinion about it, because opinions can be wrong, and here it's impossible to be wrong: we have knowledge.

We have an opinion instead of knowledge, then, in one of two situations: either (1) we don't have any particular evidence for thinking that X is a fact, but it "stands to reason," and there isn't any evidence we know of against it, or (2) we know that there is evidence for saying that X is a fact and evidence for saying that X is not a fact; but the evidence on one side seems to be stronger.

If the evidential situation is weaker than either of these, we would tend (if we have any sense) not to form an opinion at all. For instance, are there human-like beings on the planets surrounding the star Alpha Centauri? Well, there is no evidence whatsoever that there are any planets around that star, still less that there is one that would support life, not to mention human-like life. All these could be facts (we have no reason for saying that they're impossible) but we have absolutely no reason for saying that they are facts. It is only a child who will say, "Well, I think there are people there" simply because he would like it to be a fact.

Let me explicitly draw a corollary from Conclusion 3 (which was, you recall, that facts don't depend on our knowing them):

Corollary: You can't make something a fact by wanting it to be a fact.

William James has to be wrong if what he means by his criterion of truth is that it makes your life "more meaningful" than its opposite--because that means that you can make something a fact by wanting it to be so. And of course, that definition of "truth" would simply be true for the person who "felt more comfortable with it," and anyone who found life "more meaningful" with its opposite would not be mistaken, but correct; so this view is false if it's true. That is, since I, for instance, find life "more meaningful" with knowledge of objective facts, then this is "true for me"; but if you find life "works better" if you think that there is no objective knowledge, then clearly "for you" my position is false. So objectively or in itself, the view is both true and false. Of course, supposing that there's no hope of arriving at objective truth, then perhaps that might be the best you can do. But we already know that there are at least some truths that have to be "true for" everybody, and that we can, at least in some cases (albeit trivial) arrive at objective truth which is true for everybody, then let's not give up.

Interestingly, James's criterion is a good rule of thumb for finding out what's false; because if something "doesn't fit" with the rest of the facts you know (i.e. if it contradicts them), then something's got to be wrong somewhere--because there are no contradictions. Or, alternatively, it can be used as he has done and as I did a while back; if you can show that two words supposedly referring to two different things have "meanings" that can't in practice be distinguished, then there's a "distinction without a difference." If he'd stated his "criterion" negatively, everything would have been all right; but once it's stated affirmatively, then it turns out not to be able to apply to itself without contradiction.

In any case, as we learned when we were very young, wishful thinking of itself doesn't establish facts. Maybe wishful thinking that turns itself into action and establishes goals for doing something has a place in making facts come about; but thinking that something is a fact doesn't make it one.

The other time when we wouldn't form an opinion is if the evidence for and against something seems to us to be just about equal. For instance, will Saddam Hussein be captured or continue hiding successfully (I write this in the summer of 2003)? There seems to be some indication (at the moment) that we are close on his heels; but on the other hand, there seems to be just as good a reason for noting the case of Osama Bin Laden, who has successfully eluded us for years now and Saddam Hussein's cleverness at eluding pursuit. Here again, you don't form an opinion just because you happen to prefer one side over the other; it's a question of whether one side is more likely than the other, based on the facts you know.

So opinions, as opposed to knowledge, involve ignorance, but are not the same as ignorance. There is some evidence for an opinion, but either only enough to give you moral certainty (as I mentioned earlier) or actual facts indicating the opposite of what your opinion is, though the facts don't prove the opposite.

Now then, the kernel of truth in "Everybody has a right to his own opinion" is that if there is (inconclusive) evidence on both sides, then the fact that I see the preponderance of the evidence on one side and you see it on the other side means that I can't prove that you're mistaken. Neither of us knows what the facts really are; and so we have to evaluate the "weight" of the evidence.

But evaluation (as we will see later) is a subjective thing; and to some extent this is true even here. How "important" a given piece of evidence is, how much it "outweighs" what is on the opposite side, is not a fact; a fact simply is; it is not "more or less" of a fact (that's what the Principle of the Excluded Middle means); hence it is a subjective matter, when there is real evidence on both sides, what weight the evidence has. And for that reason it makes sense in matters of opinion to respect the opinions of others, even when you don't share them.

What! You mean everyone does have a right to his own opinion?

Well, in a sense, yes. But there are some cautions and qualifications here.

I'm assuming, first of all, that the phrase is not a rights claim and means that there are opinions that should be "respected," in the sense that disagreement shouldn't take the form, "You're wrong," as if you knew what the facts were, when all you have is a counter-opinion.

Nevertheless, secondly, there are opinions and opinions. Some opinions are very close to knowledge, because, while there is evidence against them, the evidence in their favor is overwhelming; while the evidence in favor of other opinions is practically nil.

There are still people who think the earth is flat, based, presumably, on the "evidence" of their senses. But this opinion deserves no respect; and while we should be polite to people who hold it, we don't need to listen to them.

On the other hand, there's evidence against the General Theory of Relativity; but it's rather weak, and it would be the rare physicist who would hold that the theory was just an opinion, and would "respect" the opinion of, let us say, a follower of Ptolemy's earth-centered universe. Note, on the other hand, that there is pretty strong evidence against a Darwinian view of evolution, and when biologians scream, "It's a fact," they're confusing knowledge with opinion.

You may, thirdly, have little respect for an opinion that someone sincerely holds, though you may understand that the issue is complex, and see the reasons why the person holds it (and so respect the person), while at the same time you also know that those reasons are not valid.

This is a trickier situation, perhaps best illustrated by an example. If a person holds that a fetus is not a human being (yet) because, being attached to the mother, "it" is for the time being only a part of her, that person does not realize (a) that a biological part works for the benefit of the whole and the fetus does not, and (b) that logically he would have to hold that a tick becomes a part of the host when it attaches itself. But the evidence dealing with the humanity and the personhood of the fetus is by no means that simple (though, as we will see much later, it all points to the fetus's being a person), and so a simple, "You're wrong" and a facile refutation like the above would might very well be an insult to the intelligence of the person who holds the view.

But returning to "Everyone has a right to his own opinion," the real problem, as I mentioned earlier, is not that we shouldn't respect the opinions of others, but the hidden assumption that everything is a matter of opinion, and no one actually knows anything.

Of course in this case, it can't be a known fact that everything is a matter of opinion, and therefore that everything anyone says or "believes" or "holds" or "feels" has to be respected; because if everything is a matter of opinion so is "Everything is a matter of opinion," and in that case, only those who hold this have to respect others' opinions; because they have no grounds for demanding respect of their opinions from those whose opinion it is that others' opinions don't deserve respect.

You see, the problem in our age is not that it's completely innocent of the truth; it's hit upon a fact, but then run with it like Wrong Way Corrigan and scored a touchdown in its own end zone.

Next