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I will illustrate my question with several examples involving 3 individuals: A, B, C.

Example 1: The shape of the Earth

  • A defends the claim that the Earth is round.
  • B defends the claim that the Earth is flat.
  • C is epistemically open to all possibilities, and doesn't want to commit the Holmesian fallacy, so decides to withhold judgement.

Example 2: The existence of God

  • A defends the claim that God does exist.
  • B defends the claim that God does not exist.
  • C, once again, prefers to remain epistemically open-minded, so decides to withhold judgement.

Example 3: The universe was created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age

  • A believes this is nonsense.
  • B believes this is actually the case.
  • C withholds judgement ("you never know").

Example 4: Consciousness can be reduced to Physics

  • A believes consciousness is reducible to Physics.
  • B believes consciousness is not reducible (there must be something beyond Physics).
  • C withholds judgement.

Example 5: Murdering other people is objectively wrong

  • A believes so.
  • B believes morality is ultimately subjective, so disagrees.
  • C withholds judgement.

Is C's position always the most rational?
Should we always withhold judgement?
Or is "withholding judgement" a position that needs to be defended as well (i.e., with a burden of proof of its own)?

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  • 12
    Those positions you listed are not of equal standing. You specifically state A and B are defending positions, while C is just choosing to withhold judgement. The equivalent position would be that C asserting that others should also withhold judgement.
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 22:08

9 Answers 9

17

Describing yourself ("I am not convinced.") is free.

Describing the rest of reality ("Your argument is not convincing.") costs an argument.

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  • 3
    Agreed. If they withhold judgement then they don't have a burden of proof, but as soon as they argue "I am justified in withholding judgement" then they have the burden of proving that claim (which is a different claim, though related).
    – Matthias
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 4:46
  • 3
    So "Your argument is not convincing" costs an argument, but "I am not convinced by your argument" is free? That sounds like a rather glaring loophole, where you can communicate basically the same thing while sidestepping the need for an argument. Does this also extend to, e.g. "The Earth is flat" costs an argument, but "I believe the Earth is flat" is free? Any truth claim can be rephrased to start with "I believe".
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 19:27
  • 4
    @NotThatGuy yep. You might be lying about what you believe, and if you're not lying, what you believe might be wrong, but if you believe it, you believe it. (And if I believe that you're wrong, I have to agree that you believe it.)
    – g s
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 20:20
  • Succinctly put. Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 10:11
  • 2
    @NotThatGuy: "I believe the Earth is flat" is a statement about one's own mental state. "The Earth is flat" is a statement about the Earth. Those are two entirely different propositions. You cannot simply synonymize them - otherwise, there would be no way of talking about mental states, and you would have to claim that they do not exist (or are so insignificant as to be not worth talking about). See also Moore's problem.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 19:49
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First of all, "the burden of proof" is not a hard and fast rule but more about sportsmanship. So as asserting a claim is easier than defending or disproving one the former usually is required to support their position by arguments and evidence. Though what constitutes a "claim" or an "assertion" may differ depending on context and the accepted status quo... If you said "the world is round" today compared to 500 years ago the expectation for evidence for that claim would be vastly different.

So yeah regarding the question: It Depends ;)

But seriously if it is an open question with multiple alternatives it's fair to withhold judgement before you know what's at stake. In fact it's usually dangerous to pick a side before you know what it is about and what is at stake.

That being said if a decision is already made and you remain neutral, then that is actually a hidden (or partial) rejection of that decision which can be seen as an assertion.

Or if there is a process to make a decision and you withhold any sort of judgement that in itself might be less of a neutral stance but somewhere between, support, rejection or it's own alternative.

And as a consequence it can warrant prove or be neutral, so your examples are not the same even if they sound like it on face value.

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  • 2
    The burden of proof can be about sportsmanship (maybe), but also it's a very fundamental question of epistemology. It's about trying to figure out what beliefs we should start with and what should be proven from there. It stops you from believing anything and everything without question, and helps one strive for consistency in one's reasons for believing things.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 4:34
  • 3
    @NotThatGuy That sounds more like the "necessity of proof" or a "threshold of doubt", but the burden (hardship) of proof is the question upon whom it falls to do the heavy lifting which has nothing to do with the logic itself, which couldn't care less who is doing the work and much more to do with the social relations of the interlocutors. Like has someone the authority to claim without prove? Does someone wants something? Change is often regarded with doubt while consistency is treated as self-evident? Which is wrong (logically speaking), it's just convenient, it's a convention so to say.
    – haxor789
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 10:02
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I apologise in advance for the possibly confusing answer.

Withholding judgement means making a non-claim or no proposition about the issue, correct? In that case there is nothing C says that requires proof of any kind, relating to the issue at hand (whether the Earth is flat, etc.)

He might be asked why they withhold judgement, especially with issue 3 (it seems nonsensical to withhold judgement in that situation). If they assert that withholding judgement in that context is fine, he would have to provide proof for why they are withholding judgement, but not necessarily for the original issue.

Or is "withholding judgement" a position that needs to be defended as well (i.e., with a burden of proof of its own)?

Potentially, this is how I would answer the question. But it would only make sense (to how I understand it, anyway) if the person said a truth-value statement about how they withheld judgement. For example:

A: Why are you withholding judgement, this is a simple question with a clear answer?

C: Withholding judgement is a reasonable thing to do when asked this question.

The act of withholding judgement doesn't necessarily ask for the burden of proof. Defending or making a claim about the withholding of judgement would.

Another answer mentions that withholding judgement when a consensus has been reached can imply a rejection of the consensus, which could be challenged as requiring potential burden of proof. This is an important and interesting point too.

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  • 2
    They must withhold judgement about their own withholding of judgement. It's turtles all the way down.
    – Matthias
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 4:49
  • @Matthias so it goes! Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 5:12
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The short answer is no, but the question makes a few faulty presumptions:

  1. It presumes that holding an opinion requires the holder of the opinion to provide any sort of justification for their belief, let alone "proof".
  2. It presumes that convincing someone to share an opinion or take some action requires proof.
  3. It presumes that there might be some way to actually "prove" an indecision.

1.) Person "C" carries no burden to prove anything, whether or not they eventually come to agree with "A" or "B", or choose to "withhold judgement". There is no requirement to participate in the discussion, to declare which belief they hold or don't hold, or actively decide to withhold judgement. They are free to remain silent and completely ambivalent.

Truly, neither "A" nor "B" has any real burden either. They are equally free to not discuss their beliefs.

Consider that "burden of proof" is a legal term, and in your examples "A" and "B" would be attorneys for the plaintiff and defendant, while "C" would represent the jury. The lawyer for the prosecution has the burden of proof, the defendant does not. The jury never has a burden to prove anything.

Therefore, the person asserting a certain point of view is the one who has a burden to support, (or prove...) their argument, but if and only if they hope to convince others to share their view.

2.) Getting someone to agree with you rarely requires hard proof. The car salesman doesn't have to "prove" that the car they are trying to sell you is assured to be the best decision in the future, they only need to get you to decide to buy it. And the buyer doesn't have to justify either their decision, or any indecision.

3.) Finally, what might "proof" of a lack of decision or absence of commitment even look like? If presented by compelling but opposing evidence on an issue it is reasonable to presume that a person might be unable to decide. However, there is no tangible evidence that could be presented for such a lack of support for either. They would simply remain unconvinced. If person "C" was to argue a position from the middle they would no longer be withholding judgement, but espousing a new point for undecided person "D".

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This platform StackExchange Philosophy provides many examples of questions with answers of type A,B,C.

Whether the position of C, whithholding judgement, is rational, depends on his/her ability to justify by an argument, why he has no answer to the question. Lets hear his argument?

I do not consider the argument of C in example 1 and 3 to be correct resp. to be sufficient, the other examples do not provide any argument.

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  • In other words, C does have a burden of proof. We don't get a free pass to withhold judgement in all cases, correct?
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 13:14
  • Yes. Sometimes the evidence is sufficient. Reasonable people choose the evidentially correct answer.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 13:15
  • C could also withhold judgment solely because the arguments of A and B do not persuade him, because he does not accept one of the premises or one of the inferential steps, or because of ambiguity in the argument. In that case C does not have or need an argument of his own.
    – causative
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 16:43
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When someone withholds judgement, you must pay attention to whether or not it is reasonable for them to still do so. In many situations, people may put forward that explanation to hide what they feel is a less universally palatable decision that will simply be taken care of by the status quo.

Take an obviously absurd example, the trolley problem: Person A: We don't touch the lever, we don't want responsibility for the deaths of others.

Person B: We switch the track so only one person dies. It achieves the minimum amount of death.

Person C: I don't have enough information on the situation, so I will withhold judgement.

Here Person C is just Person A letting more people die because he doesn't want to take responsibility into his own hands. He's not letting the status quo be disturbed, thus he is accepting it, despite his ability to change it.

In your example, Murdering people is objectively wrong, there is a concept that silence is assent. Person C is choosing to remain silent on the topic, but his silence is secretly allowing murderers to roam free do do as they please. After all, it is the actors who are allowed to act on the acted without protection if protections aren't given, and Person C isn't choosing whether or not to give those protections. So in the end, Person C is secretly just Person B in this example as he is allowing murderers to do their own thing while he makes up his mind.

In short, there are many questions where it may be reasonable to withhold judgement, but not in questions where there is consequence. Once real consequences come into play, withholding judgement is just passing the buck to the status quo without saying as much, and people who do this should be called out for it.

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  • A belief that murder is wrong doesn't stop a murderer from murdering. And someone can take an action to stop a murder without judging that murder is wrong. Your statements about Person C in the murder example are false. The question of whether action is taken doesn't have a "withhold judgement" position. Either the action is taken or it isn't taken. This is orthogonal to the question of making a judgement on a truth proposition.
    – beauxq
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 0:35
  • @beauxq true, we needn't bother with questions of right and wrong, we can just say we don't like murder (for example) and no one can argue with us. Morality is replaced by preference. Fine with me.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 14:15
  • Your argument is that someone can choose to perform an action without a cause. If a person is intentionally stopping a murder, they must have a reason why they wish to stop that murder. On some level, they must believe that the murder is wrong at that point. Even if they decide the murderer will get blood on the nice carpet, they've made a decision that the murder is wrong right now for this reason. As for weighing the life of one person over another, I think Scott that you might have too broad a definition of what constitutes as murder. Self defense or defense of another I don't count as such Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 19:12
  • "Your argument is that someone can choose to perform an action without a cause." No, it is that someone can perform an action without the specific cause that you have in mind. It is possible that someone thinks murder is always right and good, and still acts to stop murder. (Imagine this person is addicted to stopping murders, while they think that murder is always right and good.) Performing an action does not imply thinking that action is right.
    – beauxq
    Commented Dec 14, 2023 at 22:33
  • This description of yours does not sound like the actions of someone with a right and sane mind. Are you suggesting that we cater to the ideas of how every lunatic is going to think as well? I can't begin to imagine what possibilities that would start to include. I refuse to include any logic that doesn't start with a rational mind or at least sane mind. Commented Dec 15, 2023 at 17:09
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This illustrates the difference between logic and reason. Logic is either valid or invalid, whereas reason measures probabilities and uncertainties.

Whereas it is purely logical to say "the claim has not been 100% proven, so I cannot say it is true", it would be most reasonable to say "the claim has been reasonably argued, so I believe it is true".

Note: The phrase "reasonably argued" above, is subjective, which is why some people are more gullible and others are more skeptical. But it's how humans operate: calculating a probability of reliability based on all evidence. The resulting probability is 50% or 70% or even 99%. Logic can't "round up", so Reason steps in and takes the leap of faith, yielding a functional conclusion that says "I believe it" or "I think it is true" (which is the same).

So logic is great for finding errors, but it cannot arrive at truth since there is always uncertainty. Reason makes up the difference and allows humans to act on truths that have not been proven 100% true.

"Burden of proof" enters the equation on the side of reason. When weighing claims, each claim needs to be supported, or "proven" (supported with arguments attempting to prove it, that reasonably do prove it). So in our human mental algorithm, claims with no supporting proof have no weight, and claims with proof have greater weight. This means that a supported claim should cause due acceptance, whereas an unsupported claim cannot demand acceptance. In the other direction: someone may say "You can't accuse me of being unreasonable for not believing your claim, since your claim has not been supported by proof. It is your burden to prove your claim." Hence: the "burden of proof".

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Withholding judgement may not carry a burden of proof as such, but you could potentially make the case that:

  • They're being inconsistent to withhold judgement on claim X, yet accept some other claim Y, despite both having a similar amount of evidence.

    If someone says e.g. "I don't have enough data to know whether this treatment is safe", you could point to other treatments that they accept as safe with a similar amount of data.

  • They're still acting as if claim X is true, which carries consequences for themselves, and more importantly, for others too.

    If someone says "I don't know if this treatment is safe, so I won't take it and will oppose it until further notice", one might say they're acting as if the treatment is unsafe. Now, all medical treatments are assumed unsafe until proven otherwise, but the issue is when we've proven otherwise, and someone still withholds judgement and treats is as if we haven't proven it to be safe.

    Agnostic theism is another example where someone might act as if some god exists despite considering this to be unknowable, and one might argue that belief in a particular god is not a reasonable default position.*

    We commonly need to make decisions based on our beliefs, and even doing nothing is a decision too. Withholding judgement doesn't mean you don't make a decision one way or the other.

    * Theism doesn't directly entail a decision, but it indirectly influences many when it comes to morality or acting based on the existence of a supposed afterlife.

  • As a member of society, they have some responsibility to make certain judgements. Failing to do so carries some implicit support for an objectionable position.

    If whether murder should be against the law is being voted on, and someone doesn't vote because they're withholding judgement, one might say they're failing in their responsibility and implicitly supporting the pro-murder side. Or that a kind and empathetic person would oppose murder (in which case a rational response might be for them to say they aren't kind and don't care about others, but it would not be a particularly humane response).

    If they claim that they haven't investigated the issue, one might say they have a responsibility to do so.

  • The positive claim withholding judgement implies is "the evidence doesn't point to one conclusion above others"

    For the Earth being round or flat, if someone thinks there might be some third option (they could always be a brain in a vat, but that doesn't really tell us much), you could potentially press them on at least rejecting one of the two, or making a judgement about what the available evidence points to.

    Matt Dillahunty, a well-known atheist debater, has on occasion said something similar: if he's debating "Is Christianity true", he doesn't take the firm position of "no", but if he debates something like "Do we have good reason to believe Christianity is true", he does take a firm "no" position.

I would certainly not say that withholding judgement is "always the most rational", but I would say that all positions should be provisional (where you take a position) - that, to me, seems far more rational than withholding judgement altogether. I can't be completely sure that reality outside of my mind exists, but I have no reason to believe that it doesn't, so I'll provisionally take it to exist, and I'll act as if it does.

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  • If whether murder is wrong is being voted on, that doesn't have any consequences. That isn't the kind of thing that is normally voted on. Analogously, what is voted on in most societies is whether to enforce a law against murder - whether to set up a system where law enforcement will react to murders and attempted murders. That is not the same as voting on whether murder is wrong. You're confusing the question of whether murder is wrong with the question of whether action is taken against murder.
    – beauxq
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 0:49
  • @beauxq Edited.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 1:44
  • @beauxq "There's no reason for it, it's just our policy."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Dec 13, 2023 at 14:10
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The default position on any claim is disbelief, so it is reasonable to take the third position in all of your examples. You may be pressed for an explanation of why you find an argument unconvincing, but one who is not making a claim has no burden of proof.

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