Saturday, 21 March 2020

Great Minds Don't Think Alike

This post is the second in a series of posts featuring presentations that could not be delivered at Philosophy conferences due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Today Nick Byrd, PhD Candidate at Florida State University, summarises his paper, "Great Minds Do Not Think Alike: Individual Differences In Philosophers’ Trait Reflection, Education, & Philosophical Beliefs".



Many philosophers accept that relying on unreflective intuition is standard fare in philosophy (e.g., Chalmers, 2014; De Cruz, 2014; Kornblith, 1998; Mallon, 2016). Many philosophers also consider reflection to be crucial for philosophical inquiry (e.g., Goodman, 1983; Hursthouse, 1999; Korsgaard, 1996; Rawls, 1971; Sosa 1991). Fortunately, cognitive scientists have developed measures of peoples’ reliable on unreflective and reflective reasoning (e.g., Evans, Barston, and Pollard, 1983; Frederick, 2005; Sirota, et al., 2018).

In fact, among laypeople, individual differences in reflection often predicts differences in their philosophical judgment. For instance, more reflective people are often more likely to be atheists (Pennycook et al., 2016) and social conservatives (Deppe et al., 2015). However, some of those correlations could be explained by other factors such as numeracy (Byrd & Conway, 2019), training in philosophy (Livengood et al., 2010), culture (e.g., Gervais et al., 2018), and personality (e.g., Alper & Yilmaz, 2019). As I learned about this literature, I began asking some empirical questions.

  1. Will individual differences in philosophers’ reliance on reflection predict their beliefs about classic philosophical questions (i.e., the PhilPapers survey)? 
  2. If so, will the direction of these correlations match what we find among laypeople? 
  3. Will the correlations be detected when controlling for culture, numeracy, personality, etc.?
  4. Will the findings replicate in a larger, pre-registered study?



Two large studies (N > 1000), one pre-registered, investigate these questions. The result? Many correlations between reflection and philosophical beliefs among non-philosophers replicated among philosophers (Table 8). For example, less reflective philosophers preferred theism to atheism and the so-called deontological responses to the so-called utilitarian response on the trolley problem (Pennycook et al., 2016; Reynolds, Byrd, & Conway, under review).

Nonetheless, philosophical judgments were sometimes better predicted by factors like education, gender, and personality than by reflection. Also, the remaining relationships between reflection and philosophical views were partially mediated by having a Ph.D. in philosophy or by preferences for actively open-minded thinking (Baron, 2018). So although some relationships between reflection and philosophy remain robust among philosophers, there is more to the link between reflection and philosophical belief.

Consider a normative question about these data. Are the philosophical views that correlate with reflection betterviews (ceteris paribus)? Some dual process theorists employ this inference (e.g., Baron, 1994; Greene, 2013). However, I argue that the inference faces empirical and philosophical obstacles that have yet to be surmounted.

Now consider two reasons why a few of the present findings deviated from past findings. First, the PhilPapers survey is mostly a measure of agreement with general philosophical views or principles. It is not a measure of intuitions about particular thought experiments. Those familiar with conversational implicature research will be unsurprised that psychological factors can predict different responses to each measure (Cullen, 2010).

Second, academic philosophers are different than laypeople (Livengood et al., 2010). Whether this caused by philosophical education, academia’s selection mechanisms, or some combination of factors is not yet understood. Nonetheless, it is unsurprising that the present findings could vary by population.

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