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New Feldman Paper — 1 Comment

  1. Rich, thanks for sharing this paper, it’s a very nice and helpful analysis of a perplexing disagreement. I have one passage to ask about, but first a couple of thoughts. You chide James near the end for a cumbersome and inelegant defense if is point was simply that it is something OK, all things considered, to believe what is epistemically wrong to believe. I think the same point applies to Clifford, if it is really principle C that he means to endorse. The second point is related. James, as is well-known, is probably the antithesis of everything we want to inculcate in graduate students about writing thesis-defense papers, and the messiness of presentation is probably due to the following: James notoriously doesn’t distinguish between necessary generalizations, universal generalizations, and nearly universal generalizations–one might even say he flouts the practice of making careful distinctions. If we could imagine sitting with the man and getting clear answers to our questions, I bet the messiness of his defense to which you refer at the end is the result of thinking that exceptions to a correlation between what’s epistemically wrong to believe and what’s all-things-considered wrong to believe are extremely rare. Perhaps what he thinks is that all such exceptions (or almost all, since you probably can’t get all the Jamesian-ness out of the guy) involve cases of momentous options. That’s of course no defense of the material, but only an explanation of the mess.

    The passage I wanted to ask about is this one from page 7:

    Another way to argue for this point begins by noting that the three-way religious option includes two different actions, believing that God exists and believing that God does not exist. James thinks that suspending judgment is, for all practical purposes, the same as believing that God does not exist since by suspending judgment �we lose the good (of believing that God exists), if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to� believe that God does not exist. However, one could just as well say that for all practical purposes, suspending judgment and believing that God exists are the same since by suspending judgment �we lose the good (of believing that God does not exist), if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to� believe that God exists. Suspending judgment no more amounts to the same thing as believing that God exists than it amounts to believing that God does not exist.

    I think your counterexample relies centrally on the phrase “for all practical purposes”. A Jamesian could substitute for this phrase “the relevant practical purposes,” and then the relevant ones would need to be specified in order to determine whether believing is the same as suspending, or whether disbelieving is the same as suspending. Somewhat different but related: it’s a bit odd to think the losing the good of believing a truth (I think you are supposing for the example that God doesn’t exist) as involving a practical matter at all, so it looks like the qualifying phrase that refers to practical concerns is idle here.

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