Saturday, January 9, 2010

Fact or opinion?

A reader writes in to ask:

Please could you elucidate the distinction between a fact and an opinion? I am a secondary school English teacher and there is a lot of rubbish written on this part of the curriculum that would lead to such absurdities as, for example, the atomic weight of sodium is a fact, but the proposition 'raping babies is wrong' is merely an opinion.

Good question. The manner in which “fact” is commonly pitted against “opinion” seems to rest on multiple confusions. In particular, it seems to rest, in part and in several ways, on a failure to take note of the distinction between metaphysical questions and epistemological questions. It also seems to rest in part on a rather crude and dogmatic application of the so-called “fact/value distinction” – a distinction that is, where ethics is concerned, dubious in any event. Finally, it often seems to rest as well on a failure to distinguish science from scientism.

Let’s walk through this. When people say that such-and-such a claim about sodium (for example) is a “fact,” it seems pretty clear that part of what they mean is that it is objectively true that sodium is that way. That is to say, that sodium has such-and-such chemical properties is a state of affairs that holds completely independently from human convention or subjective tastes. It seems that another part of what they mean, though, is that this objective truth about sodium has been discovered by means of unimpeachable evidence, airtight scientific arguments, and so forth. These two claims are of logically distinct types. The first is a claim about the way the world is – call it a metaphysical claim – while the second is a claim about how we know about the way the world is – call it an epistemological claim. And this difference entails a corresponding difference between two different senses of the word “fact”:

Fact (1): an objective state of affairs

Fact (2): a state of affairs known via conclusive arguments, airtight evidence, etc.

In the same way, when people say that such-and-such is “a matter of opinion,” it seems clear that what they mean, in part, is that it concerns something that is not known via conclusive arguments based on airtight evidence, etc. but is at best believed in on the basis of controversial arguments. But it seems that they also at least sometimes mean that it not a claim that could be objectively true in any event – that its truth could only ever be a matter of convention or subjective taste. Here too we have claims of two logically different types, where the first is an epistemological claim and the second a metaphysical one. And as with “fact,” we need therefore to distinguish between two senses of the expression “matter of opinion”:

Matter of opinion (1): a state of affairs determined entirely by human convention or taste, about which no objective claims can be made

Matter of opinion (2): a state of affairs not known via conclusive arguments, unimpeachable evidence, etc., but at best believed in on the basis of controversial arguments

Now part of the problem with most “fact versus opinion” talk is that the people who engage in it do not make these distinctions. One result of this is that they fallaciously assume that if something is a matter of controversy, then there must be no objective fact of the matter about it – that is to say, that if it is a Matter of opinion (2) then it must therefore be a Matter of opinion (1) and therefore must not be a Fact (1). That this is muddleheaded should be obvious from the following example. The existence of Pluto is a “fact” in both of the senses we have distinguished. But though it was always a Fact (1), it was not always a Fact (2), for Pluto’s existence was of course not known for most of human history. More to the present point, during the period in which there was debate over what the relevant observations really showed, the existence of Pluto, though still (as it turns out) a Fact (1), was not a Fact (2) but only a Matter of opinion (2). In general, it is perfectly possible for something to be a “fact” in the first sense but not in the second sense, and therefore perfectly possible for it to be a “fact” in the first sense and at the same time a “matter of opinion,” in the second sense of that expression. It is also, for that matter, possible for something to be a Matter of opinion (1) but a Fact (2). For example, that the speed limit on most highways in California is 65 MPH is a matter of human convention, and that my favorite Scotch is Laphroaig is a matter of taste. But someone could easily acquire airtight evidence that these things are so.

So, that is one problem with most talk about fact versus opinion – it fails to make these crucial distinctions between metaphysical vs. epistemological senses of the relevant terms. But there are other problems too. Precisely because people fallaciously infer from something’s being a matter of controversy to the conclusion that there must be no objective truth about it, they tend to fall for a rather crude version of the “fact/value distinction.” They conclude that, since people disagree about morality, morality must be entirely subjective, so that even judgments like “Raping babies is wrong” must be true only as a matter of taste or convention. We all agree about “facts” but don’t all agree about morality, therefore (so the “reasoning” goes) morality must be a matter of mere “opinion” rather than “fact.” Once we make the distinctions noted above, the fallaciousness of this “reasoning” becomes obvious. And as I show in my essay on classical natural law theory and property rights (to which I linked recently), there is ample reason to reject the fact/value distinction in any case.

Finally, as the example my reader gives suggests, there also seems to be a tendency to think that what is “factual” is what can be established by means of empirical science, so that what cannot be established in that way must be merely a “matter of opinion.” As we have seen in my recent posts on naturalism, Rosenberg, Churchland, etc., the scientism implicit in this tendency is difficult to justify even when endorsed by professional philosophers. In the thinking of the average non-professional who casually pits scientific “fact” against non-scientific “opinion,” it is nothing more than a prejudice picked up from the surrounding culture. Certainly it embodies no actual rational basis for rejecting the possibility that solid philosophical arguments can rationally justify moral, aesthetic, and theological claims – thus showing such claims to be entirely “factual” in both senses of the term even if one agrees that they are not the sorts of claims which could be established on empirical scientific grounds.

In summary, then, there seem to be four errors underlying the common tendency to pit fact against opinion, to identify the former with science, and to relegate moral judgments and the like to the latter category. First, it fails to distinguish the relevant two senses of “fact.” Second, it fails to distinguish the two relevant senses of “opinion.” Third, it unjustifiably assimilates moral and other value judgments to “matters of opinion” in the first sense we distinguished. And fourth, it unjustifiably assimilates “facts” in both senses of the term to scientific facts. When we clear up all these errors, we can see that a great deal of what is said in the name of fact versus opinion is, as my reader puts it, “rubbish.”

30 comments:

Warren said...

Laphroaig a matter of taste? I'll say! Great quality, of course, but like drinking a burning peat bog...

Edward Feser said...

but like drinking a burning peat bog

Yeah, ain't it great?

Michael Liccione said...

Nice, Ed. Your distinctions have particular application in theology too.

In debate with Protestant sola-scripturists, I often argue that, without an infallible authority to adjudicate among competing interpretations of Scripture, divine revelation is reduced to "a matter of opinion," even assuming that Scripture itself is inerrant. The interesting thing is that, while the "opinions" in question begin as controversial statements about what is objectively the case, they tend to end up as merely subjective preferences. That roughly describes the progression from fundamentalist to liberal Protestantism, which is replicated every few generations.

Best,
Mike

Occasional Commentator said...

It's posts like this that make this blog required reading: brief, clearly written, and plowing straight through much of the pernicious nonsense that passes for "deep thought" nowadays. This post, along with your previous "Is Self-Ownership Axiomatic?", are two of the finest blog entries I have ever read. Keep up the good work, Ed.

bgc said...

Very clarifying and useful - thanks.

Maolsheachlann said...

As I recall, it was the moral relativism preached as logic in English language text-books that prompted C.S. Lewis to write The Abolition of Man. Looks like nothing has changed.

mpresley said...

Sometimes people ask, "What makes for good art, and how can you tell, objectively? Are you sure it's just not your opinion?" I never really could understand how to reply until I started to frame the question using the idea of final cause. If we understand the "final cause" of man (in the A-T sense) then we can understand objectively that the art leading toward transcendence has got to stand higher than, say, other types.

Then, the question becomes, "how can you recognize this "higher art" objectively?" Here, one must rely on the faculty of judgment one gains from experience. But not just one's own judgment, as that can be fallible, but, rather, those who have demonstrated a deeper understanding that is shown from their own works. Also, one must learn to accept tradition as an arbiter.

In his Locke, Ed has a very succinct discussion of the role of tradition in our understanding (or, more precisely, what the role of tradition should be in relation to our attempts at understanding). All this being said, there are those that hold that these sorts of arguments are simply a lapse into mysticism, or meaninglessness. For them, I'm not sure that any discursive argument is ever going to be sufficient to the task.

Anonymous said...

When I was a freshman in college my philosophy professor described Relativism as "one of those phases every teenager goes through, but when you actually think about it is simply the invention of a bunch of burned-out imbeciles."

But it's like you say about Nominalism and Conceptualism in TLS, Ed. Subjective ethics has an emotional appeal, mainly because the snobbish subjectivist can always say "that's just your opinion!" and to the uneducated look like some paragon of thoughtfulness, even though their system is a load of garbage and their a total hack. Ugh.

The 27th Comrade said...

@Michael Liccione:
Who gets to decide who the infallible authority is? Is this decider himself infallible? (I seek, here, to poke democracy in the eye.)
And this infallible authority, what does it use to decide on doctrine, if not sola scriptura?

I have been watching your drawn-out skirmish with some sola scriptura advocates in other places (Called to Communion, Triablogue, et cetera), and I don't agree, at this point, with you.

Anonymous said...

@The 27th Comrade:
"Who gets to decide who the infallible authority is?"

Reason, based on objective and incontrovertible criteria.

t.

George R. said...

I think it’s important to point out that it is not just liberals that are guilty of improperly assimilating things to “matters of opinion.” Conservatives are often equally guilty, but in different ways. Whereas liberals are more likely to dismiss moral and value judgments as mere opinions, it is conservatives who will quite often consider specific theological propositions to be "opinions" in the improper sense.

For example, if you ask a conservative whether the Virgin Mary is the Immaculate Conception and the Queen of Heaven and Earth, the responses you are most likely to get from conservatives are, “For Catholics she is…” or “For me, a Catholic, she is…” as if it were a matter of subjective opinion. It would probably take a liberal to get an honest “No.”

Maybe the rarest response of all would be, “I don’t know.”

Michael Liccione said...

27th comrade:

Every uncommitted inquirer has to ask himself which is more credible as a way of identifying the content of divine revelation: the Bible alone, or the Bible interpreted by an infallible authority? If there is such an authority, then we have a more credible way of identifying the content of divine revelation than we would have if we left biblical interpretation solely to people who claim no such authority. If, on the other hand, there is no such authority, then all we have are different groups and individuals interpreting the Bible in ways that seem credible to them, but not to others. That doesn't prove there is such authority, of course; but what it does prove is that, without such an authority, there is no way to distinguish consistently between revisable, fallible human opinions and the actual content of divine revelation.

If you care to get involved in the current CtoC discussion, please do it over there.

Matteo said...

"And this infallible authority, what does it use to decide on doctrine, if not sola scriptura?"

Well, what makes someone decide on sola scriptura besides doctrine? A doctrine that the proponent of sola scriptura cannot, by definition, regard as authoritative because it is outside of Scripture? Or perhaps, he decides that the doctrine is inside Scripture, but cannot avoid the circularity of having to claim that Scripture is infallible and authoritative because infallible and authoritative Scripture says so.

Somehow the sola scriptura proponent has gotten a non-question-begging infallible doctrine from somewhere, but where? And why is he the only guy who gets to claim an infallible source of extra-biblical doctrine?

Jime said...

Professor Feser, I was re-reading your book on philosophy of mind and I found this argument which is a refutation of the skeptical "Evil Spirit Hypothesis":

"However, as the physicist David Deutsch has argued, skeptical hypotheses like the brain in a vat and evil spirit scenarios are actually more complicated than the commonsense belief in an external physical world, not less; for they are parasitic on the latter belief.

Even to form the hypothesis of a deceiving evil spirit,we first have to form the hypothesis of the existence of the commonsense world of external physical objects governed by scientific laws, and then imagine that the demon is deceiving us into believing that this hypothesis is true. That requires that the demon be complex enough to do this successfully, which means supposing that it is complex enough to interact with us in a way that exactly parallels the way a world really consisting of external physical objects would.

But that means that this evil spirit would itself have to be at least as complex as a world of physical objects; indeed,it means that such a spirit must be more complex, for it would not only have to mimic that sort of world, but also be (as such a world would not) consciously aware that that is what it is doing, thus being a thinking thing, which raises further questions about why it has the motives it does, etc., questions that wouldn’t arise on the commonsense view. So the evil spirit hypothesis really isn’t as simple or economical as the commonsense view after all and Occam’s razor should lead us to reject it in favor of the latter
.(Philosophy of mind, p. 14)

I was thinking that Deutsch's refutation is based on an assumption similar to this of Richard Dawkins' argument for the complexity (and improbability) of God and, therefore, it's open to the same objection.

I mean: the Evil Spirit, being immaterial, doesn't need to be complex (i.e. it is not composed of parts).

Perhaps its ideas (like wanting to deceive us) are complex, but the evil spirit as such is not.

So, it seems to me that Deutsch's conclusion "that this evil spirit would itself have to be at least as complex as a world of physical objects" doesn't follow.

This was one of the mistakes of Dawkins (who believes that God is at least as complex as the world and hence improbable too), a mistake already refuted by Christian philosophers like Craig or Alvin Plantinga (you have compellingly refuted Dawkins too, but in other grounds).

So, mutatis mutandis, the same would be valid to the complexity of the Evil Spirit, and this is why I think Deustch's refutation fail.

God and the Evil Spirit, being immaterial, are not complex entities; and they don't need to be as complex as the physical world (which God created, or to which the Evil Spirit is trying to deceive us that it exists).

What do you think?

All the comments would be appreciated.

Lorenzo said...

Great post, and entirely agree about the wonders of Laphroaig, it is what got me on to single malt scotch (after which I could no longer drink scotch and dry, as it now just tasted like bad scotch with ginger beer, and I do not like ginger beer).

Off topic, but something you may enjoy. In this appreciation the late Abdurrahman Wahid, there is a statement about the power of Aristotle:
Wahid had been somewhat attracted in his youth by the writings of Said Qutb and Hasan al Banna, the founders of the Muslim brotherhood, but his deep humanism led him to reject them. When I visited him recently he told me of a long-ago visit to a mosque in Morocco where an Arabic translation of Aristotle's "Nichomachean Ethics" was on display. Seeing that book had brought tears to his eyes and Wahid explained: "If I hadn't read the 'Nichomachean Ethics' as a young man, I might have joined the Muslim brotherhood."
That Islam turned away from Aristotelianism when Latin Christendom turned towards it was one of the key moments in history, especially as Bishop Tempier's condemnation of Aristotelian thought (which lost out in Latin Christendom) was very similar to al-Ghazali's (which became the dominant view in Islam).
I would argue that the reasons for the different outcomes reflected the different conceptions of God and authority in the two civilisations.

The 27th Comrade said...

@Anonymous:
You said, in answer, "Reason, based on objective and incontrovertible criteria."

The criteria (or, in this case, criterion) is sola scriptura. (That is, the criterion is what I mean by sola scriptura, rather than that sola scriptura, as understood by any reader of these words, is the criterion; even though that may be/usually is the case.) So, you see, no running away from sola scriptura. ("Contrary to what you all think, by 'abortion', the Catholic Church actually means [...]")

After all, reason and incontrovertible criteria, when used (as you suggest) can reliably and reasonably enunciate doctrine based on sola scriptura.

@Michael Liccione:
I'm afraid I never let myself comment on high-ish-traffic blogs on issues where I think I am biased. As it is, I find myself palpably biased against your point of view. After I've given it more thought, I'd be more-comfortable putting thoughts in a place like that.

You say, "If, on the other hand, there is no such authority, then all we have are different groups and individuals interpreting the Bible in ways that seem credible to them, but not to others.
So be it. I don't see why one (possibly-wrong, possibly-correct) opinion is better than another. Modern (especially American) TV is an extreme negative example, along with temple prostitution in our hypothetical Lutheran church, and St. Paul is an extreme positive example, along with (perhaps) the Pope for Roman Catholics.

@Matteo:
Yes, if religious people were mathematicians, they would know that the sola scriptura "problem" is the entscheidungsproblem.
It is, of course, solved (in this case; that is, by people of revealed religion) by appealing to God Himself, to His revealed Intentions. That is, of course, sola scriptura. This is why the sola scriptura advocate doesn't end up begging the question: the answer is known to exist, viz. as the place where the answer is being sought.

Anonymous said...

Jime-

I think that's a great point you brought up with Deutsch's argument and its comparison to Dawkins's fallacious one in the God Delusion, but I think there are some important distinctions.

Firstly, it seems to me that what Deutsch is saying is that the most important reason the skeptic's "evil demon" hypothesis is less parsimonious is because now, hypothetically, we have an actual, complex physical world with a non-physical demon who is controlling our thoughts to make us believe in an imaginary physical world (and, if we believe in God, I suppose an additional imaginary non physical world as well). Clearly this is not very parsimonious, since we have an actual physical world, an actual non physical world, as well as an imaginary version of each, not to mention a nonphysical evil demon and a mind that may or may not be embodied.

But in terms of the comparison between the demon and Dawkins's lousy argument, the Demon is not, in fact, as simple as God. The demon, while immaterial, would conceivably still have to be a composite of form and existence, while for God, according to Aquinas, His essence just is His existence, and he is thus without any metaphysical parts and therefore absolutely simple. The Demon would therefore still have to be more complex than God.

This form-existence composite is what is ultimately most important. True, the demon is less complex than say, a physical object, since it would not be a composite of form and matter. But because of this composite the demon is still far more complex than God, in who there are no distinctions at all, not even metaphysical ones.

Anonymous said...

@The 27th Comrade:

"The criteria (or, in this case, criterion) is sola scriptura."

Well, that would depend on what you mean by "sola scriptura". Do you mean (a) Bible as the only source of divine revelation (this is the usual meaning of the phrase)? Or do you mean (b) that certain parts of the Bible, i.e. the four Gospels, Acts and perharps some epistles, viewed as purely historical documents (not yet as divine revelation) have to be used when we, by our reason, search for objective and incontrovertible criteria to decide who is the infallible authority.

If your assertion means (a), I would deny it. But I am ready to concede it in the sense (b).

So, when you ask in your first post "Is this decider himself infallible?", I would again distinguish. In questions that are in the domain of natural reason (such as historical testimony of those parts that are meant as historical testimony), I would answer in the affirmative, with some important qualifications, of course (i.e. reasoning has to be correctly carried out). In questions of revealed truths, however, the answer would be in the negative, as the historical aspect of NT itself confirms (cf. e.g. Acts 8:30-31, 2Pt 1:20, 2Pt 3,16).

I hope this is not too convoluted.

t

Jime said...

Hi Anonymous,

I agree with your reply.

But note several things:

1-You're right that, from a Thomistic metaphysics, God (being a pure actuality) is not equivalent to a Demon (who's not pure actuality and is composed of at least form and matter and possibly other finite attributes, privations, defects, etc.)

So, your argument is irrefutable regarding God and the Demon seen from a thomistic point of view.

2-But point 1 undermines too Deutsch's argument against the skeptic, because as yourself points out: "True, the demon is less complex than say, a physical object, since it would not be a composite of form and matter"

But if the demon is less complex than a physical object (and a fortiori, than the physical universe as a whole), then Deutsch's assertion that "that means that this evil spirit would itself have to be at least as complex as a world of physical objects" would be false.

And that assumption is essential to Deutsch's case against the skeptic.

Note we're assumed the Thomistic distinction of form and existence and hence the Demon's complexity regarding God (and the Demon's simpler nature, regarding the physical world).

But imagine that we don't assume the A-T metaphysics from the onset (and Dr.Feser doesn't defend A-T in his philosophy of mind book), and examine Deutsch's argument from a metaphysically neutral position, we could reasonably argue that a Demon, being an immaterial soul, is an ontologically simple substance (at least more than a material object), and this is all we need to undermine Deutsch's argument.

My point is that Deutzch's anti-skeptical argument is based on a extremely questionable and weak assumption.

In fact, I think his assumption is false.

The 27th Comrade said...

@Anonymous:
By sola scriptura I mean (a). I mean treating a certain set of axioms (such as the Bible, alone) as the source of all guidance on doctrine, since it is the source of divine revelation with which all other revelation, if it happens, must conform.
So, I mean (a), and you say you deny it. I will try to show that (a) is all we have, actually, and that the difference between Mr. Michael Liccione and the sola scriptura advocates is merely how they define this scriptura which can't be anything but sola. (And also why I think Mr. Liccione is wrong.)

If there can be found an infallible authority to receive divine revelation, where do the guidelines for locating and verifying such a one come from? Sola scriptura. This verification may be a checking of consistency between pronouncements of the authority and the revealed Intentions of God. If such verification happens, then the classical sola scriptura applies in this case (where the scriptura is whoever isn't the subordinate party). This is a common case, and is the dominant one among, say, Christians. I shall defend why it is also the only one applicable to Christians (of whom I am not one); that Christians must subordinate all pronouncements to those already made in the scripture.

Now, if the pronouncements made by the authority are not made subordinate, then that authority is part of what constitutes the scriptura, and so, still, you have the sola scriptura. This seems a rare case, and currently logically non-existent to sola scriptura advocates; and it is the one under which St. Peter, in the third verse you give me, elevates St. Paul's epistles to the level of scriptura, for example. It is the one by which the Bible is scripture to Christians.
So, we have sola scriptura, in either case, and I think that the first form, where doctrinal pronouncements are subjected to the scriptures, is all that is available to Christians.

You do well to raise the part where St. Peter worries about people ("ignorant and unstable", like myself) drawing wrong conclusions from the scripture. You imply that he also wants, therefore, for there to be infallible authorities to interpret scripture for people like me. I don't agree with you. The problem is that, from where I stand, not only do these people, the "infallible authorities", qualify as "ignorant and unstable" (and therefore not be fit to interpret scripture for me), but also the people who decided that we need an infallible authority were like me: "ignorant and unstable". (Does God, who apparently has no favourites here, reveal to one fool and couldn't reveal to the other?) This is, I repeat, an analogue of the entscheidungsproblem. But it is solved in this case: sola scriptura, with the Bible alone as the scripture.

Anonymous said...

@The 27th Comrade:

But I don't think we need sola scriptura in the sense (a) to decide who the infallible authority is. I admit we may need certain parts of scripture in the sense (b), i.e. certain parts of NT considered only as historical documents, by means of which we establish historical existence of Jesus Christ, his claim of Divinity confirmed by miracles and prophecies, and the fact that He established his Church as an infallible authority in matters of Divine revelation. But neither in this sense is the Scripture alone ("sola"), because other resources, can also be used (such as historical records about beliefs of first Christians, writings of Church Fathers, etc).

So, we do not verify the authority by checking consistency between its pronouncements and the Bible. We establish it on independent grounds, by tracing the act of its establishment by incarnated Son of God. And these facts we establish by studying historical records and logical analysis of different possibilities. This is still in the domain of natural human reason and no supernatural revelation is strictly needed to investigate history. Of course, I agree that consistency must be there, but for other reason: because, as St. Thomas says, no contradiction is possible between two truths. But here we speak about consistency between correctly interpreted Bible and the pronouncements of authority. But the correct interpretation is precisely what is at stake in all the disputes about authority, and this correct interpretation is entrusted to the authority itself.

t.

The 27th Comrade said...

@Anonymous:
The infallible authority - or, at least, those who put him upon this "infallibility pedestal", the ones who verify him and his fallibility - will also succumb to the undecidableness of the problem.

Appointing someone as infallible sweeps the problem under the rug, so that, though he should ask himself the same questions we ask ourselves and of him concerning the interpretation, he is given a cheap pass and not subjected to tests (since he is infallible). Then we head to my last comment for more.

Anonymous said...

@The 27th Comrade:

Well, I don't think I am going to succumb to the undecidableness of the problem; I simply don't think the problem is undecidable and I don't see that you have refuted my point. Perharps that's just your opinion, which brings us back to the themes of the original post.

t.

danielj said...

But neither in this sense is the Scripture alone ("sola"), because other resources, can also be used (such as historical records about beliefs of first Christians, writings of Church Fathers, etc).

If they aren't scriptura then they aren't authoritative in any sense and are therefore untrustworthy. If they are considered scriptura then you are back to the original problem homeboy presented.

Anonymous said...

@danielj:

"If they aren't scriptura then they aren't authoritative in any sense and are therefore untrustworthy."

Why do you think that "not-scriptura" automatically means "untrusthworthy"? You did not present any evidence for your claim; and moreover, it seems that the claim is self-refuting (because the claim itself is not scriptura, and would, therefore, have to be untrustworthy by it's own criterion).

t.

Ilíon said...

"... When people say that such-and-such a claim about sodium (for example) is a “fact,” it seems pretty clear that part of what they mean is that it is objectively true that sodium is that way. ... These two claims are of logically distinct types. The first is a claim about the way the world is - call it a metaphysical claim - while the second is a claim about how we know about the way the world is - call it an epistemological claim. And this difference entails a corresponding difference between two different senses of the word “fact”:
.
Fact (1): an objective state of affairs
.
Fact (2): a state of affairs known via conclusive arguments, airtight evidence, etc."

Mr Feser, there is (at least) a third distinction to be made about "facts," and which you've hinted at in your wording. But, it's very difficult to get at this distinction, due to the very nature of language ... as witness the two different ways you talk about the "Fact (1)" sense.

Consider: in referring to the "Fact (1)" sense, you say, on the one hand, "what they mean is that it is objectively true that [thus-and-such] is [such a] way" and call this sense "an objective state of affairs," and on the other hand, you say that this sense "is a claim about the way the world is - call it a metaphysical claim ..."

What I'm hoping to do is help you and your other readers see that the "Fact (1)" sense should really be understood to be two distinct usages of the word; or, to be perhaps a bit more precise, as referring to two very distinct things.

Distinguishing "brute facts" from "facts"

The "Fact (1)" sense is used equivocally to refer both to the "objective state of affairs" (I propose calling this "brute fact") and it's also used to refer to our statements/claims *about* the objective state of affairs. This equivocation cannot but lead to misunderstanding and confusion ... but it's also difficult to avoid. After all, we can hardly talk about the "objective state of affairs" without talking *about* it; and yet, we constantly attempt to. It might help, to a degerr, if we realize what we're attempting, and having a distinct term seems necessary to that understanding.

Ilíon said...

Jime: "All the comments would be appreciated."

When reading the first two paragraphs of the (bolded) quotation you give, I thought, "Of course!" But, when I got to the third paragraph, I immediately saw the same weakness that you point out.

BUT, it seems to me that the main idea expressed in the third paragraph (the complexity of the "evil spirit") isn't really necessary to the argument. AND, it seems to me that the heart of the argument is that all such non-commonsensical hypotheses about the world are parasitical upon the commonsensical hypotheses, and should be rejected on that ground; for they assume the very thing they are arguing is unknown or unknowable.

Mark Pennington said...

Wonderful discussion.. As a teacher, I find that we are much too loose with our language. Here is a nice scope and sequence for teaching Fact and Opinion with clear definitions and examples.

Mark Pennington said...

Oops. When, What, and How to Teach Fact and Opinion is the link. That is not a fact, by the way, it is a tautology.

Kevin said...

A brave anonymous contributor writes,

"[M]y philosophy professor described relativism as 'one of those phases every teenager goes through, but when you actually think about it is simply the invention of a bunch of burned-out imbeciles'."

One could as easily state that moral absolutism appears to be the invention of individuals so bereft of rational argument that their sole available recourse is to puerile name-calling.

I commend both to you and to your brilliant teacher a couple of recent pieces, "Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response", by Jesse Prinz, and "A Relative Defence", by Michael Lacewing. The won't change your firmly shut mind, of curse, but they'll make you feel a little less smug.