Opinions vs. Truths

In recent posts we’ve looked into holding opinions about fewer topics, holding multiple opinions about the same topic, and changing our opinions about the opinions that other people hold. But what exactly is an opinion? Let’s take a closer look.

Pyrrho, a fascinating but shadowy figure reputed to be the founder of ancient Greek skepticism, held that neither opinions nor perceptions are true. Leaving aside perceptions for today, I take this to mean in part that opinions are not the kinds of things that can be true or false in the first place. Taking a cue from the etymological kinship in English between ‘true’ and ‘tree’, we can speculate that a truth (not the truth, mind you) is rooted, solid, long-lasting – whereas an opinion is flightly, airy, ephemeral. Although your opinions might change (not that you can necessarily make it happen), a truth isn’t something that changes at all: 2+2=4, the inexorable pull of gravity, the inevitability of death.

Naturally there’s a continuum; there always is. Yet conceptually the line is bright: vast flocks of noisy opinion-birds flap around inside your head, yet somewhere out there in reality a quiet forest of truth-trees has persisted for thousands of years. Particular truths may fall to the forest floor (say, the geocentric model of the universe), but new trees (say, germ theory) sprout from the resulting humus. These aren’t necessarily Thoreau’s eternities (“Read not the Times; read the Eternities”), but they’re the closest we’ll come.

Less poetically, these opinions are notions or sentiments or (at best) provisional judgments you just happen to believe. Often they make you feel better because they’re familiar and seem bound up with your very identity, but in my experience holding fewer opinions, along with tempering the ones that remain, frees up mental space for grasping the much smaller number of real truths in human life: the centrality of love and friendship, the precious value of the present moment, the beauty of nature, the follies of boundless materialism and the corruptions of power, the joys of creation and simple awareness, the bedrock importance of personal character, the meaning and perspective granted by the practice of wisdom and reflection, and so on.

So it strikes me that you can choose either to have lots of opinions or to get hold of a few key truths – and I know which path I’ve chosen.

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