Free Will Cannot Be An Illusion

Unless my mind is tricking me, I once had a car like this

I get more than two dozen press releases and book announcements a week, a consequence of running a not-as-obscure-as-some-would-wish blog. The latest was from Gregg D. Caruso, an academic philosopher at SUNY Corning Community College.

He has a new book which asks a bunch of people questions about some thing. I immediately lost interest in it when I noted that Caruso boasted also writing Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will. On his homepage he says, “our subjective feeling of freedom, as reflected in the first-person phenomenology of agentive experience, is an illusion created by certain aspects of our consciousness.” Agentive?

He also says of himself, “In particular, he is an optimistic skeptic and disillusionist maintaining that, not only can we preserve meaning, morals, and purpose without belief in free will and desert-based moral responsibility, but that we would be better off without such beliefs.” Isn’t a disillusionist the kind of magician who keeps accidentally exposing how his tricks work? Never mind.

Now an illusion is mental phenomenon: it is when the mind experiences something as real which isn’t. An illusion cannot appear to or be caused in, say, a pile of bricks or a 1964 Barracuda for the simple reason that bricks and muscle cars do not have minds. Illusions do happen to us because, I feel it is necessary to stress, we have minds.

We often recognize illusions after the fact, as when vision or fever clears, and we sometimes see when others are suffering from one. Because we know there are such things as illusions we necessarily must know that we have normal states of consciousness, too. In other words, because we know the difference between illusion and reality and that a real world exists, it is logically impossible for everything to be an illusion.

Fully determinate objects, like cars and bricks, are “slaves” to physics in the sense Caruso means; they cannot have free will and neither can they experience illusions, even though we sometimes jokingly say, “That car has a mind of its own.” It is a poor enough joke, but it is made worse by adopting it as a basis for an entire philosophy.

We do have free will and we do experience illusions. It is we who come to decisions like “This is real,” or “That was an illusion.” The point is that there is a we, an us, an I or me that must exist for illusions to obtain.

Even if you imagine you are making a choice, you are still making a choice, you are still exhibiting free will. Suppose you, in your seat now, conjure up the scenario whereby you’re standing at a fast food counter and the clerk asks, “Would you like fries with that?” If you imagine yourself as saying “Yes” or “No”, you have used your mind freely. Bricks and cars never do things like that. You cannot imagine yourself not existing, not having thoughts. You cannot think, and mean it, “I am not thinking.” Thinking cannot be an illusion.

Caruso does not mean to say we are illusions as a figure of speech. He means it. Or thinks he does. And because he thinks he does, he doesn’t. But why?

Here might be the reason. Caruso penned the article “(Un)just Deserts: The Dark Side of Moral Responsibility” (pdf). He opens the piece with this:

What would be the consequence of embracing skepticism about free will and/or desert-based moral responsibility? What if we came to disbelieve in moral responsibility? What would this mean for our interpersonal relationships, society, morality, meaning, and the law? What would it do to our standing as human beings?

Caruso wants bipedal automatons, fully automated creatures who have no choice about anything, all their behaviors being absolutely determined by external forces, to freely choose, i.e. embrace, the idea that they have no free will. And that, once they choose to acknowledge they are incapable of choosing things, they will choose to abandon their desert morality and the world will be a better place.

This really is his argument. I am not a psychologist and so cannot name this form of insanity. Denying (an act of choice!) free will because one doesn’t like morality does seem to be the new opium of intellectuals, however. Caruso isn’t alone and represents a trend in academia.

He says one thing with which I can agree: “As public proclamations of skepticism [of free will] continue to rise, and as the mass media continues to run headlines announcing free will and moral responsibility are illusions, we need to ask what effects this will have on the general public and what the responsibility is of professionals.”

We do need to keep our eyes on these characters, if only to see what forms their insanity might take.

Sexual Immorality, Low Birth Rates, And Religion

Pew Research released a survey on the Global Views on Morality, asking adults in each of several countries whether the following activities were morally unacceptable: Extramarital Affairs, Homosexuality, Abortion, Premarital Sex, Divorce, and Contraception Use (they also asked about Alcohol Use and Gambling which I don’t here consider).

This is a good opportunity to see how Sexual Immorality and Birth Rate might tie together, possibly moderated by religion. I found 2014 birth rates from the CIA Fact Book, and the percent of Christian and Muslim residents, also from Pew but reprinted on Wikipedia.

I defined (average) Sexual Immorality as one minus the simple sum of the answers to the six sexuality questions, all divided by six. Higher numbers meant cultures in which it was more likely to find sexual immoral adults.

There is some error in this, probably to the extent that the best we could do is to approximate Sexual Immorality to only the nearest decimal point. Everything I show are also only crude correlations; causal connections, while plausible in the direction indicated by the correlations, are almost certainly weaker than the correlations.

Each of the six individual items correlated to Birth Rate in the way you would imagine: greater approval of each aspect of Sexual Immorality led to lower Birth Rates. Acceptance of Homosexuality and Abortion had the tightest correlations, i.e. had the great diminution on Birth Rates; Extramarital Affairs had the least but still-noticeable effect.

The clearest picture emerged when considering Sexual Immorality as a whole, presented here:

No surprises.

Making whoopee does not equate to making babies.

The horizontal line is drawn at the “replacement” Birth Rate. All highly sexually immoral countries (Sexual Immorality 0.7 or higher) have birth rates below replacement levels. Unless these countries make it up by massive immigration, they’ll soon see population deficits.

All but one country with low Sexual Immorality (less than 0.3) had high birth rates. The United States had a birth rate of 2.01 and Sexual Immorality of 0.62.

Here is a table of Sexual Immorality and Birth Rate by country:

Country Sexual Immorality Birth Rate
France 0.85 2.08
Germany 0.83 1.43
Spain 0.82 1.48
Czech Republic 0.80 1.43
Canada 0.76 1.59
Britain 0.76 1.90
Australia 0.75 1.77
Italy 0.74 1.42
Japan 0.72 1.40
Argentina 0.67 2.25
Chile 0.67 1.84
Poland 0.63 1.33
Greece 0.63 1.41
Israel 0.62 2.62
United States 0.62 2.01
Russia 0.59 1.61
Venezuela 0.58 2.35
Mexico 0.55 2.29
South Korea 0.55 1.22
China 0.55 1.55
Brazil 0.55 1.79
South Africa 0.52 2.23
Senegal 0.48 4.52
India 0.45 2.51
Lebanon 0.45 1.74
Bolivia 0.44 2.80
Jordan 0.42 3.16
Egypt 0.41 2.87
Turkey 0.40 2.08
El Salvador 0.38 1.95
Palestinian ter. 0.38 5.00
Philippines 0.31 3.06
Kenya 0.30 3.54
Malaysia 0.29 2.58
Nigeria 0.28 5.25
Tunisia 0.28 2.00
Indonesia 0.27 2.18
Uganda 0.25 5.97
Ghana 0.18 4.09
Pakistan 0.17 2.86

France leads the bottom and Pakistan takes top honors. France still has a somewhat high birth rate, but it also for a once Christian nation has a comparatively high Muslim population (around 8%) which is driving some of that number. Even a glance at the table suggests religion, particularly the difference between Christian and Muslim religions, might have something to do with explaining the ranks.

The data available is admittedly crude and only measures affiliation and not intensity. These next two plots show the fractions of Christian and Muslim and Sexual Immortality. Obviously, there are other religions, but there aren’t enough countries with other religions to make comparative plots worthwhile.

Christianity can help

Christianity can help

And so can Islam

And so can Islam

Take your time with these plots. Notice that within majority Christian nations, increasing Christianity is associated with lower Sexual Immortality. France only has 63% Christian, a shocking fall from its once top spot. But then France was the birth place of the Revolution against human nature. Germany is close behind. The Philippines, and even several African countries like Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana are all highly Christian and have low Sexual Immorality.

The second plot shows that all countries with majority Muslim populations have low Sexual Immorality. And of course not all of these live by strict Sharia law. It’s also worth noting that of those countries that are majority Christian, the only ones with low Sexual Immorality are still considered “developing” countries.

The three countries with the largest populations with different top religions are China (52% unaffiliated, but increasingly Christian; Sexual Immorality of 0.55), India (80% Hindu; Sexual Immorality of 0.45), and Japan (57% “unaffiliated”; Sexual Immorality of 0.72).

I don’t think there are any surprises in these data. The last remains to make predictions. If these correlations are a guide, the less religious a country becomes the more sexual immoral it will be. It is not clear which drives which; probably both drive each other. And the more sexual immoral a culture is, the fewer babies it will produce.

Update This plot shows the total fraction of Christian + Muslim (starting at 0.5). The influence of religion on Sexual Immorality is now very clear.

Religion works

Religion works: probably

Update I imagine that if I had called “Sexual Immorality” “Pew Questions on Reproduction” there would be a lot less angst. Feelings run high when you tell some people certain behaviors are immoral. Some people on Twitter became apoplectic at the very suggestion.

Everybody (willfully?) missed where I said, “There is some error in this, probably to the extent that the best we could do is to approximate Sexual Immorality to only the nearest decimal point. Everything I show are also only crude correlations; causal connections, while plausible in the direction indicated by the correlations, are almost certainly weaker than the correlations.”

But this does not imply these causal connections are impossible. As I said to Chinahand in the comments, if you express support for homosexuality and act in that fashion, you will not reproduce. If you express support for abortion and have one, you will kill your offspring and not increase the birth rate. If you express support for contraception and use it, then you will lower the birth rate. If you express support for extramarital affairs and have one, you will have less time for your own family and consequently increase your chance for disease and so forth, all of which tends to lower the birth rate.

And so on. Anything that interferes with human mating will necessarily lower the birth rate. Masturbation (Pew didn’t ask this), homosexuality, contraception, divorce, and so on directly interfere with human mating, therefore these all tend to lower the birth rate.

Education cannot lower the birth rate, and I’m surprised readers suggest that it can. Knowing the year Martin Luther King was killed, or the atomic weight of iodine, or how to read a financial statement does not interfere with human mating. Being educated about contraception might induce one to try it, that’s true. But it is the contraception itself that lowers the birth rate, not the knowledge of it.

Money cannot lower the birth rate. Higher or lower GDPs cannot lower the birth rate. And again I’m taken aback to see the suggestions that it can. Money is associated with education, it’s true. But education, as shown, cannot lower the birth rate. The bias inhibited in the suggestions money or education could lower birth rates is also surprising: everybody assumes the effect of education must only be in the direction of increased sexual liberty. This is false, as is I hope now obvious.

As I admitted, more than once, the attitudes on sexuality are only correlated with birth rates, but it is surely more than plausible that at least some persons expressing positive support for abortion, contraception, etc. will engage in these acts. If they do, the birth rate goes south.

I also admitted other things could lower the birth rate, but didn’t specify any mechanisms. Disease is one. But since Western countries have lower disease rates than “undeveloped” countries, it is not plausible that disease is what accounts for the decreasing birth rates in the Western world.

War is another cause, indirectly: anything which keeps people from the act of mating can be a cause. Again, lack of opportunity is not plausible in Western countries. It could be that avarice and culture plays a role in, say, keeping men (such as in Japan) staying at the office all hours, reducing the chance of mating. Abstinence lowers birth rates.

Religion cannot cause an increase or decrease in the birth rate, because religion is a form of education. But religious education teaches that the Pew questions, so to speak, are immoral. And if people act on this education by eschewing abortion, contraception, extramarital affairs, divorce, and homosexuality, then the birth rate will tend to increase. And this is what the data shows, or at least strongly suggests.

What really set people off is the remark that certain activities are immoral. “Don’t you tell me what’s right and wrong!” Well, have it your way. But nothing in any of the results change if you want to believe these activities are not immoral.

Update A conversation with statistician Stephen Senn reminded me that improved medicine can increase birth rates by lowering infant mortality. But Western medicine is the best, so the Western rates, if we could conceive of removing the effects of superior medicine, are even lower relative to non-Western rates. He also reminds that some might have fewer children if they expect their existing children will survive. This is so, in part. But since it’s probably not abstinence these confident couples practice, but contraception, this doesn’t change the conclusion that contraception is what causes lower birth rates. How or why contraception is a separate question (Western education tends to encourage its use, while religious education tends to discourage it).

Preface: The Philosophy of Probability and Statistics, An Introduction

This is a full truck, which is not necessarily a truckful.

%This is the Preface of The Philosophy of Probability and Statistics, An Introduction coming before Preface and before the chapters on Truth and Logic. Note the New & Improved title! Since this is the Internet, I must explain that the Preface of a book is not obligated to provide an in-place proof of every claim. That is what the book itself is for. I left the Latex coding. It isn’t hard to read. Also since this is the Internet, it will do me no good whatsoever to claim that this is only a rough draft to give readers the idea of the book and that it is not the completed fully formed polished final product. So I won’t claim it.


If the only information you have is the eyewitness report “I saw a truckful of them walking south,” what is the probability that “Seven individuals were walking south”? Depends on what the fellow meant by “truckful”, right?

Right. But it also depends on what the fellow meant by “I”, “saw”, and all the rest, and what you mean by “seven”, “individuals”, etc., and on the rules of English grammar. It might also depend on whether you were expecting seven. Maybe you’re a cop chasing escapees. We need the rules of grammar because, for instance, the questions would not make sense to a monolingual Mandarin speaker. But your understanding is also conditional on taking the eyewitness at his word and on assuming that all his faculties are in order (eyesight and the like). Same thing for you: are you reasoning correctly about “seven”: that’s more than six, isn’t it?

Now suppose the only information you have is the premise, “All men are mortal and You, the reader, are a man.” What is the probability that “You, the reader” are mortal? We still need the tacit information about grammar, the plain meaning of the words, and the belief our faculties are functioning. Given these, and as everybody schoolboy used to know, it is certain you will turn back to dust.

Another way to say this is that it is {\it true} you will cease on an eventual morrow. Truth therefore has some meaning. Here, and everywhere, it is the correspondence between the thing claimed and reality. The claim is you die; the reality is you will. What about the truth of the proposition “Seven individuals were walking south”? It might be true. You don’t have enough information to tell. Somebody does know, though: the group heading south, presuming they can count, would know for sure whether they were seven. But you don’t know. You are uncertain.

There is truth or falsity lurking, but you can’t come to it, not with the information you were given. There is no way to come to a numerical representation of your uncertainty, either. Not without adding information you were not given. Of course, you might {\it decide} the proposition is true. Or you might {\it act} on the {\it belief} it was six and not seven. Decisions and actions, though they depend on it, are not probability. Consider that you can, even in the face of “All men are mortal, etc.,” still act as if you won’t die (a physical death). You might even believe it. But that won’t change the certainty of “You, the reader, are mortal.”

Probability, like logic, says something about the {\it connections} between propositions, and just like logic those connections are {\it fixed} by the propositions given and not subject to dispute, not once the language, terms, and rules are set. Probability is not subjective and subject to whim any more than logic is. Again like logic, probability is not ontological; it is not a measure of physical stuff or of reality; it is not, for example, frequencies, but frequencies are propositions and thus can inform probabilities. Probability is epistemological, it measures uncertainty.

Since this is so, before we can understand probability fully, we first need to understand truth. Truth is that which logic and probability aim at. Truth implies reality and both together imply knowledge. There are conditional truths—propositions which are so given contingent premises—and necessary truths—propositions which are so no matter what. Therefore, there will also be conditional and necessary probabilities. Belief is a decision, an act, and does not always imply truth, especially when we are uncertain. We can, however, have knowledge, which is justified true belief. That too comes in conditional and necessary forms.

The natural starting point is logic, where our certainty is greatest. But even logic must take some things for granted. Logic ultimately cannot be empirical: we must come equipped with some knowledge or we would never get any argument off the ground. Since probability is the extension or completion of logic, some of our “pre-packaged” knowledge is also of probability; actually, of its “rules.”

Ordinary “street logic”, i.e. Socratic or syllogistic logic, is highly informal but absolutely crucial to grasp because every human decision eventually involves ordinary language. Mathematical logicians and probabilists escape the problem of language ambiguity by assiduously defining their terms, so that no, or only very little, possibility of error exists. We don’t have that advantage when it comes to deciding how best to implement, or not, the results of a medical experiment.

In our first deduction, the premise “All men are mortal” is an induction. Some call probability “inductive logic”, but it isn’t, or isn’t always. Others say that induction is not “justified” or that it is “irrational”, but these judgments are false. Logic and probability rely on induction in a way which is under-appreciated or even unknown. Induction and logic, and therefore probability too, guide us in our perception of causality. Too often people mistake probability statements as evidence of causality. And this includes those people who ever have “Correlation does not imply causation” on their lips. The limitations of knowledge of causation are also important to know before speaking of probability models.

Probability, at this point, falls naturally from truth, logic, and induction. But there are a number of prominent misconceptions which have to be tackled, such as the frequency, complexity, and subjective interpretations. These are more or less harmful in our recognition of uncertainty, but of potentially greater harm when married to the practice of statistics, which is defined as the practical implementation of probability. Probability is usually not a number; it cannot always be quantified; though sometimes it can, and the beginnings of Cox and Kolmogorov become important.

Randomness and chance are intertwined with probability, but are widely misunderstood. These are nothing but different names for uncertainty. They are not physical entities. They cannot be causative. Therefore, the numerical methods (such as “MCMC”) which “use” randomness, even when they give reasonable answers, are strictly mistakes and are therefore not built a sound foundation. Randomness also has deep connections with predictability and complexity. We need the ideas of Kolmogorov or algorithmic randomness, which is when a string is shorter than any computer program which can produce that string. “True” randomness in this sense is related to compressibility, which itself is a kind of prediction. And then all these ideas have direct ties to entropy, which is a direct numerical measure of uncertainty, and is therefore intimately matched to probability, particularly in Bayesian statistics. But again the caution that most probability is not numerical must be kept in mind.

A weird tradition has developed wherein {\it ad hoc} probability “models” are proposed for propositions of interest, propositions which are then forgotten as focus is fixated on the parameters of these models. Hypotheses regarding these parameters, which nobody believes, or are provably false, and which are in any case conditional on models’ accuracy, are bruited and said to be “significant” or not, a technical word which has little relation to its English cousin. Creatures called p-values, despite innumerable strident warnings against their use, are worshiped to a degree which is hard to credit. Still, good work can be and is done even in the face of these strange practices. The question is how and under what circumstances?

The Cult of the Parameter is only one of the ways over-certainty is introduced. The others are reification, which is the mistaking of the models (which are almost universally mathematically correct) for reality, and unnecessary quantification. People feel only numbers are scientific, thus everything is given a quantification merely for the sake of subjecting the things to routines which require numbers as input. The mistake is two-fold: probability does not only speak of physical things, but of metaphysical reality, just like logic. And sometimes we’re stuck with non-quantifiable uncertainty. Putting numbers where they don’t belong is bound to cause grief, and does. Besides, the vast majority of uses to which probability are put are not in formal settings, but are like the trukful-walking-south situations.

Since vast armies of numbers are marshalled in support of research, and statistical methods are taken as proof absolute for nearly every kind of claim, we need to develop methods with procedures suited to the goal of understanding uncertainty about physical things. We also need these methods to make useful and accurate decisions. Thus {\it measurement}, the {\it sine qua non} of science, should drive these procedures. No human measurement (of reality) can be infinitely graduated; therefore, it is inappropriate to begin an analysis with an assumption they can be. Not only does this produce over-certainty, but it leads to unnecessary disputes about “priors” and parameters. Parameters naturally arise from considering natural, which is to say finite, measurement, and then imagining the number of measurements approach the limit. This is different than the current view of statistics, which tacitly assumes measurement is of the continuum.

Examples in simple risk and time series are developed. But recipes for handling every sort of formal quantified problem are not given. The big reason for this limitation is that these formal methods have not yet been worked out. Mathematically minded readers are invited to try their hands in constructing procedures based on the new guidelines.

Lastly, because most books on probability have a strong and natural bias towards science and mathematics, the reader might expect the same of this book. This is not the case. Probability is much richer than the narrow confines of science. Our goal is to understand the whole of it.

Science Is Only A Matter Of Culture, A Different Way Of Knowing?

Makeup isn’t always for women

Since it’s Easter, it’s high time we confronted a devastating argument against science. Hold onto your test tubes, fellow beings, your faith is about to be shaken.

Isn’t it true that you, dear reader, believe in Science? That your belief in its powers is ardent? That you wouldn’t think of doubting it?

That you can’t see any reason why Science is wrong; indeed, you can only see reasons why it is right? Why, you could defend Science, the practice of science, it many sects and -ologies, and the scientific method all day, all night, all into the next day, and so on almost inexhaustibly.

Well, all this is a matter of simple observation about your behavior. But your attitude, the depth of your belief, you must admit, is largely driven by your culture. It was your parents, was it not, that first imbued in you the worshipful admiration you have in Science? And this was reinforced constantly by a succession of teachers, friends, jobs, and even sources of entertainment. You were saturated in Science whether you liked it or not.

Just think: use your reason. People not born into Science don’t share your belief in it. Those folks bred in Papua New Guinea, to use one of hundreds of examples, do not share your prejudices, are not under the spell of Science.

Put your mind to this: these people live and die, just as we Science worshippers do. They eat, marry, have children, they go about their daily lives. They have dreams, aspirations, desires, conflicts; they have culture; they know. The only difference between them and us is that they were raised without our superstitions in Science.

They, and many like them, are closer to Nature. Their spirituality, their religion, is more beautiful and surely far less stressful. They have more respect and understanding of the world around them—the earth is not a thing to dissect, but a thing to admire. The number and character of differences in beliefs between them and us are not really important, at least not here. What is is that these differences exist and are large in magnitude and many in number. That is the eye-popping fact to consider.

Papua New Guineans have no innate drive toward Science. To be sure, they have heard of it. Our missionaries have reached their shores and told them of Science’s wonders. But they reason, and reason correctly, that they were living just fine without it and therefore they don’t need it. This must be true, because these people have been living there fine for thousands of years without the benefit of Science. They even claim their lives are better. Except for a handful of isolated converts, they stick to what they know.

Because this is all true, it should cause you to reconsider your unquestioning attitude toward Science. If your belief is largely a matter of the culture into which you were born and given that other peoples born into other cultures believe differently, it is therefore possible that your beliefs are wrong and those other peoples’ are right.

Really, it is you who is acting unreasonably, unthinkingly. Don’t be a slave to your accident of birth! If you really were an independent thinker, you would see the logic behind these other Ways Of Life and abandon Science.

Happy Easter, everyone. He is risen.

Update I guess I’m not surprised that I must announce that Ye Olde Statistician wins the bet with himself. See his comments on that subject below. The argument in this post is pretty bad, isn’t it? So how do we account for its frequent reappearance? On the other hand, I notice a lot of people have used Science to proclaim Science’s superiority. Back to basics!

To Coyne A Review: Did Jerry Coyne Really Read David Bentley Hart’s Book?

Coyne isn’t happy you’re not as smart as he

It took Jerry Coyne a while, but it appears—or rather, I should say there is weak and not overly convincing evidence—that the man has finally read David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. (I still owe readers the fourth and final installment of my review!)

The evidence we have is in the form of a confession. Coyne himself, in what purports to be a review, says, “I’ve just finished Hart’s book…”

Now this is important because this is his third review of the book, the first two coming before he read it. Not reading books is, science has proved, the fastest way to fulfill an obligation, but it rather tends to leave one clueless about their contents.

Coyne says Hart’s book is “hardly a compelling argument for God. It is in fact a series of recycled ‘proofs’ of God couched in fancy and often arrogant language.” Recycled? As in the way calculus textbooks prove its fundamental theorem? That an argument has been used before does not, of course, prove it wrong.

Hart, as even Coyne appears to recognize, says that his book is not a collection of proofs for God. Yes, one or two pop up on the course of things, as do fairly good refutations of scientism, but none of these are pursued rigorously. The best of these is Hart’s demonstration that our minds are not material, that there is more to us than appearances. No: Hart’s stated goal, and the one he accomplished deftly, was to define what the great religious traditions mean by God.

This was not a book of comparative religion, but of the fundamental truths that are accepted by Christians, Muslims, Hindus and so forth. Because there are many definitions in the popular mind, and particularly in the minds of scidolators, some reference was needed to highlight the distinction between what classical theists mean by God and what atheists do.

When atheists like Coyne hear “God” they think of some powerful, far-off being, probably itself the result of evolution, who started the universe going magically, and who then retired to pursue other interests. Hart calls this god the Demiurge, and it is the god of deism, atheism, and, it must be admitted, some Christians who succumbed to the taunts of scientism.

Coyne: “Hart seems to claim that beauty, consciousness, and rationality are God, a tactic that completely immunizes his views from disproof.” It is completely false that Harts arguments are “immunized” from disproof, unless that is meant in the sense that Hart’s claims are true. Coyne is trying to drag in the discredited notion of falsifiability for metaphysical propositions. Arguments about God are just as “falsifiable” as are arguments about mathematical theorems, which are also metaphysical.

It quotations like Coyne’s that produce skepticism that he actually read Hart’s book. Hart’s claims are scarcely as simple as Coyne says they are. Hart goes to great pains to show that God is the ground of all being, Being Itself: there is thus no mystery why God’s name is I AM. Hart is at his best when he shows naturalism—”the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order”—the philosophy Coyne embraces, and which is “ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking”, is necessarily false.

Hart says, “The very notion of nature as a closed system entirely sufficient to itself is plainly one that cannot be verified, deductively or empirically, from within the system of nature.” This is true. The key fallacy in naturalism is that it cannot explain being; it is mute on why anything exists. Science can never answer this. Only philosophy can, and when it is considered, the only explanation is that things exist because they were created by a necessary being, which is to say, God.

For existence is more definitely not a natural phenomenon; it is logically prior to any physical cause whatsoever; and anyone who imagines that it is susceptible of a natural explanation simply has no grasp of what the question of existence really is. In fact, it is impossible to say how, in the terms naturalism allows, nature could exist at all.

Coyne ignores all of this. Wisely, too. Because if he confronted it honestly, he’d have to find a new hobby. He instead takes the greater part of his review to make weepy eyes at Ross Douthat. Coyne and Douthat have a long-running feud; at least Coyne thinks they do, so instead of answering Hart he gets mad at Douthat for being unable to produce an argument for God’s existence that is convincing to Coyne. Coyne also doesn’t like that Douthat is sympathetic to mystical visions, a.k.a. revelation, which Coyne dogmatically dismisses—I mean Coyne judges with no evidence whatsoever: if you think he has any, I’d be delighted to see it.

All this from a guy who claims people have no free will. Why is it propounders of this silly doctrine (no free will) are always so angry when people don’t agree with them?

The Absurdity Of Reducing The Income Gap

We must not rest until this map is one solid color

Jim Fedako (who wrote this piece; send him email) is a business analyst and homeschooling father of seven who lives in Lewis Center, OH.

Mr. George (rising): Madam Speaker, pardon my interruption, but I must speak.

Madam Speaker: Highly unusual, Mr. George. Mr. Thompson has just begun his report. You will have time for comments at the end of his presentation. Mr. Thompson, please continue.

Mr. Thompson, committee member representing the Health Subcommittee, continues with his report, detailing a significant decrease in the numbers of cancer deaths. His report is met with smiles of elation from all on the committee, except for
Mr. George, of course.

Madam Speaker: What a wonderful report, Mr. Thompson. It is so great to hear that our investments have led to such a reduction in cancer deaths. I think I speak for the committee when I say, “Thank you.”

Mr. George (rising again): Madam Speaker, I must—

Madam Speaker (annoyed): Five minutes, Mr. George. But, please, remain seated.

Mr. George: Mr. Thompson says he brings great news. But it is horrible, simply horrible.

Madam Speaker: Mr. George!

Mr. George: Please, let me explain. Every tally Mr. Thompson erases from his cancer column ends up somewhere else. Do those people live forever? No, they die of some other disease.

Mr. Thompson, you are sentencing many of those very same folks you call survivors to years of heart disease and subsequent death. It’s a vile business you do. Truly, what have you gained by harming the hearts of our fellow citizens, other than to reap the praise of those on this committee?

Mr. Thompson: Absurd!

Madam Speaker: Please, Mr. George, some decorum. Why on earth have you cast such a pall over this meeting?

Mr. George: Madam Speaker, but it is true. Mr. Thompson has achieved nothing, other than to increase the number of suffers of heart disease. And I find that appalling.

Mr. Brown: Mr. George, you are speaking nonsense.

Madam Speaker (interrupting): Mr. Brown, you are out of order.

Mr. George: Oh, no, Mr. Brown, I am speaking truth. Did you not report just this evening that the disparity between the wages of the first and fourth quartiles rose last month?

Mr. Brown: I most certainly did.

Mr. George: And did you not make that statement to the detriment of the report read by Mrs. White—the report on the general increase in productivity levels and real salaries realized in each quartile?

Mr. Brown: I did. But we must reduce the wage gap so that—

Madam Speaker (interrupting): Messrs. Brown and George, this is not how this committee functions. You are both out of order. Mr. George, you have four minutes remaining. Use them wisely, and appropriately.

Mr. George: Madam Speaker, earlier this evening, we heard the tale of the tallies. Mrs. White noted that, in general, life for everyone in the country is improving. Good news, or so I thought. But then Mr. Brown noted that, while improvements may be seen in general, gaps in disparity still exist. He further noted that such a condition overshadows any general improvement. Nothing is worse than disparity. Nothing.

Mrs. White took exception, noting there is great movement between the quartiles—young workers tend to start in the bottom, move upward, and then back down after they retire and no longer receive an income. Further, she noted we will always find incomes conforming to quartile rankings, with necessary gaps between quartiles. And, by definition, each individual that we advance out of the bottom quartile sentences another to that very same quartile. Quartiles are a zero-sum game.

Mr. Brown fell into fit of apoplexy. He shouted that this is not a world of his making, and that it is our responsibility to rid of quartiles and gaps.

You all agreed, though I believe Mrs. White still held reservation but remained quiet.

The rich are getting richer, was the cry from Mr. Brown. That the poor are also getting richer was left aside, a bothersome statistic not conforming to his narrative. This committee then adopted the impassioned plea of Mr. Brown.

Madam Speaker, you even instructed the Finance Subcommittee to begin formulating a position paper to address the gap.

As for me, I kept my peace. I saw Mr. Brown’s comments as pure nonsense. But I felt any objection at the time would have been discounted. The consensus had moved, almost as if a spiritual conviction—a Fourier complex, of sorts—had overwhelmed the committee.

When Mr. Thompson spoke, my peace broke. If disparities are the issue, and not general improvements, why limit the logic to economics? Isn’t health as important?

Isn’t it true that we all die—that our days are numbered? And that our deaths are tallied in one of the columns reported by the Health Subcommittee? Reduced cancer deaths means increased deaths due to heart disease. This is something we cannot escape. So any improvement in cancer treatment looks like a decline in our ability to treat heart disease—another zero-sum game.

That people, in general, are living longer becomes the bothersome statistic not fitting this narrative.

Mr. Thompson, you said I was being absurd. But you had no trouble reaching a similar conclusion earlier in the evening. If I am absurd, the embrace of Mr. Brown is absurd. Don’t we all agree?


Madam Speaker: Mr. George, I assume you have finished your address.

Your analogy certainly shocked this committee. But shock is not substance. And as with each of your previous free market outbursts, you missed the point.

With regard to the economy, we really have no concern for general improvements that contribute to income gaps—whether gaps by quartile in real terms, or gaps by quartile between periods in percentage terms or in nominal dollars. In essence, any gap that can be imagined is an issue for us.

Maybe I am speaking more for myself than the committee at this time, but I would not be surprised to hear the Finance Subcommittee recommend a much steeper progressive tax. Nor will I be surprised to hear you stand in defiance of that proposal, claiming such a tax would harm us all.

You just do not seem to understand that the playing field must be leveled. And if the leveling harms each and every one of us as you claim…well such is the price we must all pay.

And that is the point you continually miss.

Mr. Secretary, what’s next on the agenda?

Is God’s Existence Confirmed By Prophecy Via Probability?

What are the chances of that?

What are the chances of that?

I came across a curious book by Marvin Bittinger, a mathematics educator, called The Faith Equation: One Mathematician’s Journey in Christianity. I’m a sucker for books like this, which seek to prove various metaphysical propositions using probability. None of them are in the least convincing, but I can’t help but be fascinated.

Why? Well, though it’s possible to be uncertain of a metaphysical proposition, just as it’s possible to be uncertain of any physical one, with physics we know we’re in the realm of the contingent where much, most, or even all certainty is denied to us. But in metaphysics, the only satisfying argument is one which ends in truth or falsity. The indifference found in statements like “God might exist” or “God probability doesn’t exist” is dismaying. A question that important should have a definitive answer.

Which it does, incidentally. God’s “existence” is well proved via more than a dozen different arguments, all metaphysical, starting with true premises reaching valid conclusions leaving no uncertainty. But don’t let’s fight over these today, else we will get lost.

Bittinger says that once we accumulate a number of fulfilled prophecies, each of them amazingly unlikely, the probability for God’s existence must be high. What’s a prophecy? “[A] prediction of the future, typically a promise made by God through his prophets.” He adds, “If thousands of these promises are fulfilled, it is incredible evidence of the Bible’s reliability.”

This isn’t a rigorous definition. As the Catholic Encyclopedia says, “St. Paul, speaking of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14, does not confine its meaning to predictions of future events, but includes under it Divine inspirations concerning what is secret, whether future or not.” Plus, some prophecies are conditional, “Do X else Y”; if X is done, no Y. Is the prophecy then fulfilled? Well, yes, but understanding the outcome isn’t simple. Other prophecies are highly allegorical, so to speak. Just think about the book of Revelation.

Bittinger chose nine prophecies because, he claims, they “lent themselves to estimating, or reasoning, a probability.” All of these have been fulfilled and so now, he says, “have a probability of 1.” This is true: given that these events happened, the probability that they happened is indeed 1. But he’s concerned about the probability of these events before they happened.

What could that mean? On the 13th of April the Detroit Tigers played the San Diego Padres. Tigers lost (don’t weep). The probability the Padres won is therefore 1. But what was the probability they were going to win? There is no unique answer to that question. It is ill posed. All probability is conditional on the information supplied or evidence used. What evidence is the right or correct evidence? Historical record? This season’s outcomes? Player stats?

There isn’t any “right” evidence, though there is a sense there exists a best evidence. But learning that best evidence isn’t always possible, especially in fluid human events like baseball games. Sometimes we can know something like the best, but only in highly controlled situations. Think experiments with inclined planes or electrons.

Now given any set of evidence, a probability can be had. Not necessarily a numerical probability. If the evidence about the ball game was just this: “Them Padres are lookin’ good. And the Tigers relief maybe ain’t so hot” there is no numerical probability possible. Yes, people can state one, but they are not doing so based on the this evidence.

The first prophecy Bittinger uses is “Israel’s Messiah Will Be Born in Bethlehem” from Micah 5:2. He gives this a 1 in a million shot. How? Firstly, he went to trouble to figure the number of villages in which Jesus could have been born. About 1,000. Second, he figures the chance the prophecy would have been fulfilled 700 years after the prediction was made, which has the probability, he says, of 1/(2*700), a figure he generates using something called a “time principle.” These two probabilities are multiplied to get a number which is less than 1 in a million.

He does similar things for eight other prophecies arriving at the cumulative product of 10-76, which is mighty small. Therefore, and considering there are many more than nine prophecies in the Bible, mathematics shows God exists.

See what I mean? Unsatisfying in the extreme. I feel for Bittinger. He and I are fellow believers, and we agree with the prophecies. But I can’t agree with his arbitrary quantification. One reason is metaphysical. If the prophecies were unconditional, in the form of “X will happen”, then given (at least arguendo) the best evidence “God said X will happen and what God says goes”, then the probability of “X will happen” equals 1, a number with which even atheists would agree.

On the other hand, to the man who does not accept the “God said, etc.” premise, the before-the-fact prophecies are uncertain. And their fulfillment does given evidence to the hypothesis God exists. But it can never be conclusive evidence because the probabilities for fulfillment are not unique. Endless possibilities for disagreement about historical events exist.

Update If you want the best of the best of these probability arguments, check out (the start of) one by Richard Swinburne: Swinburne’s P-Inductive and C-Inductive arguments (for the existence of God). Another not so great: Bayes Theorem Proves Jesus Existed And Did not Exist.