The Forum

THE VIRTUES OF “SUSPENDING JUDGMENT” IN ACTION AND STEADFAST EXISTENTIAL INQUIRY!

But it is bad to stop, hard to be satisfied with a single way of seeing, to go without contradiction, perhaps the most subtle of all spiritual forces. The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.” Albert Camus[1]

And,

To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues. For the learning of every virtue there is an appropriate discipline, and for the learning of suspended judgment the best discipline is philosophy.” – Bertrand Russell[2]

 

This work presented here is a critique of the philosophical thesis in the authorship[3]of Professor Richard Feldman. His concluding thesis is that “suspension of judgment is the epistemically appropriate attitude.”[4]I hope to defend this line of thought by first enumerating on the main points of his argument and second by attempting to refute a few of the possibly conceivable objections to this thesis.

 

In his work, Feldman is chiefly concerned with the notion of justification and the risk of being complacent through assuming certain metaphysical attitudes such as the one that perceives that there can be genuine disagreements among epistemic peers[5] who have shared evidences about a disputed issue. But first before delving into this point, I think it is important to set straight some of the useful terminologies that Feldman uses and how he defines these terms.

 

Rationalityor reasonableness to Feldman is separated into two categories: the prudential/practical rationally which is anchored on the practical/beneficial values of an act, and epistemic rationality that is the correctness corroborated by substantial evidential support. While some may contest that holding a belief necessarily translate into a consequent action inspired by the belief, Feldman persuasively distinguishes that not all actions are offspring of belief; belief in watered-down version could be commitment to certain attitudes/ways of life. “Sometimes it is reasonable to act a certain way while it is not reasonable to believe that that way of acting will be successful.”[6] What would rather qualify as rational belief would be the evidential merit the belief bears. Justification in holding a particular belief would then be embedded in the epistemic quality of correctness of an espoused belief. The term correctness as I do understand it is a corollary of trueness that can perhaps be attested to by more than one replicable (acceptable) methodology of inquiry. Enough of setting these preliminaries straight!

 

Through what he calls “Uniqueness Thesis”, which is “the idea that a body of evidence justifies at most one proposition out of a competing set of propositions[7], Feldman endeavors to assault the notion that assumes that epistemic peers can have reasonable disagreement based on a specific body of evidence. Feldman argues against the presumption that epistemic peers can share the totality of evidence accordingly. But I think his strongest attack on this assumption is when he disputesthe privileging advantage of private evidence and the seeming “obviousness” or the intuitive “correctness”/insight that is secluded in an epistemic peer’s subjectivity which the other epistemic peer has no access to. In discrediting the idea that evidence of evidence is (double?) evidence, Feldman demands that separate reasons are required to justify the privileging of one’s rather than the other’s insight. “The theist and the atheist need reasons to think that their own, rather than the other’s, insights or seemings are accurate.”[8] As Feldman argues, when an epistemic peer holds their ground due to privileging their intuitive insights of their own evidence, this inner confidence in one’s own insight is not sufficient enough to count as an extra evidential force but could actually mean that one is simply tenacious in their argument.

 

Opposing proponents, in the camp that holds that two epistemic peers with shared evidence can “reasonably” end at differing conclusions about the same-shared evidence, would still want to contest Feldman’s challenge on privileging one’s (epistemic peer’s) inner sight(s). To echo a possibly objection that might be raised by Professor Jeremy Fantl, either of the epistemic peers has the internal strength of knowing that their own epistemic position is a derivative of the knowledge supported by the evidence and therefore either of them (epistemic peers) can legitimately flatly dismiss the other’s position. Fantl says the following, “It might be hard to figure out whether your epistemic position is strong enough to license dogmatic belief. But it’s not in principle harder than figuring out whether your epistemic position is strong enough for knowledge. One of us has that strength. The other one doesn’t. Which one has it? I think it’s me.[9]How then can this confidence entrenched on the subjective (subjective in the sense that not accessible by the other epistemic peer) strength of one’s epistemic position legitimately pass as an extra evidential support to one’s own position?

 

I am afraid that these opposing proponents are exploiting a certain paradox here. First, they believe that evidence can roughly be equally shared among epistemic peers. Second, that the inner awareness of one’s relation to knowledge supported by the shared evidence adds an extra force to one’s legitimacy. To go a few steps back, I would like to ask what is it really that constitutes a body of evidence? Can a body of shared evidence be just the “obvious” dry facts embedded in the body of evidence or does not the body of evidence constitute other two other elements to it namely: my self-relation[10] to the dry body of evidence, and my awareness of this self-relation to this dry body of evidence? For it to be truly shared must not this trilogy be met/satisfied (that is the existence of “dry” body of facts, my self-relation to this “dry” body of facts, and more importantly my inner-complete awareness of the “dry” body of facts and this self-relation)?

 

To be fair enough, I think there are a few psychological experiments that have attested to the fact that our minds do sometimes or even always function in diverse specialized manner. Borrowing from the concept of salience[11], I would argue that though all epistemic peers have roughly the same mental and perhaps even affective capacities, at any given period of time not all these capacities are fully functional/utilized. Several of these capacities might be predominant and take priority at any given time and thereby influencing on the saliency of the different features of the body of “dry” facts at ones disposal. Why some features of the dry body of evidence would be more noticeable than others, I do not know. But I think, like some cognitive psychologists in the selective attention/Gorilla experiment have already pointed out, itis virtually impossible to attend to every stimulus that stands out in a given body of evidence at any given time. Therefore, to claim that evidences are truly shared by epistemic peers is to affirm the aforementioned three components which are that the salient features of a “dry” body of evidence, the consequences of the self-relation to this “dry” body of evidence, and my awareness of this self-relation. Otherwise what would the term “shared” among epistemic peers amount to if it does not account for this trilogy?

 

If the above argument about the minimum trilogy requirements can be allowed, which can qualify the term “shared” and hence amount to roughly sharing of the totality of evidence, then it is hard to imagine that one epistemic peer rather than both of them would legitimately rely on the strength of his or her relation to the epistemic position (and its evidential support) to fortify their own dogmatic belief. In this view, both epistemic peers (in the strictest term of the word epistemic peers) in principle have the same strength in relation to their divergent positions.

 

Even though one epistemic peer can only have more accurate and immediate access to their own epistemic strength, that does not warrant any privileging their own epistemic position over that of the other epistemic peer who is trapped in their own subjectivity but has roughly equal strength in their own epistemic position. Another independent reason would be needed to justify an epistemic peer’s privileging his or her own position over the other. After all when one recognizes that the other is a competent epistemic peer, then one has to confer them the same privileges he or she confers to herself/himself.

 

But then another serious objection that can be raised to me would be the following: if the epistemic peers share equally in the trilogy requirement, then why would there be need for “suspension of judgment”? Would “suspension of judgment” not amount to acknowledging that after all either nothing is ever shared equally or that epistemic peers can reasonably sometimes disagree since no common consensus in the divergent epistemic positions was attained? Or to make put it more roughly, is not the notion of epistemic peers vague and empty in reality?

 

In hopes to address the above objection, let me attempt an indirect rejoinder. I believe that the notion of epistemic peers is accurate since that most, if not all, sentient beings (and all human beings included) have been endowed with the capacities to know and to differentiate several phenomena they encounter andin which they themselves are immersed in (and are compositions of the entire tapestry of phenomena). But habits (entrenched predispositions and acquired inclinations gained through rigorous training etc.), I think, are the chief causes of our diverse interpretations of phenomena. “The body’s judgment is as good as the mind’s, and the body shrinks from annihilation. We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us toward death, the body maintains its irreparable lead.[12]Most of our peculiar ways of internalizing stimuli and interpreting them get inculcated in us before we even know the main genuine reason(s) as to why these mental and affective peculiarities are the one we have chosen or preferred to others.

 

The root, though this could be highly contestable, of the diverse interpretations among epistemic peers could be entrenched in these assimilated habits long before the habit of probing facts is picked. As Nietzsche also says, “Man’s tragedy…is that he was once a child.[13]The habits of inquiry or perceiving phenomena, which we acquired especially during our infantile stages, may still consciously and/or subconsciously influence the manner(s) through which we encounter and interpret phenomena even in our later stages in life. And I do not think there is a possible way of discrediting especially the subconscious influences of the habits we did internalize when young. Feldman while discussing about fundamental different starting points says the following, “Whether these starting points amount to fundamental claims about the world or epistemological principles about how to deal with evidence, the idea is that these differences enable people with the same evidences to reasonably arrive at different conclusions… A difficult project, which I will not undertake here, is to identify just what these starting points or fundamental principles might be and explain how they might affect the sorts of disagreements under discussion.[14] Indeed, it is an arduous project, which is definitely beyond the scope of this paper and not necessarily required for its completion; but let if suffice that these assimilated starting points play significant role in how we encounter and interpret phenomena.

 

The good news though is that, with training and persistent toil (especially intellectual one), man’s reform can occur on several levels (on the psychological, ideological and even biological to name but few). A good example of this is that as one’s expertise in a particular subject increases, they tend to become more reliable in commenting about that subject. But I believe that no one expertise is identical with the other even if both are genuinely epistemic peers (though I do not claim an hierarchy of expertise but just differentiations). For instance the more one delves into philosophy, the better they can become at evaluating/re-evaluating or even defending certain claims about values. In short epistemic peers can be a term that acknowledges these three factors: the intuitively endowed capacity to access and obtain knowledge, an almost equal intensity of the vigilance of the mind, and yet minute or micro differentiation even among epistemic peers.

 

Therefore, in view of the above arguments, when epistemic peers disagree on a certain subject the problem could not be that in their ability, ceteris paribus, to access knowledge but in the micro-differences in all of them in encountering and interpreting a similar “coded” body of evidences. When two epistemic peers disagree, nothing could be more “unreasonable”/unacceptable given that what potentially separates them could be a micro-difference in how they interpret the perceived data of evidence.

 

As Feldman clearly points out, suspension of judgment is not inaction since this would be worse. But suspension of judgment is appropriate in the sense that one does not gratuitously confer to oneself the certainty that one’s action is embedded in true knowledge unless a supportive and external reason/evidential force (which as we have shown should be different from the strength of their inner confidence) is added to justify that claim. The best that epistemic peers can confer on their epistemic positions is to acknowledge that their positions are just embedded in approximate truth(s)and not real in absolute truth(s).One presumption I have is that more ardent inquiry can perhaps settle these differences that arise from our peculiar relation and interpretation of phenomena.And even if ardent inquiries will eventually prove not to settle these differences, I guess the better way of finding the futility of ardent inquiry is through throwing ourselves heart and soul into this hard task of ardent inquiry. But how far one can investigate opposing views depends chiefly on the strength that one can muster and also on the peculiar values that one thinks are more categorical than the other values. But the most erroneous thing, unless otherwise provable by other means, would be assuming the conviction that one’s inner confidence adds to the evidential pile.

 

“Suspension of judgment” in my view, could be what Nietzsche describes as “Learning to see.” I think the most paramount thing is a sustained existential inquiry; and “suspension of judgment” is the best vehicle to maximizing hopes of attaining absolute truth(s) if ever it exists and also of obtaining a consensus about this absolute truth among epistemic peers.

 

Learning to see, as I understand it, is almost what, unphilosophically speaking, is called a strong will: the essential feature is precisely not to “will” —to be able to suspend decision.  A practical application of having learned to see: as a learner, one will have become altogether slow, mistrustful, recalcitrant. One will let strange, new things of every kind come up to oneself, inspecting them with hostile calm and withdrawing one’s hand.  To have all doors standing open, to lie servilely on one’s stomach before every little fact, always to be prepared for the leap of putting oneself into the place of, or of plunging into, others and other things—in short, the famous modern “objectivity” is bad taste, is ignoble par excellence.[15]

 

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Camus, Albert (2012-10-31). The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays (Vintage International) (p. 65). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

Richard Feldman, Philosophy 150b-Evidence, Course Pack-Fall 2014, Article on “Reasonable Religious Disagreements.”

 

Jeremy Fantl, Philosophy 150b-Evidence, Course Pack-Fall 2014, Article on “A Defense of Dogmatism.”

 

Rescorla, Michael, “Convention”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/convention/&gt;.

 

Camus, Albert (2012-10-31). The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays (Vintage International) (p. 8). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks,  Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

 

Nietzsche, Friedrich; Kaufmann, Walter (1977-01-27).The Portable Nietzsche (Portable Library) (p. 512). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

[1] Camus, Albert (2012-10-31). The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays (Vintage International) (p. 65). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Bertrand Russell, “Philosophy for Laymen,” Universities Quarterly 1 (Nov 1946), 38-49 Repr. Unpopular Essays, Chapter 2 (George Allen & Unwin, 1951)

[3] Philosophy 150b-Evidence, Course Pack-Fall 2014, Article on “Reasonable Religious Disagreements.”

[4]Philosophy 150b-Evidence, Course Pack-Fall 2014, Article on “Reasonable Religious Disagreements.”

[5] Epistemic peers as defined by Feldman are people who “are roughly equal with respect to intelligence, reasoning powers, background information, and so on.”

[6] Philosophy 150b-Evidence, Course Pack-Fall 2014, Article on “Reasonable Religious Disagreements.” Richard Feldman (P, 153)

[7] Philosophy 150b-Evidence, Course Pack-Fall 2014, Article on “Reasonable Religious Disagreements.” Richard Feldman (P, 154)

[8] Philosophy 150b-Evidence, Course Pack-Fall 2014, Article on “Reasonable Religious Disagreements.” Richard Feldman (P, 156)

[9] Philosophy 150b-Evidence, Course Pack-Fall 2014, Article on “A Defense of Dogmatism.” Jeremy Fantl (P, 218)

[10] By self-relation to a body of dry facts, I hope to mean the foreseeable effects of this “dry” body of facts to me and perhaps to others too (i.e. the psychological value(s), the material value(s), and the practical value(s)).

[11] “Salience is a “subjective” psychological trait that does not follow in any obvious way from the rational structure of the strategic situation.” – Rescorla, Michael, “Convention”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/convention/&gt;.

[12] Camus, Albert (2012-10-31). The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays (Vintage International) (p. 8). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[13](Page 4).  Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks  Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

[14]Philosophy 150b-Evidence, Course Pack-Fall 2014, Article on “Reasonable Religious Disagreements.” Richard Feldman (P, 156)

[15]Nietzsche, Friedrich; Kaufmann, Walter (1977-01-27).The Portable Nietzsche (Portable Library) (p. 512). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

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