There is a lot of noise in our house. From the moment the first kid is awake until the last one goes to bed, there is some kind of commotion. It might be banging around cupboards in the kitchen, loud bursts of joy, loud bursts of displeasure or loud bursts that require a referee (the differences are subtle but parents quickly learn which can be tuned out and which require quick attention). While I was in the laundry room folding towels, I heard my 3 1/2 year old arguing with her 8 year old sister. It went something like this:
- 8 yo: Your birthday is in 4 months.
- 3 yo: NO! My birthday is July 25th!
- 8 yo: [Calmly] Yes, it is in July. I was just saying how much longer you had to wait.
- 3 yo: I will wait for July 25th. Not for 4 months!
What Does It Mean To Be Right?
These types of exchanges are common with 3 year olds. They love to be contrarians even at times where there is no argument. In this case both my 8 year old and my 3 year old were correct. The were essentially saying the same thing but in different ways. One expressed the calendar date of her birthday and the other how much time until her birthday. So what does it mean to be right? This is what we want to explore.
Nasreddin The Judge
Nasreddin was born in what is present-day Turkey in the 13th century and was known for his stories that were sometimes funny, sometimes wise and other times ridiculous. Read the following Nasreddin story with your kids.
Nasreddin Hodja was named the Kadı of Akşehir. One day, two men who were in a dispute came to him and asked him to resolve their conflict. Nasreddin listened to the plaintiff first.
“You are right,” he said when the plaintiff had finished speaking. Then, Nasreddin listened to the defendant. “You are right,” he said to the defendant as well. Everyone in the room was perplexed, with one observer even protesting his response.
“Kadı Efendi,” he said, “You agreed with both of the parties. The dispute can’t be settled if you say ‘you are right’ to both of them.” Nasreddin considered for a moment, then he said: ‘You are right, too.’
Opinion v. Fact
Growing up I had a friend who was a bit of a know-it-all. Any topic that came up he knew more about it than anyone else. If you told a story, he always had an experience that was better. There was one particular time when a group of us kids were talking about how much we loved the movie Goonies. It is a great kid adventure with a mysterious story of pirates treasure, bad guys, Data’s cool gadgets and lots of jokes in the face of danger. The know-it-all loudly interjected, “that is the worst movie ever made!” I responded with “that’s just your opinion and it’s a really bad one.” He said, “Nope. It’s the worst movie and that’s just a fact!”
Can An Opinion Be Wrong?
Going back to the Nasreddin story, imagine for a moment that the Plantif’s argument was “the most beautiful city in the world in Istanbul.” And the defendent countered with “no, the most beautiful city in the world is Tokyo.” A city containing the most beauty is a difficult if not impossible thing to measure. It’s reaonsable to say that both were expressing an opinion. So if Nasreddin looked at these two statements as matters of opinion, maybe he is justified in telling them that they are both right.
And if the observer was looking at the two statements as a disagreement of facts which wouldn’t allow for them to both be right, would Nasreddin be justified in agreeing with him as well?This brings up the question of whether an opinion can be wrong.
One of the biggest irritations I have is thinking up and remembering passwords. What I hate even more is those sites, usually banks, which ask you to answer security questions. These security questions are a great example for our discussion today because they are usually a variation of facts and opinions.
One question might be “what is the city of your birth?” or “what year did you graduate high school.” Both of these have one and only one answer (some smart alec might claim that they went to high school twice) and are considered facts. But there are other questions such as “what is your favorite color?” or “what is your favorite city?” These are much more subjective and open to individual interpretation. I hate these questions because I like multiple colors and multiple cities. For me, there is no favorite. So I have to pick one and then try to remember next time which city I picked as my favorite.
Here is the exercise. I like Prague, Vienna and London but I can’t decide which is my favorite. I settle on Vienna.
Protagoras And Plato Fight It Out
Let’s turn for a moment to the ancient Greeks for some guidance. We have Plato’s Realism versus Protagoras’ Relativism. Let your kids read the two opposing viewpoints and then discuss what they think.
Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.
Note: You can explain to your kids that the phrasing “is Man” can be interpreted as “each person.” My two oldest daughters don’t like the this type of usage so we tweak wording when we paraphrase.
The above quote is usually shortened to the phrase:
Man is the measure of all things.
In other words, everything is relative to each person through their experience, judgement, and interpretation.
Plato created the theory of forms which argues that everything we encounter is a poor copy of its form. A form is not something we can see or feel because it is an abstract concept. An example would be the form being like the master sculpter who creates an ornate column for a building and gives it to her apprentice. The apprentice then makes copies of the column for the rest of the building. The copies may be very good and even made from a mold of the original but they are not the same. An interpretation of the theory of forms is that all things have an absolute truth but our words, descriptions and actions always fall short at adequately describing them.
Plato argues that it is impossible for each person to arrive at the truth because people’s opinions and knowledge of facts differ so much. He even gets a little snarky about Protagoras’ relative truth and him teaching students in a school. Platy says in Theaetetus, “And how are we so ignorant that we should go to school to him, if each of us is the measure of our own wisdom?”
Recently when my 8 year old and I were walking back to our car in a parking lot, we saw a car with a white stripe down the middle from the hood to the bumper. On one side of the stripe the car was painted black and on the other side red. A person watching it drive down the road from one side sees a red car go by. But a person on the other side of the road sees a black car. I quickly thought of Nasreddin, pointed it out to my daughter and said, “maybe Protagoras is right and everything is just relative to what we experience.” But my daughter responded perfectly as the Platonic realist, “all I see is a weird paint job on a mini van.”