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Suspended judgment

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In this paper I undertake an in-depth examination of an oft mentioned but rarely expounded upon state: suspended judgment. While traditional epistemology is sometimes characterized as presenting a “yes or no” picture of its central attitudes, in fact many of these epistemologists want to say that there is a third option: subjects can also suspend judgment. Discussions of suspension are mostly brief and have been less than clear on a number of issues, in particular whether this third option should be thought of as an attitude or not. In this paper I argue that suspended judgment is (or at least involves) a genuine attitude.

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  1. This claim is not meant to take a stand on whether it is possible for the subject to have both attitudes at once, but only to take stock of how many attitudes there are.

  2. If a p-disbelief is nothing more than a ¬p-belief (which is a fairly standard assumption in this context), then there is obviously an important sense in which this “third thing” is really only a second thing; there’s belief (in a proposition or its negation) and suspended judgment.

  3. I am taking ‘accept’ here to be synonymous with ‘believe’. This is a harmless assumption in this context.

  4. I am assuming that suspension of judgment is closed under negation: one suspends about p iff one suspends about ¬p. That there is this sort of symmetry to suspension of judgment is not entirely uncontroversial. See van Fraassen (1998) and Hájek (1998) for some discussion. In this paper when I say that S suspends about p, I mean that she suspends about both p and ¬p (even if I sometimes do not say so). In fact, I think that the right thing to say is that in these sorts of cases S suspends about whether p (or slightly more carefully, whether P where ‘P’ is a sentence that expresses p). In general, it looks like the right way to make suspended judgment (and agnosticism) reports is by using interrogative complements and not declarative ones. For instance, we don’t say that S suspends that God exists or that S is agnostic that Allan went to the party, but rather that S suspends about whether God exists or that S is agnostic about whether Allan went to the party (or about who went to the party, or about which of his friends went, and so on). Might agnosticism involve an attitude towards a question rather than a propositional attitude? I explore this suggestion and its implications in more detail in Friedman (2011). For the purposes of this discussion I will mostly stay closer to the literature and talk about suspending about p (despite reservations about these ascriptions). Sometimes I will talk about suspending about whether P, and when I do the reader can assume that one suspends about whether P iff one suspends about p and ¬p (assuming, of course, that P expresses p).

  5. Neither ‘neutrality’ nor ‘indecision’ is quite right here. If one is neutral over two options that seems to imply that one does not favour one over the other. But one can suspend about p, ¬p without being absolutely neutral (in that way) about which is true. In this sense ‘indecision’ talk seems more appropriate. When a subject suspends she may favour one of p, ¬p over the other, but she hasn’t decided which she thinks is true. While I am happy to say that the agnostic is undecided in this sense, I also think that suspended judgment is or involves a settled doxastic attitude, and as such should be thought of as a way of deciding where one stands on a question or the truth of some proposition. Scott Sturgeon (via Selim Berker) has described the agnostic’s attitude as a “committed neutrality” (I do not mean to imply that Sturgeon agrees with my more specific characterization of the attitude. For some of his views on suspension see Sturgeon 2010). Perhaps “committed indecision” is closer to what I am after here.

  6. It is worth making very clear that in characterizing the state that S is in when he is agnostic as a neutral state I in no way mean to imply that S is thinking of the world as somehow neutral, or taking sentences or propositions to have more than two possible truth values. The description is meant only to provide a characterization of the relation S bears to the relevant contents.

  7. In general, with respect to non-belief, as Wedgwood (2002) points out, “even rocks and numbers have that property” (p. 272).

  8. Making this assumption is tricky. If we assume that propositions are somewhat coarse-grained—say they are Russellian tuples of objects and properties—then it looks as though we can generate cases of suspension without non-belief. Salmon (1995) argues subjects can (easily) be “of two minds” in this way. S may suspend judgment about whether Matt is a millionaire while believing that MF is a millionaire if he doesn’t know that ‘Matt’ and ‘MF’ pick out the same individual, despite the fact that ‘Matt is a millionaire’ and ‘MF is a millionaire’ express the same proposition. These sorts of examples show (at least) that one would need to do more work to secure any plausible sense in which non-belief is necessary for suspension. The standard moves for a closely related problem in the case of belief reports are to turn to more fine-grained propositions (perhaps ones that include something like senses or concepts) or to maintain that propositions are coarser-grained but introduce propositional guises or ways of grasping propositions (see Salmon (1989), Soames (1995), and Braun (1998) for versions of this suggestion). But we should be wary of the prospect of an easy fix here. The original cases are generated at least in part because S can be ignorant about the contents of his attitudes, and so long as we allow for that possibility we will be able to generate intuitively plausible cases of suspension without non-belief. But there is no guarantee, even when propositions are very fine-grained or we specify some way in which subjects grasp contents, that subjects can no longer be mistaken about what they believe, or the way in which they believe it. For the purposes of this discussion we can do our best to sidestep this worry by assuming that propositions are fairly fine grained (this is a bit neater than having to quantify over propositional guises throughout).

  9. I assume that ‘considering p’ need not involve coming to have the sort of neutral attitude towards p that these suggestions are trying to avoid, and that it does involve a subject being able to grasp p.

  10. A referee for this journal has suggested that the claim that considering p is necessary for being in a state of suspended judgment about p is better thought of as the claim that “having p in mind” at t is necessary for being in a state of suspended judgment about p at t. Is having p in mind necessary for being in a state of suspended judgment about p? It depends on what it takes for one to have p in mind. If the suggestion is that S needs to be occurently thinking about p at t in order to be agnostic about p at t, then surely S does not need to have p in mind at t in order to be agnostic about p at t. I think that the arguments in this section also show that p need not ever have been in occurent thought for S in order that S qualify as agnostic about p. What if having p in mind is to be read non-occurently? In suspending about p one has an attitude towards p or some importantly related content (e.g., a question that has p as an answer, or proposition about one’s deficient epistemic standing with respect to p). As such, I am happy to say that either p itself or some importantly related content must be in mind (either occurently or non-occurently) at t in order that one be in a state of suspended judgment about p at t.

  11. This is obviously very rough. For some more guidance, see Brand (1971), Moore (1979), and Bach (2009).

  12. Bergmann (2005) uses this “resistance” locution as well.

  13. I think that we can also find some other examples that confirm the thought that resistance to believing is not sufficient for being in a state of suspended judgment. If you genuinely thought that there was no fact of the matter about whether Rick is tall, then you might well resist believing that he is and resist believing that he’s not, but it will not be right to say that you’ve suspended judgment about whether Rick is tall. You are not agnostic about p when you think that p is neither true nor false (or that there is no fact of the matter about p’s truth). We might say something similar about liar sentences. That you resist the relevant beliefs about a liar sentence (P), need not mean that you are agnostic about whether P.

  14. The suggestion that suspended judgment is or involves a commitment to non-belief for a reason is the suggestion that a subject is agnostic if she is committed to her non-belief. And we are now trying to capture this commitment by demanding that the subject be in her state of non-belief for a reason. There is no demand that this reason be a good reason or in fact justify her being in a state of non-belief. The suggestion that suspended judgment is a kind of principled non-belief places no significant rational demands upon the subject. S’s non-belief can be badly irrational, but still principled in the sense at issue here. Perhaps the sorts of reasons I am describing then are closer to motivating or explanatory reasons than normative ones.

  15. And we can commit to non-belief about whether Rick is tall for all sorts of reasons (e.g., we think that there is no fact of the matter about whether he’s tall), without being agnostic about whether Rick is tall.

  16. What about vague propositions and liar sentences? Perhaps one can insist that the relevant reasons in those cases are always metaphysical or semantic.

  17. We may be able to find support for an account like this in the literature as well. For instance, here is Crawford (2004), “Suspension of judgement necessarily involves thoughts about one’s own epistemic perspective on whether or not p, namely, that one’s epistemic perspective falls short of establishing whether p and thus that one does not know whether p” (p. 226). Notice though that Crawford does not seem to be describing a “principled non-belief account” (in my sense) of suspension since “thoughts about one’s own epistemic perspective on whether or not p” are plausibly indecision-representing attitudes (with respect to p). If this is right then the sort of view Crawford is describing will qualify as an attitude account for our purposes. In particular, it counts as what we might call a “metacognitive account” of suspended judgment. I will say a little bit more about accounts like these at the end of this paper. I won’t say much more though since my goal here is to show that we must adopt an attitude account of suspended judgment and not to say precisely which attitude account we should adopt.

  18. Perhaps this marks a distinction between belief and suspended judgment.

  19. I am being a bit cagey here about what the reasons are since I am trying to avoid (for obvious reasons) attributing the sorts of beliefs that a non-attitude account is trying to avoid to the relevant subject, e.g., the belief that no one can know p. This is not an easy task. See footnote 17.

  20. In this way, suspended judgment is like belief. If I lose the reasons I had for believing that my neighbour took my newspaper—say I think I saw her pick it up at 8:15, but then discover she was at work by 8:00 that morning—I don’t thereby stop believing that she took the paper. Of course, if I am rational I will revise the belief, but my revising my belief is something over and above my losing my reasons. My reasons for believing are distinct, in this sense, from the belief itself.

  21. One might try to argue that there is no possible case in which a subject is in a state of epistemically principled non-belief, but not in κ. Perhaps, the objection goes, κ is some sort of trivial property or epiphenomenon. Without knowing more about what sort of conditions κ involves, it is difficult to fully respond to this worry. We do know something about κ though: the conditions that κ involves are ones in virtue of which the subject is able to still qualify as agnostic once his reasons are gone. These conditions must be ones that can capture the subject’s neutrality or indecision about the truth of p in the right sort of way at this later time. At least at first glance then, κ does not look like a trivial property or condition and does not look to be merely epiphenomenal. Of course, I think κ must at least involve an indecision-representing attitude towards the relevant content.

  22. I do not mean to say that suspending about some proposition means never deliberating about it again, but only that once the question of its truth is opened in deliberation, suspending is a move, however temporary, away from active wondering and to a more settled state. This way of thinking about suspended judgment has its roots in some of the very first accounts of suspension. Sextus (e.g., in Empricus 1933) characterized suspension as a “state of mental rest” and claimed that suspending judgment on all matters is the route to tranquility (although this is only one aspect of his view). For more on Sextus on settled states as well as some (early and later) modern thinking about cognitive settledness, see Loeb (1998).

  23. Roughly, suspending then is to suspended judgment or agnosticism as judging is to belief.

  24. We can also find support for such a view in the literature. For instance, “An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time” (Russell 1997, p. 91); “In order to suspend judgement about whether p, it is, I am suggesting, necessary to believe that you do not believe or disbelieve p” (Crawford 2004, p. 226); and “So withholding p involves not only an attitude towards p but also attitudes towards attitudes towards p” (Bergmann 2005, p. 421).

  25. For some discussion of a view like this see van Fraassen (1998), Hájek (1998), Monton (1998), Sturgeon (2010), and Friedman (2011).


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I would like to thank audiences in Oxford, at the Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society in Norwich, and at a conference on the nature of belief in Odense for helpful discussion. I would also like to thank referees for this journal, as well as John Hawthorne, Jennifer Nagel, Scott Sturgeon, and especially Tim Williamson for invaluable comments and criticism.

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Correspondence to Jane Friedman.

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Friedman, J. Suspended judgment. Philos Stud 162, 165–181 (2013).

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