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What (analytic) philosophers really believe about religion and science

Modern philosopherPhilosophers are often seen as people who have too much free time on their hands and who are lost in the ivory tower of their own abstract thoughts. More positively, philosophers should have well thought-out positions in the area in which they are experts. In any event, there is only one way to learn what philosophers actually think: the empirical way. That is, design a survey to determine what most philosophers believe. Two philosophers have done just that: philosophers David Bourget (University of Western Ontario) and David J. Chalmers (Australian National University) have surveyed philosophers on a variety of issues, including religion and science.

By their own admission, ideally they’d be able to survey every philosopher on the planet, but such a goal is simply not feasible. Instead, they targeted particular, highly esteemed, philosophy departments in North America (62 in the US and 7 in Canada), Europe (18 in the UK and 7 elsewhere), and Australasia (7 total).

The net result of this particular sample is a strong leaning towards analytic philosophy. In brief, analytic philosophy has its roots in the early 20th century and emphasizes logic and clarity of language. Especially in its early days, analytic philosophers thought most philosophical problems could be resolved by clearly defining terms. Nowadays, this assumption is more implicit, but analytic philosophers continue to focus on language and logic.

Given their emphasis on clarity, its not surprising that the Bourget and Chalmers found it much easier to develop a survey of issues in analytic philosophy (all the more so because they themselves are analytic philosophers). More specifically, the questions center around the five “core” areas of analytic philosophy: epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), ethics, metaphysics (philosophy of what is real), philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language. Naturally included in all of this were questions about religion and science. Such topics included the existence of free will, the existence of God, whether science discovers the true nature of nature, and whether the mind is purely physical.

The results showed that, indeed, most philosophers identified themselves as analytic philosophers (so-called “Continental” philosophers, ancient Greek philosophers, and Medieval philosophers made up some of the smallest populations, and neither process philosophy nor pragmatism were even options on the survey). On to the aforementioned topics: regarding free will, 59.1% thought determinism and free will are compatible, 13.7% believe in a free will instead of determinism, 12.2% believe in determinism instead of free will, and the rest said “other.” Concerning the existence of God, a whopping 72.8% sided with atheism, 14.6% with theism, and the rest selected “other.” Even more lop-sided, 75.1% affirmed that science really does discover the true nature of nature, 11.6% said it does not, and the rest said “other.” Finally, 56.5% agreed that the mind is purely physical, 27.1% disagreed, and the rest went with “other.”

Several of the above views correlated with another. In other words, if one person believes x, he is also more likely to believe y. For instance, those who thought the mind is purely physical were more likely to be atheists. Another example: those who affirmed theism were also likely to affirm free will over determinism.

Sometimes areas of specialization correlated in a particular direction as well, over and against non-specialist philosophers. In one case, among philosophers of religion, only 20.87% identified as atheists, meaning that a wide chasm exists in the existence of God debate between non-specialist philosophers and philosophers who specialize in the philosophy of religion. Additionally, specialists were more likely than non-specialists to reject the clean “agree/disagree” dichotomy presented by the survey in the area of expertise.

Bourget and Chalmers also had philosophers who participated in the survey take a metasurvey that asked its participants what they thought most philosophers’ positions would be on these issues. Overall, philosophers had very inaccurate beliefs about their peers. More precisely, they had a mean absolute error of about 15%, which would be accurate for a 35/65 survey, but is terrible for a 50/50 (yes or no) survey. Put another way, they did worse than flipping a coin.

Of course, the views of analytic philosophers should not be taken authoritatively (and most likely the philosophers themselves would not want that). After all, even if one completely agrees with the majority of philosophers, it does not matter what one believes but why one believes it.

For more, see “What do philosophers believe?” in the journal Philosophical Studies. 

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