Sunday, December 13, 2009

Trust the experts

PhilPapers recently conducted a survey of opinion among academic philosophers, the results of which have been posted here. Here’s how all respondents from the survey’s “target faculty” answered when asked where they stand on the question of God’s existence:


Accept or lean toward atheism 72.8%
Accept or lean toward theism 14.6%
Other 12.5%

And here’s how the results came out for respondents in two key subdisciplines:


Accept or lean toward theism 72.3%
Accept or lean toward atheism 19.1%
Other 8.5%


Accept or lean toward atheism 41.1%
Accept or lean toward theism 29.4%
Other 29.4%

Quite a difference. And regarding the last (Medieval/Renaissance) set of responses, it is worth pointing out that the fine-grained results show that “Other” includes a lot of agnostics, and that when the “lean towards” are excluded, atheism and theism are tied at 23.5% each, so that there are far fewer convinced atheists within this group than it might at first seem. It would also be nice to know what the results would have looked like if we separated out the medieval and renaissance specialists. (I would speculate that most Renaissance specialists approach their field out of interest in its relevance for understanding early modern philosophy rather than out of interest in medieval philosophy; and if so this is likely to reflect, on the part of Renaissance specialists, more familiarity with early modern philosophy than with medieval philosophy.) It seems very likely that the results for specialists in medieval philosophy specifically would have been more like those for specialists in philosophy of religion, especially for medieval specialists whose interest is in philosophy of religion related topics rather than in general metaphysics/epistemology, history of logic, etc.

Now, what do these results mean? You can be sure that some atheists will read the latter two sets of results as evidence only that many people who believe in God for non-philosophical reasons have flooded into philosophy of religion and medieval studies. And they will read the former results as evidence that philosophers who don’t enter the field with a religious ax to grind are more likely to be atheists.

But of course there is another obvious way to interpret the results in question – as clear evidence that those philosophers who have actually studied the arguments for theism in depth, and thus understand them the best – as philosophers of religion and medieval specialists naturally would – are far more likely to conclude that theism is true, or at least to be less certain that atheism is true, than other philosophers are. And if that’s what the experts on the subject think, then what the “all respondents” data shows is that most academic philosophers have a degree of confidence in atheism that is rationally unwarranted.

This dovetails with the judgment once made by the atheist philosopher Quentin Smith (in his paper “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism”) to the effect that “the great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false.” And it also dovetails with the evidence we have examined in several earlier posts (e.g. here, here, and here) indicating that the more confident an atheist philosopher is that there are no good arguments for God’s existence, the more likely it is that he demonstrably does not know what the hell he is talking about.

In any event, it turns out that the people who are most likely to know what they are talking about on this subject tend overwhelmingly to believe in God, or at least (as in the combined medieval/renaissance results) to reject atheism. And as certain atheist philosophers like to insist, we should trust the experts, right?


  1. Some questions about these results.

    Can a naturalist be a platonist? Or accept a priori knowledge? Or accept moral realism?

    At a glance, I can't help but think - if it's true that naturalism collapses into EM - that a lot of this data highlights inconsistency. I could be wrong, of course.

    (Incidentally, I suppose a consistent eliminative materialist couldn't answer any of these questions at all, could they?)

  2. I can't help thinking that philosophers of religion have a professional interest in keeping the show going. At least, they're open to that accusation.

  3. It's very good to have that survey.

    It's well known that philosophers of religion mostly accept theism, but an specific porcentage was never available (as far I know).

    Personally, I don't like the "argument from authority or experts" because it could be manipulated for whatever dialectical purposes.

    For example, if the survey is done with philosophers of mind about mind-body dualism, perhaps a great majority of them would reject dualism and accept some version of materialism.

    So it could be used to argue that "experts" in the mind-body problem are mostly materialists because they know in depth the arguments for dualism and have realized that they fail.

    Given that the truth doesn't depend of the majority, I try to stick to the arguments.

    This is off-topic, but given that we're talking about statistics and surveys, maybe you want to know the website which offers free statistics about any websites.

    For example, Google is ranked in the first position because it's the most visited website and have more traffic than any other.

    If you search Dr.Feser's blog, you'll find it's ranked in position 3,995,082 (no information is provided about traffic in USA)

    Dawkins' website is ranked in position 1,618,685 (and 616,657 in United States)

    Leiter's blog is ranked in position 296,381 (and 94,354 in US)

    And is ranked in position 244,635 (and 70,803 in USA).

    Note that Craig's website traffic is superior to Dawkins' and Leiter's. It's amazing.

    You can search the rank and position of your own blog or website.

  4. Have you ever made the mistake of commenting on Dawkins's forum? I did once, coming to the defence of a Catholic philosopher who debated Dawkins on Irish TV (actually Ger Casey, Prof) and the torrent of vitriol and abuse I was subjected to staggered me. I've since learned, from other sources, that it's the standard tack of these apostles of calm ratinoality. This is why I don't think the polemical tone of The Last Superstition is AT ALL excessive.

  5. Perhaps the great point to take away here is that, if we're going to "Trust the experts" (as Ed's title is), then the results he highlights indicate that we should believe theism is true. But if we're prepared to reject the views of the "experts" (again, philosophers of religion) as having no force, then arguments from authority elsewhere (The majority view in philosophy of mind, or metaphilosophy, for example) also lose their force.

    And as a fan of Ed's writing, I'll say this on TLS: The tone was warranted. It does not begin to approach the haughty, smug, insulting tone of the now suspiciously quiet Three Horsemen (frankly, they kicked Dennett out in essence.) My only concern with the tone was that it made it hard to give a book to someone inclined to liberalism or skepticism.

  6. Ed,

    As you may have gleaned from my comments of late, I have been looking at various Thomisims and trying to get their history over the last 100 years. I am drawn more to existential Thomism due to years of interest in process and Pirsig style thinking.

    When I read Hartshorne, I understand. When I try to read Rahner, Lonergan, or Maritan, I just feel like I need some aspirin. Cobb is also readable. Fr. Hosinski did wonders with Whitehead's work (of course, Alfred really botched it!)

    Can you please cite a leading Protestant AND a Catholic theologian's online essays/works who are working within the last 20 years that is comprehinsibls?

    Preferably theistic theologians.

  7. There are some more interesting posts and discussions about this here and here at The Prosblogion.

  8. Meaning, of course, "some more" "interesting" posts, and not "some" "more interesting" posts...

  9. Crude,

    You wrote, "It does not begin to approach the haughty, smug, insulting tone of the now suspiciously quiet Three Horsemen (frankly, they kicked Dennett out in essence.)"

    Can you tell me what you're talking about? What are they suspiciously quiet about? Why did they "kick out" Dennett, or better, what do you mean when you say "they kicked [him] out?"

  10. Bobcat,

    By quiet I mean quiet. I think the New Atheist "thing" was a social belch, a fad that's now mostly done. The main contribution of the New Atheists was to vividly illustrate that one doesn't have to be religious to be loud, obnoxious, and (frankly) kind of a horse's ass on a number of levels. Hopes of riding a rising tide of popular atheist-materialist/naturalism are gone.

    As for Dennett, I think he was quietly dropped (more 'replaced by Hitchens', I suppose) for a number of reasons. First, his anti-religious moves were a disaster. The "Brights" thing. The "Stalin was a theist - he thought he was God" thing (think, for a moment, what accusation that opens many atheists up to). His writing in general had next to no popular appeal. He was vastly more noteworthy for getting stomped in his debate with D'Souza, helping transform the man from a minor editorialist to a popular apologist. Plus New Atheism was mostly a "yay science!" act, and a philosopher (even one who acts as a big, bearded cheerleader for evolution and materialism) is a poor fit there.

    Sorry if you thought I was referring to a specific announcement, like someone declaring Dennett anathema. Just giving my view of the situation.

  11. No, I didn't think you were referring to a specific pronouncement so much as a public dispute between Dennett and one or more of the other three.

    I had no idea that he did poorly in his debate with D'Souza. Once I heard that D'Souza was going against Dennett, I thought "cripes, he's gonna get destroyed!"

    Consequently I didn't watch it.

    Too bad for me! I'll have to check it out now.

    As for their quiet, I guess I don't see them as quiet, suspicious or otherwise. I see them as gaining steam, but that might be because one of the sites I post to has views like theirs in the majority.

  12. Bobcat,

    Sure, if you seek out forums on the net where people argue about religion and philosophy of religion (I'm not sure what site you have in mind here), you'll encounter vocal atheists. I didn't mean "quiet" such that committed atheists on the internet tend to be quiet, bashful types - Good God, no.

    I think as a popular social movement, New Atheism is dead - even other atheists found the whole thing distasteful. Now, you can find sites online where people are loudly committed to atheism. On the other hand, you can find forums where people loudly insist that Ubuntu Linux is the absolute best OS around. All the same, don't expect it to pose much threat to Windows 7 anytime soon.

  13. Finally (sorry for the long comment), but Jime you are incorrect on Richard Dawkins website. I'm assuming you searched Alexa for

    You're correct, Ranger. Thanks for the correction.

    As you says, I searched for, not

    In fact, the result was very weird and surprising to me, because it is not reasonable or plausible that Craig's website could have a better rank than Dawkins'. (I even began to questioning the realiability of

    But the mistake was mine.


  14. Perhaps the lack of enthusiasm (breath of God, BTW) for theism is related to the fact that nobody can even identify a strong theology.

    Is there any viable theology out there? A no answer is a NO.

  15. Burl,

    What do you mean by a "strong" or "viable" theology?

  16. Great post, Edward. I can sympathize with your interpretation of these results. It's been my experience that many people who reject theistic arguments often don't understand even some of the most traditional versions of these proofs. This, of course, is not meant to be a slight at anyone.

    One example of this is the Thomistic Cosmological Argument (TCA). Many people I've talked to insist that if the universe is eternal, no First Cause is needed. Difficulties with an eternal universe notwithstanding, I'm surprised at how often I have to point out that the TCA is perfectly consistent with an eternal universe/nature. An eternal house would still require a foundation; so by analogy, even if nature is eternal, it would still need a First Cause to sustain its existence.

    I'm also curious: what percentage of these respondents are actually atheists properly-speaking? It's one thing to reject theism, but if one is a pantheist, they are technically non-theists, even though that doesn't qualify as "atheism." It seems to me that the question, "do you believe in God?" is a bit too black-and-white for many professional philosophers.

  17. I recall that in the final chapter of one of his magnificent little tomes, Mortimer Adler bemoaned the unthinking Aristotlean orthodoxy of sixteenth century schoolmasters that so irked the moderns and thus midwifed the horrors of modern philosophy.

    Perhaps it's just wishful thinking, but if athieism and philosophical naturalism are now the "orthodox" position of the academy, maybe another such revolution in thought could occur.
    "Speak truth to power!" as the young are so tirelessly (and tiresomely) told.

  18. I think you are close to my point, Anonymous.

    The last century has been a constant battle framed by inadequacies resulting from Cartesian dualism of mind and body. Raw positive scientific rationality opposed by nihilistic or subjective existentialism.

    This was the crisis of reason Pirsig wrote on. And Whitehead, like many of you here, sought scientific materialism was wrong.

    Barth preached a biblicist approach to God only knowable in the God-man, Jesus, against the prevailing biblical historical deconstruction of his era. I do not understand how Adler failed to draw the parallels of the modernists’ reaction to mediaeval schoolmen with the exact same situation that developed 500 years later in Catholic seminaries. Nothing new under the sun…

    The Thomistic manuals were so lifelessly cold-rationally forced down the Catholic students’ throats that theologians like Merechal, Rahner, Lonergan, Maritain, Gilson, etc. were all trying to come up with a better way – this led to Vatican II. But what theology came from that?

    The best answer I have come across is Process Theology (Griffin, Cobb, Hartshorne) in Protestantism, and I think John Knasas said personalistic Thomism – John Paul II’s version of existential Thomism.

    Given such a backdrop for theology today, what is there to attract all these searching minds to theism?

  19. Burl,

    I don't know about where and how recently the 'thomistic manual' problem came up (I went to a catholic grade and high school, and my own experience was that not a drop of thomism - and barely any theology - was imparted to me). But it seems incorrect to drop the blame entirely on the laps of thomists. I don't know enough of the history, but I'm willing to accept that there was an approach to Aristotle and Thomism that was lifeless, rote, and methodical.

    But surely you'd agree that, intentionally and/or unintentionally, Aristotlean, Thomistic, and other views have been ignored, warped, mischaracterized, etc. Indeed, how often is any view other than naturalism treated as a contender? How often is the naturalism that is imparted consistent? How often are the problems and flaws pointed out?

    Not to mention, you say these minds are searching. But, skeptic as I am, I'm not sure they always are doing so. Or at least, not for what you may think they are.

    (That said, can you recommend me a book, or even site/articles, for personalistic and existential thomism? Clearly you have a unique approach to these questions, which I respect, and I -do- need to read more thomism.)

  20. Crude

    I, too, am coming up a steep learning curve. I'll bet I've covered a few hundred hours reading philosophy and theology topics since posting here.

  21. Off topic, but I found this while looking into God stuff...a topic we have bandied about elsewhere.

  22. I'm amazed that anyone can interact with the academic philosophy world as much as much as Feser does and say the things he does. *Of course* phil. religion is dominated by believers because believers flock to it, not because they've studied the arguments closely. Few top philosophers of religion even claim that they're theists because of the arguments. Plantinga doesn't, Craig doesn't, not even PvI does, even though he was a late-in-life convert. Swinburne might for all I know, but his more rationalistic approach is relatively rare in contemporary phil. religion.

  23. Swinburne claims, apparently, that God is the best explanation given what we know. Craig has said outright that he believes there are good arguments for theism, and no good arguments for atheism. PvI clearly doesn't believe the arguments against God or for atheism are compelling - and his views about compelling arguments of any kind in philosophy are noteworthy on their own. Etc, etc.

    Does the above mean philosophers of religion became theists/atheists due to philosophical argument? No. But the field clearly engages arguments both for and against God's existence, and haven't found the arguments against compelling. We can always say "Sure, they're the experts, but that doesn't mean they're right or even have the best arguments!"

    But again, I think that's at least partially Ed's general point.

  24. Hallq,

    For what it's worth, PvI wrote on philosophy of religion before he converted. (A critical 1977 review of Swinburne's The Coherence of God, and also an essay called "Ontological Arguments".)

    I guess you could say that he wrote about those things because he was primed to be Christian, or wanted to be, but I think that may be reaching.

  25. A few clarifications:

    (1) My comment was mainly targeted at Feser's sneering at the suggestion that people who believe in God for non-philosophical reasons tend strongly to phil. religion. That's obviously true, and makes this data worthless as evidence that the arguments *for* the existence of God are the compelling. It is significant that lots of people can spend a lot of time engaging with arguments *against* the existence of God and not become atheists--but even there the significance is limited by the fact that these people went into phil. religion because of their pre-philosophical religious beliefs.

    (3) Craig specifically says he became a Christian before studying the arguments at all. He also actively recommends that Christians not let their core beliefs be swayed by the evidence. For that reason, it's very hard for me to take his statements about the quality of various arguments as indicative of anything.

    (3) To Bobcat on PvI: what Crude said, basically. I know his article on ontological arguments rejected them, and he never revised that view. I wasn't aware of his review of Swinburne, but I expect he also judged Swinburne's arguments unconvincing, yes? If not, then neither of these are evidence he converted for reasons of arguments.

  26. What Craig says is that Christians can and should persevere in their faith even if they don't have all of the answers to all questions posed to them - and he also strongly suggests responding to doubts and problems by picking what they have a doubt about and aggressively reading up on it with all the resources they can find, while realizing that there will always be additional questions. What's more, the context I've seen him give of people persevering in their faith despite being unable to properly answer a question is people living under soviet-style regimes, or similarly hostile situations. (That same link also gives some interesting background on Craig's faith while a student - and given that, it's not clear he went into philosophy without arguments playing a role. In fact, elsewise seems to be the case.)

    As for PoRs who went into PoR believing in God for "non-philosophical reasons", no - I don't think that's obviously true whatsoever. If you have data on that front, by all means, share it. Until then, I may as well assert that it's obviously true that most atheists are such for non-philosophical reasons. Or something closer to what Quentin Smith apparently believes about naturalists and atheists.

    Swinburne argues that theism is the more rational explanation given what we know than atheism. Craig, again, argues there are no good arguments for atheism, and plenty of good arguments for theism. Van Inwagen's position is that basically no philosophical arguments, even outside of religious questions, are compelling (and if he's right, that puts the whole situation in a brand new perspective). Ed, I believe, gives a lot of the credit to the arguments.

    Sure, it's possible the "experts" are biased, blinkered, wrong, etc. But again, that does seem to be part of Ed's point here.

  27. Crude, I just read that essay. It seems to me like Dr. Craig's definition of faith is very different from Prof. Feser's as given in The Last Superstition, where he seems to be saying that faith IS simply faith in right reason.

  28. "*Of course* phil. religion is dominated by believers because believers flock to it, not because they've studied the arguments closely...My comment was mainly targeted at Feser's sneering at the suggestion that people who believe in God for non-philosophical reasons tend strongly to phil. religion. That's obviously true..."

    Hi Hallq. It seems to me that the discussion here, at Prosblogion, and elsewhere concerning the data provided by the Philpapers survey concerns possible interpretations of the numbers; no one is claiming, as far as I can see, to be in possession of facts that can determine which interpretation is correct. You, however, have certainly suggested with your post here that you do know which interpretation is correct ("*Of course* phil. religion is dominated by believers because believers flock to it..." "That's obviously true..."). Now, the claims you've made above to justify your interpretation of the data are empirical claims, no? If you agree that they are, do you have any support for them that's a little stronger than anecdotes and a general familiarity with Craig's and Plantinga's spiritual histories?

  29. "As for PoRs who went into PoR believing in God for "non-philosophical reasons", no - I don't think that's obviously true whatsoever. If you have data on that front, by all means, share it. Until then, I may as well assert that it's obviously true that most atheists are such for non-philosophical reasons"

    Ah, I see Crude beat me to it. That's what I get for posting a response before reading through all the posts...

  30. Hallq,

    PvI, as has already been noted, claims that no philosophical argument for any substantive conclusion (as opposed to a formal conclusion) has ever been successful, where "successful" means "convincing to an argument of impartial agnostics (on whatever issue is at hand)". That said, just because he thinks no argument has been successful in his technical sense doesn't mean that he didn't convert on the basis of arguments. And as it turns out, he did (at least if you read "Quam Dilecta", his autobiography).

    Joshua Rasmussen at Prosblogion says he became a theist because of philosophical arguments in favor of theism, as did Trent Doughtery, of Baylor. Who knows how many cases are like theirs?

    In my case, I was wavering between theism and atheism when I studied philosophy of religion, but upon reading especially articles in PoR, especially ones arguing for atheistic conclusions, I become a more convinced theist.

    For what that's worth.

  31. Maolsheachlann,

    I'd expect Craig's definition to be very different from Ed's in TLS. Their respective approaches aside, TLS speaks specifically to mere theism/non-naturalism. Craig is talking specifically about Christianity in that essay. I think a closer (but not perfect) comparison would be between that article and Ed's entry on the trinity.

  32. Thanks, Crude. I started to read that post on the Trinity recently but found it quite challenging and moved on to something else! I'll have to give it another look.

  33. Edward--I think a lot of them, whatever group they belong to, start with their heart regarding faith, and then search for the evidence that corroborates what they have started out with, i.e belief or unbelief. Who's to say what specific discipline has all the right needed facts in their textbooks that serve to back up theism or atheism? The only book that does that is open to all disciplines--the Bible. It is God's word. We can conclude that everything comes down to belief or unblief in the Bible.