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In Reasonable Religious Disagreements, Feldman argues that much of the time when there is widespread disagreement over some issue, the rational approach is to suspend judgment. I have a question about this view. It seems that whether or not to suspend judgment on a given issue is itself a judgment! And in many cases, this will be a rather contentious judgment indeed; some people might vehemently disagree with your suspension of judgment.

So my thought is, we simply cannot avoid making a judgment on contentious issues, because avoidance would itself be a judgment on a (different) contentious issue. To put it another way, every time we are confronted with an issue, we have to judge whether this issue is something with a clear answer or something we must suspend judgment on. But that itself is a judgment. How could someone respond to this?

Edit: apparently, I didn't spell out the issue clearly enough. I made a new post which is hopefully more clear.

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    What is there to respond to? Whether or not to suspend judgment is a different issue than the one on which it is to be suspended, one can judge one and suspend the other. One cannot suspend judgment on everything anyway if they are to keep living. Widespread disagreement over public issues is one thing, but one's own judgments are one's own business, that others may disagree is not of much concern. And suspension does not involve any judgments or even conscious acts in many cases, it happens habitually.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 18 at 19:51
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    If we use "postpone judgement until sufficient information to allow informed conclusion" as a logical default... then there is no judgement involved.... verifiable valid conclusion waits for sufficient information to provide such. Commented May 18 at 21:27
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    some people might vehemently disagree with your suspension of judgment - That does not matter. 'Suspending judgment' is not necessarily to mollify one who vehemently clings to their personal judgment on the matter. 'Suspending judgment' is your personal decision that the question is too dubious or too controversial to decide on. If someone denies your right to 'suspend judgment', insisting you take a particular POV, they are some sort of zealot/tyrant, and further discussion will probably be futile. Better to disengage entirely with such an interlocutor.
    – Vector
    Commented May 19 at 0:27
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    Indeed, this is an infinite regression and contradiction reminding one of Russel or the halting problem. "Whether an attempt to decide the truth of proposition X can succeed" is surely not answerable for all X. That said, the pragmatic philosopher will simply leave suspicious X alone, i.e. suspend judgement on them. I'm going to have some breakfast now. ;-) Commented May 19 at 9:23
  • No, as it's a decision, and not a judgement. But like anything philosophical, there are many ways to split hairs over the nature of opinions and perceptions.
    – John Smith
    Commented May 19 at 11:20

4 Answers 4

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Feldman basically says that im situations of high epistemic uncertainty, it is often better to stay agnostic.

In order to do so, we need to judge that the matter at hand features so much epistemic uncertainty that we cannot judge whether it is true or false. Hence, it is a meta-judgement to suspend judgement regarding this particular question, nothing more, nothing less.

While you are correct that in a way, this means that this meta-judgement needs to have more epistemic certainty or would have to be suspended itself, this is no inherent problem:

It may both be possible to say that at least it is certain that it is uncertain what really is the case, and that we just add another layer and say that the particular matter and its epistemic certainty are uncertain, yet at least that is sufficiently certain.

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  • There are certain certainties, uncertain certainties, and uncertain uncertainties.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 19 at 15:01
  • This answers the question as stated here, but I wasn't clear enough. See the updated here: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/113164/…
    – Ben Lou
    Commented May 19 at 15:27
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    @ScottRowe - There is also nonsense...
    – Vector
    Commented May 20 at 4:35
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You are right that a decision to suspend judgement is a judgement. However, the point you are missing is that it is a different judgement. You seem to think the phrase 'suspend judgement' means 'make no judgements whatsoever'- it does not. The phrase means to keep an open mind.

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  • Or decide to keep your mind closed until you decide to open it again. But, "Minds, like parachutes, function best when open."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 19 at 15:02
  • +1 Thank you Marco for applying the KISS principle here.
    – Vector
    Commented May 20 at 4:36
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  1. You are right that a decision to suspend judgment about an issue X is a judgment.
  2. Unlike what some others have said, it is a judgment about X, because it is tied inextricably to your degree of belief in X. It represents a degree of belief higher than the level where you would say, "I disbelieve X," but lower than the level where you would say, "I believe X."

Uncertainty in a proposition is a judgment, not a meta-judgment; normally, all our judgments about any proposition involve some uncertainty. Uncertainty is normal and expected on the object-level, not the meta-level.

You are right that we cannot avoid making a judgment on contentious issues. If you remember and understand a claim, then your brain automatically is going to assign some level of credence to it. Even if that level of credence is "I don't have enough information to be sure." Brains just do that - it's like "don't think of an elephant." The only way your brain would avoid assigning any credence at all is if you have never heard the claim, have completely forgotten about it, or don't even have a dim idea of what it means.

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  • because it is tied inextricably to your degree of belief in X... You seem to be assuming that one has heard compelling arguments regarding 'X' (or its negation) such that some degree of judgment has been arrived at. But one can 'suspend judgment' because they don't have sufficient information to decide anything on 'X' - not because they have weighed the issue to any particular degree.
    – Vector
    Commented May 19 at 0:47
  • @Vector Before you've heard much of anything, immediately after just hearing about the issue, you have some initial credence. In the information theory sense, a lack of information corresponds to a probability distribution of maximum entropy, such as a coin flip.
    – causative
    Commented May 19 at 0:54
  • some initial credence does not represent a judgment - a conclusion- only an impression.
    – Vector
    Commented May 19 at 0:58
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It depends on how you view the notion of a judgement. The judgement over a proposition generally sub-divides into positing that p, or positing that ~p, and the choice to suspend judgement on the matter is simply to not posit p or ~p, but you are still making a judgement over the very notion of a making a judgement over p or ~p (that is, assume that "making a judgement" is "j", which also means positing p or ~p. Not making a judgement is refraining from positing p or ~p, that is, it is ~j. Every omission from a primary judgement is a judgement over the judgement which encompasses the omission itself and its opposite, which is the primary judgement). Basically, you will always exercise judgement, but that doesnt mean you cant suspend judgement on a given matter.

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  • True, but I guess I am objecting to the notion that if an issue is contentious enough, one must suspend judgment. My thought is that this is not possible
    – Ben Lou
    Commented May 18 at 18:48
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    How is it not possible to suspend judgement over the issue? Having judgement over the very suspension of the judgement over the issue does not entail having judgement over the issue. Commented May 18 at 19:47
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    @BenLou perhaps the most contentious issues are the ones we should avoid?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 19 at 15:04
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    @ScottRowe - Perhaps... you said what I was thinking. Not sure how you'll take that, but such as it is. :-)
    – Vector
    Commented May 20 at 4:33

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