Unhealthy Self-Selection in Philosophy of Religion

by Matt DeStefano on February 25, 2012

I’m an avid reader of Prosblogion, and their most recent post by Helen De Cruz examines the results of a survey they had posted earlier examining the Philosophy of Religion area of study, and particularly asking those classifying themselves as such to evaluate natural theology arguments. The results of the survey were interesting by themselves, but what I found more interesting was this:

One of the striking results from my survey on natural theological arguments is that most philosophers of religion are theists. Even if I restrict my count to a subsample consisting only of those people who are philosophers, who have listed philosophy of religion as one of their areas of specialization, and who are faculty or non-faculty with PhDs, the sample is overwhelmingly theist. Of this select subsample (N = 118), 70.3 % are theists, 16.9% atheists and 12.7% agnostics (the rounding explains why we are not at exactly 100 %).

It seems that we should both solicit and properly weigh expert opinion when forming a belief about a given proposition. For instance, if we are forming a belief about whether or not a particular cancer treatment will be effective, we ought to consider the qualified opinion of oncologists. If we polled oncologists nationwide and found that 75% or more thought the treatment would be effective, it ought to incline us to revise our original belief towards the ‘Yes’ side. If, however, less than 25% endorsed the effectiveness of the treatment, we ought to revise our original belief towards the ‘No’ side.

While the popular belief by itself doesn’t fix the truth of the proposition, it is reasonable to allow expert opinion to shape and adjust your initial estimate. More specifically, Cruz remarks upon the idea that we should trust the oncologist’s collective opinion over perhaps a pediatrist or a nutritionist or the rest of the scientific community as a whole. She quotes Alvin Goldman:

“to the extent that it is feasible, N should consult the numbers, or degree of consensus, among all relevant (putative)experts. Won’t N be fully justified in trusting E1 (expert 1) over E2 if almost all other experts on the subject agree with E, or if even a preponderance of the other experts agree with E?”

If Philosophy of Religion is indeed a relevant expertise to the question of whether or not God exists, should we adjust our beliefs to reflect the degree of consensus in PoR? If so, it seems that the strength of natural theological arguments are stronger than they get credit for.

Let’s consider the general population of philosophers and their respective attitudes towards the God question. From PhilPaper survey results:

God: theism or atheism?

Accept or lean toward: atheism 678 / 931 (72.8%)
Accept or lean toward: theism 136 / 931 (14.6%)
Other 117 / 931 (12.5%)

Rather than show the strength of the relative God proposition, however, I think this shows an unhealthy self-selection in the philosophy of religion as an area of study, and confirmation bias when evaluating natural theological arguments. One commenter wrote on the initial survey (emphasis mine):

Consider just one: In a foundational experiment on cognitive bias researchers investigated effects of argumentation on proponents and opponents of capital punishment—talking about a Lord paper. Both sets of participants read summaries of the procedures, results and critiques of studies on the deterrent effects of capital punishment. One set of documents provided evidence of the deterrent efficacy of punishment, and this set referred to research done in the same U.S. state before and after capital punishment was instituted. The other set of documents provided evidence of the deterrent inefficacy of punishment, and this set referred to research done in different states, some with and some without capital punishment. Half of each group was given the first set showing deterrent efficacy and half of each group was given the second set showing inefficacy. In other words half of each group had their pre-theoretical beliefs confirmed by the available evidence and half of each group had them disconfirmed.

The results exhibited a pattern of cognitive bias that became a focus of continued research in subsequent decades. Participants in both groups considered the documents supporting their convictions to represent a well-designed study that offered valuable evidence about the utility of capital punishment. Participants did not ignore counterevidence to their convictions; instead they thoroughly, carefully criticized the evidence against their convictions. 

The above study that the commenter referenced shows that people have an uncanny ability to judge even comparable research in light of their own predispositions, and one can only imagine how much stronger this propensity is when discussing something as personal and powerful as religious faith and arguments for theism.

What does this say about the initial survey results about the strength of natural theological arguments? I think it’s safe to say we shouldn’t rely upon those who classify their area of study as PoR to properly evaluate the strength of arguments in support of theism. As Cruz points out, it’s much like asking astrologers to judge the efficacy of astrology. Not that theology is as prima facie fake as astrology, but that those interested have a vested interest in seeing it succeed. We might also consider the initial decision to choose Philosophy of Religion as a vocational interest. It seems odd for many atheistic philosophers to devote significant time during their careers to a question they find devoid of content. Theist philosophers, on the other hand, must feel that questions residing in PoR are of the utmost importance.  This might help to explain a higher concentration of theist philosophers dominating PoR, while they are a small minority among the overall field.


  • R0c1

    I think the survey commenter was referring to “Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs.” (2009).

    Summary here: http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/12/what-you-want-god-wants.html 

  • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

    The commenter that I quoted wasn’t referencing that study, although I’ve seen it before. It’s interesting but not quite relevant – this survey was intended to buttress the idea that people will evaluate evidence more favorably when they already accept the proposition it is intended to support.

  • R0c1

    Nevermind, that’s not it.

    • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

      Pretty sure it’s this one: I can find the whole study on my University’s library system, but here’s a quick summary: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/37/11/2098/

  • http://tomlarsen.org/blog Thomas Larsen

    Matt, (why) do you think this kind of self-selection is unhealthy?

    • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

      Hey Thomas,

      I find it unhealthy for the same reason I find astrologers arguing about the existence of astrology unhealthy – everyone has an axe to grind. Confirmation bias is a not-too-distant cousin from self-selection, especially in religiously motivated reasoning. 

      • http://tomlarsen.org/blog Thomas Larsen

         Right, but that’s quite a loaded example. Do you find it unhealthy that most people arguing about the usefulness and validity of philosophy are philosophers?

        • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

          You’re right, it was a bit loaded. I’m not sure what you are referring to with your example, what is the “validity” and “usefulness” of philosophy? Usefulness as what?

          • http://tomlarsen.org/blog Thomas Larsen

            Valid and useful as a means of discovering truth about reality. (I don’t think any reasonable person is going to dispute the existence of astrology or philosophy.)

  • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

    I absolutely do not think that philosophers should be solely determining the validity and usefulness of philosophy. In fact, a lot of philosophy tends to become useless when unchecked by the physical sciences or outside criticism. 

    One terrific example of this is the standard analytic epistemology (SAE) which Bishop and Trout have famously criticized as being a poor method for contemplating the nature of knowledge and how human beings can obtain it.(http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~stich/Publications/Papers/Bishop%20&%20Trout%20Review.pdf). 

    The topic of whether or not philosophy’s domain is “discovery” in the first place is also up in the air. I think it might be something akin to clearing up conceptual confusion, rather than actually making “discoveries” of the kind we see among the sciences. Of course, you said “discover truth” which doesn’t necessarily imply the same kind of discovery, but I thought I would throw it out there anyway. 

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