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What philosophers believe

Posted by Christopher Shea  December 15, 2009 02:44 PM

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Should we lead with the surprising or unsurprising news from a survey of over 900 philosophers at 99 leading universities in the United States and abroad?

Seventy-three percent of the philosophers surveyed said they accepted or leaned towards atheism, while only 15 percent accepted or leaned toward the idea of God. Those numbers will hardly shock either professional academics or outside observers of the academy.

On the other hand, 56 percent of the philosophers accepted or leaned toward the conclusion that there are objective truths about right and wrong behavior--the so-called moral-realist position--while only 28 percent leaned toward or accepted "anti-realism." "Journalists take note," wrote Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago philosopher, commenting on the survey at his blog, "more than half of philosophers at Ph.D.-granting programs believe there are objective moral truths!" Duly noted!

In a similarly surprising vein, 41 percent of the philosophers accepted or leaned toward the belief that aesthetic values were objective, with 34 percent leaning (at least) toward subjective. In each case, some professors skipped the question or offered an uncategorizable response.

The survey was conducted by David Chalmers, of the Australian National University, and David Bourget, of the University of London, both editors of the online site PhilPapers, where the results appeared.

Along with the survey came a metasurvey, in which the philosophers were asked how they thought other academics would respond. So we know that they, too, were surprised by some of the findings--including those concerning moral realism and aesthetic value. The professors also significantly underestimated how many of their peers believe that knowledge can be obtained purely through the workings of the mind, without any confirmation from the outside world--one of philosophy's most fundamental questions. Fully 71 percent believed in or leaned toward accepting so-called a priori knowledge.

There were more-specialized questions, too. Philosophers were widely split on the question of whether zombies were "inconceivable" (16 percent), "conceivable but not metaphysically possible" (35.5 percent), or "metaphysically possible" (23 percent). On that particular issue, twenty-five percent opted for "other."

What, you were expecting a picture of David Chalmers?
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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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