The Other I

July 6, 2010

Thoughts on other worlds

Filed under: Psychology, Philosophy & Personal Nonsense — theotheri @ 8:03 pm

I was astonished to read recently that a study of mainstream philosophers in America and Britain found that 39% believe in a Platonic world of numbers.  That is, they believe, as Plato did, that abstract objects have a real existence independent of our minds.

This is not the supernatural Christianized Platonic world of heaven and hell, angels and devils, saints and sinners.  For one thing 93% of these philosophers don’t believe in God.  Nor does it seem to be one of the many universes posited by string theory of physicists.  The Platonic world they are talking about, from what I understand, is much closer to the original world as Plato conceived it in his attempt to answer the question “How do we know what we know?”

I am dumbfounded by this statistic.  Almost 40% of the philosophers in our colleges and universities think there is another real world of abstract objects.

I’m finding that understanding philosophical concepts can be pretty hard work.  But I’m fascinated to know the reasoning used by these Platonist believers.  They are not religious fanatics.  They are not uneducated air-heads.  Most of them almost certainly are both highly intelligent and highly educated.

So what is their reasoning?  4 out of every 10 of our philosophers isn’t an inconsequential number.  They might not be right, but it’s too big a number to dismiss outright as simply off the wall.

I don’t feel I can dismiss this idea as crazy until I at least understand why it doesn’t look that way to so many informed, smart people.



  1. Thanks for the link to the article, which then links through to the survey itself.

    I think you’re right that the kind of existence suggested for abstract objects like numbers is related to the question ‘How do we know what we know?’.

    But I’m not sure modern analytical philosophers would think that Platonism about numbers necessarily means that numbers inhabit another real world. I think it’s more that a modern ‘number Platonist’ would lean to the view that numbers (ie the things that terms like ‘1’, ‘2’ etc refer to) just do really exist.

    It’s possible that ‘number Platonists’ would say the burden of proof is on those who say that numbers do not exist, despite the fact that we have mathematical knowledge. And that those ‘number Platonists’ are unconvinced by any proof so far.

    But from a very brief toe in the water it looks like the arguments on both sides are about set theory and Russell’s paradox… eek.



    Comment by Chris Lawrence — July 10, 2010 @ 7:37 am | Reply

    • Chris – a hundred large thank you’s. I was hoping someone who knows more than I do might give me some hints about “number Platonists,” and you were the one who I thought would probably give me an explanation I was most apt to understand. I do recognize set theory (up to a point) but I don’t think I ever new what Russell’s paradox is. (No, no, I’m not suggesting you explain further. “Eek” is sufficient.)

      Their position makes more sense to me the way you put it, though it still strikes me as a little off the wall. Which hardly disqualifies it as a credible idea. I suspect that I would have thought Stonehenge was off the wall if they’d asked me at the time. Not to mention gravity or electricity or air planes.

      Again, thank you.


      Comment by theotheri — July 10, 2010 @ 8:27 pm | Reply

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