Anchor effects in philosophy

Gregory Lewis poses the following intriguing question in this thoughtful and original essay/blog post: where are the 13 Platos in modern Attica? Here is an extended excerpt from his essay:

The world population at 500BCE is estimated to have been 100 million; in the year 2000, it was 6.1 billion, over sixty times greater. Thus if we randomly selected people from those born since the ‘start’ of western philosophy, they would generally be born close to the present day. Yet when it comes to ‘greatest philosophers’, they were generally born much further in the past than one would expect by chance.

Consider this toy example. Let’s pretend that philosophical greatness is a function of philosophical ability, and let’s pretend that philosophical ability is wholly innate. Thus you’d expect philosophical greatness to be a natural lottery, and the greatest philosophers ever to be those fortunate enough to be born with the greatest philosophical ability.
The Attican population in the time of Plato is thought to have been 250 to 300 thousand people (most of whom weren’t citizens, but ignore that for now). The population of modern day Attica (admittedly slightly larger geographically than Attica in the time of Plato) is 3.8 million. If we say Plato was the most philosophically able in Attica, that ‘only’ puts him at the 1 in 300,000 level. Modern Attica should expect to have around thirteen people at this level, and of this group it is statistically unlikely that Plato would be better than all of them. I am sure there are many very able philosophers in modern day Athens, but none enjoy the renown of Plato; were Plato alive today, instead of be recognized as one of the greatest of all time, perhaps he would be struggling to get tenure instead.

This example turns on how one defines the comparison classes, and these are open to dispute (e.g. was Plato the best in Attica, the best in Greece, or the best in the ancient world?) But the underlying point stands: If philosophical greatness were a matter of natural lottery, the most extreme values of a much larger population are usually greater than that of a much smaller population, and the distribution of greatest philosophers should be uniform by birth rank. It would be incredibly surprising that three of the top ten greatest philosophers of all time (Plato, Aristotle, Socrates) would be situated in such a small fraction of this population.

Isn’t it time to update our philosophical priors?


Postscript: We will be on vacation until May 15th, so we won’t be updating our “prior probability” blog during this time.

This entry was posted in Bayesian Reasoning, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Anchor effects in philosophy

  1. jecgenovese says:

    Have a great vacation!

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