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Monday, August 5, 2013

Dumb Questions with Complex Answers: What Is an Opinion?

"You get to have an opinion" is a proposition you see all the time on the internet, usually followed by "…but here’s why you’re a dipshit nonetheless." The sense of the phrase is, as near as I can understand, “I will not try to stop you from expressing your opinion." It always seems to have more significance about the wish of the utterer to seem amiable than anything else, and I can even see how you might call it an illocutionary act of sorts. Its usage is very interesting.

It very rarely, however, has the sense that you would understand it to have literally, that “there is a class of thing ‘opinion’ which you are allowed to form (by some external agent)." This is because understood that way, the claim it makes is baffling. What is this mysterious higher being which grants the power of opinions? You? Ishtar? Misaka Mikoto? It seems intuitive that nothing of the sort is the case (but…who knows O.O).

However, I don’t merely think the literal phrase is baffling, I think it’s completely nonsensical: opinions aren’t the sort of thing that can be sensibly talked of in those terms. This is because knowing a fact about the world and having an opinion are actually the same thing.

Let’s look at what an opinion is.

Actually, let’s take a look at how opinions are formed, and then we will know plainly what it is.
  • I have experience.
  • This experience pertains to the facts of the world, but does not contain within it the facts of the world as knowledge. That is, experience before logic is not knowledge. Even ∃x is a logical proposition. x is not.
  • Logic discerns the world from experience. (i.e. the existence of things, the disposition of things, the relation of things to each other, etc.)
  • From this, we have knowledge of the facts of the world. (i.e. there is a glass on the table, I am having a thought, the streetlamp is currently on, etc.)
  • These are the facts. We call them that because they are elementary and evident without much conscious thought.
  • On continued thought, the amount and complexity of the facts compounds. From “there is a thing called the sun, the sun moved relative to me across the sky many cycles, and cyclical things without clear contingency tend to recur unless halted," we arrive at “therefore the sun has a high likelihood of rising in the morning."
  • While inducted from other facts, we have no problem calling this a fact as well.
  • As the facts become more generalized, our tendency to call them opinion increases. Let’s look at a few kinds of things.
  1. "Bertrand Russell wrote many things influential to modern philosophy."
  2. "Bertrand Russell is the most influential modern philosopher."
  3. "Bertrand Russell is my favorite modern philosopher."
  4. "We should read A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell."
  • All of these are things are facts (or at least they could be - they are at least valid propositions), but we are very much tempted to say 3 and 4 are opinions.
  • While 2 might need a citation to be used as a fact in a debate, intuition says that it is indeed a fact, if it is supported by everything else (and assuming “influential" is unambiguous).
  • 3 is clearly a fact about the utterer, but we call it an opinion because it is a fact about something in the world contingent on facts about the utterer. This is the distinction why “I am a human male" or “I am 21 years old" are not opinions, but "I think Mazinkaiser SKL is totally rad" is. Value judgements, then, can be either a fact about the object or a fact about the utterer, depending on what the involvement of personal taste is. We would call the latter an opinion for sure.
  • 4 is intuitively different from 2 because it’s making a normative claim about what you and I should do with our time. We’d say this is an opinion. However, it is the same basic underlying form. If we can derive a goal from the facts (i.e. “history and philosophy are intrinsically valuable," or more likely, “we are both interested in history and philosophy"), and establish that A History of Western Philosophy contains a wealth of knowledge about both history and philosophy, and the fact that we should do things which are in our interest, then it would follow as a fact that we should, given the time and patience, read the book.

First, the concerns.

1) I am treating present sensory experience and memory experience as the same thing for this argument. It’s clear from neurology that they are not the same, and moreover that memory itself is more complicated than I understand. I will not argue this, because while there may be a distinction between “facts about the world known from memory" and “facts about the world known from stream of experience," it is not a distinction of opinion. I do not see where the argument would diverge.

2) I seem to be acting almost like I think logic is known a priori. Else, how can we ever know anything about even our own thoughts, since we need it to even say ∃x? I say that you cannot have experience without gaining logic - that you cannot have a thought x without knowing ∃x. It seems contradictory to think that I can perceive a thought without knowing it exists. This is the same logical form as the Cogito.

In any event, regardless of where we get the logic, we have it, and it pretty much unambiguously serves the function I claim it does.

3) I am handling only cases in which it’s clear the train of thought is logical and correct. This is not the case in the real world. Emotion being a component seems mostly irrelevant, since we’re taking an external view, not an internal one. “I think avocados are da bess" is based on an emotional fact, but logic probably doesn’t come into play in the utterer’s mind.

4) I likely did not cover all the types of propositions that we would call opinions. There may be more that I have not uncovered because I simply have not thought of it yet. I cannot come up with a general rule for opinions, and I suppose that’s part of the point.

So what can we say about opinions?

A definition at this point could read,
An opinion can be either a fact about the utterer in regard to an object in the world, or it can be a normative statement.
This is nothing we didn’t already know, but now we know it more plainly and with a greater understanding for its implications.

What is more interesting is its implication that opinions are the same sort of thing as facts. In fact, things which we may be tempted to call opinions are indeed facts about which we have confusion about the identity of the subject. When something like “you should listen to Demetori" fails to be a fact, it is because the utterer has derived it incorrectly, or is misinformed about an underlying premise (i.e. you enjoying metal).

This sort of outlook, however, is dangerous. You learned incorrectly in school the distinction between fact and opinion for a reason: there’s so much that can go wrong. Asserting facts about yourself while believing them to be general (i.e. “this anime is terrible, you have to be a pretentious asshole to like it") is common. Asserting facts without consideration for other relevant facts that may change the analysis is also common. This is the true issue at the heart of things.

I am unsure if it’s possible to have an opinion which cannot be wrong. Any opinion can be wrong if a constituent fact is wrong, but I cannot find any way for “I think Roger Florka is swell" to be incorrect. Roger Florka may not exist, but so long as the utterer thinks he does, then the opinion refers instead to his own belief. Properly understood, it’s “I believe a Roger Florka to exist, and that according to my criteria, my conception of him is swell," all of which are true for the utterer. Swell is also subjective. Now, it’s possible to subsequently learn that “Roger Florka murders cats" and that opinion to change, but that does not make the previous opinion wrong because the holder was right in holding it, according to his own knowledge.


>Given that deducted facts make up our knowledge of the world (or if you’re Wittgenstein, compose the world), including thoughts.

>Given that without the facts of the world, there is no human experience, even solipsistic.

>Given that opinions are a certain type of fact.

Then it is nonsensical to say “you get to have an opinion," because opinions are necessary to our very human experience.

Or else, Misaka Mikoto really does control whether you get to form an opinion or not, and we should all just accept the fact.

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