This is really a strange article. On the one hand, the author makes this point about the distinction between “truth” and “proof”:
“First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.”
So much wrong here:
“It could be true that there is life elsewhere…”. The inclusion of the modifier “could” automatically disqualifies this from being an actual fact. Even though the odds say there should be life elsewhere, there is no proof. Therefore, it’s not a fact. It is indeed opinion and / or conjecture.
“Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false”. So? I don’t get the point. The truth or facts change over time when evidence is discovered that disproves it. We do that in science, and in sociology. And as far as people believing the world was flat??? That wasn’t a common belief. It was based on ignorance of science. It was well known much farther back than the 1400’s, Columbus’s time, that the world was round. The belief that the world was flat was superstition, opinion, belief, held by those who were not skilled or taught science or math or nautical navigation. Ironically, the belief that the Christian Church believed the Earth was flat is also a myth.
And then, this:
Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.
Ignorantia juris non excusat
Good Lord! This guy is a teacher??? That is a horrible example to use! I can’t off the top of my head tell you the circumference of the Sun, but that doesn’t make the most accurate measure to date a fact. You don’t have to understand the chemical mechanism behind the effects of ingesting hemlock to know that doing so will kill you. It’s a very proven fact.
The author relates this interchange with his son:
A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes….
I asked my son about this distinction [between fact and opinion] after his open house. He confidently explained that facts were things that were true whereas opinions are things that are believed. We then had this conversation:
Me: “I believe that George Washington was the first president. Is that a fact or an opinion?”
Him: “It’s a fact.”
Me: “But I believe it, and you said that what someone believes is an opinion.”
Him: “Yeah, but it’s true.”
Me: “So it’s both a fact and an opinion?”
The blank stare on his face said it all.
If an opinion proves to be true, it is no longer an opinion; it is indeed a fact. And the example given, “I believe that George Washington was the first president”, is horrible if you are fleshing this out. The answer is actually a matter of opinion. There were seven Presidents of the United States of America under the articles of Confederation. The answer to the question depends on where you put the marker; at the first failed government of the country; or the second, under the successful one. I have no idea if either the author or his kid knew this… But Yeah… The blank stare did say it all. The author just misread it.
So, to the beginning of the article. How does this article start? It starts out this way:
“What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?
I was. As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture. “
Question – How many of your students think it’s OK to kill people for fun???? Who ever answered “yes” to that question???
Who thinks cheating is not wrong??? I teach high school, and have run into instances of students cheating from time to time. To a letter, they know it’s wrong. But, because the good grade has been made the most important value in our school system, the cheating student will justify the act in order to get a better grade. It’s almost immoral to get low grades if you care about such things.
But the biggest problem with the article is, the author never establishes that, when breaking down the distinctions between facts, truth, and opinion, there are indeed moral truths.
PS. Just in case some may be inclined to think he’s some sort of religious nut, comments on facebook indicate he’s already been labeled as such, here is his rebuttal on the idea that the Bible says that homosexuality is a moral failing.