Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why Suspend Judgment?

It's often suggested that on tough questions (e.g. any contentious philosophical issue), we should suspend judgment. Maybe I'm being silly here, but I can't help but wonder, 'why?' I'm more drawn to the thought that you should use your best judgment, rather than suspending it. I do agree it's important to take the limits of one's epistemic position into account. But the appropriate effect of it is not on the first-order content of your judgments (i.e. the credences you assign to propositions), but their robustness (i.e. how open likely you are to change your mind about it).

Contra the student skeptic (close relative to the notorious student relativist), there's nothing especially admirable about answering every philosophical question with "Who knows?" The philosophically mature skeptic would add, "But here are a couple of possible options...", which is certainly a huge improvement. Best of all, it seems to me, would be to further make a tentative judgment as to which of those options is best, and go from there. You can always change your mind later.

I guess suspending judgment is a way to 'play it safe', if it's more important to you to avoid being wrong than to actually get things right. But that seems a kind of intellectual cowardice. Better to actively seek the truth, and if you end up in the wrong place, just turn around and try again.

One complicating factor is that doxastic commitment (belief, credence, whatever) isn't strictly necessary for inquiry. Philosophers might do just as well to merely suppose that some claim is true (while they explore the implications), rather than strictly believing it. Maybe. I'm not sure I have a great grasp of the difference between tentative belief and well-motivated supposition, however. Any thoughts?


  1. >Maybe I'm being silly here, but I can't help but wonder, 'why?' I'm more drawn to the thought that you should use your best judgment, rather than suspending it.

    This seems like a confusion over the use of the term "judgment." You treat it as referring only to a mental faculty, but the phrase "suspend judgment" doesn't have anything to do with that, rather it refers to neither believing something nor believing its negation, or, in probabilistic terms, having a subjective probability of approximately .5.

    Though I wasn't impressed by your arguments against imprecise credence, I think vague subjective probabilities look like a good alternative to theories that try to class all beliefs in discrete categories. And on the probabilistic approach, its easy to see that the answer to a complex question (i.e. one not reducible to "p or not p") can be the best one available without having a subjective probability greater than .5.

    The issue of willingness to revise beliefs seems to me to break down into general philosophy of rationality and open-mindedness, and status of specific beliefs. And you can be quite confident, given what you know at some moment, of a belief, in spite of a commitment to being willing to change if your situation changed drastically (though that's something you'd find very unlikely). And once you accept that, it seems the main way to hold a belief more weakly is to have something like a subjective probability closer to .5.

    Here, the precise credence issue may be important. I'm inclined to think for many things, we can't offer anything more precise than ".5 or so." If you're insisting on precise credence, you might think that it is often appropriate to have a subjective probability of, say, .543, and call that a weak belief. Though I don't know if that's what you're moving towards here.

  2. I think one of the difficulties that the sceptic wants us to avoid risking is the temptation to over-commit. That is to say, making a judgment at all, even a tentative judgment, tends to result in bias toward future data. Of course it is possible to form commitments which one explicitly acknowledges to be tentative and open to further revision. It is also possible to keep a sufficiently open mind to avoid bias and actually revise when it is appropriate. But it is very difficult to do these things. Scepticism as an avoidance tactic: don't form commitments because they are hard to hold responsibly.

  3. I think playing it safe can be a perfectly fine reason to suspend judgment. Suppose that, in your best estimation, the evidence tentatively suggests that p. If p is inconsistent (in a severe enough way, so to speak) with some other beliefs you hold, then judging that p probably requires you to revise at least some of those beliefs. Revising beliefs, especially really central ones, is difficult. If you have some reason to expect that some evidence down the line will help you make your judgment more reasonably, then you can save yourself some of the difficulty of rooting out the dependencies of your beliefs on p (or not-p).

    A quick example. You have two good friends, A and B. A says B has done something really terrible. B says she has done no such thing. If you trust A just the right amount, it will be more plausible that B has done the terrible deed than not. In your best estimation, the evidence suggests that B has done something terrible. But I imagine that judging that B has done something terrible, even tentatively, would likely change your relationship with B irrevocably and for the worse. So better to wait until you have heard all the evidence, even if you have to wait a little while. This would be playing it safe, but I don't think it would be intellectual cowardice.

  4. I have some sympathy with what you say, but can't one use one's best judgement to decide that the evidence you have underdetermines the conclusions you might draw?

  5. If one isn't a volitionist about belief (as I am not) I wonder exactly what with-holding judgment even means.

  6. Here's what Nietzsche said in a letter to his sister:

    "Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire."

    With respect to positions on which I became a skeptic, it's because I discovered (to my surprise) that my previous beliefs were prejudices, and that they were a liability to further open- and fair-minded inquiry.

    But I grant that things are more complicated than Nietzsche says. In the sciences (and even in philosophy) I think there's an invisible hand mechanism operating in the marketplace of ideas, so that passionate attachment to and pursuit of a hypothesis or research program by committed individuals advances inquiry through a trial and error process.

  7. Clark - why would non-volitionism lead you to think differently about what it is to suspend belief, rather than whether it is something that you can do voluntarily?

    Boram - it sounds like Nietzsche is using 'belief' to mean something different from me, if it is somehow supposed to be in tension with inquiry. (I guess that's a common usage - people talk of their "beliefs" when they really mean claims they affirm because they wish they were true, or something.)

    I like the pragmatic point you mention at the end, and had something similar in mind when writing the concluding paragraph of my post.

    Alex - fair point. In the extreme case, if you have no determinate evidence in either direction, then suspending belief seems entirely appropriate. And then there are other cases where one may wish to avoid making sub-par (e.g. drunk) judgments. So I do think abstaining from the belief game may be reasonable in some circumstances. But I think they're rarer than some would suggest, and in particular want to defend the reasonableness of making tentative judgments on weak evidence.

    Colin and Ian - yeah, those pragmatic reasons for suspending belief sound reasonable. But I'm putting them aside for now because I don't think they're the kind of reason that skeptics typically have in mind when demanding that others rescind their judgments.

    Hallq - puns aside, I do think there's an important link between the faculty of judgment and the state of doxastic judgment. The use of the former, applied to a proposition, typically results in the latter. (Though cf. Alex's point.) (N.B. assigning credence of approx 0.5 is not to suspend judgment at all. You have committed to thinking the proposition 50% likely, and thus to accept any bets at better-than-even odds.)

    "you can be quite confident, given what you know at some moment, of a belief, in spite of a commitment to being willing to change if your situation changed drastically (though that's something you'd find very unlikely)"

    Sorry I was unclear there -- I meant something different. We've got our credence, or the odds we assign the proposition. Then there's our commitment to rational updating (which, as you say, we might expect not to ever come up). The robustness of a belief is supposed to be something different -- something like a measure of how likely it is that new evidence will arise to change our minds one way or another. (If it were predictable which way new evidence would sway us, we could factor that expectation into our present credence.) For example, I might think that P is about 75% likely, but also think that I am very likely to change my mind about this - in some unknown direction - in future. So that's a belief that's confident in one sense (credal value), but tentative in another (robustness).

  8. Because to suspend belief seems to entail the idea that, under some rational reason I ought stop believing in some cases whereas I can't. I can't not make judgements. I think it points to a problem where "suspending belief" is the demand to not make a judgment when I can't help but judge.

    It's akin to someone saying, "don't think of the word blue" which is a kind of paradoxical statement.

    Now if beliefs are volitional this isn't a problem.

  9. Richard,

    On your first point, I think that brings us back to the precise credence issue--A judgment of "somewhere around .5" doesn't have rigid consequences for what bets we must be willing to take, any more than a judgment of "pretty damn sure" does. Maybe I'd feel differently about this issue if I habitually played decision markets, but that's my common-sense thinking, anyway.

    On your second point, I have to admit I haven't thought enough about the robustness issue, as you define it, to say anything definite.

  10. I think this is often more a language issue. It is highly unlikely that all the views will seem exactly equally likely to you, but if you say one seems more likely people will often interpret this as your being far more confident than you actually are. So if you can clearly communicate that your view is something like 55/45, go ahead, but if you can't it is fine to tell them you "suspect judgment."


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