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Facts & Opinions

Christoffer Lammer-Heindel tells us some important facts about them.

From a very young age we are encouraged to distinguish facts from opinions. Now the ability to distinguish facts from merely alleged facts, and the ability to distinguish opinions from considered judgments, is an important skill. However, the fact-opinion duality is a false dichotomy which rests on a category mistake. In claiming that facts and opinions stand in a dichotomous relationship, we ignore the two classes which stand in genuine opposition to each set in turn: facts are properly opposed to what we variously call non-facts, merely alleged facts, fictions, or falsehoods; and opinions really stand in opposition to considered judgments.

A Fact Is Whatever Is The Case

When someone asks, “Is that a fact?” they can be understood as asking, “Is that really the case?” or “Is that ultimately true?” When someone says, “It is a fact that…” they are telling us, in other words, “It is the case that…” or “It is true that…” That is, facts are not the statements themselves; they are, rather, the state of affairs or the reality to which a true statement corresponds.

Now it is neither necessary nor useful – indeed, it is positively misleading – to define ‘fact’ in terms of what is indisputably the case – yet people sometimes do. We should resist the temptation to endorse this qualification, for the simple reason that whether a particular matter is disputable or not has no bearing on what is the case. Moreover, there is very little that is not, at least in some sense, disputable.

To appreciate that disputability has no bearing on whether something is or is not a fact, consider the following case. It is well-known that some people believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill John F. Kennedy, while many others believe that he did. Both views are backed up by reasons and supported by at least some evidence. So this is clearly a disputable issue. To say that a point is disputable is to say, at the very least, that different individuals hold different views on it. Nevertheless, there is a fact of the matter as to whether Oswald was involved in the assassination: he either was or he wasn’t. One of the two options must be the case.

The same thing can be said about the question of whether God exists. This is clearly a disputable issue, but we must recognize that it either is the case that the being referred to by the term ‘God’ (let us say, ‘creator of the universe’) exists, or it is not the case that such a being exists. (The fact that people have differing conceptions of God doesn’t serve to undermine this point, but simply to make it more complicated: for each conception of God, the being so conceived either does or does not exist.)

Arguing about an issue doesn’t somehow make it into an issue about which there is no answer. Indeed, genuine dispute is only meaningful when there is an answer. It’s basically pointless to engage in a dispute about something for which there is no fact of the matter.

Facts & Knowledge

Still, it is sometimes asked in response to controversial issues, “Who determines what the facts are?”

This is an ambiguous question. On the one hand, the question can be understood as asking, “Who would be in a position to discern what the facts are?” This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask, since some of us are more equipped than others to discern the facts in a certain area. For example, I know very little about automobiles. As a consequence, I am in no position to pronounce on whether the clicking noise I hear when I start up my car is caused by the fuel system, the timing belt, or whatever. By contrast, I am in a position to determine, in the sense of discern or figure out, whether my wife picked up our child from school this afternoon, whereas you are not. The ability to make an informed judgment as to what the facts are in a certain situation is a function of available evidence, experience, training, and so forth. And of course, with respect to some issues, no one is in a position to discern the facts. (We will return to this point in a moment.)

On the other hand, the question, “Who determines what the facts are?” could be understood as asking, “Who makes it so that something is or is not a fact?” When applied to the question of whether God exists, the answer is obvious: no one does. Neither the existence nor the non-existence of God (whatever the fact of the matter may be) is caused by human action; so no one makes it a fact that God exists, and no one makes it a fact that God doesn’t exist. In this case, the fact of the matter is totally independent of us. In the case of Oswald’s involvement or lack of involvement in the assassination of President Kennedy, Oswald was the one who made the fact what it is. We, looking back on the incident and the evidence, do not.

This illustrates an obvious but rather important point. To the extent that people act, they clearly do make various things the case and various things not the case. If I place my coffee cup on the table, I’ve made it a fact that the coffee cup is on the table and I’ve made it a falsehood that the coffee cup is in the cupboard. This is because I can interact with the physical world and change physical states of affairs, thus to that extent determining what the physical facts are. There are, however, facts beyond physical facts. For example, sometimes our actions take on meaning and so create facts because of institutional rules that are in place. When a sufficient number of individuals on a college’s board of trustees all vote to divest the college’s holdings in Company X, then it becomes a matter of institutional fact that the college is not to hold shares in Company X. Similarly, when the Pope speaks ex cathedra [meaning, with the agreement of all the cardinals, Ed] on matters of faith or morals, he makes it the case that those things become, as a matter of fact, Catholic doctrine. They will be Catholic doctrine whether other Catholics (and non-Catholics) agree with the proclamation or not, and regardless of whether we even care.

In these and myriad other ways, people do determine the facts in the sense of make them.

Something Can Be A Fact Even If We Can’t Know It

Consider the claim, “At precisely the moment that the US National Institute of Standards and Technology’s atomic clock struck 15:00:00 on the afternoon of March 4, 2015, there were an odd number of people inside the New York Public Library’s Main Reading Room.” This claim is either true or false: it either was the case that an odd number of people were (completely) inside the room at that time, or it was not the case. Now, if it was the case, then the claim would express a fact. If it wasn’t the case, it would express merely an alleged fact, which was (in fact) false. Notice, however, that we probably can’t know whether the claim is true or false – which is to say that we can’t know whether it is a fact or not. Such is life. There are, quite literally, an infinite number of possible claims that we could make that we know must be either true or false (it is a fact that there is a fact about it!), but we cannot possibly figure out their truth-values. For another example, it either is or is not a fact that Julius Caesar was red-green color blind; but it is doubtful that anyone will ever now know what the fact of the matter is.

Facts Are Not Properly Contrasted With Opinions

As I mentioned at the outset, facts are often presented as the opposite of opinions. Justin P. McBrayer, a philosophy professor at Fort Lewis College, Colorado, reported in the New York Times’ blog, The Stone in 2015 (‘Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts’) that national education standards in the United States require elementary school children to learn to categorize statements according to whether they express facts or express opinions – the assumption being that all of the statements with which they’re provided express either facts or opinions, and that no statement could express both. McBrayer rightly points out that, contrary to the assumption that forms the basis of that standard, the fact-opinion dichotomy is a false dichotomy.

To say that statements must either express facts or express opinions, but not both, is a bit like saying that all fruit must either be an apple, or be produce available at my local grocer. While a banana is clearly produce available at my local grocer but not an apple, and a Red Astrakhan – a relatively rare heirloom apple – is an apple but not available at my local grocer, it is simply not true that every fruit must either be an apple or available at my grocer. Nor is it true that a fruit could not be neither. The Granny Smith sitting in my fridge is clearly both an apple and available at my grocer, while physalis – sometimes known as giant ground cherries – are neither apples nor available at my grocer.

To appreciate this analogy, we must clarify what an opinion is. Clearly, the term ‘opinion’ denotes a kind of belief. In common usage, an opinion is a belief which has not been sufficiently well-supported or substantiated to count as a considered judgment. Indeed, beliefs can be usefully classified as either opinions (beliefs which do not enjoy sufficient support or justification) or considered judgments (beliefs which do enjoy sufficient support or justification). This is a perfectly appropriate dichotomy. Note, however, that it should not be confused with another equally important and legitimate dichotomy: namely, the distinction between true beliefs and false beliefs. Both every opinion and every considered judgment – in other words, every belief – will either be true or false. This is a function of the fact that beliefs are about things or states of affairs and they will either comport with the facts or not. So as with the fruit example, it is not true that a belief is either a fact or an opinion. Rather, an opinion may or may not express a fact, just as a considered judgment may or may not express a fact. (And again, it is a separate issue whether the fact in question can ever be known or not.)

It should be noted that a belief being false doesn’t automatically render it a mere opinion. Suppose that, in addition to lying to their child by telling her that Santa Claus exists, a couple also set out to create an elaborate ruse to provide the child with evidence (albeit concocted, misleading evidence) that Santa exists. It is perfectly possible that the child’s false belief in Santa has then risen to the level of a considered judgment.

It is also worth noting that whether a particular belief is a mere opinion or a considered judgment is highly variable: it’s relative to the individual believer, and to a particular time in their life, too. To return to the automobile example, my mechanic and I could independently arrive at the belief that the clicking noise I hear when starting up my car is caused by a faulty valve in the engine. In my case, and considering the state of my current knowledge (that is, my current ignorance), this would be nothing more than an opinion – just short of a wild guess, really – whereas in the case of my mechanic, it would be a considered judgment (or so I hope). Now, let’s suppose that the clicking noise is in fact caused by a faulty valve. In this case, the statement “My car engine has a faulty valve” expresses a fact; but before my conferring with my mechanic, my own belief would nevertheless be a mere opinion.

Moral Facts and Moral Opinions

In the context of a heated discussion about a controversial moral issue, it is not uncommon to hear the retort, “Well, that’s just your opinion,” where this is intended to mean that the matter in question is something about which there can only be opinions, for there are no moral facts.

This is a view that enjoys a fair amount of currency in contemporary society, and unlike some, I do not think it is a view that should be dismissed out of hand. It could end up being the case that those who believe that there are moral facts are mistaken. There is nothing obviously incoherent about that view. Yet it must also be emphasized that it isn’t obviously true that there are no facts about what is moral, good, right, just, etc. There may well be objective moral facts. If moral matters are genuinely disputable, we must assume that there is some fact of the matter under dispute, although we can and perhaps should admit that the facts are sometimes very difficult to discern. Further, as J.L. Mackie argued in his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977), if there are no moral facts, it will turn out that all beliefs dependent upon supposed moral facts will be false beliefs.

Philosophers have also long debated what kinds of facts moral facts would be. Some have sought to reduce them to other kinds of facts – for example, institutional facts or psychological facts – while others have claimed they are a unique and irreducible type of fact. Matters of taste are sometimes thought to be a close cousin of value judgments. Indeed, various philosophers (such as David Hume) have entertained the possibility that moral judgments are nothing more than matters of taste. Such views are interesting and worthy of careful, critical examination, although it is beyond the scope of the present article to consider them. What is within our scope is the widespread claim that matters of taste are simply opinions.

Matters of Taste Are Not Opinions

Suppose someone declares that licorice is disgusting; we could imagine another person responding by saying, “That’s simply your opinion.” In such a case, this latter claim clearly means something like, “That’s just a matter of your personal taste.”

Now it is surely correct to say that whether licorice is disgusting or pleasing is a matter of personal taste. To that extent, labeling it a matter of opinion is understandable. Notice, however, that the meaning of ‘opinion’ here is very different from the meaning used above, where an opinion is an insufficiently supported belief. This difference in meaning is significant, for in ordinary circumstances it would be a mistake to say that one’s report that one finds licorice disgusting is an insufficiently supported belief. If one has tasted it and found it unappealing, one’s declaration concerning its disgustingness is perfectly well-supported, so long as the disgustingness is understood as being relative to the subject and not implied to be an observer-independent (objective) quality of the licorice. Put another way, it is a fact that this person finds licorice distasteful; and this is perfectly compatible with it being a fact that a different person finds it quite satisfying.

Conclusion

Properly understood, the term ‘fact’ refers to a state of affairs or an aspect of reality, not to a class of beliefs. By contrast, ‘opinions’ and ‘considered judgments’ are types of beliefs, and those labels are most usefully used to distinguish sufficiently well-supported from insufficiently well-supported beliefs. The primary thing these distinctions reveal is that it is inappropriate to contrast facts with opinions. To do so is to make a category mistake: it is to treat facts in themselves as a species of beliefs. Of course we have beliefs about what the facts are, and there are also psychological facts about what individuals believe. However, maintaining a fact-opinion dichotomy only serves to cloud discussions that would be more productively oriented towards figuring out whether our beliefs are justified and whether they conform to the facts.

© Dr Christoffer S. Lammer-Heindel 2016

Christoffer Lammer-Heindel is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa.

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