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.


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:

Do Physi­cists Believe in God?

50 Famous Aca­d­e­mics & Sci­en­tists Talk About God

Daniel Den­nett and Cor­nel West Decode the Phi­los­o­phy of The Matrix in 2004 Film

Down­load 90 Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es and Start Liv­ing the Exam­ined Life

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

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Comments (6)
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  • Caspar Addyman (@BrainStraining) says:

    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:


  • Larry Fike says:

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

  • David Silverman says:

    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.

  • will says:

    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!

  • George Dawson says:

    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.

  • Josh Jones says:

    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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