Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What Do Most Philosophers Believe? A Wide-Ranging Survey Project Gives Us Some Idea

Via Open Culture, the curators of cool on the internets, comes this interesting and enlightening post on a survey created by David Chalmers and David Bourget. They decided to find out where nearly 3,000 professors, graduate students, and independent thinkers stand on 30 different philosophical issues by constructing a rigorous survey - "most of the respondents were affiliated with prestigious philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, though several continental European departments are also represented."

Below the article is the Introduction to the article on this project by Chalmers and Bourget.

What Do Most Philosophers Believe? A Wide-Ranging Survey Project Gives Us Some Idea

June 26th, 2013

What do most philosophers believe? The question may only interest other philosophers—and when it comes to such esoteric concerns as the “analytic synthetic distinction,” this is probably true. But when it comes to the big issues that have given every thoughtful person at least one sleepless night, or the questions regularly explored by speculative fictions like Star Trek or zombie movies, the rest of us might sit up and take notice.

Two contemporary philosophers, David Chalmers and David Bourget, decided to find out where their colleagues stood on 30 different philosophical issues by constructing a rigorous survey that ended up accounting for the views of over 3,000 professors, graduate students, and independent thinkers. Most of the respondents were affiliated with prestigious philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, though several continental European departments are also represented.

Some semi-famous names come up in a perusal of the list of public respondents, like A.C. Grayling and Massimo Pigliucci. For the most part, however, the survey group represents the rank-and-file, toiling away as teachers, thinkers, writers, and researchers at colleges across the Western world. You survey geeks out there can dig deeply into Chalmers and Bourget’s detailed accounting of their methodology here. But for a quick and dirty summary, let’s take a couple of general categories and look at the results.


The issues that fall under this heading broadly involve questions about what exists, and why and how it does. Here’s a breakdown of some of the biggies:

God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%

Granted, this is an oversimplification. Popular notions of these categories don’t necessarily correspond to more subtle distinctions among philosophers, who may be strong or weak atheists (or theists), or hold some version of deism, agnosticism, or none of the above.

Free will: compatibilism 59.1%; libertarianism 13.7%; no free will 12.2%; other 14.9%

Compatibilism, the majority view here, is the theory that we can choose our actions to some degree, and to some degree they are determined by prior events. Libertarianism (related to, but not synonymous with, the political philosophy) claims that all of our actions are freely chosen.

Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%

Naturalism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world,” or “the belief that nothing exists beyond the natural world.” Note that metaphysical naturalism needs to be distinguished from methodological naturalism, which nearly all scholars and scientists embrace.

Abstract objects: Platonism 39.3%; nominalism 37.7%; other 23.0%

This distinction gets at whether abstractions like geometry or the laws of logic exist in some immutable form “out there” in the universe (as Platonic ideas) or whether they are “nominal,” no more than convenient formulas we create and apply to our observations. It’s a debate at least as old as the ancient Greeks.

Personal Identity:

In this general category, we deal with questions about what it means to be a person and how we can exist as seemingly coherent individuals over time in a world in constant flux. Let’s take two fun examples that deal with these quandaries, shall we?

Teletransporter: survival 36.2%; death 31.1%; other 32.7%

Here, we’re dealing with a thought experiment proposed by Derek Parfit (one of the participants in the survey) that pretty much takes the Star Trek transporter technology (or the horror version in The Fly) and asks whether the transported individual—completely disintegrated and reconstituted somewhere else—is the same person as the original. In other words, can a “person” survive this process or does the individual die and a new one take its place? The question hinges on ideas about a “soul” or “spirit” that exists apart from the material body and asks whether or not we are nothing more than very specific arrangements of matter and energy.

Zombies: conceivable but not metaphysically possible 35.6%; metaphysically possible 23.3%; inconceivable 16.0%; other 25.1%

Zombies are everywhere. Try to escape them! You can’t. Their prevalence in popular culture is mirrored in the philosophy world, where zombies have long served as metaphors for the possibility of a pure (and ravenous) bodily existence, devoid of conscious self-awareness. The prospect may be as frightening as the zombies of the Walking Dead, but is it a real possibility? A significant number of philosophers seem to think so.

As I said, these are just a few of the issues Chalmers and Bourget’s survey queries. Physicist Sean Carroll has a quick summary of all of the results on his blog, and Chalmers and Bourget have made all of their data and analysis very transparent and freely available at their Philpapers site. David Chalmers, who specializes in philosophy of mind and looks like one of Spinal Tap’s doomed drummers, spills the beans on his ideas of consciousness in the video at the top.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Here is the beginning of the paper on this survey - the whole article is available for free online.

David Bourget and David J. Chalmers
May 15, 2013


What are the philosophical views of contemporary professional philosophers? We surveyed many professional philosophers in order to help determine their views on thirty central philosophical issues. This article documents the results. It also reveals correlations among philosophical views and between these views and factors such as age, gender, and nationality. A factor analysis suggests that an individual’s views on these issues factor into a few underlying components that predict much of the variation in those views. The results of a metasurvey also suggest that many of the results of the survey are surprising: philosophers as a whole have quite inaccurate beliefs about the distribution of philosophical views in the profession.

1 Introduction

What are the philosophical views of contemporary professional philosophers? Are more philosophers theists or atheists? Physicalists or non-physicalists? Deontologists, consequentialists, or  virtue ethicists? We surveyed many professional philosophers in order to help determine the answers to these and other questions. This article documents the results.

Why should the answers to these sociological questions be of interest to philosophers or to anyone else? First, they have obvious sociological and historical interest. Philosophy as practiced is a human activity, and philosophers have a strong interest in the character of this human activity, past and present. Historians of philosophy are interested in the dominant philosophical views of various eras, and in how these views changed over time. Contemporary philosophy can be seen as the leading edge of the history of philosophy, and a proper understanding of today’s philosophical views can feed into an understanding of historical trends. Furthermore, today’s sociology is tomorrow’s history, and one can reasonably hope that answers to these sociological questions will be of some use to the historians of the future.

Second, one could argue that these sociological facts can play an evidential role in answering philosophical questions. On this view, the prevalence of views among philosophers can serve as a guide to their truth. After all, philosophers had had the benefit of years of reflection on these questions and might be taken as experts on them. In science, we often take the prevalence of scientific views among experts as strong evidence about which views are correct (consider questions about evolution or climate change, for example). It could be suggested that expert views should play a similar role with respect to philosophical questions. Many will be skeptical about this analogy, however. It is arguable that there is less convergence over time in philosophy than in science, for example. So we do not make the evidential claim here.

Third, it is clear that sociological views play a methodological role within the practice of philosophy. In philosophical discussion it is inevitable that some views are presupposed, other views are the focus of attention and argument, while still others are ignored. At a given time in a given community, some views have the status of “received wisdom”. These views are often used as premises of arguments, and if they are rejected, it is usually acknowledged that doing so requires argument. Other views are often ignored or set aside without argument. When they are acknowledged, they are rarely used as premises of arguments. To assert them requires considerable  justification.

One might suggest that the received wisdom within a given community is determined by what most people in the community believe: views that are widely accepted require less argument than views that are widely rejected. A moment’s reflection, however, suggests that received wisdom is more likely to be determined by what most people believe most people believe. If most members of a community mistakenly believe that most members believe p, then it is more likely that assertions of p rather than assertions of :p will receive default status. If most philosophers believe that most philosophers are  physicalists when in fact most philosophers are dualists, for example, then the norms of the community will typically require that asserting dualism requires more argument than asserting physicalism.

Insofar as sociological beliefs play this role within philosophy, it is better for them to be accurate. For example: suppose that a philosopher accepts the analytic-synthetic distinction and thinks the arguments against it fail. Suppose that she is writing an article in which she thinks that (sociology aside) an appeal to the distinction would strengthen the article. Suppose that she nevertheless does not appeal to the distinction in the article, solely on the grounds that she thinks a large majority of philosophers reject the distinction. Suppose that in fact, a large majority of philosophers accept the distinction. Then her decision will have been grounded in a false sociological belief, and the article will be weaker by her own lights as a result. True sociological beliefs would put her in a position to write a better article by her own lights.

Spurred by this sociological, historical, and methodological interest, we conducted a survey of the views of professional philosophers in late 2009. The PhilPapers Survey surveyed professional philosophers worldwide about their views on thirty key philosophical questions. We also surveyed them on demographic questions concerning gender, age, nationality, and areas of specialization. This allows more reliable answers than previously available about the views of professional philosophers and about how they vary with the various demographic factors, yielding a richer picture of the philosophical character of the contemporary philosophical community.

We simultaneously conducted the PhilPapers Metasurvey, asking philosophers for their predictions about the distribution of answers to the PhilPapers Survey. This metasurvey allowed us to measure the accuracy of philosophers’ sociological beliefs about views within the field. It also provides a measure of just how surprising or unsurprising are the results of the PhilPapers Survey. To foreshadow the results that follow, we found that many of the results are quite surprising, both on an individual and a community level. The sociological beliefs of individual philosophers are typically quite inaccurate, and the community as a whole substantially overestimates or underestimates the popularity of a number of important philosophical positions. By rectifying these inaccurate sociological beliefs, the PhilPapers Survey provides a useful corrective to those aspects of the practice of philosophy that are grounded in them.

It should be noted that this study is not a work of philosophy. For the most part, we are not putting forward philosophical theses or arguing for them. It is also not a work of science. We are not putting forward scientific hypotheses or testing them. Instead it is a data-gathering exercise in the sociology of philosophy. We do not exclude the possibility, however, that the sociological data we have gathered might be used as inputs to philosophical or to scientific work in the future.
Read the whole article.
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