Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Metaphysicality Index

A grad student was thinking that Platonism isn't dominant in philosophy, so I looked at the PhilPapers survey and indeed a plurality of the target faculty (39%) accepts or leans towards Platonism. Then I got to looking at how this works across various specializations: General Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Mind, Normative Ethics, Metaethics, Philosophy of Religion, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Logic / Philosophy of Logic and Philosophy of Mathematics. And I looked at some other views: libertarianism (about free will), theism, non-physicalism about mind, and the A-theory of time.

Loosely, the five views I looked at are "metaphysical" in nature and their denials tend to be deflationary of metaphysics. I will say that someone is "metaphysical" to the extent that she answers all five questions in the positive (either outright or leaning). We can then compute a Metaphysicality Index for an individual, as the percentage of "metaphysical" answers, and then an average Metaphysicality Index per discipline.

Here's what I found. (The spreadsheet is here.) I sorted my selected M&E specialities from least to most metaphysical in the graph.


On each of the five questions, the Philosophers of Science were the least metaphysical. This is quite a remarkably un-metaphysical approach.

With the exception of Platonism, the Philosophers of Religion were the most metaphysical. (A lot of Philosophers of Religion are theists and may worry about the fit between theism and Platonism, and may think that God's ideas can do the work that Platonism is meant to do.)

Unsurprisingly, the Metaphysicians came out pretty metaphysical, though not as metaphysical as the Philosophers of Religion. (And this isn't just because the Philosophers of Religion believe in God by a large majority: even if one drops theism from the Metaphysicality Index, the Philosophers of Religion are at the top.

Interestingly, the Philosophers of Mathematics were almost as metaphysical as the Metaphysicians (average Metaphysicality Index 29.2 vs. 29.8). They were far more Platonic than anybody else. I wonder if Platonism is to Philosophy of Mathematics like Theism is to Philosophy of Religion. The Philosophers of Mathematics were also more theistic and more non-physicalistic than any group other than the Philosophers of Religion.

It's looking to me like the two fields where Platonism is most prevalent are Logic (and Philosophy of Logic) and Philosophy of Mathematics. This is interesting and significant. It suggests that on the whole people do not think one can do mathematics and logic in a nominalist setting.

For the record, here's where I stand: Platonism: no; Libertarianism: yes; God: yes; Non-physicalism: yes; A-theory: no. So my Metaphysicality Index is 60%.

16 comments:

Mike Almeida said...

That's very interesting! You hear philosophers complaining about the theism of philosophers of religion, but you don't hear complaints about the Platonism of those in phi math! Obviously, no real need to speculate why. I think I come out as follows: Platonism: yes; Libertarianism: no; God: yes; Non-physicalism: yes; A-theory: no (but not strongly). Metaphysicality Index = 60-ish.

Rob K said...

What's the definition of Platonism?

Prince Randoms said...

One day I hope a larger population of analytic philosophers will abandon their fear or disdain for metaphysics if only because that's when philosophy gets really interesting.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Rob: since Josh Rasmussen wasn't designing the survey, I doubt there was a precise definition.
I would be inclined to say: some substances are abstracta.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I added the ethicists.

grodrigues said...

This accords with my (anedoctal, and based on a tiny sample) experience that the deep study of Mathematics is one of the surest antidotes against materialism and anti-metaphysical biases.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thinking about the Gödel theorems also helps, which may help explain the prevalence of Platonism among logicians.

Cory Lewis said...

Fascinating stuff, I hope you start a trend and philosophy builds a much better quantitative picture of itself. But I wonder if you can really separate views into 'metaphysical' and 'nonmetaphysical' so cleanly? It seems sensible to say that both A series and B series views of time are about the metaphysics of time. I have trouble seeing why one should be "more metaphysical" than the other. The same worry occurs for the other questions as well: is physicalism not a metaphysical position? Ultimately my worry is that deflationary metaphysics gets confused with not having to talk about metaphysics at all.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sure: there is deflationary metaphysics and inflationary metaphysics. By "metaphysical", I meant "inflationarily metaphysical".

I don't want to get hung up on my woo-woo term "metaphysicality". Rather, I think it's interesting to note the curious regularities in attitudes to deflation and inflation across philosophical areas.

And one shouldn't lose sight of the fact that on average, philosophers in all the areas tend to go for deflation.

Finally, I should say that while some empirical study of philosophers' views is interesting and potentially useful, it's easy to overstate the value. This post isn't an instance of any serious research project of mine. It's mainly fun I'm having (though that describes the areas I publish in, too: blessed be God who lets me support a family by having fun).

Mark Murphy said...

I am amazed that the metaethics is so far to the left. No wonder there is so little work done at the intersection of metaethics and phil of religion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mark:

It also fits with there being so much interest in naturalizing normativity. It seems reasonable to argue: there is little hope in naturalizing mathematics, as witnessed by the fact that only 20% of philosophers of math are opposed to Platonism (20% are undecided). Why think normativity should be naturalizable if mathematics is not? (Indeed, there may be a more direct argument, in that some moral facts look to be dependent on mathematical facts. For instance, that it's ceteris paribus better to save twice as many innocents seems to be grounded in part in the fact that 2n > n for all positive n.)

Heath White said...

Question: why is the A-theory of time "more metaphysical" than the B-theory? I think of them as equally metaphysical; if anything, the B-theory seems more theory-driven and the A-theory more commonsensical. What am I missing?

Also, it's always seemed obvious to me that the prospects for naturalizing (or expressivizing) normativity in ethics were exactly the same in epistemology. Why there is enthusiasm for the naturalizing project in metaethics, while the "naturalizing epistemology" project seems to have petered out, is baffling to me.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath:

B-theory is a kind of reductive view: it says that presentness is indexical. The A-theory, however, posits a deep metaphysical fact about which time is present.

SteveD said...

So I know I'm knew to this, but can someone explain to me why 71% agree to a prior knowledge, 39% (majority) affirms platonism vs nominalism, and 51% agree to externalism (all pointing to knowledge and existence outside of self, but 72.8% claim atheism!? I think this is a good example of people supporting their worldview without regard to their ideologies.

John Franklin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Franklin said...

SteveD,

I was surprised at first by how much my metaphysics and logic professors consider the theism/atheism debate just a total non-issue.

I get the idea most philosophers don't think about philosophy of religion too much.