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Editor's 1-Minute Essay:
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The following represents a distillation of Dr. Adler's Syntopicon Essay plus my own thoughts:
- Editor's note: the reader will benefit if the following is studied in conjunction with the essay on "Knowledge"
"Opinion" is the great weapon of the skeptic, the one who denies the reality of particular, or even all, things.
An individual may lay claim to "knowledge," but the skeptic responds that it is all illusion, all just a misguided matter of opinion.
In other words, the skeptic will emphasize, we cannot mentally apprehend the object itself, we cannot directly get to whatever it is that we are thinking about. We are cut-off, isolated, from the world, and it is mediated for us and to us only by our five senses -- and we must rely on these untrustworthy agents for all that our brains know about the outside world. As such, lacking the certainty of iron-clad, direct "knowledge," we are reduced to forming "opinions" about our environment.
- Opinion is an act of the mind caused by something other than the object itself which the mind is considering.
Why is "opinion" considered to be one of the famous "great ideas" of history?
- "Opinion" addresses the very important issue of our uncertainty, our doubts about knowledge, our doubts regarding that which is real.
It is common to speak of one's right to his or her "own opinions"; but we do not normally admit to any such right regarding one's "own knowledge." We say that we have a right to "freedom of thought" -- but, it must be stated, this right can properly apply only to unsettled matters of opinion, not knowledge.
An opinion may be true or false, right or wrong; but these qualifiers are not used to describe knowledge. Matters of opinion are subject to conflict, and therefore we speak of a "consensus of opinion," "expert opinion," or "majority opinion" to lend weight to our arguments; but we never speak of these in relation to knowledge.
- It is possible to opine and doubt at the same time, but not to know and doubt. One single person of knowledge trumps one million others of mere opinion.
If we discuss a subject for which many interpretations are possible, we are dealing with matters of opinion; however, if our subject is one which demands only one view, a subject regarding that on which everyone must agree, we have likely entered the domain of knowledge. For example, the arithmetical statement, 2 + 2 = 4, cannot be doubted (though some do) and is therefore an example of knowledge, not opinion.
Opinion lives in a world of probability; knowledge knows only certainty. Reasonable men and women can properly disagree about matters of opinion -- and still remain reasonable -- but debate necessarily ceases (among those of reason, at least) when knowledge enters the room.
This discussion began with a statement indicating that opinion is an "act of the mind."
- Opinion, in other words, requires a decision, a mental assent or agreement -- in the absence of absolute knowledge -- to tentatively accept, until further light becomes available, certain information as true.
This is the nature of "belief" -- an act of the will, a decision to accept. Aquinas said that religious "faith" is a kind of middle-ground between mere opinion and knowledge; faith is like opinion in that an act of the will is required, but faith is also like knowledge in that it possesses a measure of certainty. However, Aquinas concedes, this sense of reality is a result of grace, a gift from God, and not primarily a triumph of the human intellect.
This "act of the mind" suggests a deep psychological difference between opinion and knowledge.
- The person who "knows" does not need to "believe."
But how much "knowledge" do we really possess in this world?
- Is knowledge, for us, even possible? Or must we be satisfied with mere opinion?