Friday, 13 April 2012

What philosophers think

A philosophical variant of Michaelangelo's 'The Creation of Adam.' conducted a survey a few years ago into the views of contemporary academic philosophers on a range of issues. The survey can be found here: In amongst the jargon, there are interesting findings to be had.

The survey shows that 72.8% of philosophers (faculty members, sample of nearly 1000) ‘accept or lean towards’ atheism, whilst only 14.6% ‘accept or lean towards‘ theism, the view that there exists a creator and sustainer of the universe. 12.5% were undecided.

What I find most interesting about the study is the correlative data - that is, taking views on a particular area and seeing how they correlate with views on a different area. You might expect, since ‘materialism’ these days is often used (misleadingly) as a synonym for ‘atheism’, that the vast majority of atheist philosophers are physicalists/materialists (see post - The Explanatory Gap). The survey shows this to be false. 67.9% of atheist philosophers call themselves physicalists, which leaves almost 20% who describe themselves as ‘non-physicalists.‘ (12% remained undecided on the issue, or refused to commit to either category).

Perhaps even more interestingly, 22.3% of theists call themselves physicalists, and thus commit themselves to the view that all that exists is physical matter. However, this is less contradictory than we might at first think - physicalism, construed as a view about human minds and the universe we inhabit, doesn’t rule out a God existing outside the universe, or a God not ‘existing' in the ordinary spatial sense. Nevertheless, the fact that 59.7% of theists are non-physicalists does indicate a predictable sympathy between the two views. Once you admit that there is mental stuff, I suppose you are less likely to find the notion of a non-physical being such as God suspicious for reductive reasons. (To say nothing of the role of the 'soul' in Christian religious thought).

Presenting ‘majority arguments’ as conclusively supporting a particular view (i.e ‘this view is true because the majority of people think it’) is a big mistake. We cannot conclude from the fact that 72.8% of philosophers are atheists that atheism is true - majorities can be seriously wrong in their views, as history has shown. Statistics should in any case be treated with caution. Nevertheless, the fact that a vast majority of philosophers are atheists is at least suggestive. Whether we draw any further conclusions here depends on how we view philosophers in general - are they skilled investigators into the fabric of reality, or just bearded men with weird views? Sadly, and most often unfairly, they are regularly seen by the public eye as falling into the latter category.

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