Saturday, November 04, 2006

In My Opinion

I know I give the Beeb a hard time here, but actually we love their education sites. I do, however, have a problem with the theories of knowledge that underpin some of the questions that appear, for example, here. Buried somewhere in there is a question which asks you to pick out "the opinion" from a choice of three options: (a) the fizzy drink is yummy. (b) Contents: 250 mls. (c) Ingredients: water, sugar. Of course you can see what they're getting at but in my opinion, all the options are technically opinions, since all statements, even those which appear to describe reality fairly precisely, are actually only just that - opinions. This because we can never be completely sure of our knowledge.

Rod Liddle wrote in the Spectator recently that we will always have grounds to grumble about the content of a school education, but that we should just get over it and generally get on with it. Trouble is, I'm not so sure. Isn't this just a way of perpetuating error needlessly? How I see it is that there are some things one could swallow, (and hopefully correct at home) and other things that are just too devastating to one's world view to let pass. If, for example, TB were really to allow school children be taught creationism in an uncritical fashion, I think I really would have a major problem. This isn't setting the bar too high imo.

But in this instance I do wonder if I am getting just a little too picky in thinking that it is a problem to encourage my children to think that a fact is a fact and that's that. Perhaps I should just get over this grating sensation and bury my critical rationalist urges until I can get my hands on the kids and explain to them that the Beeb's epistemology doesn't seem so good. Or could it really be the BIG problem that it appears to me to be?

Hmm...well it is the case that theories about the nature of knowledge underpin and inform all other areas of knowledge and it's acquisition. Getting these theories seemingly right will allow for the growth of knowledge and a mature ethical outlook. Getting it wrong scrambles this process, either by rendering the thinker a fundamentalist, a relativist or a post-modernist, with all the attendant ethical problems that these positions entail. This problem therefore is BIG.

Then again, I do know of one quite remarkable family in which the parents would make precisely the same criticisms of the epistemology that is commonly taught in schools and yet because their children love school, they cope with the errors and correct them as and when. One of the first ethical errors that this family avoids is to compel their children to go to school against their will. These children love school and clearly thrive in it, and since the parents teach fallibilism as a basic principal, it appears not to damage the children's thinking one jot. My guess is though, that these children are the rare exception and that most will leave school with a pretty muddied view of how reality probably stacks up.


Jax said...

I confess that I think your first criticism is overly picky tbh, and that coming from someone who had immense difficulties for a year at uni with forcing myself to plan for the future after I'd taken on the sun doesn't have to rise tomorrow argument from Bertrand Russell possibly a little too thoroughly. ;)

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... We cannot be completely sure about the bottle having 250mls, but as humans can accurately measure liquids, 250ml of liquid is as close to the truth as it gets. And once 250ml get measured, it's 250ml to everyone. The drink being yummy is not something that can be universally measured like 250 ml. You can verify 250ml like you can't "drink is yummy".

Perhaps "opinion" is the wrong word to use for the concept, but that there's certainly an important distinction there?

Anyway, I would be curious what other academic resources you use that not online if you care to share.

Carlotta said...

Thanks Jax. I think you may well be right and that I may be being too picky!

I think my problem is that not only do I believe that the truth is out there but that we can never be completely sure that we have it and that we are best off holding all our theories tentatively, though acting on those that seemingly do fit reality best, but that this is SUCH a good solution to the problems of the theories of knowledge, that this does have important consequences - and that so few people know about it as a solution, that I have this beleaguered feel.

The other temptation to stick with HE is that a lot of HEors are pretty clued about this sort of thing, some almost by accident, since the ethical side of autonomous HE fits well with a Popperian epistemology, and they therefore implicitly develop these ideas as they go along. Other HEors are quite deliberately informed in this area. At least 4 HE families we know are fully up on their critical rationalism...even though one dear family actually act on it in practice and then pretend they are Marxists...Haa know who you are!!!

In practice this would therefore mean that I would assume Bertrand wrong, and bother to get up and eat breakfast, but I wouldn't necessarily assume he was definitively wrong!

So Leo, re verification, I am of the firmish conviction that whilst some ideas may be so right as to be actually very right, ie: they do describe reality precisely, I don't believe one can ever verify them. There simply is no possible basis for believing securely that our ideas are right. We can simply say that so far these ideas have not been proved wrong, which of course is different.

Bryan Magee did a brilliant job of compressing most of Popper's essential ideas into a short easy read "Popper" which was part of the Fontana Classics Series. I do hope it is still in print, as it is a masterclass of clear writing and brilliant ideas, and can save one buying all of Popper's other works, at least at the beginning.

Sally said...

Ahhh ... this reminds me of my days of philosophy for social scientists!!!, I used to find sleeping on what I've read turned what seemed like another, entirely unintelligible, language into something at least a little intelligible to me. At least, I could begin to recognise that the words were from a language I knew!!!! Maybe reading it at 39 would be easier than reading it at 23?
I actually failed to turn up for some exams having become so convinced it would make no impact on what I had for my dinner!!!! LOL!

Carlotta said...

Lol...I know what you mean, particularly having read quite a lot of continental philosophy at one stage in my life and I did feel that it all didn't make one iota of difference to how I actually led my life. I now realise that it did, but only because it failed to provide me with any useful information whatsoever, ethical or otherwise!

Nowadays, I often see people looking at me weirdly when I bat on about the way we think we think about reality, truth etc...and as above I certainly used to feel that it was an arcane subject that was not particularly relevant to how one went about getting breakfast, but the thing about these particular constructs is that they do impact upon all areas of life...ethical, knowledge wise, etc, etc. Hence I do bat on about it, probably much to everyone's annoyance!

Anonymous said...

We can never ever verify ideas? Really? Now how can you be sure of that? ;)

You seriously don't think there is an important distinction bettween "I like coke" and "coke has 250ml"? Measuring liquids does not depend on individual quirks.

Adele said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...


This is nothing more than a matter of semantics.

If the liquid can be measured in such a way that it fits our *definition* of 250mls, then surely it *is* 250 mls?

It is a term that means nothing outside of an arbitary but *uniform* structure invented by human beings as a method of describing and defining our world. All it needs to do to be "true" is fit into the defintion. If the amount of liquid in the bottle measures 250 ml then it *is* 250 ml, as surely as red *is* a colour. It's got absolutely nothing to do with truth, it's just semantics.

In cases like these the words themselves *mean* the same thing as the finished process of establishing whether or not things fit the definions. Eg The term "250 ml" *means* an amount of liquid that, when measured in a pre-agreed way, is neither more nor less than the amount that we have decided to name 250 mls. The term fits into a frame work of other terms ie it's 10 ml less than 260 mls, it's 30 mls more than 220 mls etc It is roughly the same as 8.3 fluid ounces (I think! LOL) etc etc

To say that the liquid, once measured as such, *is* 250 mls, is no different to saying 1+1 = 2. It is simply a tautology. It's true by defintion.

"Yummy" on the other hand is an adjective describing an individual preference. There is no verification process that can be invoked in order to assess whether or not something can be included in this definiton. *By definition*, the word "yummy" is an opinion.

To speak of being unable to verify a tautology is meaningless fallacy.

David said...

Sorry, the last post was mine. I had to delete it as I realised that my wife was still logged in,then when I reposted, it did it as "anonymous" for some reason.


Carlotta said...


I agree with you entirely, and often speak in precisely the same way that the original question was phrased for exactly the reason you so clearly explain. It is to accept that there is an underlying premise that what we are saying is essentially tautological, within the constrains of the essentially provisional definitions we have set up.

However, this implicit premise is by no means clear in the original question. Most adults and most children will assume that a "fact" necessarily describes reality precisely and is not merely relating to the confines of it's provisionally held axioms.

Does this make sense??

Carlotta said...

"We can never ever verify ideas? Really? Now how can you be sure of that? ;)"

:) Of course I don't "think" we can...

"You seriously don't think there is an important distinction between "I like coke" and "coke has 250ml"? Measuring liquids does not depend on individual quirks."

I agree that there are indeed some distinctions between the two statements but they are not of the order of distinction of which the questioner was probably thinking.

My gripe is with the probable implication that you can verify anything. You (probably) can't since how can you be sure that your knowledge is what it seems to be?

Godel showed that the proofs that are used to prove the axioms of even basic maths cannot be used to prove themselves, so even here in the field of maths, we must take axioms as being provisional, if indeed very useful and often apparently very good descriptions of reality as we perceive it.

Anonymous said...

I think it's possible to verify things, but not absolutely, because our methods are not absolutely reliable, so a margin for error has to be included.

Better methods of verification can be discovered or invented, like everything else, though.

The opinion question is simplistic, many the teachings aimed at children are. It's like when they teach kids that some numbers are divisible by 2 and others aren't.

Anonymous said...

Following on from your creationism thought -

at one time we decided against a church school partly because we actively did not want our children to receive a religious education at school.

We used an ordinary state school only to discover that TB had apprently decreed that all schools should start each day with an act of collective Christian worship.

I have 2 problems with this

First it could be offensive to the many families of other faiths/no faiths. It means it is not possible to have a non-religious state education.

Secondly I think this is a matter for schools and families to decide locally and not something the government should be interfering with.

I know it is possible to ask for your child not to attend assemblies but I don't think that's a satisfactory solution or a real 'choice'.

Ironically we now use the first church school and have found that the children are learning other things such as 'It's Ok to make mistakes/everyone makes mistakes' 'Everyone's good at something' etc. I'm not sure whether this is because of the beliefs held and taught or because it is a tiny school or both.


Carlotta said...


Sounds like a wonderful take on Christianity, and the one that I always thoroughly appreciate...the one that seems to grow from the idea that the word of God is pretty inscrutable and you have to think about it hard to work it out in any given circumstance. I can work with that!

Might have to move even closer to you guys...