Towards a Psychology of Philosophy?

Some time ago, I wanted to write a post calling for a “psychology of philosophy”.  In my mind, this would be the study of extra-rational factors that influence philosophers’ beliefs.

A question that I find particularly interesting is, do attitudes about science, such as naturalism vs. anti-naturalism, correlate with levels of scientific education and talent for science and math?  Could it be that one factor behind the (seemingly prejudicial) anti-naturalist attitudes that are still very influential in many areas of philosophy have to do with insufficient education in the sciences?  Clearly this question is amenable to empirical investigation.  Anyone interested in pursuing it?

I more or less forgot about that idea, until today I saw Eric Schwitzgebel’s great post on the psychology of philosophy at the Splintered Mind.  He even calls it the same name as I was going to call it, although his notion of philosophy of psychology is broader than mine.


  1. It is yet far away from now, but perhaps we will have to “scan” the brains (or making psychometric and philosophical studies á la Schwitzgebel) to prevent that leading philosophers spread their “biases” to young generations of students and the society as a whole.

    In Leiter´s Reports there are innumerable posts about the toxic effects produced by some academic sholars on delicated societal issues, scholars dismissed etc.

    If we would have a robust philosophy of psychology we might anticipate the thinking of persons about specific topics. It is a little bit orwellian but not too futuristic, bad or impossible, see recent research by John-Dylan Haynes.

  2. I think a “psychology of philosophy” could be quite interesting. For the anti-naturalist or anti-materialist thinking, there is an even more obvious potential explanation; so obvious, it is actually the cheapest shot. It might simply be fear of not being special, something like an “existential angst” that we humans might be, after all, just another kind of animal, or just another computational mechanism ;-), what makes somebody emphasize the difference between humans and zombies, or between humans and computers, or between humans and primates.

    But of course there will be other factors, such as early socialization, education, and the like. I don’t think, anyway, that insufficient science education would be a very important factor in anti-naturalism. I am a psychologist myself, and with that background I would vote for something with an affective character, like attitudes; say, somebody might have a negative attitude towards physicalist explanations because some physicists tend to think they can explain anything, even things that are way out of their “natural” territorium, as in the recent upsurge of nonlinear-dynamics and networks theories of whateveryouwant. And then there will be the duh! kind of fMRI studies of how something that feels good activates your reward center, which really gets me angry — so it might also make somebody try to think of anti-naturalist arguments.

    Some psychologists already have done some work in a psychology of science, but I can’t recall the references. I remember something about the differences of “natural scientists” and mathematicians to people in the humanities, with the former often making their most significant contributions in their early years, while the accomplishments of the latter tend to accumulate and become acknowledged in their later years.

  3. Here is one other idea why some people are anti-naturalists or anti-materialists. Might be that they actually have rational reasons to think that naturalism and materialism are wrong! (Yeah, silly idea, I know! )

    And here is even sillier one – naturalism and materialism might be wrong! (OK, I’m just saying this because my dad was beating me a lot as a very young child, and I witnessed Reavers murdering my whole family. Further it is because I lack the basic education in mathematics and physics, and I have IQ of 50. God forbid that naturalism and materialism might be wrong!)

  4. Regarding the issue of naturalism and antinaturalism and the idealism held with mathematical objects e.g. platonism in mathematics, i would like to mention the great efforts to naturalize even mathematics and the a priori, made by Penelope”>”>Penelope Maddy.

    On the other hand, mathematical objects are just pysical states in our brains, the brain is a product of “natural” selection, so mathematics is natural as well.

    Either Gualtiero´s conception of philosophy of psychology or either Eric´s concption, both are highly relevant and needed for the purpose i have mentioned even if they not see the things as me.

  5. Brandon N. Towl

    I’d be very interested in throwing some ideas around– Many years back, I did a little research on factors that could bias people’s intuitions about thought experiments, but haven’t pursued anything since. What would a list of topics/ avenues of research/ experiments/ puzzles look like?

  6. Anibal, if mathematical objects were only physical states of our brains, they would die with us. They don’t. I’m not saying that the only consistent ontology of mathematics must be anti-naturalist; it’s just not so simple.
    BTW, naturalism is consistent with realism about universals (abstract objects); you just need to show a natural science where you quantify over universals. As physics clearly does that and uses a lots of maths, you don’t have to naturalize maths anymore. It’s just implied by your empirical theories, and even a Quine would have to embrace that. So you don’t even have to say anything about natural selection or whatever. Physics is enough. And nominalism is dead ;P

  7. Brandon N. Towl

    Another thought:

    Philip Kitcher has a large section towards the end of his book _The Advancement of Science_ that applies decision theory, etc. to the ways in which scientists pursue, adopt, and drop theories. There might be some interesting things in there that could be applied to this project.

  8. I´m not so eager in defending a platonist view of our compartmentalization of reality (e.g. ontologies)

    The property of something is not because it share the rednes of a prior IDEAL-property by methesis or participation á la Plato, it is because appears equal to other thing ( Professor Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra rescue nominalism in the debate about universals in contemporary discussions)and then we form the category of red.

    I´m more aristotelian without fixed categories, essential types, or rigid boundaries in properties either abstract or physical.

    To me is too much universalism say that mathematical objects preexist the mind that grasp those objects.

    This remind me G. Berkeley and the issue if a tree falls and no one is there, is there a sound. The answer is not.

    Becuase of you expertise in philsophical mathematics perhaps you have a better formed opinion in the methaphysics of mathematics, but for me as in the case of sound, without a mathematician´s head there is no mathematics, even if mathematics is aplicable to physical reality in an exceptionless way.

  9. Anibal, actually, I don’t defend any deep metaphysical claim here. All I was trying to say that if you accept Quine’s test for ontological commitment, which is: what do you quantify over in your scientific theories – and accepting this test seems to me pretty equivalent to naturalism – then you don’t really have to try to reduce maths to biology or whatever. You can try to show that physics is not quantifying over predicates (which would support realism about properties and relations) but it would require rewording lots of scientific theories, and inherently involves a non-scientific commitment to some kind of ontology. I’d say naturalism is more consistent with tropical rain-forest ontology of sciences rather than with Quine’s desert landscape.

    There are many other non-Platonist ontologies, like something like constructivism you seem to mention, but they’re not naturalist – they don’t accept ontological commitments of science but simply stipulate materialism. And here you can see that naturalism is not just a priori materialism.

Comments are closed.