What do professional philosophers believe, and why?

LessWrong has twice discussed the PhilPapers Survey of professional philosophers' views on thirty controversies in their fields — in early 2011 and, more intensively, in late 2012. We've also been having some lively debates, prompted by LukeProg, about the general value of contemporary philosophical assumptions and methods. It would be swell to test some of our intuitions about how philosophers go wrong (and right) by looking closely at the aggregate output and conduct of philosophers, but relevant data is hard to come by.

Fortunately, Davids Chalmers and Bourget have done a lot of the work for us. They released a paper summarizing the PhilPapers Survey results two days ago, identifying, by factor analysis, seven major components consolidating correlations between philosophical positions, influences, areas of expertise, etc.

 

Anti-Naturalist1. Anti-Naturalists: Philosophers of this stripe tend (more strongly than most) to assert libertarian free will (correlation with factor .66), theism (.63), the metaphysical possibility of zombies (.47), and A theories of time (.28), and to reject physicalism (.63), naturalism (.57), personal identity reductionism (.48), and liberal egalitarianism (.32).

Anti-Naturalists tend to work in philosophy of religion (.3) or Greek philosophy (.11). They avoid philosophy of mind (-.17) and cognitive science (-.18) like the plague. They hate Hume (-.14), Lewis (-.13), Quine (-.12), analytic philosophy (-.14), and being from Australasia (-.11). They love Plato (.13), Aristotle (.12), and Leibniz (.1).

 

Objectivist2. Objectivists: They tend to accept 'objective' moral values (.72), aesthetic values (.66), abstract objects (.38), laws of nature (.28), and scientific posits (.28). Note 'Objectivism' is being used here to pick out a tendency to treat value as objectively binding and metaphysical posits as objectively real; it isn't connected to Ayn Rand.

A disproportionate number of objectivists work in normative ethics (.12), Greek philosophy (.1), or philosophy of religion (.1). They don't work in philosophy of science (-.13) or biology (-.13), and aren't continentalists (-.12) or Europeans (-.14). Their favorite philosopher is Plato (.1), least favorites Hume (-.2) and Carnap (-.12).

 

Rationalist3. Rationalists: They tend to self-identify as 'rationalists' (.57) and 'non-naturalists' (.33), to accept that some knowledge is a priori (.79), and to assert that some truths are analytic, i.e., 'true by definition' or 'true in virtue of 'meaning' (.72). Also tend to posit metaphysical laws of nature (.34) and abstracta (.28). 'Rationalist' here clearly isn't being used in the LW or freethought sense; philosophical rationalists as a whole in fact tend to be theists.

Rationalists are wont to work in metaphysics (.14), and to avoid thinking about the sciences of life (-.14) or cognition (-.1). They are extremely male (.15), inordinately British (.12), and prize Frege (.18) and Kant (.12). They absolutely despise Quine (-.28, the largest correlation for a philosopher), and aren't fond of Hume (-.12) or Mill (-.11) either.

 

Anti-Realist4. Anti-Realists: They tend to define truth in terms of our cognitive and epistemic faculties (.65) and to reject scientific realism (.6), a mind-independent and knowable external world (.53), metaphysical laws of nature (.43), and the notion that proper names have no meaning beyond their referent (.35).

They are extremely female (.17) and young (.15 correlation coefficient for year of birth). They work in ethics (.16), social/political philosophy (.16), and 17th-19th century philosophy (.11), avoiding metaphysics (-.2) and the philosophies of mind (-.15) and language (-.14). Their heroes are Kant (.23), Rawls (.14), and, interestingly, Hume (.11). They avoid analytic philosophy even more than the anti-naturalists do (-.17), and aren't fond of Russell (-.11).

 

Externalists

5. Externalists: Really, they just like everything that anyone calls 'externalism'. They think the content of our mental lives in general (.66) and perception in particular (.55), and the justification for our beliefs (.64), all depend significantly on the world outside our heads. They also think that you can fully understand a moral imperative without being at all motivated to obey it (.5).

Beyond externalism, they really have very little in common. They avoid 17th-18th century philosophy (-.13), and tend to be young (.1) and work in the UK (.1), but don't converge upon a common philosophical tradition or area of expertise, as far as the survey questions indicated.

 

Trekophobe6. Star Trek Haters: This group is less clearly defined than the above ones. The main thing uniting them is that they're thoroughly convinced that teleportation would mean death (.69). Beyond that, Trekophobes tend to be deontologists (.52) who don't switch on trolley dilemmas (.47) and like A theories of time (.41).

Trekophobes are relatively old (-.1) and American (.13 affiliation). They are quite rare in Australia and Asia (-.18 affiliation). They're fairly evenly distributed across philosophical fields, and tend to avoid weirdo intuitions-violating naturalists — Lewis (-.13), Hume (-.12), analytic philosophers generally (-.11).

 

Logical Conventionalists7. Logical Conventionalists: They two-box on Newcomb's Problem (.58), reject nonclassical logics (.48), and reject epistemic relativism and contextualism (.48). So they love causal decision theory, think all propositions/facts are generally well-behaved (always either true or false and never both or neither), and think there are always facts about which things you know, independent of who's evaluating you. Suspiciously normal.

They're also fond of a wide variety of relatively uncontroversial, middle-of-the-road views most philosophers agree about or treat as 'the default' — political egalitarianism (.33), abstract object realism (.3), and atheism (.27). They tend to think zombies are metaphysically possible (.26) and to reject personal identity reductionism (.26) — which aren't metaphysically innocent or uncontroversial positions, but, again, do seem to be remarkably straightforward and banal approaches to all these problems. Notice that a lot of these positions are intuitive and 'obvious' in isolation, but that they don't converge upon any coherent world-view or consistent methodology. They clearly aren't hard-nosed philosophical conservatives like the Anti-Naturalists, Objectivists, Rationalists, and Trekophobes, but they also clearly aren't upstart radicals like the Externalists (on the analytic side) or the Anti-Realists (on the continental side). They're just kind of, well... obvious.

Conventionalists are the only identified group that are strongly analytic in orientation (.19). They tend to work in epistemology (.16) or philosophy of language (.12), and are rarely found in 17th-19th century (-.12) or continental (-.11) philosophy. They're influenced by notorious two-boxer and modal realist David Lewis (.1), and show an aversion to Hegel (-.12), Aristotle (-.11), and and Wittgenstein (-.1).

 

An observation: Different philosophers rely on — and fall victim to — substantially different groups of methods and intuitions. A few simple heuristics, like 'don't believe weird things until someone conclusively demonstrates them' and 'believe things that seem to be important metaphysical correlates for basic human institutions' and 'fall in love with any views starting with "ext"', explain a surprising amount of diversity. And there are clear common tendencies to either trust one's own rationality or to distrust it in partial (Externalism) or pathological (Anti-Realism, Anti-Naturalism) ways. But the heuristics don't hang together in a single Philosophical World-View or Way Of Doing Things, or even in two or three such world-views.

There is no large, coherent, consolidated group that's particularly attractive to LWers across the board, but philosophers seem to fall short of LW expectations for some quite distinct reasons. So attempting to criticize, persuade, shame, praise, or even speak of or address philosophers as a whole may be a bad idea. I'd expect it to be more productive to target specific 'load-bearing' doctrines on dimensions like the above than to treat the group as a monolith, for many of the same reasons we don't want to treat 'scientists' or 'mathematicians' as monoliths.

 

Another important result: Something is going seriously wrong with the high-level training and enculturation of professional philosophers. Or fields are just attracting thinkers who are disproportionately bad at critically assessing a number of the basic claims their field is predicated on or exists to assess.

Philosophers working in decision theory are drastically worse at Newcomb than are other philosophers, two-boxing 70.38% of the time where non-specialists two-box 59.07% of the time (normalized after getting rid of 'Other' answers). Philosophers of religion are the most likely to get questions about religion wrong — 79.13% are theists (compared to 13.22% of non-specialists), and they tend strongly toward the Anti-Naturalism dimension. Non-aestheticians think aesthetic value is objective 53.64% of the time; aestheticians think it's objective 73.88% of the time. Working in epistemology tends to make you an internalist, philosophy of science tends to make you a Humean, metaphysics a Platonist, ethics a deontologist. This isn't always the case; but it's genuinely troubling to see non-expertise emerge as a predictor of getting any important question in an academic field right.

 

EDIT: I've replaced "cluster" talk above with "dimension" talk. I had in mind gjm's "clusters in philosophical idea-space", not distinct groups of philosophers. gjm makes this especially clear:

The claim about these positions being made by the authors of the paper is not, not even a little bit, "most philosophers fall into one of these seven categories". It is "you can generally tell most of what there is to know about a philosopher's opinions if you know how well they fit or don't fit each of these seven categories". Not "philosopher-space is mostly made up of these seven pieces" but "philosopher-space is approximately seven-dimensional".

I'm particularly guilty of promoting this misunderstanding (including in portions of my own brain) by not noting that the dimensions can be flipped to speak of (anti-anti-)naturalists, anti-rationalists, etc. My apologies. As Douglas_Knight notes below, "If there are clusters [of philosophers], PCA might find them, but PCA might tell you something interesting even if there are no clusters. But if there are clusters, the factors that PCA finds won't be the clusters, but the differences between them. [...] Actually, factor analysis pretty much assumes that there aren't clusters. If factor 1 put you in a cluster, that would tell pretty much all there is to say and would pin down your factor 2, but the idea in factor analysis is that your factor 2 is designed to be as free as possible, despite knowing factor 1."

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Some of the comments here indicate that their authors have severely misunderstood the nature of those seven "major components", and actually I think the OP may have too.

They are not clusters in philosopher-space, particular positions that many philosophers share. They are directions in philosopher-space along which philosophers tend to vary. Each could equivalently have been replaced by its exact opposite. They are defined, kinda, by clusters in philosophical idea-space: groups of questions with the property that a philosopher's position on one tends to correlate strongly with his or her position on another.

The claim about these positions being made by the authors of the paper is not, not even a little bit, "most philosophers fall into one of these seven categories". It is "you can generally tell most of what there is to know about a philosopher's opinions if you know how well they fit or don't fit each of these seven categories". Not "philosopher-space is mostly made up of these seven pieces" but "philosopher-space is approximately seven-dimensional".

So, for instance, someone asked "Is there a cluster that has more than 1 position in common with LW norms?". The answer (leaving aside the fact that these things aren't clusters in the sense the question seems to assume) is yes: for instance, the first one, "anti-naturalism", is simply the reverse of "naturalism", which is not far from being The Standard LW Position on everything it covers. The fourth, "anti-realism", is more or less the reverse of The Standard LW Position on a different group of issues.

(So why did the authors of the paper choose to use "anti-naturalism" and "anti-realism" rather than "naturalism" and "realism"? I think in each case they chose the more distinctive and less usual of the two opposite poles. Way more philosophers are naturalists and realists than are anti-naturalists and anti-realists. I repeat: these things are not clusters in which a lot of philosophers are found; that isn't what they're for.)

This is very lucid; upvoting so more people see it. I worry even the images I added for fun may perpetuate this mistake by treating the dimensions as though they were discrete Tribes. I may get rid of those.

I think that it might help to use the label "Rationalism" instead of "Rationalists" if you talk about dimension as opposed to clusters.

This post should be quoted at the very top of the article, I didn't understand what I was reading about until I read this.

I also disagree with philosophers, disproportionately regarding their own areas of expertise, but the pattern of reasoning here is pretty suspect. The observation is: experts are uniformly less likely to share LW views than non-experts. The conclusion is: experts are no good.

I think you should tread carefully. This is the sort of thing that gets people (and communities) in epistemic trouble.

ETA: more analysis here, using the general undergrad vs target faculty comparison, instead of comparing grad students and faculty within an AOS.

This should be taken very seriously. In the case of philosophy of religion I think what's happening is a selection effect: people who believe in theist religion are disproportionately likely to think it worthwhile to study philosophy of religion, i.e. the theism predates their expertise in the philosophy of religion, and isn't a result of it. Similarly moral anti-realists are going to be less interested in in meta-ethics, and in general people who think a field is pointless or nonsense won't go into it.

Now, I am going to try to test that for religion, meta-ethics, and decision theory by comparing graduate students with a specialty in the field to target (elite) faculty with specialties in the field in the PhilPapers data, available at http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl . It looks like target faculty philosophers of religion and meta-ethicists are actually less theistic and less moral realist than graduate students specializing in those areas, suggesting that selection effects rather than learning explain the views of these specialists. There weren't enough data points for decision theory to draw conclusions. I haven't tried any other analyses or looked at other subjects yet, or otherwise applied a publication bias filter.

Graduate students with philosophy of religion as an Area of Specialization (AOS):

God: theism or atheism?

Accept: theism 29 / 43 (67.4%) Lean toward: theism 4 / 43 (9.3%) Lean toward: atheism 3 / 43 (7.0%) Accept: atheism 2 / 43 (4.7%) Agnostic/undecided 1 / 43 (2.3%) There is no fact of the matter 1 / 43 (2.3%) Accept another alternative 1 / 43 (2.3%) Accept an intermediate view 1 / 43 (2.3%) Reject both 1 / 43 (2.3%)

Target faculty with philosophy of religion as AOS:

God: theism or atheism?

Accept: theism 30 / 47 (63.8%) Accept: atheism 9 / 47 (19.1%) Lean toward: theism 4 / 47 (8.5%) Reject both 2 / 47 (4.3%) Agnostic/undecided 2 / 47 (4.3%)

Graduate students with a metaethics AOS:

Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?

Accept: moral realism 50 / 116 (43.1%) Lean toward: moral realism 25 / 116 (21.6%) Accept: moral anti-realism 19 / 116 (16.4%) Lean toward: moral anti-realism 9 / 116 (7.8%) Agnostic/undecided 4 / 116 (3.4%) Accept an intermediate view 4 / 116 (3.4%) Accept another alternative 3 / 116 (2.6%) Reject both 2 / 116 (1.7%)

Target faculty with a meta-ethics AOS:

Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?

Accept: moral realism 42 / 102 (41.2%) Accept: moral anti-realism 17 / 102 (16.7%) Lean toward: moral realism 15 / 102 (14.7%) Lean toward: moral anti-realism 10 / 102 (9.8%) Accept an intermediate view 7 / 102 (6.9%) The question is too unclear to answer 6 / 102 (5.9%) Accept another alternative 3 / 102 (2.9%) Agnostic/undecided 2 / 102 (2.0%)

Graduate students in decision theory:

Newcomb's problem: one box or two boxes?

Accept: two boxes 3 / 9 (33.3%) Accept another alternative 1 / 9 (11.1%) Accept an intermediate view 1 / 9 (11.1%) Lean toward: one box 1 / 9 (11.1%) Accept: one box 1 / 9 (11.1%) Insufficiently familiar with the issue 1 / 9 (11.1%) The question is too unclear to answer 1 / 9 (11.1%)

Target faculty in decision theory:

Newcomb's problem: one box or two boxes?

Accept: two boxes 13 / 31 (41.9%) Accept: one box 7 / 31 (22.6%) Lean toward: two boxes 6 / 31 (19.4%) Other 2 / 31 (6.5%) Agnostic/undecided 2 / 31 (6.5%) Lean toward: one box 1 / 31 (3.2%)

In the case of philosophy of religion I think what's happening is a selection effect: people who believe in theist religion are disproportionately likely to think it worthwhile to study philosophy of religion, i.e. the theism predates their expertise in the philosophy of religion, and isn't a result of it.

I'll give you a slightly different spin on the bias. More evolutionary bias than selection bias.

People who assert that a field is worthwhile are more likely to be successful in that field.

The conclusion is: experts are no good

We actually see this across a lot of fields besides philosophy, and it's not LW-specific. For example, simply adding up a few simple scores does better than experts at predicting job performance.

It's been shown that expertise is only valuable in fields where there is a short enough and frequent enough feedback loop for a person to actually develop expertise -- and there is something coherent to develop the expertise in. Outside of such fields, experts are just blowhards with status.

Given the nature of the field, the prior expectation for philosophers having any genuine expertise at anything except impressing people, should be set quite low. (Much like we should expect expert short-term stock pickers to not be expert at anything besides being lucky.)

Of course, one could argue that LW regulars get even less rapid feedback on these issues than the professional philosophers do. The philosophers at least are frequently forced to debate their ideas with people who disagree, while LW posters mostly discuss these things with each other - that is, with a group that is self-selected for thinking in a similar way. We don't have the kind of diversity of opinion that is exemplified by these survey results.

This seems right to me.

However see my comment above for evidence suggesting that the views of the specialists are those they brought with them to the field (or shifting away from the plurality view), i.e. that the skew of views among specialists is NOT due to such feedback.

It's been shown that expertise is only valuable in fields where there is a short enough and frequent enough feedback loop for a person to actually develop expertise -- and there is something coherent to develop the expertise in

What do you think philosophy is lacking? An (analytical) philosopher who makes a logic error is hauled up very quickly by their peers. That's your feedback loop. So is "something coherent" lacking? Phil. certainly doesn't have a set of established results like engineering, or the more settled areas of science. It does have a lot of necessary skill in formulating, expressing and criticising ideas and arguments. Musicians aren't non-experts just because there is barely such a thing as a musical fact. Philosophy isn't broken science.

OK, so philosophers manage to avoid logical errors. Good for them. However, they make more complicated errors (see A Human's Guide To Words for some examples), as well as sometimes errors of probability. The thing that philosophers develop expertise in is writing interesting arguments and counterarguments. But these arguments are castles built on air; there is no underlying truth to most of the questions they ask (or, if there is an underlying truth, there is no penalty for being wrong about it). And even some of the "settled" positions are only settled because of path-dependence -- that is, once they became popular, anyone with conflicting intuitions would simply never become a philosopher (see Buckwalter and Stich for more on this).

Scientists (at least in theory) have all of the same skills that philosophers should have -- formulating theories and arguments, catching logical errors, etc. It's just that in science, the arguments are (when done correctly) constrained to be about the real world.

there is no underlying truth to most of the questions they ask

How do you know?

It's just that in science, the arguments are (when done correctly) constrained to be about the real world.

How do you know? Are you aware that much philosophy is about science.

there is no underlying truth to most of the questions they ask

How do you know?

To be fair, I have not done an exhaustive survey; "most" was hyperbole.

It's just that in science, the arguments are (when done correctly) constrained to be about the real world.

How do you know? Are you aware that much philosophy is about science.

Sure. But there is no such constraint on philosophy of science.

How do you know? Are you aware that much philosophy is about science.

Sure. But there is no such constraint on philosophy of science.

Why is that a problem? Science deals with empirical reality, philosophy of science deals with meta-level issues. Each to their own.

Why is that a problem? Science deals with empirical reality, philosophy of science deals with meta-level issues. Each to their own.

Because if there is no fact of the matter on the "meta-level issues", then you're not actually dealing with "meta-level issues". You are dealing with words, and your success in dealing with words is what's being measured. Your argument is that expertise develops by feedback, but the feedback that philosophers get isn't the right kind of feedback.

I don't know what you mean by "fact of the matter". It's not a problem that meta-level isn't object level, any more than it's a problem that cats aren't dogs. I also don't think that there is any problem in identifying the meta level. Philosophers "don't deal with words" in the sense that linguists. They use words to do things, as do many other specialities. You seem to be making the complaint that success isn't well defined in philosophy, but that would require treating object level science as much more algorithmic than it actually is. What makes a scientific theory a good theory? Most scientists agree on it?

I don't know what you mean by "fact of the matter".

An actual truth about the world.

What makes a scientific theory a good theory?

Have you read A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation?

I don't know what you mean by "fact of the matter".

An actual truth about the world.

I don't know what you mean by that. Is Gresham's law such a truth?

What makes a scientific theory a good theory?

Have you read A Technical Explanation of Technical Explanation?

My question was rhetorical. Science does not deal entirely in directly observable empirical facts -- which might be what you meant by "actual truths about the world". Those who fly under the Bayesian flag by and large don't either: most of the material on this site is just as indirect/meta-levle/higher-level as philosophy. I just don't see anything that justifies the "Boo!" rhetoric.

Actually, perhaps you should try The Simple Truth, because you seem totally confused.

Yes, a lot of the material on this site is philosophy; I would argue that it is correspondingly more likely to be wrong, precisely because is not subject to the same feedback loops as science. This is why EY keeps asking, "How do I use this to build an AI?"

you seem totally confused

So...is Gresham;s Law an actual truth about the world?

perhaps you should try The Simple Truth

Now I'm confused. Is that likely to be wrong or not?

So...is Gresham;s Law an actual truth about the world?

As far as I can tell, yes (in a limited form), but I'm prepared for an economist to tell me otherwise.

perhaps you should try The Simple Truth

Now I'm confused. Is that likely to be wrong or not?

If we consider it as a definition, then it is either useful or not useful.

So...is Gresham;s Law an actual truth about the world?

As far as I can tell, yes (in a limited form), but I'm prepared for an economist to tell me otherwise.

The focus of the question was "about the world". Gresham's law, if true, is not a direct empirical fact like the metling point of aluminium, not is it built into the fabric of the universe, since it is indefinable without humans and their economic activity.

perhaps you should try The Simple Truth

Now I'm confused. Is that likely to be wrong or not?

If we consider it as a definition, then it is either useful or not useful.

So this is about the "true" part, not about the "actual world" part? In that case, You are';t complaining that philosophy ins;t connected to reality, your claiming that it is all false. In that case I will have to ask you when and how you became omniscient.

The focus of the question was "about the world". Gresham's law, if true, is not a direct empirical fact like the melting point of aluminium, not is it built into the fabric of the universe, since it is indefinable without humans and their economic activity.

Humans are part of the world.

So this is about the "true" part, not about the "actual world" part? In that case, You aren't complaining that philosophy isn't connected to reality, your claiming that it is all false. In that case I will have to ask you when and how you became omniscient.

I'm afraid I don't understand what you're saying here. Yes, if you are confused about what truth means, a definition would be useful; I think The Simple Truth is a pretty useful one (if rather long-winded, as is typical for Yudkowsky). It doesn't tell you much about the actual world (except that it hints at a reasonable justification for induction, which is developed more fully elsewhere).

But I'm not sure why you think I am claiming philosophy is all false.

The focus of the question was "about the world". Gresham's law, if true, is not a direct empirical fact like the melting point of aluminium, not is it built into the fabric of the universe, since it is indefinable without humans and their economic activity.

Humans are part of the world.

Then there is no reason why some philosopihical claims about human nature could not count as Actual Truths About The World, refuting your original point.

That depends on what you mean by "human nature," but yes, some such claims could. However, they aren't judged based on this (outside of experimental philosophy, of course). So, there is no feedback loop.

However, they aren't judged based on this

Based on what? Is Gresham's law based on "this"?

Just a friendly advice. Having looked through your comment history I have noticed that you have trouble interpreting the statements of others charitably. This is fine for debate-style arguments, but is not a great idea on this forum, where winning is defined by collectively constructing a more accurate map, not as an advantage in a zero-sum game. (Admittedly, this is the ideal case, the practice is unfortunately different.) Anyway, consider reading the comments you are replying to in the best possible way first.

Speaking of which, I I honestly had no idea what the "this" meant. Do you?

If you honestly do not understand the point the comment you are replying to is making, a better choice is asking the commenter to clarify, rather than continuing to argue based on this lack of understanding. TheOtherDave does it almost to a fault, feel free to read some of his threads. Asking me does not help, I did not write the comment you didn't understand.

If you honestly do not understand the point the comment you are replying to is making, a better choice is asking the commenter to clarify

I believe I did:-

' Based on what? Is Gresham's law based on "this"?'

Asking me does not help, I did not write the comment you didn't understand.

The point is that if no one can understand the comment, then I am not uncharitably pretending not to understand the comment:

That comment could have been more clear. My apologies.

Philosophers are not judged based on whether their claims accurately describe the world. This was my original point, which I continue to stand by.

OK, it has been established that you attach True to the sentence:

"Philosophers are not judged based on whether their claims accurately describe the world".

The question is what that means. We have established that philoso