In Reasonable Religious Disagreements, Feldman argues for the following.

(#) On issues where there is widespread disagreement between epistemic peers, the rational approach is to suspend judgment.

I will argue that this is possibly contradictory.

Consider a contentious issue X such that it is also contentious whether one can reach a firm conclusion on X. I don't want to get political, but one issue that comes to mind is the Israel versus Palestine conflict. Feel free to replace this with another example like many worlds quantum mechanics versus the Copenhagen interpretation. The two positions for the issue itself are:

  1. Israelis are essentially in the moral right.
  2. Palestinians are essentially in the moral right.

(Admittedly this is oversimplfied, but my point is not dependent on the exact details.) When faced with smart people on both sides claiming that their position is right, one might want to suspend judgment. However, there is a meta-issue at play here as well.

  1. It is possible to reach a firm conclusion on the above moral dilemma.
  2. It is not really possible to reach a firm conclusion as of now, meaning one should suspend judgment.

Again, there is significant disagreement here. Some people think that the answer is quite straightforward (think "we have to eliminate Hamas" or "we have to stop the genocide", which should be familiar phrases for anyone following the conflict). Others disagree, perhaps applying something like (#) to the issue.

Therefore, applying (#) to the meta-issue, we conclude we should suspend judgment on the meta-issue. However, as we already noted, applying (#) to the original issue yields that we indeed can reach a judgment on the meta-issue, which is a contradiction. How could someone respond to this?

P.S. This is a continuation of my earlier post. Here, I try to spell out the contradiction more clearly (there were already too many answers on that post for an edit of mine to be appropriate).

Edit: It appears that people are getting bogged down in the technical details of the given example, which can easily be removed by changing the questions slightly. In the interest of not getting into a long back-and-forth on technical points, let us consider the example of many-worlds quantum mechanics. Possible positions are:

  1. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is essentially correct.
  2. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is essentially incorrect.

We also have the meta-question of:

  1. At this time, our evidence makes it rational to either believe or disbelieve the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
  2. At this time, our evidence makes it rational to suspend judgment on the matter.

Needless to say, there are many brilliant physicists on either side of the debate over many-worlds quantum mechanics. I also personally know renowned physicists who think that we do have enough evidence to justify belief in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. But I know plenty of others, including myself (tentatively), who don't currently think we have enough evidence on the issue, so that we should suspend judgment.

Now, (#) says we should suspend judgment on the many-world interpretation, but also that we should suspend judgment on whether to suspend judgment, which is a contradiction.

  • Also, if one side is willing to use violence, there is no "as of now", and there will be no changes in the situation: the result is baked in to the premise. Reason and negotiation are not going to change anything. Didn't we learn all this stuff last millennium?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 19 at 18:27
  • "Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge." - Winston Churchill
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 19 at 22:39
  • 1
    You will only get a contradiction by replacing "on issues" by "on all issues" in (#). But this is not what Feldman advocates. He is deliberately vague on the scope of "issues" and "disagreements" covered, he stipulates distinctions between practical and epistemic rationality, sharing of evidence, etc., and he explicitly endorses "hard line" in some cases rather than suspension of judgment. Judgment on suspension of judgment is more of a practical than epistemic nature, and the 'evidence' is not really sharable, so meta-application of (#) does not fly.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 19 at 22:46
  • 1
    He stipulates "assume that they have shared their evidence to fullest extent possible. Their disagreement is not about which belief is more beneficial or morally useful or any of the other matters set aside earlier" before even discussing those cases. Practical judgments on private attitudes fall squarely under the "hard line" option. Others are not privy to introspective evidence and the choice of suspension is mostly about behavior, disengagement from moral disputes in your example.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 20 at 4:17
  • 1
    You're falling into a dangerous trap if you believe that "the two positions" for the Israelopalestinian conflict are "Israeli are essentially in the moral right" and "Palestinians are essentially in the moral right". In fact, this "us versus them" mentality is one of the reasons why this conflict has lasted so long.
    – Stef
    Commented May 21 at 0:37

2 Answers 2


The contradiction is false because the meta-issue's proposed resolutions are not mutually exclusive. It may well be the case that it's not possible to reach a firm conclusion on the moral issue as of now but that it will be possible to reach a firm conclusion at some point (eg., after finding more evidence, clarifying terms, etc.).

It would be more correct to say that the meta-issue's question is "it is possible to reach a firm conclusion on the above moral dilemma" vs. "it is not possible to reach a firm conclusion on the above moral dilemma". Given those more-correctly-opposed propositions, it becomes clear that withholding judgement on the meta-issue is possible without contradiction.

Additionally, the rule Feldman proposes seems only to relate to a proposition and its negation (or other truly mutually-exclusive propositions). That is, it isn't meant to address "X is in the right" vs. "Y is in the right" so much as "X is in the right" vs. "it is not the case that X is in the right". Which, those first two propositions produce a false dichotomy as-written: it is possible that both of the larger groups mentioned are largely in the moral right (one common explanation for this is a small minority within them using their outsized power to perform immoral actions) or that neither is in the moral right.

Consider a gang in a city. The city may be largely law-abiding but still be subject to a great amount of crime because of a tiny percentage of its citizens flagrantly break the law.

Further, neither of the proposed answers (eliminating Hamas and stopping the genocide) necessarily relate to which of the larger groups (Israelis and Palestinians) are essentially in the moral right. It is entirely possible to think that the Palestinians are in the wrong and that genocide should be stopped, anyway. Arguments in favor of either of the proposed answers should not be read as arguments for or against either of the initial issue's propositions.


Update to answer the edit. The quantum mechanics question is simply backwards. We must decide whether there is sufficient evidence to determine whether or not the many-worlds interpretation is correct before we can determine the correctness of the interpretation. That is: we must answer the meta-issue before we can address the issue.

Feldman talked about this in the "Left and Right" example. As it stands: some people have decided that Left is guilty while others are convinced that Right is guilty; both are arguing their point vociferously, but neither side can convince the other. The most logical conclusion (assuming the arguments are among epistemic peers operating in good faith) is that there is insufficient evidence either way (possibly including things like disagreements about the weight of certain evidences), so withholding judgement is warranted.

Put another way: for the purposes of the meta-question, the mere fact that there is such widespread disagreement between epistemic peers is strong - probably overwhelming - evidence for the proposition "at this time, our evidence makes it rational to suspend judgement on the matter". Were the disagreement not widespread (or not among epistemic peers), the matter would be settled sufficiently to accept the other proposal and, thus, accept/reject many-worlds.

  • This is pointing out a lot of important factors, the most important being that it's not about "more" or "less" correct but propositions where the Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM) holds, ie. mutually exclusive cases.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented May 20 at 8:57
  • I agree that there are some technical problems with my original example, but these can be overcome with slight modifications. In the interest of not getting bogged down in these, please see the new example I added about many worlds quantum mechanics
    – Ben Lou
    Commented May 20 at 15:44
  • 1
    In short: the Copenhagen extension puts the questions in the wrong order. First, we need to agree on whether or not there is sufficient evidence, then we decide whether or not the evidence supports or refutes the Copenhagen interpretation. Since the epistemic peers can't agree on whether there's sufficient evidence, we're justified in withholding judgement about where the evidence points.
    – minnmass
    Commented May 20 at 23:43

In many cases, only one disputant wants to contend and the other does not. Both must fight if one side starts to fight.

The answer is to consider the results of Game Theory, that Cooperation works out better for everyone than Defection. Anyone who doesn't accept this cannot be reasoned with. Violence could be inevitable at that point, if the contentious party reasons that either it would be effective, or they have no choice.

  • Unreasoning people (also animals) that feel they have no choice have nothing to lose, because if they don't fight, they think they will die. This is the advice if you are abducted: "Risk everything to get away." Also the saying, "The first duty of a prisoner is to escape." So it is perfectly rational.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 19 at 16:16

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .