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

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.

Metaphysics:

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.

Related Content:

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



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  1. Caspar Addyman (@BrainStraining) says . . . | June 26, 2013 / 9:23 am

    It clearly helps if you are David Chalmers when asking these questions. Back in 2003, I wrote a (fairly polite) letter to every professional philosopher in the UK to ask them the meaning of it ALL. I wrote to 644 of them, a lot less than that wrote back. I even got a death threat. You can read the results of my survey here:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/143455578/Help-Yourself#page=174

  2. Larry Fike says . . . | June 26, 2013 / 10:05 am

    libertarianism is grossly mis-defined. it is sufficient for libertarian to be true if only one of our actions is in fact metaphysically .

  3. David Silverman says . . . | June 27, 2013 / 1:51 am

    You haven’t got the import of the teletransporter case quite right. The poll results here probably do not, for the most part, reflect philosophers’ views of the immaterial soul: You could assume we do not have souls, or that the soul is not relevant to this question, and the question of whether you survive the teletransporter would still be up for debate. The debate, as it is taught in undergrad classes where I am based, is as follows:

    Some philosophers think it is your body that makes you “you”. The teletransporter destroys your original body, and makes a new one at the other end; Although the new body is identical in form it is not, literally (i.e numerically), the same body. So if your personal identity resides in your body, you die. Other philosophers think personal identity resides in your psychological states, for example, your unique character or recollections from the past. These psychological states, we might think, are akin to pieces of software that can be loaded on many different machines. If personal identity depends on psychological states, and the software analogy works, then you could go through the teletransporter machine and, in the relevant sense, survive.

  4. will says . . . | June 27, 2013 / 6:11 am

    It;s difficult to summarize the highly specific issues on the survey, (and probably no way that would satisfy all analytic philosophers)so sympathize, but I’m particularly concerned about the characterizations of “naturalism” and “free will”given here. for these and other topics that come up on the survey, I would recommend maybe linking to related pages on the stanford encylopedia of philosphy http://plato.stanford.edu/ an extremely useful recourse that walks the line fairly well (usually) between accessibility and rigor. my own far from perfect, brief but hopefully still useful emendations to the two topics just mention would be something like this: especially in first case maybe more care should be given to not conflate the naturalism question with “magic vs. not magic” which makes naturalism seem trivially true if you are a “mystic” or theist. On the treatment of the “free will” question given here , I think there is a misunderstanding about compatabilism- in particular the primary issue there seems to me to be HOW determinism and free will can get along conceptually, with the question of “how much” of what we do is or is not more or less falling out of the answer given to the first. that said, thanks for this post and all the other great stuff openculture does and keep of the good work!

  5. George Dawson says . . . | June 28, 2013 / 5:42 pm

    The nature of our consciousness changes due to outside factors. How then can we claim autonomy? I think we only think that we think. A situation described by Freud’s Id and Ego, where the Ego broadcasts the inner chatterbox, which is given it’s program by the Id.

  6. Josh Jones says . . . | June 29, 2013 / 7:22 am

    Thanks for your clarifications. I’ve inserted SEP links to help readers get more background on what are admittedly very complex issues that are indeed impossible to summarize properly in so brief an article.

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