What Do Philosophers Believe?

Academics of all stripes enjoy conducting informal polls of their peers to gauge the popularity of different stances on controversial issues. But the philosophers — and in particular, David Bourget & David Chalmers — have decided to be more systematic about it. (Maybe they have more controversial issues to discuss?)

They targeted 1,972 philosophy faculty members at 99 different institutions, and received results from 931 of them. Most of the universities were in English-speaking countries, and the others were chosen for strength in analytic philosophy, so the survey has an acknowledged bias toward analytic/Anglocentric philosophy. They asked for simple forced-response answers (no essay questions!) concerning 30 different topics, from belief in God to normative ethics to the nature of time. The answers are pretty intriguing.

Results below the fold. Note that atheism easily trumps theism, and compatibilism is the leading approach to free will (although not by a huge amount). Only about half of the recipients identify as naturalists, which is smaller than I would have thought (and smaller than the percentage of “physicalists” when it comes to the mind, which is surprising to me). When they dig into details, there is a strong correlation between theism and whether a person specializes in philosophy of religion, predictably enough. Among philosophers who don’t specifically specialize in religion, the percentage of atheists is pretty overwhelming.

1. A priori knowledge: yes 71.1%; no 18.4%; other 10.5%.
2. Abstract objects: Platonism 39.3%; nominalism 37.7%; other 23.0%.
3. Aesthetic value: objective 41.0%; subjective 34.5%; other 24.5%.
4. Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes 64.9%; no 27.1%; other 8.1%.
5. Epistemic justification: externalism 42.7%; internalism 26.4%; other 30.8%.
6. External world: non-skeptical realism 81.6%; skepticism 4.8%; idealism 4.3%; other 9.2%.
7. Free will: compatibilism 59.1%; libertarianism 13.7%; no free will 12.2%; other 14.9%.
8. God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.
9. Knowledge claims: contextualism 40.1%; invariantism 31.1%; relativism 2.9%; other 25.9%.
10. Knowledge: empiricism 35.0%; rationalism 27.8%; other 37.2%.
11. Laws of nature: non-Humean 57.1%; Humean 24.7%; other 18.2%.
12. Logic: classical 51.6%; non-classical 15.4%; other 33.1%.
13. Mental content: externalism 51.1%; internalism 20.0%; other 28.9%.
14. Meta-ethics: moral realism 56.4%; moral anti-realism 27.7%; other 15.9%.
15. Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.
16. Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.
17. Moral judgment: cognitivism 65.7%; non-cognitivism 17.0%; other 17.3%.
18. Moral motivation: internalism 34.9%; externalism 29.8%; other 35.3%.
19. Newcomb’s problem: two boxes 31.4%; one box 21.3%; other 47.4%.
20. Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.
21. Perceptual experience: representationalism 31.5%; qualia theory 12.2%; disjunctivism 11.0%; sense-datum theory 3.1%; other 42.2%.
22. Personal identity: psychological view 33.6%; biological view 16.9%; further-fact view 12.2%; other 37.3%.
23. Politics: egalitarianism 34.8%; communitarianism 14.3%; libertarianism 9.9%; other 41.0%.
24. Proper names: Millian 34.5%; Fregean 28.7%; other 36.8%.
25. Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%.
26. Teletransporter: survival 36.2%; death 31.1%; other 32.7%.
27. Time: B-theory 26.3%; A-theory 15.5%; other 58.2%.
28. Trolley problem: switch 68.2%; don’t switch 7.6%; other 24.2%.
29. Truth: correspondence 50.8%; deflationary 24.8%; epistemic 6.9%; other 17.5%.
30. Zombies: conceivable but not metaphysically possible 35.6%; metaphysically possible 23.3%; inconceivable 16.0%; other 25.1%.

Yes, some of the descriptions might not mean that much at first glance. Google is your friend!

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  2. They clumped it, otherwise they also forgot the choice “don’t care”.

    But, oh noes! Since “qualia” is obviously a damned stupidity, I got curious about “representationalism”. Well, if philosophers think brains have “states” the recent real time imaging, practically speaking, of tetra-fish brain activity will come as a surprise with its haphazard and sometimes whole-scale activity.

    To paraphrase, fuzzy and unsubstantiated thoughts often annoy me, particularly when I have to do the ferreting out of them myself; in which case the following would apply with justice and force:

    There are three kind of stupidities: stupidities, damned stupidities, and philosophy.

  3. Yikes Torbjörn, tell us what you really think.

    I’m not a philosopher myself, but I am interested in some areas and try to keep up with recent developments here and there. This struck me as a fascinating poll, if somewhat difficult to interpret given our lack of access to the specific question wordings.

    From what I can tell, much of the thrust of modern philosophy is to do exactly the thing you accuse it in such sweeping and unfair terms as ignoring: to “ferret out” “fuzzy and unsubstantiated thoughts” in the conventional unrigorous ways in which we speak of things like consciousness, morality, knowledge, etc., and to treat them to the most rigorous and systematic analysis possible. The notion of “qualia” that you dismiss may be a highly controversial topic, but better minds than yours or mine have found it worthwhile to entertain in a serious fashion. And lest you accuse me of argumentum ad auctoritatem, in cases where some sizable group of PhD-obtaining professionals think about something complex with a great deal more seriousness than I, a cursorily-informed internet-commentator, ever will…well, I tend to defer to them. (See also: climate scientists)

    As for your second dismissal of cognitive states, it sounds to me like you’re interested neither in the philosophical nor cog-neuro pictures of the mind’s workings, both of which I’m sure would admit distributed, non-localized brain activity to lie within the broad category of “states.”

    All of which is to say, your philosophy-contempt comes across as unconsidered, hostile, and weirdly provocative for a humble comment thread…or “trolling.”

  4. They…. don’t believe in zombies?! Who will protect us when the apocalypse comes?

  5. Googling around will help you find explanations of a lot of the questions above. I’ve also put together a Google Doc with a lot of helpful links and concise summaries for all 30 questions. See here.
    Torbjörn: The data above is extremely consolidated. The original poll had 17-19 different responses per question, not just 3-5.
    I’m an eliminativist about ‘qualia’, but I don’t think belief in qualia is ‘stupid’. The issues here are a lot more complicated than a cursory look might suggest, and pattern-matching the very word ‘qualia’ to ‘science-hating anti-physicalist lunatics’ is certainly a very bad intellectual habit to get into. As a case in point, ‘qualia theory’ here has very little directly to do with the hard problem of consciousness, which I’m guessing is why you attacked it.
    Qualia theory is actually in some ways a very reductionist view. It’s also called the ‘adverbial theory’, and rejects or de-emphasizes the idea that perception involves a representation of or acquaintance with the objects of our experiences (e.g., trees, or depictions of trees, or tree-like sense-data). For example, David Chalmers is a representationalist rather than a ‘qualia theorist’, even though he is strongly associated with anti-physicalism about phenomenal consciousness. See SEP: The Problem of Perception.
    Also, ‘state’ here means something’s possessing a property at some time. States don’t have to be static or simple.

  6. What do you think about doing this for cosmologists ? do they accept inflation? eternal inflation? a universe with a beginning or without? best hope for quantum gravity? best model of the ealry universe? god or not?

  7. Torbjörn: from your post it is obvious you don’t know much about philosophy, or logic for that matter. Please refrain from inundating us with your stupidity.

    Anyway, I’m pretty suprised by the quite high level of agreement on many issues, in particular on the analytic-synthetic distinction. I guess that the two dogmas of empiricism haven’t defeated Kant after all.

  8. These Philosophers just proved that they were free to believe as they so desired. Well, well, was freewill involved or were they forced to believe what they believe, perhaps their parents pounded their beliefs into their heads, if so it’s strange because my kids very often believe just the opposite that I do.

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  10. Disapppointing to see it conflating academic philosophers with philosophers in general. Philosophy has traditionally been more the domain of gentlemen-scholar than academes; academic philosophy is not distinct from its non-academic counterpart.

  11. I am amused by classical/non-classical/other logic choices. The “others” must be interested in doing severe damage to the law of excluded middle.

  12. On the naturalism issue, and there being more physicalists than naturalists, you have to remember that naturalism means something quite specific to philosophers. It doesn’t just mean not believing in God and other supernatural nonsense, it means roughly that one should be guided in what to believe about the nature of reality SOLELY by the sciences, sometimes with an explicit restriction to the hard sciences, rather than speculating or trying to use some distinctive philosophical methodology. Some philosophers just find the idea of being guided by the sciences in doing philosophy, in a stronger sense than just ‘don’t say anything that is inconsistent with leading scientific theories’ (everyone agrees with that, hopefully!) either too vague and unclear if ‘science’ is read widely enough for it to be plausible, including, maths, history, sociology etc., as well as the natural sciences, and otherwise just false if ‘science’ excludes the soft sciences. Probably those who take the ‘false or pretty vacuous’ attitude to naturalism are those responsible for naturalism doing significantly worse than atheism and slightly worse than physicalism, rather than any philosophers having non-theistic but supernatural beliefs. Here Timothy Williamson expressing roughly this line on naturalism, amongst other objections, much more clearly than I can, in an exchange with another philosopher in the New York Times: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/what-is-naturalism/ http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/17/why-i-am-a-naturalist/ http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/28/on-ducking-challenges-to-naturalism/

  13. David and Sean: I would strongly advise against reading much into the ‘naturalism’ answer. As far as I’m concerned, the responses there give us zero information of any use, save the important datum that 9.7% of respondents thought the question ‘too unclear to answer’. The only other question to be so widely considered ‘unclear’ was the empiricism/rationalism question, which got 1 vote more. (Third place is physicalism, with 6.3% calling the question unclear; fourth is motivation internalism, with 4.8%.) Those are very big numbers. If so many people were too confused to even attempt an answer here (even though those same people answered most of the other 29 questions), then we have to seriously consider the hypothesis that the other respondents were also fairly unclear about what ‘naturalism’ means, but were a little more willing to go out on a limb.

    All of which is to say: Nothing could be further from the truth than to say “naturalism means something quite specific to philosophers”. No. The view you describe, David, sounds closer to scientism than to naturalism. (And I would venture that ‘scientism’ is not a well-defined or precise term, either; in many ways naturalism can be paraphrased as ‘having an interest in or fondness for science, in a good way’ and scientism can be paraphrased as ‘having an interest in or fondness for science, in a bad way’, which is obviously a philosophically problematic set of ‘doctrines’, risking both triviality and bias.

    Cf. the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, struggling over varying definitions of the term: “‘[N]aturalism’ is not a particularly informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers. [… T]his entry will not aim to pin down any more informative definition of ‘naturalism’. It would be fruitless to try to adjudicate some official way of understanding the term. Different contemporary philosophers interpret ‘naturalism’ differently. This disagreement about usage is no accident. For better or worse, ‘naturalism’ is widely viewed as a positive term in philosophical circles—few active philosophers nowadays are happy to announce themselves as ‘non-naturalists’. This inevitably leads to a divergence in understanding the requirements of ‘naturalism’. Those philosophers with relatively weak naturalist commitments are inclined to understand ‘naturalism’ in a unrestrictive way, in order not to disqualify themselves as ‘naturalists’, while those who uphold stronger naturalist doctrines are happy to set the bar for ‘naturalism’ higher.”

  14. If we look at it all as a function of brain then we can see which illusions are the most compelling, or satisfactory or misleading! Fun.

  15. Not having heard of the Newcomb’s paradox before I have some opinions which might be awfully naive, but here I go.

    To me, if the Predictor is really infallible (or accurate to at least 1:1000 independently of the situation) then you only have two outcomes, you take two boxes with (average) payoff of ~$1000 or one box with $1000000. Trying to “fool” the predictor by doing anything else doesn’t pay off on average, or requires that the accuracy of the Predictor be dependent on human decisions (which to me seem like terribly human-centric and arrogant assumptions).

    However I see the answers and Is this really what over 30% would take $1000, close to 50% would do something else (what that could be might be interesting, but definitely requires extra stretches to the problem statement) and only a meager 21% would take the payoff maximization solution (based on the strict statement of the problem). Either I am missing something really badly, or these philosophers are seriously misguided.



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  17. I would really like to see a survey of evolutionary biologists, focusing in the same way on those at the elite level of their profession (university professors). Off the top of my head, here are a few questions (but it would be helpful to reframe these as multiple choice questions with a more interesting set of possible responses). I welcome other ideas for questions.

    Is the majority of evolutionary changes at the molecular level the result of random fixation of selectively neutral alleles?

    Is the observed non-randomness of mutation a challenge to neo-Darwinism?

    Are evolutionary causes a matter of population genetics?

    Is group selection real?

    Is the human genome mostly composed of functional sequences?

    Our contemporary understanding of evolution is (1) encompassed by the Modern Synthesis, (2) encompassed by an extended version of the Modern Synthesis (3) at odds with the Modern Synthesis.

    Did Charles Darwin discover evolution by mutation and selection?

    Did terrestrial life originate on earth?

  18. [Second attempt at posting this – hopefully it won’t double-post]

    I’m going to speak up in support of Torbjörn Larsson, here – the more I find out about philosophy, the less I think it accomplishes a damned thing. Someone is welcome to argue that “greater minds” than mine think it’s wonderful, and I’ll challenge them to bring up its additions to our knowledge base that we couldn’t do without. All I ever see is endless debating over labels and definitions, and this survey seems to exemplify it fantastically.

    Take, for instance, aesthetics: objective or subjective? To me, that’s like asking if salt is good or bad – deriving any kind of distinct answer means defining aesthetics in extremely narrow terms. Does it take a lot of thought to determine that we might have inherent/evolved recognition of, for instance, good conditions to live (such as green fields and fresh water) and at the same time, cultural standards of attractiveness? So which does the overreaching term of “aesthetics” apply to?

    Not to mention that free will is still being considered a valid subject to discuss when it’s not even defined in a useful or applicable manner. How long is it going to take philosophers to puzzle out that it’s a nonsense concept with religious roots that should have been discarded ages ago? Apparently, a hell of a long time, since what’s important to philosophers is perpetuating their field, rather than integrating with what the rest of the world is doing.

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