Fact, opinion, taste, and belief… it’s all in your head… or is it?

Thinking Cat (1)

I’m putting on the thinking cat for a minute –and, oddly enough, this post is a “how to” (or, how not to…) post for all classes I teach AND a content piece for Intro to Philosophy and World Religions… weird, huh….

What’s inspiring this post is the phrase, “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” — which, frankly, irks me because what often follows it is a first-semester philosophy student arrogantly dismissing the arguments of philosophers who have thought really hard on these kinds of things…

It also got me thinking, why do they say that — and what do they REALLY mean?

One thing — there is no way I, or anybody else, can say that you don’t have an opinion on something — so, WTF is up with the “entitled” bit.. really?  That’s just stupid and silly — when I or a philosopher provide a counter to your “opinion” we aren’t saying that you shouldn’t have opinions, but rather that you should examine your opinion more closely… or that what you call an opinion is more like an assertion without support.

BUT — it seems that there is more to it, so perhaps some context on the different kinds of things we talk about on a regular basis…

  • “Fact” is something that CAN be verified using an objective measure.  So, a factual statement is something like, it’s 400 miles from Oakdale, MN to Omaha, NE.  If we can define where the trip should start and stop, then we can measure the miles in between and arrive at a conclusion…. SO, if two people disagree about a factual claim, it’s the kind possible to show that one person is right and the other is wrong.
  • “Opinion” by way of contrast to a “fact” an opinion is something that two people could disagree about, and both can be right…. because an opinion is a statement supported by evidence.  The thing is, we can look at many different kinds of evidence and use a variety of methods to reason to differing conclusion.  So, it may be the case that it’s your opinion that Obama is a good president (and you’ll look at the evidence that supports your side and the other side will look at evidence that supports their side..).  Until you can agree on what constitutes “good”, then perhaps it can be a factual claim.

And — the “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” stuff is kind of bullshit — of course, everyone has opinions, but not all opinions are worthy of consideration by others.  Lots of “opinions” that follow that phrase are more like judgments passed on others, and they don’t consider the fact that those judgments are harmful in many ways — so, I’d advise against saying this.

Also — most of the time I see a student doing this they’re doing it to completely discount well-reasoned, thoughtful, considered conclusions to arguments — and substituting their own judgment without argument to back it up.

  • “Taste” — is different than opinion — because it’s intensely personal.  I prefer cats to dogs, i prefer macs to PCs, and iphone to an android etc… your taste may be different.
  • “belief” — is, for the most part, hope that X is true.  So, if you have a belief in God, you’re saying that you hope it’s true that God exists.  It also says that you’re basing important things on that hope, that you’re acting as if that belief is true etc… there is nothing wrong with it, but understand that “belief” is NOT the same as knowledge.
  • “knowledge” is often defined by philosophers as Justified True Beliefs — so, if you can support what you believe in by observing things that are objectively true, and  you hold that bit of information to be true — you have knowledge.
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