Consider the following claim: every statement is either true or false. Though it may sound counter-intuitive, I think this claim is correct, and I also think that the implications of taking it seriously threaten much of what we hold as valid in our discourse. Simply put: I think that we tend to fail to treat claims we think of as opinions with the degree of scrutiny they deserve, as we usually conceptualize opinions as possessing a type of sanctity which, on close inspection, reveals itself as unwarranted. We respond to opinions differently than we respond to facts; many of us believe the cliché that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” but simultaneously think that people can be simply wrong about matters of fact. As such, we imagine that there exists two distinct categories of understanding, one of which is immune to the skepticism with which we routinely consider the other. In reality, there exists no such distinction. Even claims that we strongly intuit as being matters of opinion deserve treatment no different than that we give to facts. I write this post because I think that understanding the fundamental nature of our claims about reality is deeply consequential, and excising the false belief about the differences between opinion claims and fact claims has a transformative and enlightening effect on our thinking and our conversations.
Truth and Untruth
For the sake of clarity, I will define what I mean by the terms I use in my argument. By a “claim,” I mean any self-contained descriptive utterance composed of contingent elements. A claim can include other claims in its composition, but modifying the claim causes it to become a different claim entirely. (For example: the claim “it’s cold and it’s raining,” while including the claims “it’s cold” and “it’s raining,” is a different claim from either of these, such that if at least one of the latter two claims is false then the first claim is necessarily false as well.) And by contingent elements, I mean that the parts of a claim need to have some logical relationship with each other. (For example: someone who says “It’s cold. It’s raining.” is making two separate claims.) And by “true,” I refer to that which is, and by “false,” I refer to that which is not. An essential property of truth is that it is that which allows the formation of beliefs which allow for the correct predictions of the outcomes of events.
In our usual ways of conversation and thinking, we tend to blur the distinction between truth and falsehoods by imagining that these qualities exist on a spectrum, such that some truthful claims can be more true than other truthful claims. We do so by a variety of methods: we consider claims that are composed of a mixture of true and false claims as less true than claims that are composed of only true claims; we consider claims that we are uncertain of as less true than claims that we are certain of; we consider claims that include ambiguous language as less true than claims that do not; and we consider claims about a person’s opinion less true than claims about matters of fact. In actuality, all of these methods for understanding the truthfulness of claims are erroneous. There is no spectrum of truthfulness; rather, true and false are binary opposites, incapable of mixing. This is because, by definition, that which is cannot also be that which is not.
Remember the example I used in the paragraph before the last one. Let’s assume that it is true that it is raining, but it is not true that it is cold out. (For simplicity’s sake, we’ll define “cold” as “below fifty degrees Fahrenheit.”) We may think that, under these circumstances, the claim “it’s raining” is more true than the claim “it’s raining and it’s cold outside,” but that the latter claim is still somewhat true, as it contains a true claim within it. However, we must not forget to take into consideration the function of the word “and” as a logical operator in this claim. When we combine the claims “it’s raining” and “it’s cold outside,” using the word “and,” we are creating a new claim: “it’s raining and it’s cold outside,” which, given the assumptions I described, is false. By the same token, the claim “it’s raining or it’s cold outside” would be true. Of course, this is a basic principle of logic, but it’s important to keep in mind when we discuss the nature of truth.
Think about these two claims: “it is raining,” and “it will rain tomorrow.” Naturally, we may be inclined to consider the truthfulness of the first claim in absolutes, as it either is raining or it is not raining, and we can check by simply looking out the window. The second claim, however, concerns a situation that we cannot possibly know to be true or false in the moment in which we utter it. Even if we are very confident in the accuracy of the weather forecast, it’s always possible that something unexpected will happen in the future, as we can’t possibly know the entire chain of events that lead to future situations. As such, we are inclined to believe that the claim that “it will rain tomorrow” is less true than the claim that “it is raining.”
But, in order to understand the nature of these claims correctly, we need to consider exactly what it means to say that “it will rain tomorrow.” Even if the speaker of this claim has absolutely no idea about tomorrow’s weather, it either is or is not the case that tomorrow there will be rain. Although we don’t know whether or not the speaker’s claim is accurate when he or she utters it, we will find out eventually whether it was true or false. We might think that, as we don’t know the answer to the question, “will it rain tomorrow?” the claim “it will rain tomorrow” exists in a state between true or false; however, our lack of knowledge about whether a claim is true or false is not sufficient evidence to suggest the claim is neither. For the same reason, I can’t possibly know the answer to the question, “how many grains of sand are there on Earth?”, but I do know that there is one correct answer to this question, and that every other answer to this question is false. There are several claims that are so difficult to prove that we are inclined to think that it is impossible to know whether they are true or false, like the claim “it will snow in New York City on January 1st, 3000.” Because none of us have any way of knowing whether this claim is true, we may think that it is neither true or false. In reality, this is either a true claim or a false claim, but we simply don’t know which is the case.
You may think that claims such as “there is a seventy percent chance that it will rain tomorrow,” are exceptions, as they seem to have a degree of untruth built into them. But they are not. Percentages are a matter of statistics, which is a field of mathematics. It either is or is not the case that there is a seventy percent chance that it will rain tomorrow, as we arrive at this number by a statistical method.
Some claims feature ambiguous language, and as a result, we can make strong arguments in favor of both the truthfulness and the falsehood of a claim depending upon our interpretations of the language. For example, I might look at a five-hundred foot tall building and claim, “this building is very tall.” Of course, “very tall” can mean different things to different people; what is the difference between “tall” and “very tall?” You could make the argument that the building in question is “very tall,” as it is taller than most of the buildings in the world, and with seemingly equal validity, you could make the argument that the building is not “very tall,” as it is shorter than most of the other buildings in the city in which it is located. As a result, it seems intuitive to us to say that the claim, “this building is very tall,” is less true than the claim, “this building is five hundred feet tall.”
However, this apparent quality of one claim being less true than the other arises not as a consequence of an inherent characteristic of the claim itself, but rather as a consequence of the inexact nature of our language. It’s important to keep in mind that, although we depend upon language for the transmission of ideas from one person to another, sentences do not actually have any meaning on their own; rather, they acquire meaning by the process of interpretation. If every conscious being suddenly vanished from the universe tomorrow, all of the texts produced by mankind would suddenly be rendered meaningless, as there would be no one around to give them meaning, and they would amount to nothing more than scribbles on pages. (That being said, if we make the rather commonplace assumption that there exists a reality independent of our interpretation of it, the claims that would be made by these texts, as they would be interpreted by a conscious being, would continue to either be true or false.) As such, the definitions of words only matter insofar as speaker and listener agree upon the definition in question.
If a claim is communicated successfully, the listener’s interpretation of the claim will be exactly the same as the speaker’s interpretation of the claim. (As an example of a claim that is likely to be communicated successfully, think of the claim “two plus two equals four.” If you understand English, it’s very likely that you and I understand by this utterance exactly the same claim, and we both perceive it as undoubtedly true.) And so, in order for an utterance to be a claim, something must be meant by the words used to form the claim; whether I realize it or not, if I refer to the building as “very tall,” I must mean something in particular by the use of the phrase “very tall.” Generally, when we say that something is “very tall,” we really mean to say something to the effect of “my perception of this object is that it is very tall” rather than mentally defining the quality of being “very tall” as above a certain height. As such, if we interpret the claim “this building is very tall” as equivalent to the claim “I perceive this building to be very tall,” as it is likely to have been intended to mean, it becomes clear that this claim is either true or false.
As a matter of fact, whether we realize it or not, many of the claims that we phrase as representative of reality are in fact claims about our subjective relationship with reality. (Again, for the sake of argument, let’s operate under the widely agreed-upon and useful assumption that a reality exists outside of our perception of it which functions basically as we perceive it to. We don’t have to do this, but it’s useful for illustrating a point.) Imagine that you and I watch the same movie; after watching it, I claim that the movie is good, and you claim that the movie is bad. Which one of us is right? Clearly, the movie cannot be both good and bad. The answer is that, assuming that neither of us are lying about how we felt about the movie, both statements are true. This is because, as many of us intuitively recognize, when we describe something as good or bad, we are merely referring to our personal thoughts. Normally, when I make the claim “the movie is good,” I could substitute the claim “I like the movie” and the meaning would be the same. In everyday life, when we say that something is good or bad, we are really just using the verb “to be” loosely. The movie in question is neither good or bad by itself, but rather acquires these properties when a person views it; as such, the words “good” and “bad” in this case characterize the effect of the relationship between a thing and a conscious being.
We use “to be” in this way more often than we may be aware. If I claim that grass is green, and I am operating under the assumption that the universe really is how it is perceived, then I am making a claim about an object that is independent of my observation of it. But if I claim that a mountain is breathtaking, I am describing my relationship with something that exists in the real world, even though I am ostensibly using the word “is” to describe a characteristic of the mountain. We do this every day: “gas is cheap;” “the food was delicious;” “the car is slow.”
Of course, in light of this information, we are not obligated to get rid of this habit of using the word “is” in this way. Words are just words; as long as we agree about what they mean, we can use them however we like. As such, we can continue to apply adjectives to things in the real world that describe our personal relationship with them. But, if we wish to have an accurate understanding of our claims, we must not confuse this practice with making a claim about the object itself.
We are inclined to call claims that use language in this way “opinions.” But doing so invites the presumption of a distinction between claims in which we describe our relationships with objects and claims in which we describe the inherent qualities of objects. When it comes to identifying truth and falsehoods, there is no such distinction: so-called “opinions” can be wrong in the same way that statements of fact can be if, for example, the person stating their “opinion” is being dishonest. In this way, I think it’s not particularly useful to invoke the concept of “opinions” when we consider the validity of each other’s claims.
Why it Matters
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that this is all a bunch of pseudo-philosophical navel-gazing without practical application. On a certain level, I think that many of us already accept the basic elements of my argument, although we don’t consciously acknowledge it. But I think that applying all of this philosophizing to our way of thinking in everyday life is a useful practice and can be instructive in illuminating our own beliefs, even ones we didn’t know we had, and give us a more secure sense of confidence in the validity of our thoughts. This is because, when we accept that the things people say are either right or wrong, we ask more interesting and incisive questions to ourselves and to others. In our attempts to answer these questions, we learn things, oftentimes very consequential, about how to interpret the information we receive in our lives.
Think about how you, or the people you know, tend to process information about others’ views on politics. Many of us would intuitively suggest that the facts about political questions should be agreed upon, but answers to the questions of what should be done are a matter of personal preference. If we accept, however, that claims are either true or false, we come to realize that every statement concerning politics is either true or false, regardless of whether these statements concern what is the case or what should be done about political problems.
Take, for example, the issue of climate change. Many of us, particularly those of us who are liberals, believe absolutely that anthropogenic climate change is really happening, but are less absolute in our beliefs about the objective truthfulness of a solution to a problem. The latter domain, we tend to believe, is a matter about which the truth is fuzzier than the truth about whether climate change is real. However, because no one true claim is any more true than any other true claim, the solution to the problem of how best to address climate change, although we don’t know what it is, is as true as the answer to the question of whether climate change exists. Considering the solutions to political problems under this framework helps to sharpen our thinking and augment our understanding.
As another example, imagine a conservative father who, after learning that his son is gay, changes his mind about whether same-sex marriage should be legal. While many of us, especially those of us with personality traits high in agreeableness, may consider this change of perspective to be heartwarming, it is important to keep in mind that the answer to the question of whether or not same-sex marriage should be legal has to be either yes or no; as such, this hypothetical father’s rationale for changing his mind is as illegitimate as whatever attitude influenced his prior view. If we are to take seriously the notion that truthful answers to political questions exist, we are obligated to understand that the answers to these questions ought not to depend upon a person’s individual life experience or preferences. As such, we should treat political attitudes formed on the basis of anecdotal or emotional events with a healthy dose of skepticism, and tend to prefer political attitudes formed on the basis of an interest in objective truth.
Newspapers will oftentimes make a clear distinction between articles that are intended to present the truth and articles that are intended to be understood as opinion. While it can be helpful to recognize the difference in tone between these two sections, the division between so-called “objective” journalism and “opinion” journalism invites that suggestion that the latter category shouldn’t be subject to the same level of scrutiny as the former category. But if we understand that so-called “opinion” pieces are either right or wrong, we hold the articles written in this section to a higher standard than we would if we were to assume that such articles were less capable of being true. As “opinions” are as true or false as “facts” are, we should treat both kinds of articles with the same level of seriousness.
Thinking about claims in terms of absolute truthfulness or falsehood is also useful in our interrogations of our own beliefs. As I previously mentioned, we should be skeptical of our political beliefs that are informed by personal experience. Additionally, thinking objectively about truth in politics allows us to come to the realization that the self-administration of political labels is not particularly useful. If the only thing that we care about in politics is what is true and what is false, we lose the desire to self-identify as liberal, conservative, libertarian, or any other categorization. Rather, we assert that our only obligation is to the truth, and that our political perspectives, insofar as we are aware of them, are formulated on the basis of the truth, not because we subscribe to any particular political philosophy or ideology. Doing so frees us of much of the tribalistic ideological baggage attached to political labels, as we are no longer compelled to hold beliefs on the basis of a group identity, nor defend the beliefs of those with whom we identify on the basis of the fact that we identify with them. When we care only about truth, we realize that labeling ourselves politically does nothing but harm.
Additionally, when we embrace the realization that claims are either true or false and employ this realization in the formulation of our attitudes, we can speak more confidently about what we believe. Many of us are compelled to precede our statements of what we think of as opinions with “I think…,” or “from my perspective…” or some other phrase that attaches doubt to our claims. If we formulate our beliefs on the basis of what we think of as true, we realize that the practice of attaching doubt-inducing phrases to our assertions is pointless. Instead, we can simply assert as true that which we believe, which is a more direct, concise, and persuasive habit. When we realize that we mean exactly the same thing by “I think we should all go to the party,” and “we should all go to the party,” we find that the latter sort of phrase is preferable.
In all of these examples, we have used the framework of consideration of truth to more precisely evaluate claims. When we understand that claims that describe the qualities of things are really not about the things themselves, but rather about the speaker’s personal attitudes concerning these things, we develop a better idea of what is actually being communicated and what the words we use really mean. When we refuse to grant any particular privilege to the claims that strike us as belonging to the domain of “opinion,” we expand the extent to which we are capable of examining the validity of what others express. And when we apply this framework inward, to our own attitudes and beliefs, we develop a view of the world that is more clear, precise, and in which we can be more confident.