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February 1980: That's Your Opinion Printer Friendly Version

That's Your Opinion

James Herod
February 1980

I have just expressed a judgment about something or other and my companion says,

Her: ``That's your opinion.''
Me: Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't realize you thought I was speaking for someone else.

Her: I didn't.
Me: Isn't it a given that I am speaking only for myself and expressing only my own views? That goes without saying, or at least it should. Yet people are always saying, ``That's your opinion.'' Who else's opinion could it be if not mine?

Her: I didn't think it was anyone else's opinion. I was just reminding you that what you said was only your own opinion on the matter.
Me: But I still don't understand. You must be implying then that there is something else besides an opinion, namely the truth, which I could have but don't. Apparently you are aware of someone who knows the actual truth on this question, as opposed to my mere opinion. Is that what you meant?

Her: Well, no, not exactly.
Me: Then maybe you meant that you know several others whose opinions disagree with mine and that therefore there is no such thing as a true or false view in this case, or perhaps on any question.

Her: Right. People disagree about everything. So who's to say? But why are you making such a fuss about this? It was just an expression.
Me: Because it aggravates me. I run into this notion all the time. It's an insult, although I'm sure you didn't intend it to be. It's a way of telling me that you don't have to take what I said seriously because it's only my opinion. It's a way of disregarding and dismissing someone's statement. And besides that, the idea behind the expression is very mistaken.

Her: It's not an insult. It's just a manner of speaking. You're getting all hot and bothered over nothing. And there's no deep idea whatsoever involved.
Me: There is so. Either it means that you believe someone else has the objective truth somewhere, some facts, which I don't happen to have, having a mere opinion, or else it means that you believe there is no such thing as truth. Otherwise why would you have used the expression in the first place, which is quite a peculiar thing to say actually. What I suspect is that you hold both these views simultaneously. I know for a fact that you often speak of the existence of truth. You are a Christian, for example, and you believe the Bible is true, or at least part of it. You are also a biologist, oddly enough (for someone who is a Christian), and you are always explaining to me that this theory is pure bunk or that theory is a ringer, and so forth. Yet here you are telling me that people disagree about everything, so who's to say what is true or not true.

Her: I disagreed with what you said and that's why I said, ``That's your opinion.''
Me: Oh. Why didn't you say so? So who's right, you or me?

Her: I am.
Me: How so? Who's to say?

Her: I do.
Me: On what basis?

Her: Because of my method.
Me: But what if we disagree about the method?

Her: Then we would have to sit down and be more thorough and systematic and review and examine our various criteria of truth and ways of arriving at it.
Me: But what if we did all this? What if we examined every conceivable method and we still could not find a mutually acceptable procedure for establishing truth? Then what?

Her: Then you would continue living in darkness.
Me: That's what I thought. You are the one who dismissed my statement as mere opinion, implying that since others disagreed with me there was no need to examine my opinion or take it seriously, either because, I guessed, there was no truth anyway to be had anywhere, or else because someone else already had it. But now it turns out that for you it is only a question of power, of sheer assertion, not truth. If we are unable to agree upon a procedure for determining truth then you are ready to insist, quite arbitrarily obviously, since no method has been established for both of us, that your way is right and best. Would you also be willing to impose this method on me by force, and the views that stem from it?

Her: You can believe anything you want to.
Me: I see. So once again you are telling me that you are not willing to treat my beliefs seriously or bother yourself with whether they are true or not, all the while priding yourself of course on how tolerant you are of other people's ideas. Basically what you intend to do is ignore my ideas.

Her: My friend those are harsh words. It's clear enough that you yourself are not particularly bothered by things like tolerance. Well, mine is beginning to wear a little thin under this grilling I'm getting. You would do well to find out what people really mean before you start putting words in their mouths. What I meant was that I saw no need for us to agree on this matter. As far as I'm concerned you can do your thing and I'll do mine.
Me: But what if there were a need? What if we had to reach an agreement because a common policy and a common course of action were required by the situation, a situation neither of us could withdraw from or avoid participating in jointly. This is not an uncommon thing after all, in marriage, for example, or in a business partnership, or on a rocket launch, or in a city council. The number of instances in life where a joint policy must be forged out of diverging opinions surely out number by far the instances where everyone can follow a separate course.

Her: That's why we have parents, bosses, generals, judges, and presidents, to resolve disputes like this and to rule on whose opinions will prevail.
Me: But this obviously has nothing to do with the question of truth. It is purely a question of power. The ruling ideas are the ideas of those ruling.

Her: Maybe so. But there is no other way. Someone has to decide.
Me: But does it have to be just one person? Why not the majority? Or better still, why don't we let (if it were up to us to let anything) those with the truth decide? You seem so sure that truth actually exists; maybe those who find it should make all the decisions.

Her: Don't be sarcastic. That's what I've been saying, more or less. People in positions of authority usually have access to more of the facts of a case and therefore are more likely to be correct. But I'm afraid I've lost interest in this game of hide and seek. You'll have to tell me what you really believe and then I'll decide whether this discussion is worth continuing.
Me: I believe there is no such thing as a fact, nor is there such a thing as truth.

Her: Do you believe that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west?
Me: Yes, but this is not a fact. It is, like everything else we know or think, a judgment, a human judgment. That's all humans can ever have: judgments about what is true, not truth itself. There may well be truth in the universe for all I know. We have to assume there is. But we also must recognize that we will never find it. So for all practical purposes it doesn't exist. All that can exist for us is our own ideas about what constitutes truth. And when it comes to this it's my word against yours. It is nevertheless very important to struggle among ourselves over whose ideas are true and whose are not. So from another point of view, for all practical purposes truth does exist, since we must never cease in our efforts to find it, to base our lives on what we believe it to be, and to oppose those we believe are acting falsely.

Her: But who's to say who has found the truth? You didn't like my policy of `do your own thing', and you didn't like the idea of letting the bosses decide either. So where does that leave us? In a mess, as far as I can see.
Me: We could let the majority decide.

Her: But the majority can be wrong.
Me: To say that the majority can be wrong presupposes, once again, the existence of objective truth, which someone else apparently possesses, in this case the minority or a faction thereof (maybe only you?), and with which they can establish the wrongness of the majority. This is the very thing I deny. There is no such thing as objective truth. There is only power, the power to turn what one believes is the truth into policy, the power to ensure that one's own ideas prevail. All knowledge is political.

Her: How can you say that? The history of science is full of cases where someone's ideas were proved right long after that person was dead and gone. Mendel's theories, for example, were utterly rejected by the majority, by virtually everyone in fact, at the time he first published them. It was not until decades later that they were proved correct.
Me: They were not proved correct; they were merely agreed with. All that happened is that originally most people disagreed with his ideas, but now most people accept them. This is not entirely arbitrary of course. There are reasons. But the reasons themselves are human opinions, not facts. It is only a judgment that people have made in accepting Mendel now, not the truth itself. Perhaps in another fifty years the situation will change again, because of some new discovery, some new theory, or some new perspective. Then people will say, ``Well, Mendel was wrong after all.'' In the beginning he was a heretic. Then later he passed over into the majority. Maybe later still he will be back in the minority again.
 There is no such thing as truth and error, but only minority and majority judgments. How could it be otherwise? Who is there to say what really is? Any theory or opinion after all is voiced by a human being, is it not? There is no way that any of us can get outside our skins to say what really exists. We are trapped inside. Even if the Gods themselves ended their silence and came to us in person to reveal the secrets of the universe, there would still be arguments between you and me, after they had left, over what they had said and what it all meant. Maybe the Gods can know the truth but not us humans. All we have is guesswork, basically, however much we try to refine our methods.
 If there were only one human being on earth – and it is a strange and curious thing that most philosophers of knowledge have written as if there were only one, and that therefore the problem of truth dealt not with the phenomenon of disagreement between two people but merely with the criteria that any one person ought to use to separate truth from error – at any rate, if there were only one person in the world, it is easy to imagine them fully believing, as evidently you do even now, that they had the truth. They might feel confident that they remembered exactly what the Gods had said, and furthermore felt no doubts at all about any of the facts of their situation or its interpretation.
 But as soon as there are two of us or more, the ability to take seriously such a faith in truth vanishes, because of the inherent possibility of disagreement, since we are separate beings, and in light of the absence of any outside criterion (since neither of us can get outside) for determining which of us is correct.
 In any case, there have been plenty of heretics who have remained heretics, even to the extent of passing out of the living consciousness of the race. They have therefore remained weak, ineffective, and inconsequential, that is, defeated. But any one of them might be discovered at any time, though their written works (if they left any), and proclaimed a genius by the present generation. Then their ideas would begin to be influential and to affect the course of history. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who were considered geniuses by their contemporaries but who have been entirely rejected and forgotten by us.
 No, I'm afraid history proves nothing. A person's ideas are considered true if most people agree with them, or rather, only by those who agree with them. So in the last analysis it is a question of power. You have to persuade the majority you are right. Otherwise you remain a heretic. (In some cases it is possible of course simply to impose one's ideas on the majority by force, without bothering to persuade anyone, but this is another matter.) Yes, it is true that the victors are the ones who write up the story, and their interpretation stands, not until it is proven wrong, but until it is overthrown.

Her: This is a dismal view and I don't like the sound of it one bit. It is absurd to argue that Mendel has not been proved right. And you have in fact reversed yourself. All along you have been badgering me about truth as opposed to power, but now you are saying the same thing.
Me: I'm not saying the same thing by any means. Your argument throughout has been based on the assumed existence of objective truth, while at the same time endorsing a policy of live and let live, a policy which is clearly an illusion, by the way, since decisions about joint concerns must be taken by someone, as you yourself eventually admitted. And in your scheme, as in real life to date, the decisions are taken by the rulers, by the bosses, by those who are presumed to have the facts and to know best. This is so even in science where the established authorities have the most influence in allocating funds and picking projects. Their priorities are often very remote from the interests of the majority (as I presently guess them to be; no one can actually know what those interests are since the majority at present has no voice and doesn't vote on issues). I don't believe anyone has the objective truth because there is no such thing. Nor do I believe in a policy of live and let live. I believe that the issues should be argued out and decided upon, and decided upon by everyone, not just the so-called experts. And the majority's choices should become policy and should be enforced.

Her: But how is this different, really, from rule by a minority? They are both based on force, are they not? It boils down to exactly the same thing then, except that under majority rule the country would disintegrate within a month. There is no doubt in my mind that the majority has absolutely no idea of how to run this country. It would be utter chaos. And to say that the majority should determine the direction of science is silly. It is worse than that. It is dumb, just plain dumb, and irresponsible. That's all there is to it.
Me: There is a vast difference, madam, between democracy, real democracy, that is, direct democracy, and minority rule, even though both are based on force. It is the difference between freedom and slavery. Should we get into this?

Her: No, let's not. Save it. It would just be another bum trip.