Sunday, January 13, 2019

From Fact or Opinion to Fact, Preference or Judgment

In teaching philosophy, I have from time to time been asked whether the enterprise am teaching is a matter of fact or opinion. Or, when students write for me, they ask if I want their opinions. If I say "no," the papers end up looking like book reports. If I say "yes" they end up being a mass of subjective feeling, and if I challenge that, they think that I am simply grading them down because they I feel differently from the way they do, and how dare I do that? I think this derives from the fact that these students learned a fact-opinion distinction back in grade school that makes philosophical inquiry hard to place. For example, either there is a God or there isn't, but is there a clear methodology that gets one correct answer? Maybe, but few students come to class believing that. So they conclude that since this isn't an issue of fact, it must be opinion, and however I feel about it has to be OK. After all, I am, you know, entitled to my opinion. 
My critical thinking text, by Richard Paul and Linda Elder, proves  a revision of the old fact-opinion distinction you probably learned in grade school, but that distinction fails to cover a number of domains of inquiry where there is no one provably correct answer, but facts are relevant, and there are truths to be discovered. That is a matter of judgment. Take the question "Is there a God?" I take it that it has a true answer, whether we can know that answer or not. There either is a God, or there isn't. Reasons can be given on both sides of that question, and while some think it can be given one correct answer, most philosophers of religion think that reasonable persons can go either way. Nevertheless one can have a reasonable belief on the matter even if hard proof is unavailable either way. And even if you think there is one right answer, it is important to argue that one can inquire about this, and other controversial questions without having to assume that one and only one correct answer can be given to the satisfaction of all reasonable persons. 


John B. Moore said...

How about an algorithm? A philosophical paper should be a set of logical operations on some input that produces predictable output. Like a Turing machine.

Victor Reppert said...

Not every field of investigation is algorithmic. Aristotle was right, we should expect of each discipline the degree of precision that is appropriate to is.

World of Facts said...

That is a great post imho!