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What is the difference between fact and opinion?

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DavidV
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This came up on another forum, and I'm really not sure of the answer. Here is my best shot:

A fact is a falsifiable (non-arbitrary) statement that describes some aspect of reality. An opinion is either a potential fact or an arbitrary statement.

A fact may be true or false: the statements “the earth is flat” and “the earth is round” are both facts, but only the second it true. A rational method of inquiry can prove an opinion to be a fact. For example, “that girl is good-looking” is an opinion if it not based on an objective evaluation of her traits in comparison to the average, and a fact if a rational process is used to objectively evaluate her traits.

If we come across a box and say (without any idea of what the box contains), “that box is empty” – that is an opinion, even if it is true, because we did not reach that conclusion by any rational means. However if we look inside or have some basis to believe that that box is empty, then that statement is a fact – though it may still be false if we misinterpret the evidence. Finally, “If unicorns existed, then their horns would be sharp” is an opinion but not a potential fact because it is an arbitrary claim lacking a truth value.

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God, there are a ton of mistakes in there. Just on a quick read:

1. Whatever a fact is, it's not a species of "statement". This came from analytic philosophy, probably ultimately from some linguistic analyst.

2. Something does not have to be falsifiable in order to be non-arbitrary. Is the law of identity arbitrary? This came from Popper.

3. I'd tend to think an opinion is a position one takes, but can't prove. That doesn't make it arbitrary: it might just be that it's quite probable.

4. The idea that a fact describes an aspect of reality is contradicted by the idea that a fact may be false. If it's false, it doesn't describe reality.

5. The last paragraph is a false view of the arbitrary, at least in the first two sentences. If a statement is arbitrary in the mind of its utterer, it is neither true nor false.

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Guest MichaelM

"Opinion" from the Latin *opinari*, meaning "to think"... While a fact describes reality -- existents and/or their relationships -- an opinion describes a class of thoughts. Specifically, it refers to the thoughts of a particular person that constitute a conclusion of his thinking at a particular time that certain facts are valid -- that certain descriptions are accurate.

I would not distinguish between a fact and an opinion by reference to the rationality, validity, accuracy, or provability of their content, because both can be any of these or their opposite depending on the context. The temptation to allot an inherent value such as "unprovable" to "opinion" is a symptom of lingering infection by a contemporary intellectual plague: the misuse of the word "opinion" to evade and destroy reason by twisting it into a synonym for "invalid".

"Yeah? Well that's just your opinion" is the ultimate weapon of the mindless when cornered by a rational argument. The qualifier "just" and the tone of voice in which this statement is uttered is a clear attempt to negate the efficacy of any and all reason communicated in the form of an opinion. And how else does the communication of reason occur?

This is the down end of the Kantian trickle. The misusers can concede that an opinion refers to thoughts about the validity of facts, and can even concede that facts can be valid or invalid. But they sustain at all costs the belief that as long as the facts are "*just* your opinion", they lack the efficacy of facts "validated" by a consensus (of experts or masses). They cling to that, because that is their excuse to escape the work and responsibility of rational thought. Without any ability to use or cope with the concept of objective validity, they have defaulted to agreement with a consensus as their only standard for or approximation of validity.

The tactic is ubiquitous, because it is so effective. Most of the population takes the same belief for granted and capitulates to the statement without resisting. The few rational enough to grasp the underlying deceit expect that the users are unlikely to be willing or able to understand the error committed even if it were pointed out to them and don't try.

If you reply that you are able to prove the facts your opinion contains, the misusers will repeat the claim that your proof is likewise just your opinion. If you reply, "my opinion as opposed to what?" They will respond with, "what do you mean by that?" and initiate obfuscation. If you fail three times to ignite a spark of rationality, change the subject or walk away.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to continually hone your best reply to this tactic. Often its usage is powered more by bad habit than irrationality in a mind that can still be rescued. Also, when arguing in groups, there is, more often than not, on the periphery, a silent observer absorbing intently and intelligently every word you speak.

MichaelM

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Guest MichaelM

An opinion is a conclusion based on thinking.

Although in some contexts, "belief" can be an interchangeable synonym of "opinion", a belief is, more precisely and most often, a conclusion based on authority, faith, or prejudice, i.e. reached in the absence of and/or contrary to thinking.

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Can you show why this isn't just a stipulation? Dictionaries give a number of definitions for belief, but a common thread is that when you believe something, you hold it to be true. No mention is made of the methodology by which you reached it.

Are you arguing that "belief", as is commonly used, is a package deal and needs to be replaced? Or do you think that what you're describing is what most people mean by belief? The first is an interesting idea that I'll give some more thought to, but I think the second would definitely be wrong.

A thought on the notion of belief as package-deal: it may depend on the context you're using it in. Most analytic philosophers take belief to be the genus of knowledge: it's a broader category, denoting those things you hold to be true, where the subcategories include knowledge (things that are also true, etc.), opinion, false beliefs, arbitrary assertions, etc. This is wrong, and it's definitely a package-deal. Epistemologically, the fundamental issue is whether or not a logical process was used to draw a conclusion from sense perception. So in the context of epistemology, this hierarchy is totally improper. On the other hand, if you're talking about what a person *does*, the fundamental issue may well be what he holds to be true, regardless of how he got there. It's fundamental here because it explains more. (I think this is more true in the short-term than in the long-term, by the way.) If I want to know what a person will do on Sunday, I'll want to know whether or not he holds it to be true that going to church is a moral obligation. Within that context, the question of whether he arrived at that conclusion through an honest mistake or through bare irrationality is secondary. So in that context, belief isn't a package-deal.

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Guest MichaelM

Answer to Q1: If it is, I am not the original stipulator: "believe v.t. 1. to accept as true, especially by faith or on authority rather than personal knowledge" [from a 1936 family heirloom dictionary].

Answer to Q2: I took these questions to be more about differences when used in philosophical discussions than about comprehensive definition per se. I was describing a distinction in usage I have experienced to be very common and regard as important to the readers of this Forum.

I acknowledged that opinion and belief could be interchangeable synonyms and meant by that both can simply mean something one regards to be true. And I would agree, in that case, neither necessarily implies a specific method. But opinion, even at this level, implies a conclusion of *some* method (thinking or some substitute for it), while belief allows for pure unadulterated arbitrariness. This small difference can grow into a more significant distinction in philosophical discussions, particularly at street level, and particularly when a believer is pressured to support his claim.

That distinction reaches a climax at the existence of God issue. I have often amused myself at boring parties by initiating a mundane argument. Then I clock myself to see how fast I can move the topic through the pyramid of knowledge to the existence of God issue. Along the way there is always a willingness and ability to disgorge an endless supply of "reasons" to back up opinions. But inevitably belief becomes the reason of last resort, and when that is challenged, the discussion ends with an admission that reliance on blind faith is the ultimate intellectual necessity.

So long as you are describing the sole fact of whether you hold something to be true or not true, you can freely use opinion, belief, knowledge, and even feeling more or less interchangeably. But when you are describing the status of your commitment to that truth, crucial distinctions will be implied.

There is a real symbiosis underlying the word combo, "subjective beliefs." Behind the phrase "objective beliefs" lurks a serious contradiction.

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