[This subject is also treated in Modes of the Finite, Part 1, Section 1, Chapter 6 and Chapter 10]

2.1. Modern-day closed-mindedness

So now we know we're absolutely certain of at least one thing. and so o the modern-day skeptics' "wisdom" is actually foolishness.

Let me reiterate, however, that there is plenty to be skeptical about; it is just that skepticism, as a basic philosophy of knowledge, is false.

Many people, however, don't profess skepticism; in fact, what they hold seems to be just the opposite. "Everyone," they say, "has a right to his own opinion." This was made famous by Voltaire around the time of the American Revolution by his statement, "I disagree with what you say; but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

This sort of thing goes by the name of "open-mindedness"; and if you presume to deny it, and say, "nobody can believe X," then you are greeted with shock. "What do you mean? That nobody has a right to believe X? Who are you to deny somebody his beliefs? You bigot!"

Remember the secret in the last chapter. What are these people doing? By calling you a bigot and yelling at you, aren't they saying, "You have no right to believe that there are positions no one can hold!"

In other words, the position that there are positions that can't be held is a position that can't be held. The position actually holds "Everyone has a right to every other opinion but the opinion that it is false that everyone has a right to his own opinion."

So it sounds like we've got another position that sounds wise and sensible, but is actually foolish. This one even sounds moral, but in the name of "respecting everyone's opinion," it forbids people to have a certain opinion.

Is this open-mindedness?

The secret of this chapter is that it's cleverly-disguised closed-mindedness.

Why is that? Because it says that "everybody has to respect everybody else's opinion." If you presume to disagree with someone, to prove that he's wrong, you aren't "respecting his opinion." And what this means in practice is this:

"I'll let you hold whatever opinion you want to hold, but you must let me hold on to all my opinions, and not try to disagree with them or prove me to be wrong." Don't try to make me change my mind, in other words.

You see? Under the guise of "respecting everybody's opinions," you're actually preventing anybody from trying to change yours; so you can hold on to your prejudices and stupidities secure in the thought that (a) anyone who tries to persuade you differently is a "bigot" and shouldn't be listened to, and (b) you're really a very open-minded person, willing to "accept" any view (as long as you don't have to entertain the possibility that it might be true).

But open-mindedness is not "accepting" others' opinions in this sense; it is precisely the willingness to entertain evidence that might prove that your own opinion is false. So by this perversion of "open-mindedness" the person has effectively shut his mind to any evidence.

Now then, does it even make sense to say that everyone has a right to his own opinion? What does "to have a right" mean, anyway?

To make a long story short (an analysis of rights in general took twenty-five pages in another book I wrote), I have a "right" to do something when I "can" do it in the sense that (a) it is not morally wrong for me to do it and (b) it is morally wrong for anyone to try to stop me.

Now if you're talking about having an opinion, then (b) doesn't apply, because no one is capable of preventing you from having an opinion. No one can get into your mind and erase an opinion you have. So there's nothing I can do about the opinion you have except disagree with it and give you reasons for changing your opinion--but that won't force you to give it up if you want to hold onto it.

Then what does it mean? We should respect others' opinions, and not categorically say, "You're wrong," still less prove that others' opinions are wrong, or (even worse) prove that their opinions are not only wrong but idiotic. Anyone can be wrong, and when we do this, we're acting as if we had "the Truth" and we're denying the other person his basic personhood.

Well, if anyone can be wrong, then you're not denying anyone his personhood by calling him wrong; that's part of being human. So it's no disrespect of the person to call his opinion wrong.

Still, it's embarrassing, and people have a right not to be embarrassed, don't they? Suppose your friend forgot to put on his pants, and is about to walk out into the street in his undershorts. You'll embarrass him by telling him "you forgot your pants"; but you'll save him even more embarrassment (even possible arrest) by telling him.

And if he's wrong, it is the fact that he thinks that something false is true that's the problem; and anyone who knows better will think that he doesn't know what he's talking about. So in what sense shouldn't you tell him he's wrong?

Why is it immoral to try to correct a person when he believes that what is false is true? That's what "everyone has a right to his own opinion" must mean, on every supposition but one.

And here we get to the heart of the matter. You can make sense out of "everyone has a right to his own opinion" only if you assume that no one's opinion is really any better than anyone else's. That is, that there is no real right or wrong opinion, only sincere or insincere ones.

2.2. Relativism

This position is also very ancient.

Again, back in Greece around 400 B.C., a man named Protagoras took the position that (as it's usually translated) "Man is the measure of all things." That is, "Human beings are the criteria for judging what reality is."

Another way of putting this is that there isn't any "reality out there" against which we can judge our ideas. Our ideas are the way we react to things outside of us, and your reaction to something may be quite different from my reaction to the same thing.

But if your ideas are based on your reaction, who am I to say (based on my own reaction) that yours are wrong? If I see something and it looks green to me, and it looks purple to you, which of us is "really" right, so that one of us can say to the other, "You're not seeing it right; your reaction is false." That would be to suppose that my reaction is not a reaction to the color, but a copy of it, while yours is a mere reaction, a change in you based on the color.

None of us can get outside our minds to find out what reality "really is" independently of the way we react to it; and so none of us has anything to go on in knowledge but our own subjective reaction to reality. And therefore, none of us is in a privileged position to say that something is "absolutely true, and must be true for everyone--that anyone who disagrees with this is wrong."

But then what of this position? Isn't it absolutely true? That is, if no human being can do anything more than arrange and classify his reactions to things, then it must be the case that no statement anyone makes can be known to be true for everyone without exception. And this is known to be true for everyone without exception.

That is, it is absolutely true that everything is relative.

Not surprisingly, this position is called relativism.

DEFINITION: RELATIVISM is the position that what is "true" is true only for the person who thinks it is true, and may be false for someone else. Nothing is true for everyone.

What relativism claims is that everything depends on your point of view. But of course, that claim itself is supposed to be true for everyone, irrespective of anyone's point of view, because no one is in the privileged position of knowing what is true for anyone but himself. But then how does the relativist know something that is true for everyone?

Like the universal skeptic, he has contradicted himself. If he really believes in relativism, he disbelieves in it, because he believes that everyone should "really" be a relativist.

2.2.1. Something that is absolutely true

Is there, then, something that can be known to be absolutely true for anyone, and doesn't depend on anyone's point of view?

Clearly, what the relativist believes as absolutely true ("that everything depends on your point of view") doesn't fill the bill, because that contradicts itself, and so isn't true at all, let alone absolutely true.

There is something.

Our old standby. How could there be a "point of view" from which that would be false? If there were one, the point of view would be something, and so it would be true that there is something.

So yes, there is at least one fact which is absolutely true for absolutely everyone. If someone says that it isn't true, he just doesn't understand what the words mean.

Well yes, but can't you reason this way? We have sometimes thought we were certain of things that were absolutely true, and then found out that we were wrong. It's like reaching into a bag and pulling out a red ball; you reach in again, and out comes a red ball; you do this three thousand times, and each time out comes a red ball. But then the next time, you reach in, and you pick out a white one. How can you be sure, now that this has happened, that the next time you reach in, you'll pick out a red one?

And if a person says that knowledge is like that, and even though there's nothing I can think of that would make it possible for "there is something" to be false, something might turn up someday--shouldn't that person's opinion be respected?

In other words, doesn't the "absolute truth" of "there is something" depend on your point of view? If you just look at the statement, then it seems that it's absolutely true for anyone. But if you approach it the way I just did, then it isn't so obvious that it has to be true for everyone.

The fallacy in reasoning this way is not that of begging the question; it is called false analogy.

When you make a mistake about something, you are making a mistake about the object of your knowledge. For instance, you might not realize that the room is lighted with blue lights, and you see a color as purple, and it's really red. Your impression of what the color was was different from what the color was.

But what we're talking about here is a characteristic of your impression of what your impression itself is. If the color seems purple, then you can't be mistaken that it seems purple, because again there's no "medium" between your impression and your impression by which it could be fooled.

So our knowledge of our knowledge itself is not like reaching into a bag and picking out a ball and then looking at it; it is more like what happens when we look at it after we've picked it out. And the analogy falls completely apart if you say that you don't know what color it seems to be when you are looking at it.

What this means is that the person who wants to "save" the absoluteness of relativism by taking some point of view like that and then arguing that because you can take that point of view, it all depends on your point of view, is denying the evidence because he wants his theory of knowledge to be true.

And remember what he's trying to do. He's trying to establish relativism as an absolutely true position. So even as he tries to prove that "everything really does depend on your point of view," he's trying to disprove it; and so if he should ever succeed, he would fail.

2.3. Opinions

Our friend the relativist can't be said to know that everything depends on your point of view.

How could you know something that isn't in fact true? He might think he knows it; but clearly he is mistaken; because if he isn't, he is. So we say that he has an opinion, not knowledge.

He, by the way, would not deny that relativism is an opinion of his. He thinks that there isn't any knowledge, and that everything that anyone thinks he knows is just an opinion.

DEFINITION: An OPINION is something that a person thinks is a fact, without having sufficient evidence that it is a fact.

Some opinions may be true; but this is just accidental, because the person doesn't have enough evidence to be able to know that they are true; he just thinks or believes they are. He may not doubt their truth, but his lack of doubt is subjective certainty, not objective certainty.

You might ask, though, how you can ever have anything but an opinion, because often the person thinks he has sufficient evidence when he doesn't. The relativist, after all, thinks that he has enough evidence that relativism is true--and he's wrong.

First of all, there are immediately evident facts: facts that are characteristics of our knowledge as known by us. Since these facts are self-evident and since it's impossible to be mistaken about them, then you know you have sufficient evidence for knowing their truth.

Then there are necessary implications or presuppositions of these facts. These are things that have to be true or the other fact we know couldn't be true. For instance, it must be true that there is knowledge. It would not make sense to be able to assert that there is something if there weren't such a thing as knowledge.

You could also have sufficient evidence that there is a world "out there" beyond your knowledge if you could show that some immediately evident aspect of your knowledge itself would be impossible unless there was something that it was reacting to. In fact, we will see this in chapters that follow.

So knowledge, as opposed to opinion, ultimately goes back to immediate evidence: either the immediate evidence itself, or something without which the immediate evidence would not be what in fact it is.

2.3.1. Opinion, faith, and testimony

I mentioned earlier that a person who is certain that his opinion is true doesn't know that it's true.

You recall, I said that he only thinks or believes that it's true. It sounds, then, as if faith or belief is only an opinion, and not knowledge.

There is one sense of "belief" which means "opinion"; but this sense is different from other senses, because other senses are based on evidence.

DEFINITION: FAITH or BELIEF is knowledge based on testimony.

DEFINITION: TESTIMONY is a statement of fact by another person.

That is, testimony is a factual statement by another person, where in addition to the contents of the statement itself, the following are conveyed to the hearer: (a) that the person is telling the hearer what he knows is the fact, and not simply issuing an opinion, and (b) the person is not lying.

An ordinary statement by an ordinary person, then, is not testimony; because most statements of "fact" by ordinary people are opinions, and do not necessarily base themselves on sufficient evidence. They may have more or less evidence, but we don't hold people in conversation to strict adherence to what they know.

An ordinary person, of course, can give testimony to something he has knowledge of; as, for example, something that he has seen for himself. We see this happen in court; and this is why "hearsay" is not accepted as evidence in court. The person in "hearsay" is basing his statement on someone else's statement, and it is therefore not known whether that other person was saying what he knew or was merely giving an opinion.

But then why do lawyers spend so much time examining witnesses?

Testimony can be accepted as evidence when there is sufficient evidence that the person knows what he is talking about and is not lying.

That is, you have to have evidence (a) that the person is not making a mistake, and so merely giving an opinion that he thinks is knowledge, and (b) that he isn't trying to deceive you. If either of these two conditions isn't met, then you don't have sufficient evidence for accepting what he says as true. You may accept it, but your acceptance will then be an opinion, not knowledge.

Thus, for instance, a witness may say that he saw the man pull a gun on the other man; but under questioning, it may turn out that what he saw was the gun in the man's hand after the shooting, and concluded that if he had it then, he must have pulled it out beforehand--while the defense may be claiming that in a scuffle, the man got hold of the gun after it was fired. So the person is not telling what he saw, but telling what "must have happened" based on what he considers a reasonable interpretation of what he saw.

Or again, it might be that the man claims that he saw the gun in the person's hand before the shooting, and you find out under examination that the witness is the dead man's brother-in-law. He would then have a reason for hating the person who was responsible for his death, and this would be a reason for lying. Thus, his testimony is suspect.

Notice that an expert witness is presumed to be able to distinguish between opinion and knowledge, and so examination of such a witness is generally confined to two areas: that of clarifying the meaning of what he is saying, and that of establishing that he has no personal interest in the case (any bias), which would make him consciously or unconsciously "slant" his testimony in a given direction.

Given evidence that the witness knows what he is talking about and is not lying, then a person who uses his testimony has knowledge and not an opinion.

Students in a class, for instance, are basically basing what they get out of the course on testimony. Even if the professor presents evidence (as, for example, I am presenting in this book), the student ultimately must take his word for it (a) that the professor knows the relevant evidence in the area that he is teaching, (b) that the professor has not hidden evidence which would invalidate his conclusion, and (c) that the professor is not falsifying the evidence he presents.

The student is not in a position to be able to evaluate what the professor says against the evidence available in the field. If he were, he could teach the course himself. Hence, even though the professor presents evidence, the student's knowledge is not really based on the evidence presented, but on the evidence coupled with the testimony of the professor that this evidence is sufficient to establish the conclusion.

Students who do not realize this are apt to disbelieve what the professor says, because in a given instance they know some fact that the professor has not mentioned, and assume that because he has not mentioned it, he either does not know it or has not taken it into account. This might be the case; but it might also be true that the professor is well aware of this difficulty, but knows that it is not relevant to the point at issue and to bring it up would only create confusion in the minds of the students.

For a student in this situation not to bring up the difficulty to the professor (either in class or out of it) is for him to degrade the knowledge he might have to the status of a mere opinion.

The reason for this is that he either takes the professor's word for it, but doubts whether the professor knows the fact in his possession, and thus has no sufficient knowledge of the validity of the professor's testimony, or he doubts the professor's word, based on his not mentioning the fact, assuming that he didn't mention it because he didn't know it, when there are many other reasons why a professor might not say everything he knows.

Now it is certainly true that professors are not omniscient, even in their own fields; and there are facts that a student might have that the professor might not know, and which might be relevant to his conclusion.

For a student not to present these facts to the professor is for him to do a disservice not only to his own knowledge, but to the other students, to knowledge in general, and to the professor himself.

If the professor resents this, then that's the professor's problem. Of course, presenting the fact as "You're wrong, Professor, because..." invites resentment and a putdown. However, if you say, "You didn't mention...; is this relevant?" your difficulty is generally welcomed.

But to back up to how you know the professor is trustworthy, how do you get evidence that the professor knows his subject and is not withholding evidence or slanting it?

A student's basic evidence of the professor's knowledge and integrity is the evidence of the quality of the school itself.

It's unfortunately not all that hard to fool students into thinking that you know a subject when you don't. Anyone who's clever enough can fake the clues the students use in class. It's assumed, for instance, that if the professor occasionally admits ignorance, then he knows what he's talking about the rest of the time; or if he answers questions directly and doesn't beat around the bush, then he must know his subject (but direct answers can be made up, and don't have to be based on knowledge)--and so on. So the impression you get is as much an impression of classroom technique as it is of knowledge of the subject. It's no good as evidence.

But people who get out of school and start using what they learned in it find out whether what they learned is what is the case, or whether they were led to think they knew something when their professors actually didn't have a good grasp of the subject. So if the school has a good reputation, then this is good evidence that it has hired people who have given it evidence that they know their fields and are people of integrity; and hence the student has evidence that what he gets taught in such a school will be knowledge and not opinion. Religious faith

A word should be said here about religious faith, because it is somewhat peculiar.

This is not the place for a Theological treatise, so I will just give a sketch of what "faith" means as knowledge based on Christianity and the Catholic dimension of Christianity.

First of all, "faith" in the Christian sense is a gift, not knowledge that one comes to purely on the basis of observable evidence.

Secondly, "faith" in that "gift" sense is as much "trust in the person" as it is "knowledge of a fact." Some sects of Christianity stress more the trust aspect (belief in Jesus), and some stress more the knowledge aspect (faith that the Resurrection actually occurred); but both are dimensions of the same gift, and in fact you can't have one without the other. The opinion, for instance, that Jesus actually did come back to life is not religious faith, however convinced the person might be that it actually happened; similarly a "trust" in Jesus in the sense of a blind affection for him and in the "meaningfulness" without its being at all relevant whether his claim to be God was true, or whether he actually made such a claim--this is not religious faith either.

With that said, religious faith (at least in the Christian sense) is not supposed to be devoid of evidence.

The basic evidence of religious faith, of is the testimony of God. Now this, of course, is absolutely trustworthy evidence, because if there ever was an expert, it is the omniscient God, and if there ever was a person who didn't lie, it is God, who is Truth Itself. Hence, anything God says is certainly true.

The basic problem, once having established that God said something, is what is meant by it. When Jesus said to Peter, "You are petros and on this petra I will build my church," did he (as Catholics claim) use the masculine ending because it would be strange in Greek to call a man a (feminine) rock, or did he (as some Protestants claim) mean that Peter is a "pebble" and on the Rock of himself (i.e. Jesus or the faith or something else) Jesus would build his church?

So, as the bumper-sticker says, "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." is fine, provided you can find out what it was that God actually said.

But that's the other point. What the testimony of God is is based on other evidence besides the revelation itself; because how do you know what counts as revelation?

Is it the Bible? But why these particular books, when there is the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and other "Gospels" that are just as old as the ones in the Bible (in fact, some are older), and yet have not been recognized as "canonical," even though they have been known for centuries?

Further, what is the evidence that the books called the Bible are not themselves fraudulent; that the events they relate as happening actually happened? That is, is the Resurrection of Jesus one of those legendary stories that grew up in ancient times around famous people, the way Odysseus' descent into Hades and his return was a legend dealing with someone who probably really existed; or is it factual?

St. Paul seems to indicate (in 1 Corinthians) that he considers it a factual event that he has eyewitness testimony to. Is he deceived or lying?

There's no way ultimately to settle questions like this to the satisfaction of a religious skeptic. That's why faith ultimately is a gift.

But the evidence dealing with it is a kind of corroboration of it. That is, there are certain things that are difficult (though not impossible) to account for, except based on the factuality of what is related in the "canonical" books. It is rather far-fetched that the fantastic stories, including the Resurrection, should have been held to be factual as little as twenty or thirty years after Jesus died (Think of someone saying today that John Kennedy actually came back to life), if they had not basically happened. This is even more true since the stories dealt with someone who was executed as a disgraced criminal. The manner of presentation of the facts is not really consistent with someone who was making things up to prove a point (e.g. John mentions after the Resurrection that they "knew that it was Jesus" whom they were looking at, "but they did not recognize him."), but of someone reporting what he saw. The fact that the "reporters" were not held in honor but themselves died horrible deaths because they persisted in claiming that these things were facts also is inconsistent with why a person would lie. And so on.

Hence, one could say that there is quite good evidence of the factuality of the basic events reported in the Gospels; but this is not going to give a person religious faith--because for someone to believe these fantastic things which make a difference in his life means for him to change his whole outlook on everything; and this is not humanly possible.

But for the person who has the gift of faith, the knowledge that it brings is true knowledge, not opinion.

It is not simply "belief" or "subjective conviction," let alone an emotional commitment to something irrespective of the facts. It is a certainty that has reason on its side, even though what it believes does not superficially seem "reasonable," and even though the belief is not based basically on reason itself. It is not irrational commitment, but transrational trust in the very Author of reason itself; and though it is not based on reason, it can offer better reasons in its favor than those who disbelieve in it can offer against it.

Religious faith, then, is basically an admission that reason is not ultimate in knowledge. Just as we know self-evident truths without reasoning to them (though we can show reasons for holding them to be self-evident) so there are other truths which can be known, not by reason, but along with reason.

But let us leave religious testimony by God and get back to this-worldly knowledge. We know now that there are absolute truths, and that there is knowledge and not just opinion.

The next question is what the basic laws of knowledge are. We have, of course, already implied them, because it is impossible to know anything without presupposing the laws of thought. It is time to bring them into the open.

Summary of Chapter 2

The apparent open-mindedness of those who claim "everyone has a right to his own opinion" is often only a disguise for closed-mindedness, because, although they will allow others to say or hold whatever they please, they demand that no one try to change their own opinions. The assumption behind this is that no one person's view of the truth is any better than anyone else's opinion.

There can be no real right to hold an opinion, because you a right can be claimed only if it is possible to violate it, and it is not physically possible to prevent anyone from holding an opinion.

Relativism, that every truth depends on the point of view of the person who holds it, stems from Protagoras around 400 B. C., who held that what we know is basically our reaction to the world, not the world itself; and no one's reaction is any better than anyone else's.

But relativism contradicts itself, because it takes it that "nothing is absolutely true for everyone" (the relativist position) is absolutely true for everyone.

But the fact that there is no point of view from which "There is something" could be false (because the point of view is something) shows that there are facts we know which are independent of who knows them or what point of view he takes. There are absolute truths.

The fact that we have sometimes been mistaken does not mean that we can be mistaken about our knowledge itself.

An opinion is something a person thinks is a fact without having sufficient evidence for it. It is not knowledge. Knowledge ultimately bases itself on immediate evidence. What is known is either immediately evident, or something which must be true or the immediately evident fact would be false. Everything else is opinion.

Faith or belief is knowledge based on testimony, a statement of fact by another person. Testimony is evidence when there is evidence that the person making the statement (a) knows what he is talking about and (b) is not lying. Most knowledge gained in school is based on testimony from the professor.

Religious faith bases itself on what God (who knows everything and never lies) said. Hence, if there is evidence that God in fact said something, it is certain. The problem is with whether God said it and what it means; and this rests on the evidence of testimony of the witnesses of the statements. Since what God allegedly said has drastic implications about the way we are to live, help from God is needed as a gift to overcome our biases and see the evidence objectively. This is why religious faith is a gift, not because it is irrational.