Majoritarian Philosophy

Bryan points us to this survey on thirty key philosophy questions.   The survey offers four indicators to estimate philosophical truth:

  1. Most popular opinion of anyone who responded to the survey.
  2. Most popular of responding profs at “99 leading departments of philosophy.”
  3. Most surprisingly popular in #2, which is a Bayesian Truth Serum indicator.
  4. Most popular among responding profs specializing in the question’s topic area.

There’s lots of detail there I hope someone will analyze.  This seems a great chance to exercise majoritarian epistemic principles.

As a first pass, I compared my opinions to indicator #2 and found I can comfortably accept the modal professional opinion on 25 of the 30 topics!  For three of them I was moderately temped to disagree, choosing mental content: internalism, knowledge claims: invariantism, and epistemic justification: internalism.  But on reflection I think I just tend to use the words “think”, “know” and “justify” differently; I’m not sure I substantively disagree.

On only 2 of 30 topics was I strongly tempted to disagree with professionals.  Popular and specialist opinions agree with my choice aesthetic value: subjective, but professionals pick objective, and their opinion is surprisingly popular.  So while I might have an excuse to hold my ground, I guess I can live with the idea that there might be substantial elements in common among the concepts of beauty that would evolve among a wide variety of intelligent species and their descendants.  Could this be what objective beauty means?

Meta-ethics: moral anti-realism also tempted me strongly.  But here all four truth indicators point toward moral realism.  So I guess I should seriously consider changing my mind.  Is it plausible that there is something substantial in common among the moral intuitions that would evolve in a wide range of intelligent species and their descendants?  Am I agreeing if I accept that as moral reality, or does moral realism demand I believe something more?

Yes I’m still a contrarian in many ways, but I really do largely accept professional opinion in fields where I know and largely respect the professionals.  These include physics, analytic philosophy, computer science, and micro-economics.

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  • Carl Shulman

    To “accept professional opinion” here you would have to take the non-modal responses into account and not be confident about the modes.

  • Justin W.

    In response to your question about moral realism, yes, moral realism does indeed commit you to more than mere intersubjective agreement resulting from evolutionary forces. Moral realists hold that there are moral facts (for example, about the rightness or wrongness of actions, or the kinds of value such actions realize) that exist independently of our believing in them. Some people take evolutionary theory to pose a strong challenge to moral realism. See Sharon Street’s “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value” (Philosophical Studies 2006) for an example of such an argument. That same journal just published an article responding to Street’s argument, entitled “Darwin and Moral Realism: Survival of the Iffiest,” by Knut Olav Skarsaune.

    • Randall Randall

      Why would evolutionary theory pose any challenge to moral realism? It seems that evolution would be a possible instrument for measuring objective morality, if it exists, rather than anything opposed to it…

      • Justin W.

        I was going to recapitulate Street’s argument, but this excerpt from the first paragraph of her paper explains it very well:

        “Contemporary realist theories of value claim to be compatible with natural science. In this paper, I call this claim into question by arguing that Darwinian considerations pose a dilemma for these theories. The main thrust of my argument is this. Evolutionary forces have played a tremendous role in shaping the content of human evaluative attitudes. The challenge for realist theories of value is to explain the relation between
        these evolutionary influences on our evaluative attitudes, on the one hand, and the independent evaluative truths that realism posits, on the other. Realism, I argue, can give no satisfactory account of this relation. On the one hand, the realist may claim that there is no relation between evolutionary influences on our evaluative attitudes and independent evaluative truths. But this claim leads to the implausible skeptical result that most of our evaluative judgements are off track due to the distorting pressure of Darwinian forces. The realist’s other option is to claim that there is a relation between evolutionary influences and independent evaluative truths, namely that natural selection favored ancestors who were able to grasp those truths. But this account, I argue, is unacceptable on scientific grounds. Either way, then, realist theories of value prove unable to accommodate the fact that Darwinian forces have deeply influenced the content of human values.”

      • Buck Farmer

        “But this claim leads to the implausible skeptical result that most of our evaluative judgements are off track due to the distorting pressure of Darwinian forces.”

        I think this is going too far. The implication of there being no relationship is that we have no idea whether our evaluative judgements are off/on track.

        Is moral realism compatible with Hume’s is/ought distinction? My hunch is “yes,” but I’m left wondering what moral realism means if normative truth is completely divorced from positive truth.

        Even if the implication was that only revelation can teach us what is right, how can we trust any given revelation and what makes it categorically distinct from another sensory input i.e. dreams?

  • Robert Koslover

    “…still a contrarian in many ways.” Hmmm. I put it to you that even those of us who pride ourselves upon not being sheep are in reality still sheep most of the time. To quote the philosophy of Monty Python:
    Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!
    The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
    Brian: You’re all different!
    The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!
    Man in crowd: I’m not…

    • Buck Farmer

      I love that scene.

      The more pervasive sheepness isn’t conformity to a ‘contrarian-identified’ culture like in Life of Brian, but complacency and non-examination. I’d say non-sheep are sheep most of the time because

      (1) They think it’s not worth their time/effort to thoroughly examine the question — i.e. Robin relying on heuristics to figure out whether to examine particular philosophical beliefs more deeply.

      (2) Their current paradigm doesn’t highlight a question worthy of examination. For example, since gravitational lensing isn’t really conceivable solely within a Newtonian framework no one would think of measuring it during a solar eclipse.

    • Bill

      Where can I get an “I am a Contrarian” teeshirt. They’re so cool. Everyone has one.

  • Psychohistorian

    Not that I agree with your majoritarian methodology, but you can come up with a pretty good justification for rejecting the philosopher’s consensus on moral objectivism. Namely, objective morality is a whole lot easier to write papers about, and people who have a strong interest in objective morality or a position to defend are probably more likely to become moral philosophers. I know I was completely turned off from professional philosophy because I’m an anti-realist.

    Oh, and the fact that it’s unfalsifiable, unintelligible, has no effective supporting evidence or argumentation, and invariably gets cut to pieces by Occam’s Razor may also way on your decision.

  • Carl, yes of course.

    Justin, must aesthetic realists also believe evolution could in general mislead most intelligent species about what is really beautiful?

    Psycho, but philosophers who don’t publish on morality are also realists.

    • Justin W.

      Robin, I don’t know the aesthetics literature very well, but I imagine that the answer to your question is yes. What is evolutionarily advantageous for us to believe is beautiful may not be what is, on a realist account, actually beautiful. Suppose (as I imagine is the case) husbands who love their wives rate their wives as more beautiful/attractive than a random sampling of men would rate them. It seems like there is a plausible evolutionary story to tell about why that would be the case, and the unusualness of the husbands’ judgments about their wives suggests that they are being misled, no?

      • mjgeddes

        Best paper on Aesthetics is this one on Neuroaesthetics:

        Science and Art

        Of course I take the unusual view that morality is merely a special case of aesthetics. So I think objective aesthetics implies objective morality, where ‘objective’ is taken to mean ‘can be assigned true, false labels’.

        A possible justification for following objective aesthetics/morality is that there exist ‘universal priors’ (universal categories?) and our mind cannot function optimally without using these correct categories, and thus you cannot do things contrary to objective morality without degrading your own cognitive functions. I assume ‘probabilities’ themselves are just ‘reference classes’ (sub-categories) in disguise. A clever trick that, however it’s being done.

  • Bill

    “I really do largely accept professional opinion in fields where I know and largely respect the professionals. These include physics, analytic philosophy, computer science, and economics.”

    Naw, you could never get economists to agree, much less through a poll. They would ask if it was the median, mean or other measure that signaled agreement.

    They would want to see the data, ask for correlation coefficients to other data, ask if you checked for multi-colinearity (sp).

    And, the clincher, whether you checked for Heteroscedasticity.

  • Alex Golubev

    thanks for the pingback to my post on the Bayesian Truth Serum. I think it would we swell if it was used for a collective wisdom aggregator like it’s connected to MIT, so i wouldn’t be surprised if it does/gets implemented.

  • Re: Is it plausible that there is something substantial in common among the moral intuitions that would evolve in a wide range of intelligent species and their descendants?

    The values of most living things are basically the same – they mostly value their descendants – see “god’s utility function”.

  • I’m having trouble reading the survey form or the PDF. I’m sure I’ve discussed all these issues, and could describe my point of view, but I don’t know the professional labels for all the possible positions. Is there somewhere to go that provides a straightforward unpacking of the labels?

    I tried wikipedia, which attempts to have an explanation for all these distinctions, but ti doesn’t seem to use the same labels for issues and positions as the survey. For instance, it has a long page on Internalism vs. Externalism [possible answers for “mental content”] but is inconclusive in associating positions with issues. The opening paragraph says “Internalism and externalism are the names of two contrasting theories in several areas of philosophy. The distinction between internal and external entities arises in many areas of debate with similar but distinct meanings.” And then discusses many issues, but none of them are labeled “mental content”.

  • Mike Perry

    Chris: Try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    I can’t believe so many philosophers think aesthetic value is objective! This makes me question my opinion about all sorts of philosophical issues…

    • Thanks. This directly addresses my question. You can type the terms from the quiz into their search box, and be taken to an argument exactly concerning that issue.

  • Haven’t had a chance to follow the links yet, but great post.

    I agree with you about aesthetic value: subjective
    and moral anti-realism.

    I wonder what a poll of experimental psychologists would reveal.

    To me, it’s a simple as the observation that there is variation, dissent, and “abnormality” in aesthetic value and moral claims -and that’s just in the real world, not the conceivabe world. I wonder if a human propensity to be evangelical about aesthetics and morality, and a desire (generaly unreaized at the macrosocial or pan-historical level) for compllete coordination in populations about aesthetic values and moral claims skews those survey results, even for expert and professional populations.

    • Justin W.

      To Hopefully Anonymous: What? There is disagreement over aesthetic and moral claims? I don’t think philosophers know about this. If they did, how could any of them be realists? After all, it is just obvious that disagreement over X entails that there is no fact of the matter about X. I can’t believe they didn’t notice this “variation” before! What idiots! As you suggest, they must suffer from some kind of totalizing psychological disorder which causes them to ignore the “real world.” It is about time someone as obviously well-read in philosophy as yourself came in and told everyone what’s what.

      • “After all, it is just obvious that disagreement over X entails that there is no fact of the matter about X.”

        Er, when X is aesthetics …

      • Human Flesh

        After reading a number of definitions for moral realism, I’m still unclear about how a moral realist might distinguish an objective moral truth from a moral rule that was contrived to suit a particular time, place, and culture.

        If someone claims that the glass of water in front of me contains 600 ml of water when I believe it contains 500 ml of water, I don’t assume that our disagreement is rooted in our differences in personal values, preferences, and agendas, as I might if we had a moral disagreement. Using a graduated cylinder, I could perform a cogent demonstration that could cause someone to see the error in their previous statement. Do moral realists believe that objective moral truths could similarly be revealed to those who abide by different moral systems?

      • Constant

        Do moral realists believe that objective moral truths could similarly be revealed to those who abide by different moral systems?

        Yes. A murderer, for example, is objectively more dangerous to those around him than a non-murderer. Granted, this is not invariant, but then neither is it invariant that a rattlesnake is dangerous (a particular rattlesnake might be a mutant which has ineffective poison). For this reason, is it critically important to correctly label people as murderers and non-murderers. It is not mere arbitrary aesthetics that brings people to be alarmed by murder and desirous of identifying and dealing with murderers. It is rational fear of the murderer. For this reason it is also important to distinguish murder from justified killing – for example, killing in self-defense. A person who has killed in self-defense is typically not to be feared, is in fact to be sought out, since that person will likely be a good ally in the face of evil.

        Similarly, it is important to distinguish theft non-theft. Again, it is not merely a matter of aesthetics, of personal taste. A thief really is a danger to those around him, because he is liable to take their stuff. If there is a thief in the vicinity, protect your valuables. If there isn’t, then you can afford to relax more.

        A human criminal – someone in the habit of committing evil acts – is truly a danger to those around him, more of a danger than a poisonous rattlesnake. The danger is no more a matter of aesthetics than is the danger from a rattlesnake a matter of aesthetics.

  • Bill

    How can philosophy or philosophical ideas be categorized with two or three word labels?

    I always thought philosophy was subtle, gradated, and that people took a little here, a little there, and created there own philosophy.

    Evidently not.

    A or B, that’s your ownly choice, not even a little of bit of one. How did the world become polar?

    • Eric Johnson

      Agreed. Beauty is obviously intersubjective — not objective or subjective. It is in between the two.

      In the midst of the post-modern silliness I was born in, of course most people congenial to me emphasize the relative objectivity of beauty — but in an absolute sense it is of course intersubjective.

    • “How did the world become polar?”

      The world is fine. However, it seems many people lack the ability to distinguish between metaphor and surreal when it comes to the abstract. When you live in the surreal, the world certainly becomes complicated.

  • By the way, this reminds me of one of my favorite early overcomingbias posts.

    I think Prof. Hanson posted about a paper claiming facial symmetry plays less of a role in physical attractiveness than had been previously claimed. I noticed Prof. Hanson and a lot of people in the comments had a high affinity for this paper. On a whim I looked up a photo of Prof. Hanson and thought to myself “hmm, no Brad Pitt”.

  • Matthew C.

    The great philosophical debates always seemed “a bridge too far” to me.

    Words and concepts are, ultimately just words and concepts. Why believe that they can encapsulate the truth of reality? So for most of the great philosophical “debates” over “a priori knowledge” and “free will”, I would argue that the answer depends on exactly how and what a particular word / concept means / appears to the thinker.

    Doesn’t anyone else see the “slippage” around our concepts, notice that what one person means by “morality” and “truth” isn’t what someone else means (because words, the building blocks of their minds, simply look, feel and fit differently to both of them), and the “truth” of propositions is a lot less three dimensional and ultimately real than just cognizing them, playing with them, seeing how they can fit together in different ways.

    I often feel like I might be just the only agnostic in a world of conceptual true believers / atheists. Am I the only one? Are all “smart people” also partisans of their concepts and beliefs, or are there more “Switzerland” types out there who tend to keep a low profile. I have to admit that my arrival at a place of memetic / conceptual agnosticism took some time and maturity to happen and is a journey and process, not all-or-nothing. But I don’t see many people appreciating or seeking out the middle ground, most all-too-eager to pick up the standard, hurl insults to the opposite side, and march to war.

    I mean, I know this is our tribal human psychology at work. But aren’t there enough outliers who know this, “smell” it at work, cannot abide to see it in themselves, and when it does, can roll their eyes and laugh at their own fallability? To me, this was always the hope and the promise of the original “Overcoming Bias” — but I did not find the community of likeminded types I had wished for. But I still dream they are out there. . .

  • wedrifid

    I would really like to see the raw (anonymized) data. I want to, for example, see how the beliefs of one-boxers differ from two-boxers on the remainder of the questions. That would give me some information I’d feel comfortable updating on.

  • “I often feel like I might be just the only agnostic in a world of conceptual true believers / atheists.”

    Sorry to undermine your solipsistic frame, but I don’t think I’m a conceptual true believer/atheist, and I’m hardly low profile in your space.

    • Matthew C.

      Sorry HA, I was engaging in hyperbole. There are a few, and I would even put Robin in that same class (on odd days).

  • mjgeddes

    Excellent. My ‘bottom line’ philosophical views are confirmed by the experts. 😀

    The survey shows a majority for platonism (there do exist universals beyond space and time), and a resounding majority for moral realism (though I assumed this only refers to the weak version- that you can attach ‘true’ and ‘false’ labels to moral claims).

  • Are philosophers really so unaware of the mind projection fallacy? None of the justifications for moral realism make the least sense to me.

    The aesthetics one is staggering.

    • Daniel

      What Eliezer calls the “mind projection fallacy” was identified in the 18th century by David Hume, a philosopher. It can’t be a coincidence that Eliezer chose the name “mind projection fallacy,” given that Hume is usually described as a projectivist about quite a lot of stuff:

      A lot of philosophers are sympathetic to projectivist views on quite a lot of topics, but the fact that not all philosophers are inclined to take a Humean stance on morality and aesthetics doesn’t show that they’ve never heard of the idea–just that they (perhaps wrongly) reject it.

      Agreeing that a fallacy exists isn’t the same thing as agreeing about which arguments commit it. You could imagine a skeptic about material objects claiming that you commit a fallacy of projection when you claim that there really are objects out there in the external world (as opposed to just sensory impressions that exist in your mind). Most of us would think that this is wrong–we usually think that we really are right to believe that there really are computers out there, and not just sensory impressions of computers that exist only in our minds.

      So it’s one thing to think it’s possible to make an error along these lines, another thing to think that the error is actually made when we believe in moral and aesthetic facts. While I actually do think it’s being made in these cases, I don’t think that people who disagree have no idea what they’re talking about, or are unaware of the possibility of a projectivist position on these topics.

      • Daniel

        Whoops, I see the name comes from E.T. Jaynes. In that case, it can’t be the coincidence that Jaynes chose the name, given that Hume is usually described that way.

      • Robert Wiblin

        In this case the reason we would evolve to project moral preferences is pretty obvious, but it’s harder to see why we would evolve to project objects that don’t exist or affect us.

        I notice philosophers of biology are much more likely to be anti-realists.

        Do you know of any good justifications for moral realism yourself?

      • Constant

        Robert, see Wikipedia article on Object of the Mind for possible examples.

  • zefreak

    It is distressing to see the degree of moral realists among professional philosophers. Their belief in objective aesthetics, or any objective value for that matter, is comical.

    Buck Farmer: Hume’s fact/value dichotomy destroys the possibility of observing ‘value’, or deriving it from facts. Of course, revelation can impart wisdom regarding some ‘objective value’ (I am a noncognitivist in that regard, as ‘objective value’ seems meaningless. Valuable to whom? For what end?) but only theists and spiritualists would buy that nonsense.

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