What’s More Preposterous? A Survey of the Beliefs of Professional Philosophers

Recently, Brian Leiter (of the blog The Leiter Reports) published the results of an internet poll about various philosophical views. More specifically, this internet poll sought to rank the most to least preposterous philosophical belief systems or concepts (reread that again to make sure you got them in the right order). In total, over 1300 current professional philosophers were surveyed and the 6 philosophical belief systems or concepts that were utilized (and in this particular order) include…

1. external world skepticism

This is basically how it sounds. External world skepticism consists of the viewpoint or belief that human beings cannot ever be certain (or at least reasonably certain) that the external world, or a fundamental aspect of it, exists. In practice, external world skepticism seems to lead to unlivable (i.e. terminal) consequences. For instance, if someone were to become convinced that there is no external or independent reality, it could have any number of detrimental consequences – they could believe that gravity doesn’t exist or that pain isn’t real or that cars evaporate upon impact. Once EWS has truly set in, one can be certain (or reasonably certain) about very little. It leads to a labyrinth rife with contradictions and unfamiliar thought processes and actions. As a result, it receives the status of ‘most preposterous.’ 

2. realism about possible worlds

Possible worlds were initially proposed to help address certain problems within mathematical and philosophical logic. One use of the concept of possible worlds is to explain the nature of contingency and necessity. That is to say, when we say that “2+2=4,” we can defend that claim (or at least attempt to justify it) by appealing to its truth value in the totality of all possibly existing worlds. If 2+2=4 seems to be true in all possible worlds that we can conceive of, it seems like we’ve seemingly found a necessary truth.
     Meanwhile, if we say “Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by a Russian winter,” that is true of our world, but there could plausibly be other worlds in which this was not the case. Perhaps in another possible world Napoleon never existed or he died as a sickly child or he became the world’s most renowned sculptor instead of a French dictator. The possibilities with possible worlds are endless. What’s important to note is that these possible worlds are just conceptual shorthand for a long set of interconnected conditions, facts, events, processes, and agents that can be dissected extremely narrowly or more broadly, depending on the function and purpose at hand.
     So far, so good. This seems to be a useful philosophical tool. Why the opposition? Well, someone who is a realist (at least within this context) believes not only that it is possible that these possible worlds exist, but that it is an accurate description of reality (i.e. true) that there exists a potentially infinite number of other possible worlds. In some ways, this sounds like SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). As a matter of quasi-intuition, it seems impossible that, given the sheer size of the observable universe (as we know it now), we live on the only planet capable of sustaining organic life. The problem is that there is a paucity of empirical evidence one way or another. Here we run into the merry-go-round of the burden of proof. 

3. panpsychism

The term “panpsychism” literally means that everything has a mind. Yet, within contemporary debates, it is generally understood as the view that mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world (as opposed to the physical or material, though the two can, at times, be co-extensive). Thus, in conjunction with the widely held assumption that fundamental things exist only at the “micro-level,” panpsychism entails that, at least some kinds of, micro-level entities have mentality, and that instances of those kinds are found in all things throughout the material universe. So whilst the panpsychist holds that mentality is distributed throughout the natural world—in the sense that all material objects have parts with at least some mental properties—she needn’t hold that literally every single thing or object has a mind (e.g., she needn’t hold that a rock has mental properties, just that the rock’s fundamental parts do).

4. libertarian free will

This one is perhaps one of the most controversial on the list. Libertarianism is one of the default philosophical positions related to problems of free will and determinism, which is, itself, part of the larger domain of metaphysics. More specifically, Libertarianism states that since agents have free will, then determinism must therefore be false.
     Determinism, in this context, is the view that all events (actions, states of affairs, processes, etc.) are determined completely by previously existing causes. Determinism is most often taken to mean causal determinism, otherwise known as cause-and-effect. It is the concept that events within a given paradigm are bound by causality in such a way that any state (of an object or event) is completely determined by prior states. More formally, it is”the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.” Causal determinism also proposes that there is an unbroken chain of prior occurrences stretching back to the origin of the universe. Causal determinists believe that there is nothing (abstract or concrete) in the universe that is uncaused or self-caused.
     As a result, Libertarianism is an incompatibilist position which argues that free will logically conflicts with the notion of a deterministic universe.
*****As a brief aside, ‘incompatibilism’ is the term for a belief which stipulates, albeit in a variety of forms, that genuine freedom and logically determined antecedent conditions (especially of the causal kind) do not mix. Meanwhile, any position labeled as ‘compatibilist’ will most likely hold that free will and determinism are mutually compatible and that it is possible to believe in the existence and functioning of both without being logically inconsistent (i.e. attempting to believe logically conflicting or contradictory claims).

     One large group that endorses the Libertarian View of Free Will is the theists. That is to say, given the kind of mind-body dualism that is enshrined in the metaphysical belief systems of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (to name just a few), they are typically resistant to any kind of determinism as it would seemingly have negative, if not catastrophic, consequences for a variety of topics near and dear to them, including: the existence of the human soul and the afterlife, the logical coherence of God’s omni properties (i.e. omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence), and various empirical or historical claims made by theological texts about God’s nature.

5. grounding as a real and unitary relation

Grounding is another topic in metaphysics. One thing is said to “ground” another when the former, in some non-trivial way, accounts for the existence or properties of the latter. A further distinction is typically made between grounding relations and other dependence relations, such as causation or realization/actualization. Grounding is often considered to be a form of non-causal determination.
     According to some, things which are less fundamental are grounded in things that are more fundamental. As an example: physical particles are taken to be more fundamental than tables, cats, mountains, and various other large, composite objects. Accordingly, for this reason, physical particles ground large, composite objects. Or, put alternatively, facts about physical particles ground facts about those large, composite objects (whatever they may be).

6. non-naturalist moral realism

*****This concept requires much more background than I am willing to give here. But I will do my best to cleave the meat of this debate as closely to the bone as possible.

     First, within the realm of metaethics, there is broad debate between moral realism and moral anti-realism. Moral realism is the naive or default view of most human beings. It asserts that moral properties, facts, and obligations all exist independently of our perception or recognition of them. In that sense, moral realism also rubs elbows with moral objectivism (though it need not).
     In contrast, moral anti-realism denies the existence of moral properties, facts, and obligations (at least the mind-independent existence). Moral anti-realists could say outright that there are no such things as moral properties, facts, or obligations. This would resemble moral nihilism (an ontological claim). Or, perhaps, moral anti-realists could assert that humans attempt to express propositions through moral statements, but that the content of those statements are always and inevitably false. This would resemble error theory (an epistemological and ontological claim).
     Next, within the realm of metaethics, there is another broad debate between moral naturalism and moral non-naturalism. Moral naturalism holds that moral properties and facts can be reduced to non-moral properties and facts. For instance, moral naturalists could assert that morality developed by way of natural selection (a la Darwinian biology) and that the objectivity of our moral obligations, promises, and duties are derived directly from our similar corporeal composition or spatio-temporal affectedness.
     In contrast, moral non-naturalists hold that moral properties and facts cannot be reduced to any other non-moral properties or facts. Thus, the moral non-naturalist will assert that no natural or physical properties or facts are capable of (or appropriate in) explaining the existence and function of morality. Instead of biology ‘grounding’ our morality (as in the example above), it could be the case that there exists a kind of Platonic realm where ideal versions of ideas exist and morality as we know it is derived from that realm.
     Thus, a non-naturalist moral realist would likely believe or argue that:
1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
2. Some of these propositions are true.
3. Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.
4. Yet these objective features of the world are NOT reducible to some set of non-moral properties.


Personally, I would rank these from most to least preposterous as follows: (1) external world skepticism, (2) non-natural moral realism, (3) Libertarian Free Will, (4) realism about possible worlds, (5) panpsychism, and (6) grounding as a real and unitary relation. But some qualifications are necessary. For one, I reject non-naturalism within metaethics. If non-naturalism within metaethics is true, then I would endorse a form of non-cognitivism in its stead. Next, because of my own affinities and sympathies for non-traditional expressions of metaphysical and religious beliefs, I believe panpsychism and realism about possible worlds, although scarce in terms of supporting evidence, are nonetheless more plausible when considering the great existential questions about human nature and our place within the cosmos. Finally, I would perhaps stipulate that grounding is a real, albeit perhaps non-unitary, relation between two objects, events, processes, agents, or some legitimate combination of any two. Otherwise, I thought this was a fascinating study because it is always interesting to learn what professional philosophers believe about a topic.

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