Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Map of the Analytic Philosopher's Brain

Back in the 1990s, Joe Cruz and I joked around about drawing up a "map of the analytic philosopher's brain" -- a kind of phrenological map, with the size of the labeled areas proportional to their importance to the discipline. Twin Earth would have a major lobe, while the meaning of life would have only a tiny nodule. (Twin Earth is a science fiction thought experiment about a planet just like Earth in all ways detectable to the inhabitants but with some chemical XYZ rather than H2O running in streams and clouds and faucets. The question is whether this would change the content or meaning of the inhabitants' thoughts and words.) Although Twin Earth discussion has died down a bit since the 1990s, I'd wager it still gets considerably more mentions in analytic philosophy articles than does the meaning of life.

(As a rough check of this, I just did a JStor search of occurrences, since 1990, of "twin earth" and "meaning of life" in the sixty JStor philosophy journals. Sure enough, "Twin Earth" wins 552 to 377. Looking just at the four most elite general analytic journals [J Phil, Mind, Nous, and Phil Review], the ratio is even more lopsided, 174 to 48.)

It occurs to me that the recent Chalmers/Bourget survey of the philosophical community is a kind of map of the analytic philosophers' brain, too. With feedback from a fair number of beta testers (including me), they developed a list of thirty questions to send around to a huge chunk of the Anglophone philosophical community (including almost all faculty at major departments) -- questions they felt would provide a kind of sociological snapshot of the profession's views on a wide range of key issues.

Below, then, are the thirty questions they selected. Notice that the meaning of life makes no appearance. But we do see questions about zombies, teletransporters, and runaway trolleys. That these were the questions chosen is as interesting a fact about the sociology of the profession, I think, as the particular distribution of the answers.

A priori knowledge: yes or no?

Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?

Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

God: theism or atheism?

Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism?

Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?

Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean?

Logic: classical or non-classical?

Mental content: internalism or externalism?

Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?

Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?

Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?

Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?

Moral motivation: internalism or externalism?

Newcomb's problem: one box or two boxes?

Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?

Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?

Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?

Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?

Proper names: Fregean or Millian?

Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism?

Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death?

Time: A-theory or B-theory?

Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don't switch?

Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?


  1. Silly Eric, don't you know that we can't know the meaning of life until we determine whether Twin Earthers' lives are meaningful?

  2. Or better...we can can't figure out the meaning of life until we've figured out the meaning of 'meaning'

    (sorry...couldn't resist following up last comment another Putnam joke)

  3. I'm not sure whether the absence of an explicit question about the meaning of life indicates that analytic philosophers don't care about the meaning of life -- or instead that over the years they've broken it down into more illuminating sub-questions, such as questions about meta-ethics, God, the external world, free will, trolleys...

  4. "Silly Eric, don't you know that we can't know the meaning of life until we determine whether Twin Earthers' lives are meaningful?"

    What about Horgan and Timmons' moral twin earth papers?

  5. I've taught courses on the meaning of life myself, but some issues don't really go well with the survey format. We did think about including "Life: meaningful or meaningless" but decided against! So I suspect that at best the survey reveals that part of the analytic philosopher's brain that lends itself more easily to multiple choice.

  6. Thanks for the comments, folks!

    DJC: I'll accept that the multiple-choice format put pressures on question selection. But I'd still wager that the average analytic philosopher -- at least in a professional research capacity -- spends more time thinking about Twin Earth than about the meaning of life. Would you disagree?

  7. I could imagine a sort of species for which anglo philosophy proper would be helpful and relevant - something between the H'rossa and the Sorns in C.S. Lewis' space trilogy (not to continue the theme of other planets though . . . well, this is precisely what my unconsious mind was primed to do, but my phenomenal self didn't intentionally)