by

What Do Philosophers Really Think?

The philosophers have been taking their own temperatures. Less metaphorically, a couple of well-known professional philosophers at the Australian National University in Canberra conducted a survey of beliefs by philosophers on various topics in the field.

From 3,226 replies, 1,803 were philosophy faculty and 829 were graduate students. The surveyors stress that this is not an exercise in philosophy proper, but rather something in what one might call the sociology of philosophy. That admission right there will kill the interest of the average philosopher because as a breed we tend to be snobs. (I am not quite sure whether this snobbishness is a result of self-selection or selection by others already in the field in a Darwinian sort of way, or a consequence of a Lamarckian type of inheritance of acquired prejudices.) The thought that a philosopher might read anything in sociology is a no-no from the start. But for those of us who don’t mind slumming it, the results are interesting, and as you start to dig into it, really quite interesting. (My suspicion is that, like self-abuse, none of us admit to it, but that we do go slumming a lot more than we are prepared to tell our professional colleagues. The point to be made in the next paragraph, about perceptions of others, probably supports this suspicion.)

At a general level, my reading of the survey is that we are more conventional, more old-fashioned, than we claim to be. For instance, one of the most famous critiques of mid-20th century philosophy was that of W.V. Quine on the analytic-synthetic distinction, the claim that truth claims fall neatly into those that are necessarily true whatever the physical world is like (logic, stipulative definitions, etc.) and those that are true depending on the world (scientific claims, etc). Yet, still today’s philosophers generally endorse the distinction. (In rough figures, among professional philosophers 60 percent to 30 percent, with the rest undecided or who think it a false division.) However, when you look at a metasurvey that the surveyors also conducted, we think that philosophers will divide about 40 percent to 40 percent. In other words, we underestimate the force of the tradition, or overestimate the power of the critique.

I should say that when I was at grad school, it would have been a brave student who would have challenged the fiat of Quine. A similar sort of result obtains when we look at the free-will issue.  David Hume gave the classical account of “compatibilism,” namely that free will and determinism can be held together. The crucial point is that free will is opposed to restraint, not to the workings of law.  Again, this has been roughed up no end by philosophers writing on the topic. Actually, however, about 60 percent of us are still compatibilitsts, but we think that only 50 percent will be. Not as dramatic but an underestimation nevertheless. Enough to make me a lot more confident about my own thinking and less worried about thinking I am a bit of a nut, out of sync with the profession, for my own views.

On some things we do estimate about right. For instance, we (that is professional philosophers) are about 70 percent atheist, and we estimate about the same number. As with snobbishness, I cannot tell whether we go into philosophy because we are atheists, and looking for a nonreligious meaning to life (the Darwinian selection answer), or become atheists as a result of doing modern philosophy (the Lamarckian acquired answer). Believe me, modern philosophy is not very god friendly, although as it happens there are some very well-regarded philosophers — like Alvin Plantinga — who are openly and aggressively Christian.

As you dig in, you do start to get really interesting nuggets of information. For instance, among philosophers of religion (this is a self-described category), 70 percent describe themselves as theists and only 20 percent as atheists, and when it comes to moral realism — meaning that you think that moral claims (“Don’t hit children”) refer to actual facts of some kind (often these are thought to be non-natural facts, like God’s will) — then over 80 percent of philosophers of religion think of themselves as moral realists and only 10 percent as moral nonrealists. When you turn however to philosophers of biology, a group to which I belong, nearly 85 percent think of themselves as atheists and a mere 1.5 percent think of themselves as theists. On moral realism, we find that just over 30 percent think of themselves as moral realists, and over 50 percent as nonrealists.

Does this mean that the Creationists (and the New Atheists for that matter) are right, and that believing in evolution makes you an atheist? Or are you an atheist first and then get excited about evolution? And if you are an evolutionist, do you then become a skeptic, perhaps a cynic, about morality, thinking that it is all a psychological illusion put in place by our genes to make us reasonably social? Studies of 19th century nonbelievers suggest that almost invariably people became disillusioned with religion (perhaps like Charles Darwin because they disliked the idea of eternal punishment for honest doubters) and then moved on to evolution. However, in my own case, I can certainly say that until I was about 40 (some 20 years after I had moved on from Christianity) I was a moral realist of some vague kind. I became a nonrealist when I saw that evolution not only makes us believe in morality but makes us believe that morality is objective, that it does refer to real facts, otherwise we would all ignore the illusion and the social benefits of morality would be lost. In other words, for me, there was a causal connection.

The producers of this survey promise that they will be in touch shortly when they have reflected more on what they have found. I will no doubt be coming back to the topic.   

Return to Top