1. What Do Philosophers Believe?David Bourget & David J. Chalmers - 2014 - Philosophical Studies 170 (3):465-500.
    What are the philosophical views of contemporary professional philosophers? We surveyed many professional philosophers in order to help determine their views on 30 central philosophical issues. This article documents the results. It also reveals correlations among philosophical views and between these views and factors such as age, gender, and nationality. A factor analysis suggests that an individual's views on these issues factor into a few underlying components that predict much of the variation in those views. The results of a metasurvey (...)
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My problem is with the word "belief"
Occasionally I have been asked by students what I myself believe, especially when it come to more sensitive topics dealing with a  religious outlook.  My answer typically is that I do not want to influence their own classroom discussion by intruding my personal outlook.  In this way I can continue to play Socrates,constantly challenging positions put forward without having to defend any stand of my own.

The truth of the matter, though, is that I am very uncomfortable with that term "belief."  Again, in the classroom, I will often cite as an axiom the idea from William James that beliefs are rules for action so that the content of a belief matters less to me than how it determines someone's behavior.  Consequently, I am far less interested in many of the standard debates dealing with metaphysical or epistemological issues than I am with discussions involving ethics and political theory.   At the same time, though, I understand full well that there are certain key assumptions about what we think we are as human beings that will unavoidably bring up many of the classic M&E issues (free will, the possibility of immortality, etc). 

That is not to say that I am particularly accepting of pragmatism as such.  Some time back after seeing the film,  I found myself cringing at the manner in which "The Life of Pi" was interpreted as a case for religious belief.  To say "X believes Y is true" still ought to mean more than "X wants Y to be true."  At the same time I do not think it should be taken to mean "X is committed to thinking of Y as true."  There is something between these two that I do not think has yet been adequately expressed.  It is analogous to what we do when we say we believe in someone, whether in a personal relationship or in a discussion about whom to support in an election.  It reflects a balancing of evidence and attitude and as such is clearly open to modification as either component changes.

Obviously the survey was geared to the concept of an intellectual commitment.  This does bother me.  When someone chooses among differing positions presented, does this indicate personal conviction or just an appraisal of the relative strength of the argumentation supporting it?  If the first, is it a conviction based on thoughtful analysis or one more nearly approximating what we have in mind with the term "faith" used as reflecting an act of the will?  I appreciate the distinction in the survey that allowed the choice of "leaning towards" a particular view, but the very manner in which the choices were themselves crystallized with classic labels (physicalism, dualism, etc.) actually invites this. 

I certainly respect the intentions of those undertaking the project and I do not see how in any way they could have developed a usable survey that would have dealt with the questions I have here.  What I hope is that possibly there could be something to follow it up that might actually be a better indicator of the extent to which we find real paradigm shifts in our profession.

My problem is with the word "belief"
Interesting. My main problem with the survey was that its choices made such enormous assumptions about the issues it raised - and, more deeply, about the nature and purpose of philosophy. The question on aesthetics for example (the one I remember most clearly because it's my main field of interest) was ridiculously narrow and betrayed all kinds of hugely questionable assumptions. But the same problem was widespread in the survey.

My own answers to the survey revealed nothing at all about my beliefs - it gave me no opportunity to express them. Except that, on many occasions, I indicated my beliefs about the nature of the questions...

I seriously doubt if philosophy lends itself to "surveys" of this kind. The principal effect, I suspect, is likely to be the perverse one of further entrenching certain received ways of thinking. One simply gives aid and comfort to philosophy's natural enemies - intellectual inflexibility and dogmatism.


My problem is with the word "belief"
Reply to Derek Allan

The authors do address your worries about the validity of the measure. However, let me address them in a more thoroughgoing fashion. Suppose that you are correct and answers to the questions do not reflect the views of the test subjects--philosophers. This sort of inaccuracy is not unfamiliar in research of this sort. Pain, for instance, might be operationally defined as “saying ouch”. Now of course “saying ouch” is not what we ordinarily mean by pain. Let’s give the misleading popular positions on arguments and theories that you hint at as operational definitions. Given that the questions went through the rounds of beta testing about wording,etc. via the responses of professional philosophers, there will be less difference between what the survey puts forth as a philosophical position and what the average philosopher will put forward as that position than there will be between “saying ouch” and what the average person takes to be pain. Importantly, experimental psychologists can say many useful things about pain responses to the average person, even though their operational definitions are so rudimentary and incomplete, or even misleading. Say the survey questions are similarly rudimentary, incomplete, or misleading. If the data supports received ways of thinking, i.e. suggests that the current ways of thinking are along traditional lines, then most likely philosophers are thinking in those ways. Saying for any particular question on the survey that ‘this n is the percentage of philosophers who hold a certain position’ only supports the existence of that position if n is high and we appeal to the expertise of those philosophers. Given that aesthetics is not a dominant subfield of philosophy, there will be less philosophers who are expert in that field. It is reasonable to think that the question on aesthetics did not receive expert attention when it went through beta testing.

If you are also worried about the correlations being used to support various lack luster explanations don’t be. Most of the correlations are so low that no person with a rudimentary understanding of statistics would use them to support a hypothesis. So take the following correlation: Metaphilosophy: naturalism  (Correlates with) Aesthetic value: subjective (at r = 0.257). Since a test subject who is a naturalist was a subjectivist about aesthetic value about 30 percent of the time, we would not hypothesize that naturalists are going to be subjectivists, or even that they are more likely to be. After all, given this statistic, isn’t there more than a 50 % chance that naturalist will be an objectivist about aesthetic value?  With an r of .257, about 6 percent of the variability in the first variable can be accounted for, or predicted by, knowing the scores on the second variable—whichever way you order the variables. Indeed, the authors deliberately avoid making hypotheses.  

My problem is with the word "belief"

Hi Nathaniel

I think you are missing the point of my comment.

First, I am not remotely interested in the statistical accuracy of the survey. In fact, I’m not interested in any aspect of the survey results. I’ve never bothered to read them and doubtless never shall. My concerns are much more basic.

Imagine a survey on “What do philosophers believe” conducted in the seventeenth century when Descartes was forced to hide himself away in Holland, or in fifth century Greece when Socrates was eventually forced to commit suicide. In your view, would a survey of the “majority beliefs" of philosophers have been useful for the future of philosophy in these instances? These are obvious and dramatic examples, but intellectual history – and not just in philosophy – is replete with such cases.

This doesn’t mean that the “maverick” is always right. That would be to fly to the other extreme. But it does mean that philosophy – like all areas of intellectual endeavour – must be constantly on its guard against dogmatism and complacency.

Now the survey in question reeked of intellectual complacency. The choice of questions and the way they were asked – i.e. the unquestioned assumptions they contained – pointed unmistakably to an implied view that the basic outlines of philosophy had been settled and that there was no longer any need to ask fundamental questions. (By the way, your own comments on aesthetics tend to suggest a similar state of mind).

To my mind, the survey was not a good sign for the future of philosophy. It may have been a useful PR exercise – and perhaps that was its real aim? – but it revealed a cast of mind that was, in my view, essentially anti-philosophical. 


My problem is with the word "belief"
Reply to Derek Allan
Hello DA,

Your hypothetical examples are interesting. Since you explicitly don’t care at all about the accuracy of the survey results, let’s assume that the hypothetical surveys taken in their respective centuries are completely accurate. Since you cannot get an ought from an is, the purely factual information would not be normative. Hence, I don’t see how getting clear views of what philosophical views were most widely believed implies that some negative phenomena would have become further entrenched; the actual views may well have been less ridiculous than those submitted to by public persona. If you assume that they might have lied and the surveys would have entrenched the persona opinions, then your worry is about validity—anonymity is assured so surveys are not defeated by this type of confounding variable: the notion subjects might have that they have to be politically correct. Moreover, I’m sure historians of philosophy would be overjoyed if they could actually get their hands on such data, rather than relying on texts of questionable accuracy.  

You worry does seem to be that the survey does not accurately delineate areas, problems, and views in philosophy, and acceptance of the survey implicates a sterile and facile notion that the constantly moving targets, philosophical positions, etc. can be captured in pat stereotypes. Further, a survey of this sort is likely to have the adverse effect of entrenching these stereotypes. If this is true, then explanation of the validity of the survey is appropriate. Just as correlations involving “saying ouch” can give useful information about pain, so too can correlations using rough demarcation strategies give useful information about what philosophers believe.

Your charge of complacency seems at least partially motivated by supposing that philosophy is inaccurately represented and that complacency is responsible for this inaccuracy and will entrench it further if allowed to. If the questions and answers do not reflect what philosophers believe (philosophy is not accurately represented), then the survey is invalidated. Hence, my defense of the validity defeats the charge of inaccuracy—except, perhaps, the charge that the aesthetic questions and answers inaccurately represent. This should mitigate the force of your complacency charge.   

On entrenching stereotypes:

 If the survey is accurate, what is the complacency? Your view is that complacency is built into the survey. If this doesn’t affect the validity of the survey, then it is far from clear that your complaint has any more force than saying “Boo” at the survey. After all, if the survey is valid and the testers and subjects are complacent, then what philosophers believe is complacent. There is no a priori reason to think that the data representing their beliefs justifies them in anyway. Ad populum is a fallacy. I’m sure the community is not as complacent as to trade in fallacies. (If appeal to expertise is appropriate, I can see how “complacency” might become entrenched.)

I fail to see the force of your complacency charge if it is not based on assumptions about the validity of the survey. A reasonable complaint is that the survey doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to measure; namely, what philosophers actually believe. IF it is true that you are not remotely interested in the accuracy of the survey, this should not be your worry. If you mean to merely point out that philosophers are complacent, then not only does your complaint seem not to have much to do specifically with this survey, but it also seems apt to be defeated by pointing at work done in most any of the top philosophy journals.


My problem is with the word "belief"

Hi Nate

Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. Let me try again briefly.

Again, the question of accuracy has no bearing at all on my criticisms. Let the survey be 100% reliable, valid and accurate – a veritable paragon of a survey – and my criticisms are entirely unaffected.

The essential point I’m making is this: At best, a survey of this kind can only encourage conformist, middle-of -the-road thinking. Historically, philosophy has progressed (if that’s the right word) by the contributions of those who are not of the majority – and who have often been ignored, or even persecuted for their trouble. As I said, this does not mean that the maverick is always right. But it does mean that we should always be wary of “prevailing opinion”. And surveys of the kind we are talking about – trumpeted as “what philosophers believe” – can only help entrench prevailing opinion.

My objection in short is a basic one of principle, but I’ll just add a word on the nature of the questions asked. Although ostensibly telling us “what philosophers believe”, the questions were obviously designed by “analytic” philosophers for “analytic” philosophers. (For example, I don’t recall ever having read a continental philosopher wasting his time on that painfully juvenile “trolley problem”.) No doubt the survey designers could reply that continental philosophers can design their own if they like. But there again we simply see the tendency of a survey of this kind to entrench an existing state if affairs.


My problem is with the word "belief"

The most interesting content in the survey consists in showing that philosophers are wrong or inaccurate in what they take to be the majority positions. Insofar as what the philosophers currently believe about what they believe is itself a majority position, the survey should have the result of changing a current state of affairs rather than entrenching it. (N.B. This comment shows that the accuracy of the survey pertains to your criticism because the survey should not be effective, if, for instance—and contrary to the fact portrayed in the survey—the majority is correct in believing what it takes the majority of philosophers to believe.) Since this result is both contrary to your position and very likely, your principle—that “at best, a survey of this kind can only encourage conformist, middle-of -the-road thinking.”—needs more support than gesturing at revolutionary progress. Not all progress is revolutionary, and some revolutionaries have been conformists—like Plato.

In every age, there does seem to be positions to which once must conform if one is not to jeopardize one’s livelihood, be ostracized, etc. Certainly, there have been marvelous, revolutionary individuals who have thrown caution to the winds. It is also possible that anonymous surveys taken in any age could have had the effect of showing that various “popular” beliefs were not so popular; hence, creating an atmosphere in which espousing “jeopardizing” beliefs is not contrary to self-interest. It’s possible that if such surveys were taken and made available, the mavericks would not have been “wild”, but geniuses arguing for positions akin to actual majority views. Not only are mavericks not always right, sometimes “independent thinker” is an oxymoron.  

(There are possible worlds where radical views are secretly, rationally, and widely held, and held silently until a survey is distributed and the radical private thoughts are made known. For something ironic, an instance would be the hypothetical situation in which a survey of enlightenment thinkers reveals that hard determinism is a very popular view. While this result would have been unlikely, this shows that some principle that this sort of surveys will at best entrench common views is likewise unlikely. It also shows to be false the principle that such surveys can only encourage middle-of-the-road thinking.)   

One can be wary of popularity without assuming that indication of popularity entrenches popularity.

Since you granted that the survey can be 100% accurate, let’s assume the implication: The views of the test subjects are represented with 100% accuracy. Since the test subjects were analytic philosophers, I am confused by your point about the unsuitability of the survey to represent the views of continental philosophers. What should one make of a person presuming to point out that a study using the expression “saying ouch” will entrench current theories about pain and inhibit progress because it is not reliable indicator of what people are talking about when they use the expression “awe, that feels good” ?  The inclination is to disregard. A study about pain is not about all sensations. An irrelevant statement: Continental philosophers are philosophers too, and since this survey is not about them, it will tend to underrepresent or overly restrict what philosophers believe. The study is not about all philosophers.

My problem is with the word "belief"

Hi Nate

You write: You write: “The most interesting content in the survey consists in showing that philosophers are wrong or inaccurate in what they take to be the majority positions. Insofar as what the philosophers currently believe about what they believe is itself a majority position, the survey should have the result of changing a current state of affairs rather than entrenching it.

Yes, but merely by changing current views about what most philosophers believe. How important is that? How important is it that Fred Nurk should think that 60% of philosophers are theists and 40% atheists (or whatever the figures were) rather than the reverse? What matters in philosophy – and the only thing that has ever mattered – is the quality of Fred’s arguments, whether they are in the majority or a tiny minority – even a minority of one. A pernicious effect of surveys of the kind we are discussing is that they encourage people to think that majorities or minorities matter. They encourage “group think” – the bane of philosophy.

The unfortunate state of mind in question is wonderfully illustrated by your statement: “In every age, there does seem to be positions to which once must conform if one is not to jeopardize one’s livelihood, be ostracized, etc.” Indeed, perhaps this is true (especially at the moment, I would say); but it’s something to be deeply regretted, is it not? Not something to be meekly accepted and, still less, something to be subtly reinforced by surveys telling us what directions the sheep happen to be heading at the moment.


My problem is with the word "belief"
I found your post very interesting. It reminded me the the "chicken or egg" problem. In other words: which comes first. Often, it will not be belief.
There are, for example, many committed trade unionists who have very secure beliefs, such as on human rights. When a strike is called, not everyone who follows on will have those same beliefs. Many will want a day off work and/ or look forward to a pay increase. They will be stimulated by more superficial thoughts.

However, over time, or with deeper experience, some of those followers could develop beliefs equal to the trade unionist. Doubtless, the same applies to others who are committed to a cause.

Possibly, the more important question is "How are beliefs formed?" This is important, especially in the Internet age when so many different opinions are globally disseminated. Of course, some politicians, and the media, are skilled at persuading us. If more people know how beliefs are formed, then they can be resisted, or fought. Without that knowledge...

My problem is with the word "belief"

What does the term “belief” mean today? We use it in a banal, pragmatic way: we believe X so we do X. But the idea of “a belief” in any profound sense is surely beyond us at present. We have many more questions than answers and everything we say we believe is at best provisional. Fundamentalists are the only ones today who “believe” anything and they can only do so because they have committed intellectual suicide.

Western culture – which is nearly everyone now – is essentially agnostic. The first agnostic culture in world history (a dubious honour…)


My problem is with the word "belief"
I think that everyone has beliefs - many very profound. However, how can we know whether our beliefs are justified and/ or true. The Internet,  for example, has such a powerful influence on so many people that it has become one of their key sources to an understanding of the world.
But, at the same time, it is widely known that the same Internet is riddled with inaccuracies and deceptions. As it becomes more central, and more opinions are expressed through it, then how might it be possible to know that we are not deceived by its power?

Perhaps readers will think of Descartes? A lot of this has to do with trust and faith in ourselves, in our ability to discriminate right from wrong. It is very difficult to have belief if we ourselves are not secure in ourselves. If we live in a temporary place - living in the rush of today only - then belief is more difficult to develop.

Perhaps the usual route is to believe the beliefs we have at this time, and then to correct them as we go along. Unfortunately, the only way out of that is to believe in false beliefs until we know better. But ... when we know better - how do we know if we have found a justified true belief? That is the dilemma!

My problem is with the word "belief"

‘Twas ever thus, I imagine. “We learn by experience” etc.

But the situation is more acute for us than at any time in the past because we also lack any fundamental belief. For a Christian (for example) in the year 1200, the world and man’s place in it was clear and beyond doubt. The world was the “here below” where we needed to be on constant guard against the devil’s wiles while awaiting the judgement that would consign us to heaven or to hell.

Today we have no idea at all about the world and man’s place in it. We only have questions. Some people, including many philosophers, seem to live in the hope that science will reveal all, but that strikes me as a delusion. Paraphrasing Albert Camus on this issue, if scientists explained the universe down to the very last atom, the essential question – the significance of man – would still remain unanswered.

Sorry, not a very cheery comment.


My problem is with the word "belief"
Possibly life was much simpler in the 13th century. But, Chaucer showed that it was not that simple: even then not everyone - such as the leading institution - could be trusted. It is therefore, difficult to know what the majority belief was in those Dark Ages.

Yes, today is much more complex: we are, literally, bombarded by attractive messages that, unfortunately, many people are deceived by. It is only afterwards that the truth emerges. People often talk of the terrible days of global war, yet much of what is happening today feels just as terrible.
It really is the old problem of trust. Certainly, some of the leaders from the past - at least in the UK - have been shown to have had questionable morals. So, where does that leave us - the modern world?

Well, some are attempting a "tidy up". The real issue is whether - given that facility called memory - we can have sufficient faith to trust the new generation in the future. If so, then a lot of forgetting must take place first.

My problem is with the word "belief"

At a fundamental level, I doubt if life was any simpler in the 13th century. Certainly it was much harsher.  But there was a fundamental faith that made sense of it all and gave man hope, which we do not have now.  The best modern philosophy seems to be able to muster is a kind of abstract, anaemic belief in “theism” (which was one of the options on the survey, if I recall). Did anyone ever die for theism, I wonder?  Hard to imagine, is it not? How would one write the epitaph? What about: "Gone to the divine clock-maker. Sorely missed." 


My problem is with the word "belief"
Reply to Derek Allan
Hello. This is a beautiful topic. Thanks for bringing it up. Allow me to disagree to the assume. Is the predicate "..before there was a fundamental faith that we don't have now.." Isn't it a bit too bold for a universal? Nevertheless ,  "fundamental" seems to be like a perfect representation of a practiced believes. I believe that there is an adjective that describes current state of faith that differs more in quality than in quantity. For example, by multiple scientific experiments we find evidence that consciousness as a major factor in quantum theory as a solidifying agent in a state of quantum superposition. 

My problem is with the word "belief"
Reply to Alex Kostko

Hi Alex

Re: Allow me to disagree to the assume. Is the predicate "..before there was a fundamental faith that we don't have now.." Isn't it a bit too bold for a universal?

No I don’t think it’s too bold. There are doubtless still some people who have a firm and deep religious faith (I exclude those who mistake rabid fanaticism for faith) but, on the whole, Western and Westernised cultures today all strike me as essentially agnostic. Religion has an occasional ceremonial value but little more.  And the intellectual construct philosophers call “theism” seems to me to have little or nothing to do with religious belief.

Which leaves most of us, as I say, without any fundamental belief – an unprecedented state of affairs. As André Malraux (also an agnostic) points out, we are the first civilization in human history without an understanding of man’s significance. Or to put that another way, we can send people to the moon but we can’t build a temple or a tomb.




My problem is with the word "belief"
Reply to Derek Allan
Agree with your observations and the conclusions. The last sentence you wrote had "temple" and "tomb". As to my understanding there is some relationship between faith and building artifacts worship places. In my understanding of religious texts, the profits always warned their followers not to create images of the enlightened and misinterpret the major purpose of temples. If "everything is in the language", then with the help of synonyms we can agree that socialization is the key. In regards of tombs there are speculations about some lost knowledge of their importance. If we turn off all the media and go outside, the real life experiences will always negate existence of the problem but with one condition, "no expectations, just joy". 

My problem is with the word "belief"
It was asked: 'did anyone ever die for theism?' If theism is defined as a belief in God or Gods then, surely, we should be considering the early Christians, Jesus and many others. Religious belief might be a stranger to many people in the modern world, but that doesn't mean that it has died completely. Given the right conditions, such as a universal crisis, it can be revived.
Belief lies deeper than the superficial world that we live in. And, although we are a part of that world, people are not that world - we have a depth that can be invigorated. Part of the difficulty of the modern world is the issue of confidence and belief in leaders. Those who should be leading and stimulating have been brought into question by the morals of what I hope is a minority in that group.

Unfortunately, there will not be a revival until something of value can be found among that leadership.

My problem is with the word "belief"

Hi Albert

I was the one asked: 'did anyone ever die for theism?'

By theism I mean the very intellectualised notion of god that emerged in the eighteenth century (similar to deism), which still seems to claim some adherents in the world of modern philosophy.

My point is that beliefs of this kind have very little to do with genuine religious belief which, it seems to me (I am agnostic), is something deeply felt (as you suggest) not just a matter of the intellect.

I fully agree that many people have died for their religious beliefs – and not just for Christian beliefs of course. But I would be very surprised if anyone died for the pallid, anaemic god of theism or deism.



My problem is with the word "belief"
It is interesting to look back at the Diesm of the 18th century. From there it is not difficult to see the two major trends that are, today, major issues of concern.

Deism was not a religion as such: certainly, it was not like Christianity. Rather, Diesm was more worldly, helping to put man at the center: and removing God. We can see the result of that today: our fascination for the animals, the environment and so on (Where do we go from here?)

I describe myself as a Christian, although I do not attend church. I do think about God. Perhaps I veer more towards Skepticism. However, like most people today, neither am I a spiritual person.

Yes, doubtless there are many Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and so on who have very deep feelings. From what I know of his life, Jesus did not choose to die on the Cross. Rather, it was willed by others: he was sentenced to die on the Cross.

But, science/psychologists have taught us that we always put ourselves first: it is rare for someone to sacrifice themselves to save another.

Therefore, today, and considering the previous two paragraphs, perhaps the pertinent question should be: how much should we expect of ourselves? Unfortunately, we live in a very competitive and violent world... a world that we can never know - epistemologically speaking.

So, if a philosopher says something that you cannot agree with, perhaps it is not the philosopher's fault. That is just the way he, or she, is. Of course, the philosopher might not agree with your beliefs. That isn't his fault either.


My problem is with the word "belief"
Hi Bert

Re: "So, if a philosopher says something that you cannot agree with, perhaps it is not the philosopher's fault. That is just the way he, or she, is. Of course, the philosopher might not agree with your beliefs. That isn't his fault either."

This sounds a little defeatist. If a philosopher says something you disagree with, why not work out why you disagree and, if you have the opportunity, tell him or her? You might have the better argument or you might not. But you won't find out just by saying "That's just the way he/she is."


My problem is with the word "belief"
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi! Would it be logical if we just review various definitions of the word "belief" and how it came to be and used in various languages? Also, it couldn't be that simple, maybe the problem is the product of limited logic of universal propositions that allow us whether to accept or to negate the case. What if our case is to universally express male/female chromosome relationship? Does one belief "all XY is XX" or "all XY is not XX", or we have to flip the coin between "some XY is XX" and "some XY is not XX"? How can we logically express duality cases? I assumed that "belief" had something to do with  the universal logic we use to agree upon perceived reality. Sorry and disregard this comment if i missed the boat.

My problem is with the word "belief"
The main point that I failed to make was that all of us are different, although we can also be categorised. Our basic psychology is laid down - shaped, if you like - while we are still in the womb (Based on what I have read). Therefore, when we have to deal with a problem, part of our response is determined by how we were made. That's all.