Knowledge Versus Opinion




Knowledge, Opinion, and Fantasy



Plato wished to know the difference between knowledge and opinion. His idea, much elaborated over the centuries, is that something needs to be added to opinion to get knowledge. Knowledge is opinion plussomething—truth, justification, reliability, etc. Certainly we can agree that knowledge is more than opinion, but could it also be less? Do we need to subtract something from opinion to get knowledge? Does opinion have properties that knowledge lacks? Might it have properties that disable it from counting as knowledge? In order to answer these questions we need to be clear what we mean by “opinion”, allowing that the word may be more inclusive than the concept we intend to single out. There are two sorts of case to consider: bad opinions and acceptable opinions. Acceptable opinions would include a scientist cautious about the data tentatively suggesting that a certain hypothesis might be true: she isn’t at all dogmatic about it, agreeing that she might well be wrong; she proportions her belief according to the available evidence. Bad opinions would include those influenced by prejudice or propaganda and reflecting animosities in the believer—for example, the belief that Mexicans are murderers and rapists. I include here opinions based on wild conspiracy theories as well as superstitions and urban legends. The question then is how these kinds of opinions differ from knowledge.

It would be wrong to claim that such opinions can be converted into knowledge by the mere addition of certain conditions. Suppose one of these bad opinions turns out to be true, and suppose also that the believer has evidence for his belief: does that entail that he has knowledge? No, because the way he arrived at his belief deprives it of the ability to count as knowledge—at any rate, there is something defective about the belief that casts doubt on its claim to knowledge. In the MenoPlato suggested that opinion differs from knowledge in that it is transitory (“untethered”) while knowledge is fixed and stable. That fails to allow for rigidly held prejudicial beliefs or deep-seated errors of judgment. But the suggestion is interesting because it finds in opinion a feature that distinguishes it intrinsically from knowledge—a feature that prevents opinion from qualifying as knowledge. That is, it identifies in opinion a positive disqualification, not merely a remediable lack. And this corresponds to an intuition that pervades the philosophical literature on the analysis of knowledge, namely that knowledge cannot be defined as true justified opinion. It is not an accident that the first condition in the analysis of knowledge is stated using the concept of belief, because that concept is neutral on the question of knowledge; but no one finds it natural to start out stipulating that xknows that ponly if xis of the opinionthat p. That would quickly lead to counterexamples in the light of the kind of case I mentioned earlier: a prejudicial belief that happened to be true and justified would not count as knowledge (it would be a type of Gettier case). Bad opinions cannot be magically converted into knowledge by the addition of truth and justification. Such opinions differ intrinsically from knowledge. Plato conjectures that they are essentially unstable, flighty, and malleable—and one can appreciate his point. But even if that were correct, we would still need to ask whythey are thus mutable. So we have the question: in virtue of what do opinions of this type differ from knowledge (or rational belief)?

The answer I propose is that they are governed by fantasy. There is a class of beliefs that are controlled by fantasy, and that is the mark that distinguishes them from knowledge. I won’t be able to say much about fantasy here; I will take it for granted that fantasy plays a significant role in the human psyche, affecting almost every aspect of our psychological lives. Clearly the mind of the human child is riddled with fantasy, and this fantasy life affects the child deeply: a great many of a child’s convictions stem from fantasy—indeed there no clear line at this stage between fantasy and belief. As we mature the control of fantasy lessens, as the “reality principle” sets in (Freud wasn’t wrong about everything); but it never entirely disappears, and it is more powerful in some people than others. It can still shape belief even as the years accumulate. We can imagine beings that lose all vestiges of fantasy at puberty, becoming fantasy-free zones, never having their views shaped by what their imagination presents to them: but human beings are not like this, being prone to fantasy throughout their lives. Thus we are open to the fantasies promoted by conspiracy theorists, as well as to our own self-manufactured fabrications and fancies. The suggestion, then, is that opinion (in the intended sense) is the result of fantasy while knowledge is not. Knowledge is the rejection of fantasy; opinion is its embrace. Thus opinion can never count as knowledge, because fantasy-based belief can never be knowledge. There is a class of human beliefs (if that is the right word) that are disqualified from counting as knowledge by their genesis, no matter whether they may be true or justified. Thus we don’t analyze knowledge as true justified opinion just as we don’t analyze it as true justified fancy or feeling: we don’t say that xknows that ponly if xfancies that por feels that p(or fantasizes that p), because that suggests the wrong sort of psychological state to count as a case of knowledge. If a view (position, attitude, stance) results from fantasy it is disqualified from being knowledge; it is “mere opinion”.

But why is that? Why is fantasy so disqualifying? Because it roots belief in the self: it makes belief dependent on personality, emotion, idiosyncrasy, and waywardness. Fantasy reflects the urgings of the psyche–its preoccupations, insecurities, and aggressions. But knowledge must be rooted in the world beyond the self not inthe self—in the reality principle not the fantasy principle. Fantasy drags the mind away from the world and into its own dark labyrinth, but knowledge must face the bright objective common world. Opinion therefore tracks what lies within not what prevails without. Opinion is the expression of the self not its negation or transcendence. Thus opinion differs fundamentally from knowledge: you can’t just add to it and hope that its dubious origins will magically remove themselves. The OEDdefines “opinion” as “a view or judgment not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”. One supposes that this definition took some crafting: notice that it avoids the word “belief” and uses “necessarily” to expand opinion beyond rational inquiry; also it opposes opinion to knowledge, as if these are two very different kinds of thing. But what it doesn’t do is provide any positive definition of the word; it simply says what opinion is not based on. Then what is it based on? It is based on something in the psychological subject evidently—and “fantasy” is its name. It is what the mind comes up with when facts and knowledge are lacking—conviction without evidence, without the control of the reality principle. Freud might call it the pleasure principle, and that is not wide of the mark, but fantasy is not always about pleasure. Fantasy is about disconnection from the world, possible (and impossible) worlds, madness, deception, self-deception, fiction, the absurd, the undisciplined, the puerile, and the paranoid. Fantasy is the antithesis of knowledge, not a precursor to it. Knowledge cannot have fantasy as a component. Opinion controlled by fantasy is not a suitable basis for knowledge. It needs to be thrown out not supplemented. People whose minds are stocked with such opinions are not on the road to knowledge; they have disqualified themselves from the start. They are going about the cognitive life in the wrong way.

Two distinctive Platonic doctrines fall into place under the present theory. The first is Plato’s attitude to the arts, particularly drama: he famously opposed them, regarding them as disruptive to the search for true knowledge (suitable only for watching on cave walls perhaps). We can now see that if opinion is based on fantasy it is based on what the arts are all about—the fabricated, the imagined, the unreal. If the mind confuses fantasy with reality, then mere opinion is the upshot, and true knowledge is precluded. Second, Plato’s hostility to the Sophists acquires a theoretical foundation: they trade in human fantasy, using it to sway opinion (note the word), exploiting the fragilities of the self. Plato seeks to banish fantasy from rational discourse, and discourage its role in human cognition—in the formation of our “views”. We can envisage different degrees of prohibition in the ideal Platonic society: completely excise fantasy from the mind (surgically or by indoctrination); suppress it as far as possible while tolerating its existence; or assign it to its proper place—dreams, romantic love, the arts. What we cannot accept is its intrusion into the serious business of acquiring knowledge—not if we take Plato’s strictures to heart. Practically, we must train our young to form their beliefs without any reliance on the promptings of fantasy—no conspiracy theories, no wishful thinking, no succumbing to the temptations of the compelling narrative (as if the world has to fit your favorite plotlines). The Sophists among us will always seek to inflame our imaginations in an effort to warp our beliefs, but we must train our young to resist their incursions. Let “That’s just a fantasy!” be our mantra. (Not that any of this will be easy: some catchy songs might help.)

Presumably fantasy is more powerful in some areas of thought than others. People tend not to fantasize about numbers (there are exceptions) or elementary particles, but when it comes to the biological world fantasy is strong—notably with respect to humans. Obviously animals have proved a rich source of fantasy and many weird beliefs have been held about them (mainly to their detriment), but humans are clearly the most fertile ground for the flowering of fantasy. We look at each other through a blinding haze of fantasy, not just people from other places, but also our own kith and kin. Marriage is a rich source of fantasy thinking, and so a hotbed of non-knowledge (the problem of other minds providing the slack needed to allow fantasy to flourish). I think of Othelloand other Shakespeare plays (isn’t Iago the ultimate fantasy-monger?). So we need to be more alert to the depredations of fantasy in some areas than others; we need to beware of “opinion” in the areas in which it is most likely to take root. Marriage counselors should take a “fantasy studies” course, specializing in “spousal fantasy disorder”. At any rate, the recognition of the possibility of fantasy should inform all our personal interactions, from the most casual to the most intimate.

We must acknowledge our dual nature. On the one hand, we have the rational faculty, whose object is knowledge; on the other, we have the imaginative faculty, whose work product is fantasy. The latter has a tendency to leak into the former, to deform and distort it. There could be beings without the imaginative faculty (they would be pleasing to Plato) as there could be beings without the rational faculty (maybe pleasing to some Romantics). The beings without imagination would be all knowledge and no opinion; the beings without reason would be all opinion and no knowledge. We have both faculties and the problem is leakage: too many people have their views shaped by the operations of fantasy. And they don’t realize it; or rather, they can’t think in these terms, as children can’t. They stand at rallies shouting and shrieking, their heads full of fantasies, brimming with “opinions”, and with no actual knowledge in sight: if only their fantasies could be abolished! History is largely the history of fantasy, of “opinions”, of the antithesis of knowledge. When a person tells you he is “entitled to his opinion” he really means he is entitled to his fantasies; maybe he is, but he is not entitled to confuse his fantasies with reality.

I want to emphasize that what Plato dubbed “correct opinion” is not to be confused with knowledge. An opinion is not saved from criticism by being correct (true, justified) given that it arises in a certain kind of way—by fantasy, according to the present hypothesis. Correct opinion might not lead us astray practically (because it’s correct) but that doesn’t mean it reduces to knowledge: it just happens to be correct, because it arose by a means that is inimical to correctness, viz. fantasy. Knowledge is more valuable than correct opinion because of its origin not because of its effects (to answer Plato’s question in the Meno)—because of its freedom from fantasy and fantasy’s dependence on the self. Knowledge is not self-directed, unlike opinion. This is why it would be wrong to define knowledge as correct opinion, as if opinion could redeem itself by being (accidentally) correct.[1]

Since we are in Plato territory let me propose an allegory of knowledge and opinion. There is a war going on between two factions: the adherents of fantasy and the adherents of reality (call this the Allegory of the War). We are the ground on which this war is being fought. The fantasy side wishes to acquire as much ground as possible, seizing as much doxastic real estate as it can; the reality side is defending its territory against the marauding forces. The battle ebbs and flows, with bits of land exchanging hands. The forces of fantasy are winning the war in certain areas (politics, ethics, the law) while the forces of reality hang on to their strongholds in science, mathematics, and philosophy. Some ground is hotly contested—history, economics, parts of psychology. The fantasy side is fuelled by rage and self-regard, not to mention insecurity, while the reality side is stoical and stone-faced, dispassionate to a fault. The war has been going on for millennia, ever since man acquired his dual nature (back there in old Africa). Sometimes fantasy holds most of the territory, sometimes reality manages to capture a chunk of land previously held by fantasy. The tide has been shifting in the reality direction in recent centuries, but nothing is ever securely held; for the fantasy side is wily and determined, and full of brute energy. There are setbacks, reversals of fortune, and humiliating defeats. Who will win in the end (this is a zero sum game)? It’s hard to say, but there seems to be no end in sight.


[1]I have not recurred to the category of tentative belief as a species of opinion, as with the cautious scientist. I don’t think this is the kind of case Plato had in mind, and anyway my main interest is in the category I called bad opinion. In the former kind of case we don’t need the concept of opinion because we can speak simply of knowledge without fear of solecism: the scientist knows that the probability of the hypothesis is nwhere nrepresents her degree of belief. There is nothing untoward about that belief and fantasy played no part in its formation. It is proportional to the evidence and is not resistant to new evidence, unlike the bad kind of opinion. The kind of opinion I have been concerned with corresponds to the groundless psychologically motivated opinions we observe all around us.

One response to “Knowledge Versus Opinion”

  1. Colin McGinn says:

    This is relevant to our current political situation so I am posting it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *