Consensus in modern philosophy

For a website that started out with philosophy as its primary topic, I’ve been writing precious little on the subject. I suppose that this is because over the years I’ve become more and more set in my beliefs and ways so I’ve had no reason to want to read or write more on it. In any case, this tidbit is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in the field in many years. It’s a survey on modern philosophers’ views on a large number of controversies in philosophy, including various thought experiments and ethical dilemmas.

The surprising thing about this is that there appears to be a clear consensus in quite a few areas, which goes against the traditional complaint about philosophy being a talking shop where no one can ever agree with anyone else. Of course, one possible reason why there’s such a consensus is that most of the respondents are English speaking. According to the demographic breakdown given, out of the sample size of 3,226 respondents, 1,405 are Americans, 381 are British and 199 are Canadians. Of the non-English speaking countries, Germany is the highest with 115 respondents.

The respondents were also overwhelmingly male, at 2,525 men versus 488 women and by far most identified themselves as belonging to the analytic tradition. Only 315 identified themselves as belonging to the continental tradition. Whether all this reflects a wider trend in philosophy, indicating that English-language speakers currently dominate the field in general, or merely that few active non-English speaking philosophers deigned to participate in the survey I have no idea.

Looking at the actual results, here are some of the areas where there is a clear consensus. Note that I’ve abbreviated them to show only the choices with the most votes. I’ve also left aside topics that I don’t really understand.

A priori knowledge: yes or no? (71.1% vs. 18.3%)

Not a particularly surprising result since Kant. A priori knowledge is knowledge that does not come from experience. This is possible because some propositions are true by definition and therefore there is no need to rely on experience to judge their truth value.

Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no? (64.8% vs. 27%)

This one is closely related to the above and is nearly identical for most purposes, so again, this is not a surprising result.

External world: non-skeptical realism, other? (81.6% vs. 9.2%)

Good news! Few people are solipsists.

Free will: compatibilism, other? (59% vs. 14.9%)

Compatibilism means believing that free will is compatible with determinism, i.e. even if future events are for all intents and purposes predetermined, free will is still possible. The consensus on this one is noticeably weaker, but it’s a consensus nonetheless.

God: atheism or theism? (72.8% vs. 14.6%)

Oops, looks like the vast majority of professional philosophers are atheists. Yet another reason for the God-fearing crowd not to send their children to liberal arts universities!

Science: scientific realism, other? (75% vs. 13.3%)

Basically this asks whether or not scientific findings are to be regarded as objective truths, as opposed to being social constructs as claimed by the post-modernists. It looks like most philosophers believe that it is reasonable to regard the products of science as being objectively true.

Trolley problem: switch, other, don’t switch? (68.2% vs. 24.1% vs. 7.6%)

The trolley problem is a classic ethical dilemma. Imagine you have a train hurtling down a track. You see that if it continues where it is going, it will kill five people. However, if you throw a switch to divert it to a side track, it will kill one person. Do you switch or not?

My own views on all of the above matters dovetails with the consensus. Here are some topics on which my own views either don’t form part of the overwhelming consensus or the consensus is weaker than I’d have liked:

Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism? (49.8% vs. 25.8%)

Of course I’m a naturalist but it sort of puzzles me why the consensus here is so weak especially with so many philosophers identifying themselves as atheists. Remember that theism is the primary form of non-naturalism.

Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism? (56.4% vs. 27%)

Again, I’m a physicalist but I’d have hoped for a stronger consensus. Clearly this view stands in stark contrast with most of the general population. I’m pretty sure that most people, whether they’re theists or not, still hold on to some form of a Cartesian mind-body divide.

Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?

The choice that wins this category is “Other” at 42.2%. I vote with representationalism here myself, which is the next highest category at 31.4%. This question asks what we should think about sense data. Representationalism means that we don’t perceive the world directly. Instead, we receive information of the world through our senses and use that information to construct a representational model of the world inside our own minds. Clearly there’s still a lot of argument in this field.

Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?

Other wins this category as well with 41%. This is the only category in which my own stance, libertarianism, comes in dead last, at 9.8%. I guess that means most philosophers are socialists instead of capitalists?

Finally, here are a couple of questions in the survey that I found to be particularly amusing.

Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death?

Imagine that someone invents a near-instantaneous teleportation device like the transporter in Star Trek. Your physical body is deconstructed, whisked away and then reassembled somewhere else. Philosophically speaking, does this mean that you survive the process as the same being or that you die but a copy of you is created? 36.1% voted for survival, 32.6% voted for “Other” and 31.1% voted for death, a very close result. I’d vote for survival myself, but then what happens if the machine malfunctions and instead of disassembling me at my current location, creates a new copy of me at the new location?

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?

The zombies here mean philosophical zombies of course, not the lumbering, flesh-eating kind. This refers to a type of being that to all conceivable means of exterior testing and observation resembles a living, thinking, feeling human being in all respects, except that inside it does not actually think or feel. It merely appears to be thinking and feeling. I vote conceivable but not metaphysically possible here, which is the highest at 35.5%. This means that while I can conceive of such a being, I do believe that such a thing could exist as any being looks as if it feels and thinks in all possible ways must think and feel. The next highest category is “Other” at 25.1% while those who voted that it’s metaphysically possible here comprised 23.3%.

Now you know what philosophers do with their time. Isn’t this fun?

2 thoughts on “Consensus in modern philosophy”

  1. The religion one is not suprising, although rather sad (I would like to see more Christians become philosophers, although I guess that academic philosophy is a hard world to live in). My stereotype of philosophers is that they are arrogant, that they think they know best. I think a Christian philosopher in many University philosophy departments would find it difficult being accepted and respected.

    The gender one did surprise me a bit – men are 6x more likely to get into academic philosophy than women? Something’s ajar there. I did a philosophy paper a few years ago, it was predominantly male-taught and for whatever reason I didn’t really enjoy it. I have several female friends who loved studying Philosophy, though.

  2. Regarding the arrogance of philosophers, I originally read about this survey from the blog of the Library of Economics and Liberty website. There’s also a post there that you might be interested in:

    Basically he recounts an anecdote about how philosophers in general don’t believe that the members of their profession are actually any good at figuring out truthful answers to philosophical questions. What they do agree on is that they are capable of verifying the logical consistency of each other’s arguments

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