What Predicts Professional Philosophers’ Views? (updated)


A new study looks at correlations between professional philosophers’ philosophical views and their psychological traits, religious beliefs, political views, demographic information, and other characteristics.

[Josef Albers – untitled from “Formulation: Articulation”]

The research was carried out by David B. Yaden (psychology, Johns Hopkins University) and Derek E. Anderson (philosophy, Boston University), and the results have recently been published as “The psychology of philosophy: Associating philosophical views with psychological traits in professional philosophers,” in Philosophical Psychology. They write:

Our interest was in how philosophical views (not merely intuitions about philosophical thought experiments) relate to psychological traits in professional philosophers… we aim to identify associations between psychological traits and philosophical views for further replication and study.

Their method involved asking philosophers questions based on the PhilPapers Survey and administering measures for “personality, well-being, mental health, numeracy, varieties of life experiences, questions related to public education of philosophy, and demographics.” Their results are based on a sample of 314 respondents (264 of which were philosophy professors, with the remaining being post-docs and graduate students), about which they gathered some background information, such as gender, race, political views, academic affiliation, and philosophical tradition.

What did they learn? Below are some of their findings (for which they used a “conservative criterion” for statistical significance “to increase the likelihood that the reported correlations would replicate”).

Some of their results were negative, or findings of a lack of correlation:

  • Age, gender, relationship status, income, ethnicity, professional status yielded no significant findings of correlations with particular philosophical views.
  • None of the five factor model’s list of personality traits (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) were associated with specific philosophical views.
  • Neither exercise nor meditation were associated with any views.
  • “Anti-naturalism” (a cluster of beliefs including libertarian notions of free will, nonphysicalism about the mind, belief in God, non-naturalism, belief in the metaphysical possibility of philosophical Zombies, and the further fact view of personal identity) is largely unassociated with particular personality traits or well-being.

But they did find some positive correlations:

  • Theism is associated with agreeableness.
  • Hard determinism is associated with lower life satisfaction and higher depression/anxiety.
  • Consequentialism, realism, physicalism, and correspondence theories of truth are associated with more numerical interest
  • Believing philosophical zombies are metaphysically possible is associated with conscientiousness
  • Theism and idealism are associated with having had a transformative or self-transcendent experience.
  • Accepting non-classical logic is associated with having had a self-transcendent experience.
  • Non-realism regarding aesthetics and morality is associated with having used psychoactive substances such as psychedelics and marijuana.
  • Contextualism about knowledge claims is associated with supporting more public education about philosophy
  • Naturalism is associated with the notion that projects such as this one by Yaden and Anderson have philosophical value

The authors also found evidence of correlations between being an analytic philosopher and supporting certain philosophical views, such as the correspondence theory of truth, realism about the external world, invariantism about knowledge claims, scientific realism, and that one ought to pull the switch (sacrifice one person to save five others) in the bystander part of the trolley problem.

Additionally, they found that being more politically right-leaning was associated with several philosophical views, such as theism, free will libertarianism, nonphysicalist views in philosophy of mind, and the correspondence theory of truth.

What are we to take from all of these findings, if anything? The authors write:

To the extent that reliable causal patterns emerge between philosophical beliefs and other psychological factors, we are presented with the opportunity to study the structure of belief in a way that is elided by typical discussions in the philosophy of mind. Epistemically significant mental states such as beliefs and credences are typically characterized in terms of their contents and/or their functional roles in rational inference. Relatively little attention has been paid to connections between philosophical beliefs/views and personality, mental health, life experiences, psychopharmacology, or other psychological variables. The present study suggests that there may be important relationships between philosophical beliefs and various psychological traits. These findings therefore could raise doubts about the adequacy of a purely rationalistic conception of belief.

It is also possible that certain psychological states provide evidence for philosophical positions. Perhaps, for example, some features of depression might (seem to) provide evidence for a lack of free will. Or perhaps experiences with some mind-altering substances (seem to) provide evidence related to objective esthetic value. These possibilities suggest empirical lines of research into the ways in which individuals understand or consciously perceive the evidential relationships between their psychological states and their philosophical views.

The full article (paywalled) is here.

UPDATE: There’s an ungated version here, and supplemental materials (including more data than that which is discussed in the article) here.


Related: The Personality of Philosophy Majors

guest
13 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Joseph J Rachiele
5 months ago

I was just looking at a personality psychology paper the other day that also reported a similar correlation, one between belief in having control over your life and subjective well-being. That and the negative correlation found here with hard determinism had me wondering about the hypothetical: if there were solid causal evidence that these beliefs produce lower life satisfaction/depression how would that at all affect how one ought to teach the issue?

Given the many trade-offs and my lack of experience teaching I don’t really have any thoughts myself, but I’m curious what others think!Report

Jason
Jason
Reply to  Joseph J Rachiele
5 months ago

Interesting question. There is also some reflection on this question in the recent essay in the Guardian on free will (featured in Wednesday’s mini-heap among many other places in philosophyland): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2021/apr/27/the-clockwork-universe-is-free-will-an-illusion?Report

Nick
5 months ago

Nice. I’m going to get a t-shirt made: “Moral Anti-Realists Have More Fun”. Sorry realists, we love you dearly, but we all knew that this was true.

And yes, I know what you’re thinking: “Just because we don’t use drugs as often means we’re less fun?? that doesn’t logically follow!” Ironically, the fact that you are thinking this is evidence that I am right.Report

Jason
Jason
Reply to  Nick
5 months ago

Lolz. That’s not ironic, though.Report

Peter
Peter
Reply to  Nick
5 months ago

And theists and idealists are clearly doing DMT. So who is having the most fun?Report

grymes
5 months ago

I can’t quite put my finger on why, but this one made me laugh out loud:

“Believing philosophical zombies are metaphysically possible is associated with conscientiousness”Report

Alastair Norcross
5 months ago

“Consequentialism, realism, physicalism, and correspondence theories of truth are associated with more numerical interest”
I’d really like to see the numbers that back up that claim.Report

Tom M
Tom M
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
5 months ago

Nonconsequentialist here. Honesty I don’t even need to see the numbers to know that the statement is 110% correctReport

Alastair Norcross
Reply to  Tom M
5 months ago

Hmm. Was there a correlation between not being a consequentialist and not getting a joke?Report

Tom M
Tom M
Reply to  Alastair Norcross
5 months ago

I would ask you the same thing about being a consequentialist mate!
I was riffing on your joke by offering an incoherent percentage.Report

Gene Witmer
5 months ago

A comment on what can be learned from this. You quote the authors as saying both

The present study suggests that there may be important relationships between philosophical beliefs and various psychological traits. These findings therefore could raise doubts about the adequacy of a purely rationalistic conception of belief.”
 
and

“It is also possible that certain psychological states provide evidence for philosophical positions.”

Both comments suggest that the guiding presumption is that the psychological traits are responsible for the views, but there’s also—of course—the possibility that the views are responsible for the psychological traits. Some of the positive correlations cited seem to cry out for such an explanation, while others at least allow such explanation. I thought it might be worth thinking through some options of this sort and do so below.

But before getting to those, I want to stress two things. First, I don’t mean to sugest that the philosophical views OUGHT to lead to these other traits all things considered. I only mean to suggest that the philosophical view in question could—perhaps only in conjunction with other widely held views—lead intelligibly to acting in ways that fit those traits. Second, I don’t mean to suppose that any such explanation reflects conscious deliberation by the people who hold the views and have those traits; the thought is rather that a subconscious process of some sort, one that is sensitive to one’s reasons, could lead to those traits. So let’s consider the positive associations listed above.

1. Theism is associated with agreeableness.

If one already believes in God as traditionally understood, wouldn’t that be more likely to make one agreeable? After all, to believe in such a God is to believe that ultimately all is well, that suffering is justified, and even the jerk in the office who might otherwise make you mad is playing some appropriate part in the divine plan. So one can afford to be agreeable. If religion is the opiate of the people, well, just consider how agreeable opium might make one.

2.  Hard determinism is associated with lower life satisfaction and higher depression/anxiety.

Again, suppose one independently comes to believe that there is no free will. Surely it’s predictable that this conclusion will, for many anyway, result in less satisfaction and more anxiety. After all, even if the lack of free will isn’t in fact bad news (as argued by Pereboom), given the constant celebration of “free will” in our culture, it’s no surprise that there would be at least a tendency for those who believe there is no free will to experience these unhappy effects.

3. Consequentialism, realism, physicalism, and correspondence theories of truth are associated with more numerical interest

This correlation is a bit harder to explain in the suggested fashion, but I think it’s not out of the question.

Consider the association of consequentialism with numerical interest. If consequences are what matter in making ethical decisions, then having a good measure of those consequences is critical; one then has to care about the numbers.

Consider the association of the other three — realism, physicalism, correspondence — with numerical interest. All three of these views suggest that there are ways in which one’s attempts to know the world could be weakened badly by allowing the influence of various things that depend on our minds, our feelings, or the like. If a person attracted to those views also has a tendency to think of mathematics as especially suited for “objective” inquiry, then an interest in numbers might be a natural result of holding those views.

4. Believing philosophical zombies are metaphysically possible is associated with conscientiousness

This may seem baffling at first, but in fact here’s one way the correlation might be explained. Someone who finds philosophical zombies to be metaphysically possible is (almost surely) a dualist, and if one is a dualist, one thinks that there is a tremendously significant difference between physical things with a mind and physical things without a mind. By contrast, if one is not a dualist one will be inclined to see the distinction as in some way not so significant: the physical things with a mind are made up ultimately of the same stuff as the physical things without a mind. These contrasting attitudes might have downstream effects on what one thinks is important ethically. I certainly don’t endorse this line of thought, but it would not be surprising if someone attracted to these philosophical views is led to believe that the treatment of things with minds can’t be as significant as traditionally thought; after all, they aren’t in principle different from things without minds, and we don’t count those things as having the same moral significance.

While this is a case of what I think is very bad reasoning, I think there is actually significant evidence that something like this is operative in a number of philosophers. First, I have seen students at both undergraduate and graduate levels find tempting the idea that, if physicalism is true, it doesn’t really matter so much how one treats people. Second, I have seen a number of philosophers—theists in every case—think that physicalism has this kind of consequence. (The most egregious offender is William Lane Craig.) I think the reasoning is confused, that it relies on conflating physicalism with eliminativism, but I think it’s a real tendency.

5. Theism and idealism are associated with having had a transformative or self-transcendent experience.

Of course, it might be that people who have had such experiences are caused by them to increase the credibility they assign to theism, and that’s a natural interpretation—PROVIDED that one takes the reports of such experiences to be credible to some degree. There is another way to see things, however, which is to suppose that, first, there are experiences of some pretty interesting sorts that can be described in ways that wouldn’t tempt one to describe as transformative or transcendent, but, second, those who already believe that God exists or that the world is fundamentally “for us” (as an idealist might put it, and as Foster did, if I recall), is already primed to described experiences in that way. So, the philosophical view, if that’s right, wouldn’t cause the experiences themselves, but would incline the subject to interpret it in these theism/idealism-friendly ways.

6. Accepting non-classical logic is associated with having had a self-transcendent experience.

This correlation is similar, I think, in what we might say about it. Sure, one might think that a transcendent experience can lead one to think that our classical logic is unduly limited. But having that view could make a more exciting “transcendent” reading of an experience more likely in the first place.

7. Non-realism regarding aesthetics and morality is associated with having used psychoactive substances such as psychedelics and marijuana.

Suppose one is a non-realist about aesthetics and morality. In that case, one will see the associated experiences (seeing beauty, perceiving wrongness, etc.) as no more significant ultimately than other experiences that might seem obviously non-representational. So one might then see psychoactive substances as providing one with experiences that have just as much value as aesthetic and moral experiences, so pursuing those is more attractive. Or to put the point in a more positive way: one might be a non-realist in a way that allows one to say that moral statements, say, are true, but they’re made true by our reactions in some way; so, one could discover additional truths by having even more experiences, perhaps, including those induced by psychoactive substances.

8. Contextualism about knowledge claims is associated with supporting more public education about philosophy

This is a pretty odd one, it seems! But I do have one suggestion, though it may be a stretch. Here it is. If one is a contextualist about knowledge claims, one must hold that our naive grip on the semantics of our own language is at least very prone to error; after all, if contextualism about knowledge claims were just as obvious as contextualism about, say, “here”, then nobody would ever be bamboozled into thinking skepticism was a threat. So a contextualist thinks our ordinary grip on language is very poor, and it becomes all the more important—if we’re to avoid stupid errors—to provide public education about philosophy. Others might think that it’s not as important, since people can at least reason tolerably well about matters like knowledge. (Yes, this is a stretch, as I said, but I’m throwing it out there.)

9. Naturalism is associated with the notion that projects such as this one by Yaden and Anderson have philosophical value

This last one is actually the easiest. Naturalism—at least, epistemic or methodological naturalism—is typically explained in a way that makes it just definitional that a naturalist will think finding out the causes of beliefs, even if those causes are not matters of arguments or evidence or whatnot, is significant for epistemology.

Well, I wrote more than I intended but thought this was interesting enough to take a bit of time to think through. I certainly don’t think that I have enough evidence to prefer the more rationalistic explanation of these correlations than vice versa, but they seem plausible enough (well, maybe except for my #8!) to warrant consideration.Report

John G. Bennett
5 months ago

Given the dragnet approach to finding correlations and the sample size, I am not at all surprised that a few strange relations turned up. It is not unlikely that there will be curious coincidences found in such a survey. Before speculating about what might might underlie any of them, I would wait until someone independently confirms a specific interesting correlation.Report

Conor Mayo-Wilson
Reply to  John G. Bennett
5 months ago

A cursory glance at the article shows the authors did, in fact, correct for multiple comparisons in a rather strict way, contrary to what John G. Bennett suggests.

Full disclosure: I think classical “corrections” for multiple comparisons are unduly skeptical. Add the phrase “in science” to the end of every clause in John G. Bennett’s post, and it becomes clear why we typically don’t accept this type of skepticism generally. Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of hypotheses were tested yesterday by researchers across the world; some strange relations turned up. No one should doubt the robustness of a correlation between corn growth and pesticide discovered by a corn farmer in Iowa because a correlation popped up in some particle physics experiment at CERN. To say it another way, the standard calculations used to justify correction factors applies to tests conducted on vastly different subjects in vastly periods of time. It seems to me that advocates of “correcting” for multiple comparisons, therefore, are committed to correcting for almost every hypothesis test that has ever been conducted, and that’s a clear reductio of the entire enterprise.Report