Is Philosophy Nothing More Than Opinion?
If you have decided to pick up a philosophy text to read your first reaction may be that philosophy is nothing more than different people expressing their opinions. This is a common reaction and many times my students confuse the arguments of philosophers with opinions. I want to show in this chapter that philosophy does more than simply express opinions.
It is important to distinguish arguments from opinions because our understanding of what philosophical reasoning does depends on a clear understanding of the difference. Philosophers certainly do express opinions, but they do more than this. This is what makes their works worth reading. If they were only expressing their opinion there would be no reason to concern ourselves with what they say. It is the fact that they provide reasoning to back up their opinion that makes their claims worth noticing and analyzing.
So, what is the difference between an argument and an opinion? Let me illustrate with an example. Suppose I say "Toyota produces the best cars in the world." Clearly, this is my opinion and you may disagree. But, suppose in addition to this I present some reasons for my belief that Toyota produces the best cars in the world. For example, I say that they produce the best cars because they are fuel efficient, they have a high resale value, they are low maintenance, and are inexpensive to repair. Now I am presenting an argument. Granted you may disagree with my argument but now, in order to explain why you disagree, you need to show where my reasoning is faulty. Are my facts incorrect? Do my facts not really support my conclusion? It's no use simply saying that you disagree because that gets us no further. You need to say why you disagree. The reason you need to do this is because I have said why I believe that Toyota produces the best cars in the world. It is the "why" question that is important.
This kind of question is best answered by providing evidence. However, this raises another question: What constitutes sufficient evidence? This is well answered by Vincent Ruggiero in a book titled Beyond Feelings: A Guide to Critical Thinking. In it, he spells out three general guidelines. First, "evidence is sufficient when it permits a judgment to be made with certainty. Wishing, assuming, or pretending that a judgment is correct does not constitute certainty." This standard is usually very difficult to reach which brings us to the second point. "If certainty is unattainable, evidence is sufficient if one view of the issue has been shown to have the force of probability." The important consideration when trying to demonstrate probability is that you have considered all options and shown, not simply stated, that your position is the most probable among all competing options. If certainty and probability are both unattainable then you should conclude that "the evidence must be considered insufficient."
Ideally the evidence for a particular conclusion should be evaluated objectively. However, this can be difficult. Another issue arises when there is a possibility that the evaluation of evidence is biased. Ruggiero provides some clues for detecting such bias. Bias may be affecting your ability to fairly evaluate the evidence if the following are true: "You approach your evaluation wanting one side to be proved right. You begin your investigation assuming that familiar views will prove correct. You look for evidence that supports the side of the issue you favor and ignore evidence that opposes it." These strategies will not provide you with the best chance of arriving at a well-reasoned conclusion.
Some people take a very futile approach to philosophical argument saying that we will never be able to resolve such questions. Questions about God's existence, morality, innate ideas, and the origin of life are all difficult questions. But, when you say that we will never be able to resolve or settle these debates you are making a claim that needs to be defended. Why do you say this? What evidence do you have to back up your claim? If you have no evidence other than your own opinion then you have not really advanced the conversation. As difficult as it is, we need to focus on the realm of argumentation when doing philosophy. The mere expression of opinion in and of itself is of little value to the progress that can be made in philosophical reasoning.
To say that philosophical questions such as the existence of God can never be resolved or are simply a matter of opinion reduces them to insignificance. If they cannot be answered or resolved then why discuss them at all? In fact, the questions do have answers, which is different than saying that the questions can be easily answered or answered soon. To say that they cannot be answered is to say that they are unimportant questions and that they make no difference to the world around us. But, doesn't it matter whether or not there is a God? Wouldn't the world be different depending on which outcome is true? The same goes for questions of morality or innate knowledge or the origin of life.
Confusion occurs when people say that something cannot be proved. Perhaps you have said that God's existence cannot be proved or there is no way to prove whether there are innate ideas or whether a particular action is moral or immoral. The confusion here is well explained by James Rachels in a book called The Elements of Moral Philosophy. In the book he distinguishes between "proving an opinion to be correct" and "persuading someone to accept your proof." Don't think that you are failing to prove your opinion correct by presenting an argument for it just because you are failing to persuade someone to accept your proof. There is a difference.
Proof is itself a misunderstood word and one I would discourage using in the context of philosophical argumentation. The reason is because the word "proof" is taken to mean demonstrated with 100% accuracy never to be refuted ever. If this is your notion of proof then nothing can be proved. But, in the real world of argumentation this is not a realistic standard to demand of any argument except perhaps for mathematical proofs. The standard we should rely on is an inductive standard asking what conclusion is most probable given the available evidence.