The Age of Opinion: Can Ancient Skepticism Solve Our Modern Problems?

When an opinion is formed, our mind will work to defend it against contrary notions, arguments and reality itself.
Julian Koeck, how we form opinions, ancient philosophy, skeptic philosophy, stoic philosophy, the age of opinions, opinion vs fact, social media opinions, postmodern individual, philosophy news

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July 02, 2021 12:23 EDT

One day, historians might call our present era the age of opinions. While in the past only the pronouncements of a small number of opinion leaders resonated within the public, today, we are accompanied by a constant noise of opinions from all sides. The development of the internet and the rise of various social media has made the act of expressing an opinion a societal phenomenon.

The postmodern individual inherently holds opinions. Starting in early education, one learns to develop instant opinions on various topics. This is regarded as even more important than merely learning facts, which Google has seemingly rendered unnecessary as it is. In the age of social media, opinions have become currency. From ratings of restaurants, concerts and products to whatever items on the news agenda, the opinion of the anonymous crowd matters. Especially pointed opinions tend to reach many more followers, whether among the avant-garde, the mainstream or the many proponents or detractors on any issue.

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Political debates on television work in a similar way. Just like with social media, it’s all about calculatedly stating opinions on various complex topics in the hopes of convincing the right part of the audience to agree. Even print media aren’t exempt from these forced opinions. It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between commentary and news. For instance, the influential German magazine Der Spiegel simultaneously uses labels like “analytical” and “opinionated” for its newsletter “Die Lage.”

It is then perhaps hardly surprising when journalists make use of their creative freedom to embellish facts, aligning them to their — or their readers’ — opinions. The case of Claas Relotius — an award-winning journalist with Der Spiegel fired for fabricating material in his articles “on a grand scale” — is the paradigmatic example for this distressing state of being.

Tyranny of Opinion

Opinions help us understand reality. They become the ground upon which individuals build their perceptions and experiences of life. Thus, opinions become a part of our psyche. The existence of differing opinions becomes an impertinence, causing psychological suffering by implicitly violating our sense of self. For all the power it holds, the formation of opinions is not a rational process. Sometimes, it can be rather arcane. The history of ideas deals with these questions; however, more often than not, the best we can do is proffer educated guesses about the internal processes of the black box that is the human mind.

Nevertheless, one thing is safe to say: When an opinion is formed and has become a part of our psyche, our mind will work in overdrive to defend this opinion against contrary notions, arguments and, if need be, the whole of reality itself.

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Herein lies one of the grave societal problems of our time. The constant demand to have opinions on an ever increasing number of topics makes us vulnerable. Differing opinions or, worse, explicit criticism have a negative effect on individuals. In a polarized and hysterical society, this results in a heuristic of hurt feelings: statements, messages, films, books and behavior are instinctively scanned for potential attacks on one’s own opinions and evaluated accordingly.

This doesn’t only apply to individuals but also groups that constitute themselves through shared opinions. Such groups might bring relief to those who are now able to adopt opinions without much effort and thus become immune to potential and exhausting feelings of self-doubt. When certain correlations between shared opinions occur, the group might evolve into a community of faith. Now, individuals can only change opinions if they are willing to risk not only psychological unrest but the loss of their community altogether. On a societal level, this creates an immensely strong polarizing effect. At this point, having opinions is no longer just a privilege — it has become a civic duty.

Within this framework lies a serious risk for both the psychological and physical well-being of the postmodern persona and social coexistence altogether. Is the increasing need for mental health counseling or trigger warnings in classrooms somehow related to this tyranny of having an opinion?

Peace of Mind

What’s to be done? According to the majority of ancient philosophers, personal happiness is first and foremost a result of one’s own psychological state of mind. Terms such as “ataraxy” (Epicureanism, skepticism) and “apathy” (stoicism) can be roughly translated as “peace of mind.” This equanimity is supposed to enable the individual to endure life with all its ups and downs. While we can’t change the world, we can change how we feel about it.

The skeptics were already aware of the potential downsides of forming and upholding opinions. They thought that there could be no peace of mind when one is constantly torn between differing opinions without being able to make a decision. Philosophers like Pyrrhon and Sextus Empiricus thought that the world is such a complex entity that true knowledge is impossible in the first place. Thus, there could be no true opinion, no matter how rationally one would try to form it.

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Knowing this, the most prudent stance for any philosopher would be the total abstention from opinions whatsoever — epoche. Ancient sources tell us that Pyrrhon was so unmovable that he calmly approached ox wagons head-on and refused to change his way because of vicious dogs.

Obviously, this particular form of skepticism cannot be a model for us today — even in antiquity, only a select group of charismatic individuals lived by its teachings. In fact, Pyrrhon’s students got him out of harm’s way on the streets. Another important difference from ancient times is modern science. Back in the day, many of the questions could not be definitively answered due to a lack of appropriate technology and experimentation. This is certainly not the case today, meaning that some modification of skeptic thought seems necessary.

For instance, the existence of cells is no longer a mere opinion but an empirical fact. If we refuse to follow the path of solipsism that impugns objective reality altogether, overwhelming empirical evidence need not be classified as abstention from opinion. This mainly pertains to the natural sciences, although here too definitive empirical evidence doesn’t apply to all complex theories, which, therefore, should be treated as opinions.

Fundamental Undecidability

When it comes to human behavior, empirical evidence often only applies to the existence of specific individuals and self-perceived actions. The causes of these actions are not definitively identified due to the complex nature of reality. That is why all declarative systems concerning cultural matters, as opposed to natural matters, are empirically infeasible. Therefore, nearly all political, economic or social positions are merely well-argued opinions. Without empirical verifiability, there cannot be a clear decision on whether such an opinion is wrong or right.

This fundamental undecidability is complemented by the fact that humans tend to be insufficiently well-informed in most areas, making it impossible to form a well-grounded opinion altogether. Indeed, it seems strange to constantly demand opinions of people on topics they often don’t know the basics of. Examples of this are easy to find: Many climate skeptics are as poorly informed about the physics of weather events as opponents of genetically modified foods are about genetics and the functions of DNA. 

In economic matters, the breadth of the spectrum of normative opinions seems to correlate negatively with the basic knowledge of the discipline. Even experts often get it wrong due to the mindboggling complexity of even the most basic systems. In his book, “Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?,” Philip Tetlock showed that experts usually gave worse predictions than random respondents.

In this regard, abstention from opinion seems to be an appropriate means to keep one’s peace of mind and gain a clear view of the world and the impacts of opinions on interpersonal relationships. Abstention from opinion might present a valuable antidote against the polarization of postmodern society. Postmodern skeptics should be able to prioritize building inclusive communities by focusing on empirical evidence without dogmatically accepting opinion as the ultimate truth and waging war on everyone who thinks differently.

That an individual suffers is an empirical fact. To help, no opinion is necessary. History, however, has shown us just how many people have had to suffer because of (a difference of) opinions.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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