Yesterday, I posted a quote from the Buddhist philosopher, Buddhaghosa, in which he said that there are deeds but no doer. This is the classical Buddhist position of anatta— the doctrine of no self (or no soul). Someone responded to my post. He quoted Mohammad Ali who said: “It’s all a matter of opinion. You have yours and I have mine.”
I can understand that if we are talking about music or food preferences, it can be a subjective matter. But is everything just a matter of opinion? There is also a similar quote, attributed to Marcus Aurelius : “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” It is supposed to be a quote from his book, Meditations. But I cannot verify. I have no problem with this notion that everything we hear is just an opinion and not a fact. Even 2500 years ago, the Buddha advised the people of Kalama against simply believing in hearsay. There ought to be a healthy sense of skepticism. Something that we hear does not have to remain simply an opinion either. We can do our best to verify the truth of it.
The bottom line is that some things we hear are opinions. But not all of them. Just think about it a little bit — if every statement is just an opinion, then how do we function in the practical world? How do we settle disputes? On what basis should the courts rule? How could science function? It seems to me to be a case of intellectual nihilism to me. A civil society cannot be built in this manner, since there would be no basis for reaching a consensus. Essentially, we would be denying the existence of objective truth. In addition, the notion that everything is a matter of opinion encourages intellectual laziness and discourages a sincere debate. Are we just going to let anybody say anything s/he wants? With that attitude, there will certainly be no science or scholarly research. Science is always based on the battle of competing claims. The claim that wins in a debate, based on reason and evidence, will become the current dominant theory. Is the Coronavirus airborne? Different people can make different claims. Eventually, however, if you want others to believe in your claim, you will have to substantiate it with empirical evidence. You may have the freedom to make any claim you want. But what good would it do you if you lack credibility? Credibility is not cheap. It has to be earned.
Finally, the notion that everything is just an opinion contains self-contradiction. If it is indeed so, then is this idea that “everything is an opinion” itself an opinion? If it is, then why should we assign any special significance to it? After all, anybody can have an opinion.
It is clear to me that people who say that a certain statement is “just an opinion” typically try to dismiss its authority. They are dissenters who have an alternative belief, but perhaps they do not have what it takes to refute the statement in question and advance their own idea. By saying that everything is just an opinion, they try to create the impression that all statements are equally valid and have equal value. Thus, no one needs to defer to another. But is this so? If you have contracted a disease, would you seek advice from just anybody, or would you seek advice from someone who has undergone years of medical training and is an expert in this particular disease?
We do live in an age where the dissemination of information has been democratized. Three years ago, author Tom Nichols published a book titled The Death of Expertise. His thesis is that in an Internet age where everyone can published his opinion online through social media, the authority of established knowledge and expert opinion will be eroded. Over a decade earlier, Andrew Keen published a book in 2007 titled The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture. This is prescient. It anticipated Donald Trump’s world of “alternative reality” and the current war of conspiracy theories. We are living in an epistemological anarchy.
This “democracy of knowledge” is actually a curse to our society because one does not have to be well-educated to have one’s opinion heard and widely circulated. Yes, the cult of the amateur is killing our culture. Worse, it may even be civilization-ending. In our current age of pandemic and political turmoil, we no longer have a commonly recognized source of legitimate knowledge. As we speak, the White House is fighting with Dr. Fauci as to what has to be done to contain the Coronavirus. The common citizens are arguing with each other, often angrily, as to whether wearing face masks is effective in preventing the spread of the pandemic. They also argue whether facing such masks should be a requirement.
We are living through a “perfect storm” where the forces of anti-intellectualism, democratization of information access and partisan attack on expert knowledge come together to create an environment of informational chaos, right at the time when we need reliable information to fight a modern plague. What we find is that, interestingly, “freedom of expression” does not help our chance of survival. Equal opportunity to access and disseminate information does not help either. What is needed is to re-establish a sense of epistemological order and authority. Not all opinions are equally sound or credible. Can this be done? I am not sure. Perhaps we have gone too far into the extreme that there is no turning back.
At least in scientific and medical matters which can potentially be empirically verified, not all claims are just one opinion versus another. In particular, the claim about the effectiveness of wearing face masks in offering protection against the Coronavirus can be tested through a study or experiment. That is why we have scientific methods in the first place. The application of scientific methods can separate the wheat from the chaff. This is why the anti-science attitude is so toxic. We need science today, more than ever in human history. The only bulwark we have against barbarism is science now.