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What’s the Difference Between Fact and Opinion?

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NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his own blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.


A reader wrote me to ask:

"Please could you elucidate the distinction between a fact and an opinion? I am a secondary school English teacher and there is a lot of rubbish written on this part of the curriculum that would lead to such absurdities as, for example, the atomic weight of sodium is a fact, but the proposition 'raping babies is wrong' is merely an opinion."

The manner in which “fact” is commonly pitted against “opinion” seems to rest on multiple confusions. In particular, it seems to rest, in part and in several ways, on a failure to take note of the distinction between metaphysical questions and epistemological questions. It also seems to rest in part on a rather crude and dogmatic application of the so-called “fact/value distinction”—a distinction that is, where ethics is concerned, dubious in any event. Finally, it often seems to rest as well on a failure to distinguish science from scientism.

Let’s walk through this. When people say that such-and-such a claim about sodium (for example) is a “fact,” it seems pretty clear that part of what they mean is that it is objectively true that sodium is that way. That is to say, that sodium has such-and-such chemical properties is a state of affairs that holds completely independently from human convention or subjective tastes. It seems that another part of what they mean, though, is that this objective truth about sodium has been discovered by means of unimpeachable evidence, airtight scientific arguments, and so forth. These two claims are of logically distinct types. The first is a claim about the way the world is—all it a metaphysical claim—while the second is a claim about how we know about the way the world is—call it an epistemological claim. And this difference entails a corresponding difference between two different senses of the word “fact”:

Fact (1): an objective state of affairs

Fact (2): a state of affairs known via conclusive arguments, airtight evidence, etc.

In the same way, when people say that such-and-such is “a matter of opinion,” it seems clear that what they mean, in part, is that it concerns something that is not known via conclusive arguments based on airtight evidence, etc. but is at best believed in on the basis of controversial arguments. But it seems that they also at least sometimes mean that it not a claim that could be objectively true in any event—that its truth could only ever be a matter of convention or subjective taste. Here too we have claims of two logically different types, where the first is an epistemological claim and the second a metaphysical one. And as with “fact,” we need therefore to distinguish between two senses of the expression “matter of opinion”:

Matter of opinion (1): a state of affairs determined entirely by human convention or taste, about which no objective claims can be made

Matter of opinion (2): a state of affairs not known via conclusive arguments, unimpeachable evidence, etc., but at best believed in on the basis of controversial arguments

Now part of the problem with most “fact versus opinion” talk is that the people who engage in it do not make these distinctions. One result of this is that they fallaciously assume that if something is a matter of controversy, then there must be no objective fact of the matter about it—that is to say, that if it is a Matter of opinion (2) then it must therefore be a Matter of opinion (1) and therefore must not be a Fact (1). That this is muddleheaded should be obvious from the following example:

"The existence of Pluto is a “fact” in both of the senses we have distinguished. But though it was always a Fact (1), it was not always a Fact (2), for Pluto’s existence was of course not known for most of human history. More to the present point, during the period in which there was debate over what the relevant observations really showed, the existence of Pluto, though still (as it turns out) a Fact (1), was not a Fact (2) but only a Matter of opinion (2)."

In general, it is perfectly possible for something to be a “fact” in the first sense but not in the second sense, and therefore perfectly possible for it to be a “fact” in the first sense and at the same time a “matter of opinion,” in the second sense of that expression. It is also, for that matter, possible for something to be a Matter of opinion (1) but a Fact (2). For example, that the speed limit on most highways in California is 65 MPH is a matter of human convention, and that my favorite Scotch is Laphroaig is a matter of taste. But someone could easily acquire airtight evidence that these things are so.

So, that is one problem with most talk about fact versus opinion—it fails to make these crucial distinctions between metaphysical vs. epistemological senses of the relevant terms. But there are other problems too. Precisely because people fallaciously infer from something’s being a matter of controversy to the conclusion that there must be no objective truth about it, they tend to fall for a rather crude version of the “fact/value distinction.” They conclude that, since people disagree about morality, morality must be entirely subjective, so that even judgments like “Raping babies is wrong” must be true only as a matter of taste or convention. We all agree about “facts” but don’t all agree about morality, therefore (so the "reasoning” goes) morality must be a matter of mere “opinion” rather than “fact.” Once we make the distinctions noted above, the fallaciousness of this “reasoning” becomes obvious. And as I show in my essay on classical natural law theory and property rights, there is ample reason to reject the fact/value distinction in any case.

Finally, as the example my reader gives suggests, there also seems to be a tendency to think that what is “factual” is what can be established by means of empirical science, so that what cannot be established in that way must be merely a “matter of opinion.” The scientism implicit in this tendency is difficult to justify even when endorsed by professional philosophers. In the thinking of the average non-professional who casually pits scientific “fact” against non-scientific “opinion,” it is nothing more than a prejudice picked up from the surrounding culture. Certainly it embodies no actual rational basis for rejecting the possibility that solid philosophical arguments can rationally justify moral, aesthetic, and theological claims—thus showing such claims to be entirely “factual” in both senses of the term even if one agrees that they are not the sorts of claims which could be established on empirical scientific grounds.

In summary, then, there seem to be four errors underlying the common tendency to pit fact against opinion, to identify the former with science, and to relegate moral judgments and the like to the latter category. First, it fails to distinguish the relevant two senses of “fact.” Second, it fails to distinguish the two relevant senses of “opinion.” Third, it unjustifiably assimilates moral and other value judgments to “matters of opinion” in the first sense we distinguished. And fourth, it unjustifiably assimilates “facts” in both senses of the term to scientific facts. When we clear up all these errors, we can see that a great deal of what is said in the name of fact versus opinion is, as my reader puts it, “rubbish.”
Originally posed at Edward Feser's blog. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Liechty Buffalo Ranch)

Dr. Edward Feser

Written by

Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

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  • Peter Piper

    Bravo! Both important and well explained.

  • 42Oolon

    Ya good. I think it can be much simplified. Facts are the objective properties of reality. Opinions are what we think we know about facts.

    Fact: the properties of sodium, Your favorite colour.

    Opinion: what we think the properties of sodium are. What I think your favorite colour is.

    We may be wrong about all of our opinions, but facts can never be wrong. We may have very good logical reasons for some opinions, like the melting point of sodium, but we can never be sure that these opinions perfectly match reality.

    • 42Oolon

      "properties of reality" may be a bad way of describing this. Maybe objective truth is better.

    • We may be wrong about all of our opinions, but facts can never be wrong.

      The difference between fact and opinion is that if I say something, it is a fact, whereas if people disagree with me, it's just their opinion. :-)
      (I had thought of saying, "If Edward Feser says something, it is a fact, and if you disagree, it's an opinion," but I thought better of it.)

      I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense to say a fact can never be wrong, but we can certainly be wrong about what is and is not a fact, so practically speaking, we are still left to our own devices to separate fact from opinion. I think most of us who argue here believe we are largely dealing in factual matters, and yet we disagree with each other a great deal of the time.

      • 42Oolon

        "practically speaking, we are still left to our own devices to separate fact from opinion."

        We will always be discussing our opinions on facts. Better framed as: we are left to our own devices to determine which opinions are the best representations of facts.

        We are certainly dealing with determining what are the best opinions about certain alleged facts.

        This is all very technical and I doubt we would be able to sustain this distinction in this forum.

  • Theologian Frank Sheed liked to break-up reality into two parts, physical reality and spiritual reality. Morality would be part of spiritual reality. Things like moral law and/or natural law are like physical laws in that they are fixed and unchangeable regardless of your opinion about them.

    Physical Example: The law of gravity will pull you down regardless of your opinions about it or how your “feel” about it. We don’t really break the law of gravity; it breaks us.

    Spiritual example: Abortion is immoral regardless of your opinions about it or how you “feel” about it. We don’t really break moral law; it breaks us.

  • A major question, however, is how do you establish as factual or nonfactual statements such as the following:

    Gambling is immoral.
    Dancing is immoral.
    Slavery is immoral.
    Drinking alcohol is immoral.
    Abortion is immoral.
    Murder is immoral.
    Sex outside of marriage is immoral.
    Same-sex sexual behavior is immoral.
    Stealing is immoral.
    Pornography is immoral.
    Loaning money at interest is immoral.

    Most people here would agree with many of those statements, but many would disagree with some. How do we know which, if any, are statements of fact?

    • 42Oolon

      Well I would certainly not agree with all of these statements. We can bring support for these opinions but we can never know if they truly represent facts in the technical sense.

      • But wouldn't Feser say that some of the statements above are facts and can be known to be facts? Isn't that a significant aspect of the point he is trying to make?

        • 42Oolon

          Depends what you mean by "known", I do not see how he can get around the problem of induction to say we know any facts with certainty. That is why, technically, we should say we have levels of confidence in what the facts are.

        • ziad

          Catholics believe in Natural Law, and also believe that all humans, through reason, can attain the truth from Natural Law.

          We know for example, the Killing of the innocent is immoral because we are taking away the right to life for someone who never did anything wrong. Every person has the human dignity.

          We know Pornography is immoral because it objectifies our brothers and sisters and makes them means for enjoyment.

          Dancing, in the general sense, is NOT immoral because it does not hurt anyone. "Dirty" dancing is immoral because it is not chaste and can lead to lust, which is immoral.

          • Catholics believe in Natural Law, and also believe that all humans, through reason, can attain the truth from Natural Law.

            This I understand. My question is how do you demonstrate that a statement in the form "X is immoral" or "X violates natural law" is a fact? We can establish the factual nature of the properties of sodium using the scientific method. How can we establish the factual nature of moral statements? And how do we account for Christianity not condemning slavery from the outset, but eventually determining that "slavery is immoral" is a fact, or condemning loaning money at interest (usury) as immoral in the past (as the Bible does) but now not objecting to it?

          • ziad

            As I mentioned, we do that through reason.Somethings to consider when looking at moral issues:
            1) is it in direct harm to others?
            2) is it in direct harm to self?

            If the answer is yes to either, then it is immoral

            Note: these two points may not be the only criteria to judge moral issues, but at least majority of issues can be considered. I am not a theologian or apologist by any stretch of imagination. I am only a Catholic trying to discover little by little the teaching of the church :)

          • 1) is it in direct harm to others?
            2) is it in direct harm to self?

            If the answer is yes to either, then it is immoral

            Suppose an elderly married couple is in an automobile accident, the wife is killed, and the husband is in very serious condition. The doctors advise against telling the husband that the wife has died until he has had time to gain some strength. If he is able to ask if his wife is alive, and telling him she is dead might kill him, is it a lie (and a sin) to mislead him into thinking the wife is still alive?

            If a wife asks, "Does this dress make me look fat?" (and it does), should a husband say, "Yes"? Or should he tell a little white lie to avoid hurting his (fat) wife's feelings?

            Aren't a great many lies not only told to avoid hurting someone, but actually succeed in doing so?

            Also, many people feel that masturbation is quite normal and healthy, especially for adolescents, but according to Catholicism, it is a mortal sin. If we ask why is it wrong, and what is the harm, the answer is often, "The person harms himself or herself by committing a sin." But there, the argument that masturbation is harmful is really just an argument that a person harms himself or herself by doing something wrong. The argument does not demonstrate harm, it assumes harm.

          • Linda

            Masturbation is sinful because it leaves out the spouse and the shared love that is part of "the marital embrace" (as they teach it in the Catholic schools). The person is (probably) having lustful thoughts about someone else, and is being indulgent, allowing themselves to be controlled by their physical desires instead of treating themselves with dignity and self respect.

          • 42Oolon

            What is wrong with pre-marital masturbation? Or if a married couple does it together or when they are separated.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Check out my reply to DN right below this comment for an answer to your question.

          • Gabriel

            is being indulgent,
            Why is wrong to be indulgent?

          • Gabriel

            themselves to be controlled by their physical desires instead of treating themselves with dignity and self respect
            And this is wrong because...

          • Kevin Aldrich

            According to Catholicism, masturbation is a seriously or gravely wrong act. It is a mortal sin if done with full knowledge and consent. It should not be flatly assumed that every act of masturbation is a a moral sin.

            Why masturbation is wrong is a separate question which you set to the side so I'll do the same.

            So, how does masturbation harm one? When done with full knowledge and consent, it is a rejection of the objective moral order God has placed in that person's human nature and so it is also a rejection of God. That is the gravest harm.

            Another harm is that the person usually has to objectify another person as the mental object thought about while masturbating. You become the kind of person who thinks of others as objects to be used.

            Another harm is the building of the vice of intemperance which (according to Pieper and Aquinas) deeply wounds the essential virtue of prudence.

          • Gabriel

            You become the kind of person who thinks of others as objects to be used
            And this is wrong because...

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Things are to be used. Never persons. People who use others for their own amusement or gain are rats (no intention to besmirch the good name of rodents, thought).

          • Gabriel

            What if they consents to be used and they get pleasure from this thing?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Different people get pleasure from all sorts of things. Pleasure is not the measure of good. A man can get pleasure out of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day but it is not good for him.

          • Gabriel

            Objective moral order
            But there is no such thing as objective morality.Morality is just an opinion which exists only in the mind of a person ,so is by definition subjective.If God is a subject ,then his morality is subjective.So you can have objective order ,but to call this order moral is a subjective opinion ,not a fact.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Subjective can mean "in a subject" (as in a person) or it can mean mere "opinion." Objective, on the other hand, means independent of one's opinion. In this sense, truth is an agreement between one's judgment (opinion) and reality.

            But if you want to hold to your view, then your job is never again to complain about any injustice or harm someone does to anyone, because their opinion is just as valid as yours.

          • ziad

            There is a saying in arabic (not sure if there is a similar one in English) that says the rope of the lie is short. This means that the truth will be known. There is prob some legal thing that would prevent the doc from lying (not sure though) but either way the old man will ask to see her or talk to her on the phone to ensure she is ok. What would happen then? Doctors should tell it as it is (in my opinion).

            As for the husband lying to his wife, that is also harmful because she obviously cares about how she looks and if the dress is not flattering for her, it is better to tell her than to embarrass herself. The reason why women get agitated at the truth is because they have low self esteem, and lying to them does not help them heel that either. But telling them with gentle manner and explaining that that does not change how you see her as a woman and help embrace her self esteem is the right thing to do.

            I will not comment on the issue of masturbation, since I do not have much information to share. But here is what the catechism says about it

            Para 2352: "...For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved."

            May be someone else can comment on that :)

          • 42Oolon

            Ziad "1) is it in direct harm to others?
            2) is it in direct harm to self?

            If the answer is yes to either, then it is immoral"

            This is incomplete but utterly secular morality. Good for you!

          • ziad

            My note suggest that these prob are not the only criteria to judge moral issues ;)

            This is why as Catholics we say Natural Law can be arrived to through reason alone. It makes sense. I understand that some religions do not see anything wrong with their religion being opposed to reason (such as Islam), but Catholicism claim that faith and reason must not contradict each other.

            Some Christians even say "this is sinful and wrong" but when asked why, they say the bible says so. Although we arrive at our conclusions on moral and theological issues using the bible and Tradition, the church's interpretations follow reason

          • 42Oolon

            You can certainly have pornography that does not objectify anyone.

          • Michael Chambers

            Pornography and masturbation even as a healthy adolescent non-believer will still lead to great harm to self and to spouse later. It taints all later relationships, including marriage. One cannot really banish the mental images of other bodies or fantasies that were dwelled upon in earlier years. So they inevitably intrude upon and to some degree harm/degrade marital love.

          • Can you cite any psychological studies to support this?

          • Michael Chambers

            No, I don't have a link that directly supports that. It seemed common sense that if a teenager/young adult looks at pornography 1000 times, the images and fantasies will be stuck in his head, and continue to be activated/reawakened later in any remotely similar sexual situation, including with his wife. In trying to be intimate with his wife, he suddenly has his past pornography addiction show up and frustrate that intimacy. I submit that is harmful. Here are two related links about pornography and marriage though I didn't find anything that specifically supported my thoughts - http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/catechesis/catechetical-sunday/marriage/upload/families-meier.pdf and http://couragerc.net/Masturbation.html

          • severalspeciesof

            One cannot really banish the mental images of other bodies or fantasies
            that were dwelled upon in earlier years. So they inevitably intrude upon
            and to some degree harm/degrade marital love.

            Apparently there's little imagination going on there, i.e. so fantasizing about my wife harms and degrades my marriage? Really? How so? And like David below asks, 'Citation please?'


          • Michael Chambers

            That's not quite what I meant. If after fantasizing about the bodies of 100s of other women when you are younger - when later you are being intimate with your wife and the memories come back - would your wife be happy about that? Would you feel guilty about accidentally comparing her to whatever images from the past came into your head?

          • Gabriel

            would your wife be happy about that? Would you feel guilty about accidentally comparing her to whatever images from the past came into your head?
            That s the fear of competition.

          • Gabriel

            intrude upon and to some degree harm/degrade marital love
            Maybe ,but the highest good is pleasure ,not love.

          • Gabriel

            great harm to self
            No ,it brings pleasure and pleasure is good.

          • Gabriel

            We know Pornography is immoral because it objectifies our brothers and sisters and makes them means for enjoyment
            Why is objectification wrong?

    • Fr.Sean

      Hi David,
      I think he was attempting to show that at times an opinion may be subjective and at times it may be objective. some of the statements you listed may be wrong if one believes in God and therefore cannot be put into the same category as one's that violate the natural law, or common sense. While i do not think dancing is immoral some may think so, nevertheless, murder, stealing and slavery can be shown to be immoral because the directly infringe upon the freedom of another. when opinions fall directly into the objective realm they become more concrete.

      • It seems to me murder and stealing are wrong by definition. Murder is wrongful killing. Stealing is wrongful taking of what does not belong to you. The Ten Commandments do not tell us anything about how to distinguish wrongful killing from acceptable killing, or wrongful taking of what is not your property from acceptable taking of what is not your property. If a poor man must take from a rich man to feed a starving family, in Catholic thought he is justified in taking from the rich man without the rich man's knowledge or against his will. The Catechism says:

        2408 The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another's property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one's disposal and use the property of others.

        • Jay

          "If a poor man must take from a rich man to feed a starving family, in Catholic thought he is justified in taking from the rich man without the rich man's knowledge or against his will."

          Are you sure that's the best interpretation? From the way you're putting it, it sounds kind of like Catholics subscribe to a Robin Hood "Steal from the rich to give to the poor" mentality. To me it sounds more like stealing is a means of complete and total last resort...

          • To me it sounds more like stealing is a means of complete and total last resort...

            I don't disagree with that. I think the example I gave (a man who must take what doesn't belong to him to feed a starving family) is an example of "last resort." Are you implying that if a man's family is starving, and he has no other way of feeding them than to take something that is not his from someone who can well afford to lose it, that is not a matter of complete and total last resort? Should he let his family starve?

          • Jay

            Well, in the scenario that you've just created that is the only option, so then that is what the person would have to do; however, in the real world there are often many more options than steal or let your family starve to death. Is that the ONLY option for some people? I'm sure throughout the entire history of this world that has happened before, but I think the majority of people have more than just that binary choice.

          • I am quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this point, Paragraph 2408, not giving my own opinion. Do you have objections to what the Catechism says??? Do you perhaps object to the concept of the universal destination of goods? I can't see why you object when I have stated authentic Catholic doctrine. The Catechism doesn't advise people that if they want something and can't afford it, they may steal from a rich person to get it, and I am not saying that either. I am talking only about cases of "obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .)" is to take without authorization from somebody who has more than they need. I have offered no opinion as to how often this need arises in the real world.

          • ziad

            A sin is a sin. So stealing no matter the consequences does not change that truth. However, how culpable people are and how "guilty" (if I may use this word) differs depending on the situation. Catholics differentiate between venial and mortal sins. Stealing the bank with full intent and knowing that it is sinful and willfully doing the act of stealing would be considered a mortal sin. On the other hand, stealing in order to save a life is only a venial sin that can be forgiven without the sacrament of confession because the "thief" (and I use this word loosely) had no choice in the matter and thus acted that way.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Stealing to save a life (e.g., food) is not a sin at all.

          • On the other hand, stealing in order to save a life is only a venial sin . . . .

            Kevin is correct. If the only way to avoid starving is to take money or food from someone who has more than enough, to do so is not stealing and is not a sin—not even a venial sin. Please read Paragraph 2408 in the Catechism again.

          • ziad

            My apologies. It clearly says it's Not. I misread it.

          • Jay

            Ummmm, no, I don't object to the Catechism. I simply questioned the way you presented information. Simply because someone questions doesn't mean they object. I apparently offended you in the way I said things. I do apologize for the offense. Take care.

        • Fr.Sean

          Hi David,
          I hope the author will be patient with me as i am trying to avoid misrepresenting what he is saying. I suppose the argument stems from the whole notion that atheism focuses on science, reason and logic, things that have material existence and our ability to use our minds to navigate the world around us. Thus, there are things, or ideas that we all hold to be true that do not have a material existence. Thus we have;
          Material things

          objective truths
          subjective truths.
          Objective truths do not have material existence but are still things we hold to be true, such as stealing is wrong.

          Thus, for example we have two truths. Gravity pulls things to the earth and stealing is wrong. one i can observe within the natural world, the other i instinctively know is wrong.

          Subjective truths may be rooted in a particular theology. If i believe there is a God and that that God is good then sleeping with another man's wife i can see is an immoral act, or is wrong. i may ascertain that sleeping with anyone is wrong because if we acted like that there would be a lot of children with various parents and thus it may be difficult to raise the children to be happy and healthy. But the subjective truth still may be something that applies to a certain group or certain individual.

          Furthermore, when discussing God's possible existence then i do use more than just the material world, for I also use objective "truths" that are held by most of humanity. These objective truths point to a higher truth, or natural law of which may point to a source for a higher truth or natural law.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Feser's answer to your question is "solid philosophical arguments can rationally justify moral . . . claims."

      This would be so in both senses of (1) objective facts and (2) demonstrated by sound argument. (1) is always the case but our knowledge is established by (2).

      • Feser's answer to your question is "solid philosophical arguments can rationally justify moral . . . claims."

        It seems to me that a solid philosophical argument can be very persuasive, but how do we distinguish between an argument that is persuasive and an argument that demonstrates that "X is immoral" is a fact?

        One can argue that Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever made, but even if you could convince a majority of film buffs, would it be a fact?

        • Kevin Aldrich

          I think "best movie" is a matter of opinion in the second sense so its factual basis would always be tentative. You could establish as a fact that a number of film buffs consider it the best.

        • D.

          I think that before you can do this, there needs to be a standard (i.e. a definition of what morality is) and only then we can compare what is immoral by measuring to this standard. If you do not, then we will end up just exchanging opinions. Which I think it is Faser' s point. (I gave a very cursory look at the OP so I might be going in a limb on that last point)

          "Viva Cristo Rey!!"

          • I think that before you can do this, there needs to be a standard (i.e. a definition of what morality is) and only then we can compare what is immoral by measuring to this standard.

            Isn't this all a matter of clear—and allegedly infallible—Catholic teaching? And aren't you, Edward Feser, and Kevin all Catholics? I don't think you really want me to provide a definition of what morality is, do you? Edward Feser is claiming that moral statements can be facts. I think it is up to Edward Feser and those who agree with him that moral statements can be factual to provide a definition of morality and to show how, given that definition, a statement in the form "X is immoral" can be a fact.

          • D.

            "Isn't this all a matter of clear—and allegedly infallible—Catholic teaching?" Indeed it is. It is all in the Catechism, paragraphs 1749-1761 (to long to quote here).

            "Viva Cristo Rey!!"

          • josh

            It's funny: when Catholic teaching is infallible, it's never clear; and when the teaching is clear, 'Hey, we never said it was infallible!'

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Sorry, Josh, but this is bosh.

            What is an unclear infallible teaching and a clear fallible one?

          • josh

            Recall the assorted discussions here on the doctrines about hell and salvation. It's a clear teaching of the church for a thousand years that non-Catholics go to hell. Except, it turns out, they don't because Catholics aren't to be presumptuous and could be fallible about any specific person going to hell, so maybe no one goes to hell. Also, hell isn't a place of fiery torment into which people are forced, as repeatedly portrayed in scripture, it is just an absence of fellowship with god which people choose for themselves with full knowledge. Clear teaching, but don't hold us to it!

            On the other hand, it is apparently an infallible teaching that baptism is required for salvation. The clear meaning of this would be that unbaptized people including babies aren't saved. But wait, there is the 'baptism of desire', and maybe there is, like, this moment at the edge of death that doesn't count as having died and a baby's soul can evince a desire to know Christ despite never having heard of him and, you know, being a baby, etc. Some of the posters here and Rick Delano went back and forth over this endlessly, which is an inevitable consequence of declaring some statement to be infallible and then finding out that some people don't like the clear meaning.

            Or take the Galileo thing: the Church clearly said that Galileo was wrong for contradicting scripture on the centrality of the Earth. But they didn't declare it infallibly so no hard feelings! Or maybe Rick was right and they DID declare it in an infallible way, but what they meant was that an Earth or Sun centered frame was relativistically equivalent, but Galileo was still wrong somehow.

            Or how about the infallible trinity, that's clear as mud.
            Or the clear story of Adam and Eve, but hey, there's no dogma against evolution per se so don't hold us to it. Except where there is dogma, in which case it is infallibly true but who knows what it means? Maybe Adam and Eve are just symbols representing small bands of proto-humans who had existed for hundreds of thousands of years, then God did some mysterious soul inflation, and then they sinned in some unspecified way, and the unavoidable nature to sin was inexplicably passed on to all future humans...

            Do you see my point?

          • Kevin Aldrich


            I'll only ask you to do 50% of what you claim.

            Please establish one unclear infallible teaching. Show first that it is infallible and then show how it is not clear.

          • josh

            Read above, it's really not that controversial a point and I imagine that many Catholics with a sense of humor would get it.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Here is an example of an infallible and perfectly clear dogma, the Assumption, which Catholics celebrate today (August 15):

            "The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory."

          • josh

            How can a material body be assumed into an immaterial existence? Unclear. Really, if you are going to take an overly literal approach to a light-hearted comment you should try not to fail in your first counter-example.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            So, why don't you give me a list of your beliefs so I can subject them to lighthearted ridicule?

            Just because you can't imagine how a human body can be in heaven (which could not be immaterial if a physical body is there), that does not mean that the definition is not clear.

          • josh

            I don't declare any of my beliefs to be infallible, so there is really no comparison to be made. The only relevant one in this discussion is my belief that belief in god is an irrational behavior. Feel free to take a stab at it, or anything else I've expressed in these threads. I'll give you an internet point if you come up with anything mildly amusing, but watch out for the moderation around here.

            Again, you're now trying to win a debate on a point I didn't seriously make. I imagine that if you scour the list of dogmas you'll find some snippet that is reasonably clear. That Mary was a virgin for instance (although the 'ever Virgin' isn't terribly clear. Like, other people can lose their virginity in heaven but not Mary?) But for the specific point you've chosen, heaven is now material? So science can study it? And if one can't imagine something is it really such a stretch to say that it is unclear? I seem to recall that God is necessarily immaterial in catholic belief, except that he was also a material guy walking around 1st century palestine for a while. The church even has a term for these unclarities: Mystery.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Your examples of unclear dogmas are like me opening up a calculus book at random and saying all this stuff is unclear. What that statement would really mean is I am ignorant when it come to calculus.

            For example, "ever virgin" means that Mary was celibate during her life. It has nothing to do with sex in heaven, which I take it is more of your lighthearted amusing banter.

          • josh

            Well, no, it's possible that you are reading a badly written book, or it's possible that it's actually incorrect and you are reading a treatise on circle-squaring. I've looked into the foundations of your faith's statements and they only become more opaque and contradictory. Don't assume that your ignorance of calculus means no one else can point out errors in your math.

            I'm not sure its a good idea to continue indulging your forest-for-trees approach, but you're now admitting that 'ever-virgin' was just empty verbiage on your part since it applies to every dead virgin, i.e. an example of unclear writing. Since heaven is now material, populated with at least one material body, can Mary in principle have sex there?

          • For example, "ever virgin" means that Mary was celibate during her life.

            I think it may mean more than that. Mary's virginity is a much loftier concept than that she conceived without sexual intercourse and remained a virgin throughout her life. It has something to do with the idea of bodily perfection, and of course Mary is believed by Catholics to still exist bodily. The Catholic doctrine is not just that Mary never had sex, but that she remained an intact virgin ante partum, in partu, et post partum (before giving birth, while giving birth, and after giving birth). I think some would claim that it is symbolic, but I assume that in general it is interpreted literally, which means that it is a mystery how Mary gave birth.

            So while it has nothing to do with sex in heaven, it has to do with Mary's perfection, including bodily perfection even in heaven. I think a great many people would find this strange.

          • severalspeciesof

            I think a great many people would find this strange.

            It was one of the first ideas that helped to propel me out of the church...


          • If one can't imagine something is it really such a stretch to say that it is unclear?

            I can only imagine things in two dimensions. Three dimensions is too hard for me, but some people can do it. Some people claim to be able to imagine things in four dimensions. I don't believe most of them.

            Many high-dimensional topologies seem clear, but no one can imagine them.

          • josh

            We should say perhaps, that no one can visualize them. But we can define exactly what we mean when we say that we have a higher-dimensional space, and we can say exactly what we would perceive when interacting with one. However, if someone says that a space is simultaneously 3 and 4 dimensional they are being unclear.

            Perhaps with sufficient work one could define a new set of terms such that the statement above is non-contradictory. This would require a rigorous definition of abstract symbol manipulation, i.e. pure math, that also changes the standard usage of many terms. I've seen plenty of abstract math and this kind of rigor is precisely what Catholicism lacks. Moreover, having defined a new set of abstract terms, it would still be unclear how they could be interpreted as a model of reality, which of course is the whole point when it comes to something like Catholicism.

          • A post on distinguishing "conceive" and "imagine", written tongue-in-cheek. I found it helpful:


          • josh

            I think she's off on several points, but on the point at hand I don't find 'imagine' versus 'conceive' to be a clear distinction. I would say we can distinguish 'visualize (audialize? olfactorize?)' from each other and from 'define consistently'.

          • It does raise some questions. For example, are we to conclude that heaven is above? If there were witnesses, would they have seen Mary ascend into the clouds? Would that not be some kind of "dramatization," assuming that heaven is not really above?

            My understanding is that it is deliberately vague on the question of whether Mary died or not ("completed the course of her earthly life").

            And, of course, what does it mean to be one of only two people in heaven with a physical body? I think that basically, it is impossible to speculate about, or say anything meaningful about what Mary's existence might be like.

            Once again, as with Mary's perpetual virginity, and the Immaculate Conception, the doctrine of the the Assumption is about Mary being spiritually and physically perfect in every way. The idea is that the bodily and spiritually perfect woman could not possibly have been allowed to decompose after death. Consequently, she had to be taken directly into heaven, even if we can't really imagine what that means.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I think your list should be neutralized before being evaluated and I've recast them as questions:

      Are wagers moral?
      Is dancing moral?
      Is slavery moral?
      Is drinking alcohol moral?
      Is killing the unborn moral?
      Is killing the born moral?
      Is sex moral?
      Is taking another's property moral?
      Is looking at nudity or sex acts moral?
      Is lending money at interest moral?

      If you then add the concept of reasonableness to each act, many can be disposed of pretty easily. For example,

      > Under one economic system, any lending at interest could be unreasonable. Under another, charging some interest could be reasonable and charging more could be unreasonable.

      > It is reasonable to look at the nudity of one's spouse while having sex and at one's patient (by a doctor) if necessary. In other circumstances, no.

      > It is not reasonable to kidnap and force another person to serve you in whatever way you deem. But (I'm going to go way out on a limb here), it is not unreasonable to sell your labor for a certain number of years or even for up to 50 years, provided you retain your dignity otherwise (more or less the kind of slavery Jews practiced among themselves in the ancient world).

      • K.

        In your own way (I assume you did this per-chance), you have applied Aquinas freedom-will-reason approach to explain the morality of each act. Good job.

        "Viva Cristo Rey!!"

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Thank! It was mostly luck and vague memory.

          However, recently I've been slowly reading Josef Pieper's classic THE FOUR CARDINAL VIRTUES in which he says, along the lines of Thomas Aquinas, that reason means to Aquinas, "regard for and openness to reality . . . acceptance of reality." And truth means "the unveiling and revelation of reality."

        • I would like you to explain the "freedom-will-reason approach" when it comes to matters of intrinsic evil. I disagree very strongly with you and Kevin here (to the extent I understand what you are saying—or think I do).

      • I think your list should be neutralized before being evaluated and I've recast them as questions:

        I think you have obfuscated the issue of morality in my list. In a previous post, Feser spoke of "the absolute moral authority and binding obligation of conscience." He did not look at things from the viewpoint of "reasonableness." It may be quite reasonable to lie or steal. But Catholicism has the concept of "intrinsic evil"—meaning there are things that are wrong in and of themselves that may never be done no matter what the circumstances and how dire the consequences of not doing them will be. To reduce morality to a matter of "reasonableness" strikes me as consequentialism.

        • Kevin Aldrich

          Reasonableness refers to "correspondence with reality."

          That is also what conscience does: judges acts according to their true nature, again, according to reality.

          Some acts are therefore intrinsically evil, others good or evil according to circumstances.

  • Loreen Lee

    Wittgenstein begins the Tractatus with the following:
    The world is all that is the case.
    The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
    The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
    For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
    The facts in logical space are the world
    The world divides into facts.
    Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.

    He continues of course, but I always give up about here. I have read or attempted to read some commentary however. Thanks for the article. It made me understand that a belief can be either a fact or an opinion, and that an opinion can indeed 'become?' a fact.. Even when knowledge is defined as 'true justified "belief", it is very difficult to remain 'real' and not opine an imagined explanation that does not 'fit the facts'. I shall continue to read and reread your comments.. Hopefully, too someone can expand on Wittgenstein.

    • I think that Wittgenstein's philosophy (as far as I understand it) coincides pretty well with Feser's article. The idea that fact (1) relates to what is the case and fact (2) to what we believe is the case, although neither of these are, by virtue of being facts, necessarily the case. It seems as though opinion (1) relates to what is the case and opinion (2) relates to what is possibly the case.

      For a helpful expounding on Wittgenstein (although it is much more than just that), I recommend Saul Kripke's "Language and Necessity". He gets at atomic facts in a very intuitive way.

      • Loreen Lee

        Thanks Paul. Checked my library and discovered that I do have Kripke's 'Naming and Necessity'. I did 'attempt' to read it many years ago. Looked through it and confirmed that it, according to my understanding, continued the 'positivist's quest to substantiate 'empirical' evidence, i.e. the denotative, and reference, rather than 'meaning and the connotative." As I believe that 'truth' can be found within the meta-phorical, as in great literature, etc. for the moment I find I am among the Continental philosophers, particularly the structuralists, and agree that a particular interpretation would relate formalism with nominalism, (in some contexts?) I shall continue to live my life, relating what I find 'ad hoc' to my former readings, in the belief that my experience is at least as 'credible' as the erudition in these texts. I just believe that 'life' is not 'all language'. Thanks again.

        • Sorry. Naming and Necessity! Silly mix-up.

          Kripke is far from a positivist. He's an essentialist, not a nominalist. He also argues for mind-body dualism. He's one of the main reasons there is such a strong Christian presence in analytic philosophy.

          Finally, life may not be language, but saying "life may not be language", or saying anything, requires language. Sloppy language is not identical to erudition or profundity. I think many continental philosophers are fooling themselves. Not all, though! Whitehead bridged the two. Wittgenstein also, to a degree. Deleuze is one of the rare continental philosophers who seems to respect the analytic tradition.

          • Loreen Lee

            I understand that Wittgenstein, (re Kripke) left the positivists he was with in Vienna. I especially like the way he treats language in his latter writings: eg. it's a life form. I like the philosophers who fill in the gaps between analytic and continental philosophies too. I believe that Richard Rorty also acted as a 'bridge' for instance.

            I do respect the analytic tradition, please don't 'get me wrong'. But analytic philosophy has always been difficult for me. I find that I cannot speak the logic 'abstractly' without filling in the 'gaps' with something from experience. I think you know this already from our conversations. Yes. I have just discovered the connection between 'formalism' and an interpretation of 'nominalism', that I believe, does not discount analytic philosophy, or even Christian concepts of God, etc. For me structuralism can define the 'limits of language' - the conventionality inherent in it. I look for the aspects in Continental philosophy that are innovative, even if, as with Derrida, they demonstrate (a truth) that there is an inherent propensity towards contradiction/differance within human language.

            I do not equate for instance 'human language' with 'The Word of God', although I agree that we need language to express these 'ultimate truths'. Structurally, I believe they are on 'different levels'. But I'm with Catholicism, (and also like Kant for this reason) in that these philosophies 'speak' of a higher purpose and reality 'necessary' for moral evaluation for instance: that we need to keep in mind (as a reference?) within 'human interactions'. Not all moderns are in agreement with this concept, and this is possible a 'negative' aspect I find with some forms of 'atheism'. I just have a 'propensity' to look for structures that will give a context to the 'meaning' I find within my life.

          • Loreen Lee

            P.S. Paul. Although I have been unable to understand all the profundities and erudition within the writings of Wittgenstein: many of his 'adages' have had a great impact on me. This includes: The limits of your language are the limits of your world. and (Something about getting to the top of the ladder and jumping off - a leap of faith). With regard to the first, I find myself often searching for words to describe my thought/experience. The second of course, takes into account the fideism which has been (without warrant?) attributed to him. But please, do know that I respect and desire to learn from all these philosophers. I consider them all, I believe yourself included, beyond my ken in so many respects. Thanks Paul.

          • Loreen Lee

            Deleuze is one of the rare continental philosophers who seems to respect the analytic tradition.

            PPS. Have been checking out Deleuze, specifically a synopsis of 20th century French writers and the book he wrote with Felix Guattari - anti-oedipus, and no it was another post-modernist 'complication', that I abandoned half way through reading it. Although Deleuze's principles make very good argument, abstractly/analytically that is, I do not agree that I would find the consequences/application within life amenable to my 'happiness'.

            This is a complete nihilism, which in principle I do accept as logical constructs, etc. and see that it is a reality that we have only recently acknowledged. Mereological nihilism is basic both to Buddhism and quantum physics, to my understanding, and Buddhism I hold is a much gentler religion, (not explicitly forcing its principles on the common people!), than I hold Catholicism is, for instance. But I would disagree with you if you think that Deleuze represents in any way shape or form the analytic tradition.

            Of course these philosophers are generally re-defining not only contexts, but the 'words' themselves. I consequently am very 'wary' - one of the reasons I'm 'back to Catholicism' to examine once again the 'mysteries' of its 'analyticity'. grin grin. There is a comment in this feed for instance regarding the 'higher' meaning, the analyticity of Mary's virginity, for instance.

  • josh

    I don't think anyone fails to get the metaphysical/epistemological distinction. But some don't get that you can't disentangle your metaphysics from epistemology. The latter always comes first and any talk of the hypothetical 'way things really are' is just so much hot air if you don't address the epistemology first. Perhaps along these lines, Feser doesn't seem to understand the issues he wants to attack. People aren't arguing 'people disagree, therefore values have no non-subjective existence'. People are pointing out either 1) that you don't have a valid epistemology to justify claiming that you know some particular value to be metaphysically objectively real, or 2) values can't be metaphysically objective because no test or argument could rationally compel a person to change their views.

    • Metaphysics and epistemology are deeply connected, but I'm not sure epistemology should always come first. Not because it wouldn't be a good idea, but because I don't see how to do it.

      How can you talk about how to know something without knowing something first? It seems that some kind of metaphysics has to come before epistemology.

      • josh

        Well, if you push things back far enough it becomes a bit of a chicken and egg problem. I suspect that like most resolutions to such problems, this is because if you push things back that far the distinction between metaphysics (really we should be using the word ontology here) and epistemology becomes unclear. We have to talk about what we mean by 'know something'. In that sense it may not be ideal to say that epistemology precedes ontology, but it can't be ignored either.

        I find it useful to distinguish experience from knowledge, which has to do with interpretation of experience. Experience is in some sense epistemologically fundamental but not ontologically so, it is necessarily subjective and we try to construct a picture of the underlying objective reality.

        • I had to reflect on what you said for a bit before responding. I think you are right about distinguishing experience from knowledge, but I still think you need knowledge before you can have an epistemology.

          In terms of dialogue on epistemology, one-on-one, it would be useful for each person to give her metaphysics and epistemology, both. An overlap in the metaphysics can be acknowledged. Then the two epistemologies can be presented. The epistemologies can each be compared to the overlapping metaphysics, to find out which of the two epistemologies is most consistent with the agreed-upon metaphysics.

          Lots of catch-words and jargon there. This basically reduces to:

          Person A and B say what they think exists.
          They take the stuff they agree on as given.
          Person A and B say why they think the given things exist.
          They then discuss which of them has better reasons.

          I think this outlines all the fruitful epistemology discussions I've had.

  • I've never forgotten what my 11th grade biology teacher said. "A fact is an observation many people can make."

    • Hmmm . . Like women are bad drivers? Or men are too proud and stubborn to ask for directions? Or Obama is a Muslim? Or we had to attack Iraq because of 9/11? Or that if your house is up for sale, burying a statue of St. Joseph in the yard will help it sell faster?

      • Linda

        The bit about St Joseph *is* a fact. ;)

  • This topic is pure "proof" of why no study of the Bible can be done just looking for factual information. God is love and God is Spirit, a study of His Word must be done in "Spirit" (prayerful meditation) and "Truth", what is God really revealing to us as individual's and as His Church.

  • Mohammad Nur Syamsu

    To reach a conclusion by a way of copying something results in a fact. A fact is a copy or model of something. Evidence forces to a conclusion, resulting in a model of the thing evidenced, a fact.

    To reach a conclusion by way of choosing results in an opinion.

    All facts are about chosen things, all opinions are about the agency of decisions. There are matters of fact, and matters of opinion. What is beautiful, loving and good are a matter of opinion, and therefore relevant to the agency of decisions.

    The moon might be destroyed, the existence of it is a contingency, it is chosen, and therefore a matter of fact. Love and hate are not contingent, love and hate do the choosing, they are not chosen. You choose the words love and hate, choose to call it love, an opinion, but you never can choose to love somebody.

    There is no such thing as a "mere" opinion!

  • fortruthssake

    That's just your opinion....JK, lol, great article!