William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Since the last worked so well, and nothing exceeds like excess, there will be an extended e-holiday at the blog for at least the next month. New and guest posts are in the queue. Since the blog will not be monitored, the spam filter has been tightened to enormous degree: many comments will thus linger in limbo. Email will not be seen during this time. St Thomas, ora pro nobis.

Miracles And Possible Explanations

From Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory:

‘And I dare say the first time you saw a man raised from the dead you might think so too.’ He giggled unconvincingly behind the smiling mask. ‘Oh, it’s funny, isn’t it? It isn’t a case of miracles not happening—it’s just a case of people calling them something else. Can’t you see the doctors round the dead man? He isn’t breathing any more, his pulse has stopped, his heart’s not beating: he’s dead. The somebody gives him back his life, and they all—what’s the expression?—reserve their opinion. They won’t say it’s a miracle, because that’s a word they don’t like. Then it happens again and again perhaps—because God’s about on earth—and they say: these aren’t miracles, it is simply that we have enlarged our conception of what life is. Now we know you can be alive without pulse, breath, heart-beats. And they invent a new word to describe that state of life, and they say science has disproved a miracle.’ He giggled again. ‘You can’t get round them.’

We’ve talked before about how some dismiss miracles and prodigies by positing an alternate explanation for the happenstance. Alternate besides God, I mean. Water turns to wine, a miracle. Yet that could have happened if the water didn’t turn to wine but instead was substituted for wine by wily servants. Or the water was always wine, but weak, and, when no one was looking, this weak wine was fortified by the good stuff.

Or people in the enthusiasm of the feast, and already well fortified themselves, imagine the whole thing, which was started by a rumor from the kitchen. After all, nobody really saw the water undergo its transmogrification.

The sun danced in the sky in front of tens of thousands, and then the sun fell to the wet ground drying it without burning any soul.

Yet it could be that starting at the sun only made it seem to dance, even though none were blinded by staring. Somehow, maybe because of the moisture in the air, blindness was prevented. And because the sun only “danced” due to jangled optic nerves, it only seemed to fall to the ground, which anyway couldn’t have been that wet. People forget these kind of details all to easily. Even tens of thousands of people.

Well, you can always do this. Any event, any observational contingent event, always has lots of possible explanations, and at least one of these will exclude God from having performed the event. Of course, there may be no other corroborative evidence for any alternate explanations proffered. But that never seems to matter. For instance, no servants who pulled the water-wine swamp were ever discovered to have confided in friends, friends who later wrote the matter down. The joke, if it was a joke, is pure conjecture, made up whole cloth, fiction from start to finish.

Yet that the fiction could be thought of is taken as proof of the mundane, it is taken as a certain demonstration that the miracle did not happen. It is not that the fiction casts doubt on the miracle, which might make sense if the alleged miracle is suspicious in some way. That the alternate explanation might create agnosticism is fair enough, and in most cases more than fair enough. But no: the fictions makes it such that miracle is itself thought to be the fiction. And that is still not the strangest thing. The folks who discard eyewitness testimony and substitute it for fictions call themselves “rational” for this.

But since anything short of actual demonstration of the alternate explanation is not proof, then substituting fictions as proof is an irrational act. Again what is strange, is that this irrationalism is often accompanied by cries like, “Where is the evidence! Bring us the evidence!” It always does no good to say, “But you have discarded the evidence in favor of a fiction.” Why? Because the evidence is thought not to be persuasive because it was used in proving the miraculous. And the miraculous is ruled out of bounds as a matter of empiricist metaphysics. You can’t dent the thick wall of empiricism with evidence.

Summary Against Modern Thought: Man Does Not Share One Soul

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

Nobody alive appears to believe that all men share one soul. If pantheism is defined as God is the universe, than that all share one soul must be mantheism (sorry). This Chapter continues 41 original arguments, but I’m paring them back here since this is no longer a live controversy.

Chapter 73 That there is no one possible intellect in all men (alternate translation) We’re still using the alternate translation this week.

1 On the basis of what has already been said it can be clearly demonstrated that there is not one possible intellect of all present, future and past men, as Averroes imagined.

Notes For those who don’t know, Averroes was a Muslim theologian-philosopher of the 12th century.

2 For it has been proved that the substance of the intellect is united to the human body as its form. But one form cannot possibly exist in more than one matter, because the proper act comes to be in the proper potentiality, since they are proportioned to one another. Therefore, there is not one intellect of all men…

Notes This argument is conclusive enough, but there are still some twists and turns of interest.

4 Again, Aristotle in De anima I [3] takes the ancients to task for discussing the soul without saying anything about its proper recipient, “as if it were possible, as in the Pythagorean fables, that any soul might put on any body.” It is, then, impossible for the soul of a dog to enter the body of a wolf, or for a man’s soul to enter any body other than a man’s. But the proportion between man’s soul and man’s body is the same as between this man’s soul and this man’s body. Therefore, the soul of this man cannot possibly enter a body other than his own. But it is this man’s soul by which this man understands: man understands by his soul, as Aristotle puts it in De anima I [4]. Hence, this man and that man have not the same intellect.

Notes Well, and so much for all those identity-swapping tales and movies, which used to swap old and young, and now swap male and female. Curious.

5 Then, too, a thing owes its being and its unity to the same principle, for unity and being are consequent upon one another. But every thing has being through its form. Therefore, a thing’s unity follows upon the unity of its form. Hence, there cannot possibly be one form of diverse individual things. But the form of this particular man is his intellective soul. Therefore, it is impossible that there should be one intellect for all men…

7 Now, the Commentator Averroes replies to these arguments by saying that the possible intellect comes into contact with us through its form, that is, by the intelligible species, whose single subject is the phantasm existing in us and which is distinct in distinct subjects. Thus, the possible intellect is particularized in diverse subjects, not by reason of its substance but of its form.

8 It is clear from what has been said above that this reply is worthless. For, if the possible intellect makes contact with us only in that way, man’s understanding is rendered impossible, as we have shown…

Notes Worthless? That St Thomas is so judgmental, isn’t he?

10 Moreover, a thing derives its species, not from that which is in potentiality, but from that which is in act. Yet the phantasm, as particularized, has only a potentially intelligible being. Therefore, it is not to the phantasm as particularized that this individual owes the specific character of intellective animal, which is the nature of man. And so we have the same result as before, namely, that the thing from which man’s specific nature is derived is not particularized in diverse subjects…

Notes The difference between potency and act is ever with us!

13 The source of man’s specific nature must always remain the same in the same individual as long as the individual continues to be; otherwise, the individual would not always be of one and the same species, but sometimes of this one and sometimes of that one. But phantasms do not always remain the same in one man; rather, some new ones appear, while some old ones pass away. Therefore, the human individual neither acquires his specific nature through the phantasm nor by its means is he brought into contact with the principle of his specific essence, namely, the possible intellect.

14 Now, if it be argued that this man does not derive his specific nature from the phantasms themselves but from the powers in which the phantasms reside, namely, imagination, memory, and cogitation—the latter, which Aristotle in De anima calls the passive intellect, being proper to man—even so the same impossibilities ensue. For, since the cogitative power is operationally limited to particular things, makes its judgments on the basis of particular intentions, and acts by means of a bodily organ, it is not above the generic level of the sensitive soul. Now, man is not a man in virtue of his sensitive soul, but an animal. Therefore, it still remains that the only thing particularized in us is that which belongs to man as an animal.

15 Moreover, the cogitative power, since it operates by means of an organ, is not that whereby we understand, for understanding is not the operation of an organ. Now, that whereby we understand is that by which man is man, since understanding is man’s proper operation, flowing from his specific nature. Consequently, it is not by the cogitative power that this individual is a man, nor is it by this power that man differs substantially from the brutes, as the Commentator imagines…

Notes Understanding is not the operation of an organ: we are not our brains! Animals don’t understand: man does.

24 It is with respect to the conclusions of demonstrations, moreover, that there is science. For a demonstration is “a syllogism productive of scientific knowledge,” as Aristotle says in Posterior Analytics I [2]. Now, the conclusions of demonstrations are universals, and so, too, are their principles. Therefore, science will reside in that power which is cognizant of universals. But the passive intellect has no knowledge of universals, but only of particular intentions. Hence, it is not the subject of the habit of science…

29 And if there is one possible intellect for all men, it must be granted that if (as the Averroists assert) men have always existed, then the possible intellect has always existed, and much more the agent intellect, because “the agent is superior to the patient,” as Aristotle says. Now, if both the agent and the recipient are eternal, the things received must be eternal. It would then follow that the intelligible species existed from all eternity in the possible intellect; so, in that case, the latter receives no intelligible species anew. But it is only as the subjects from which intelligible species may be derived that sense and imagination have any necessary role to play in the understanding of things. Therefore, neither sense nor imagination will be necessary for understanding. And thus we shall come back to Plato’s theory that we do not acquire knowledge through the senses, but are awakened by them to the remembrance of things we knew before…

Notes Worse, if we’re all sharing the same learned things, we’re going to have an impossible time explaining our stupidity. The Averroist argument doesn’t explain how, if all understand as one, individuals are ignorant. As these next paragraphs show.

34 Since the intellect is a higher power than the sense, its unity must be greater. This explains the observed fact of one intellect exercising judgment upon diverse kinds of sensible things belonging to diverse sensitive powers. And from this we can gather that the operations belonging to the various sensitive powers are united in the one intellect. Now, some of the sensitive powers only receive—the senses, for instance; while some retain, as imagination and memory, which therefore are called store-houses. The possible intellect, then, must both receive and retain what it has received…

39 Then, too, the possible intellect, according to Aristotle, is that “whereby the soul and man understand.” But, if the possible intellect is one in all men and is eternal, then all the intelligible species of the things that are or have been known by any men whatever must already be received in it. Therefore, each of us, since we understand by the possible intellect, and, in fact, our act of understanding is itself the possible intellect’s act of understanding, will understand all that is or has been understood by anyone whatever; which is plainly false…

41 But, that this reply cannot wholly avoid the difficulty is made clear as follows. When the possible intellect has been actualized by the reception of the intelligible species, it can act of itself, as Aristotle says in De anima III [4].

This accounts for the experienced fact that when we have once acquired knowledge of a thing, it is in our power to consider it again at will. And since we are able to form phantasms adapted to the thinking that we wish to do, they are no hindrance to us [in our reconsideration of things], unless, perhaps, there be an obstacle on the part of the organ to which the phantasm belongs, as in madmen and those afflicted with lethargy, who cannot freely exercise their imagination and memory.

For this reason Aristotle says in Physics VIII that one already possessed of the habit of science, though he be considering potentially, needs no mover to bring him from potentiality to act, except a remover of obstacles, but is himself able to exercise his knowledge at will.

If, however, the intelligible species of all sciences are present in the possible intellect—which the hypothesis of its unicity and eternity necessarily implies—then that intellect will require phantasms, just as one already in possession of a science needs them in order to think in terms of that science; this the intellect cannot do without phantasms.

Therefore, since every man understands by the possible intellect as a result of its being actualized by the intelligible species, every man will be able to apply his mind at will to the things known in every science. This is manifestly false, since in that case no one would need a teacher in order to acquire a science. Therefore, the possible intellect is not one and eternal.

1 And sometimes even having a teacher is no guarantee of acquiring a science (sorry). Let us have madmen and lethargy (a burgeoning science lurks) as the final word!

Randomness & God

Reader Omer Abid points us to Serkan Zorba’s article “God is Random: A New Perspective on Evolution and Creationism”, which has concepts of interest to all of us (Abid asked me to look into this not quite two years ago, so you can see I’m a tad behind in my emails).

Regular readers know, and I prove in Uncertainty, that random means unknown. Random is an epistemological concept and not an ontological one: there is no “random force” as there is, say, a gravitational force.

With that, here is Zorba (jumping in about half way down).

Thus I will propound that generation and “understanding” of absolute randomness requires infinite intelligence. I will dare to speculate that true randomness observed in nature is a strong indication, if not the “proof,” of the existence of an infinitely intelligent entity (God). Absolute randomness is a telltale sign of God.

One way of seeing this is as follows. Perfect randomness is when the result of an event is independent of the past and future influences. That means the event is not determined by any physical cause although it transpires in our physical universe, but rather by what I will call a ‘transcause,’ a cause originating beyond our phenomenal level.

When a “wave function” “collapses”, if that is what really happens, it collapses to a specific value. The (conditional) probability, a function of the wave (the conditions), can be calculated that this specific value will result. Now this value before it results it is only a potential. Some thing actual must actualize this potential and so make the final state an actuality. If Bell is right, we cannot know what this actualizer is; but that it must exist is a truism. It cannot be that nothing actualized the potential, because nothing is not-a-thing, and nothing has no powers. It must be that some thing actual with power to actualize did the actualizing. Zorba will call this a “transcause”, which is as good a name as any, and maybe a better name than most.

Incidentally, Heisenberg spoke in exactly this Aristotelian language when he philosophized about quantum mechanics. Uncertainty has details on this.

I differ from Zorba in calling quantum events “independent.” I deprecate this word in statistics, too, and use instead relevancy. Prior knowledge of some proposition (event) is either relevant or irrelevant to some new proposition. To use “independent” is to say two events are not causally related, and in the case of transcauses (to use his fine word), since we have no idea of the reasoning behind the cause of the first event, we necessarily do not have it of the second. Two events may very well be, in the perspective of the transcause, dependent.

Furthermore, the independence of such random behavior of the past and future influences—a sort of memorylessness—is, I assert, indistinguishable from having a timeless omniscience, as the knowledge of the past and the future must really be known to truly render a correlationless behavior. Thus the introduced ‘transcausality’, by virtue of its having infinite computational wherewithal, implies the existence and intervention of a metaphysical and categorically-different intelligence, which I will name ‘transintelligence’.

‘Transcausality’ necessarily implies non-locality, which is a fundamental feature of quantum mechanics. Furthermore, the discontinuous and seemingly non-algorithmic character of wavefunction collapse also dovetails well with the idea of ‘transcausality.’

Well, we cannot claim “memorylessness”, especially if we’re going to, as Zorba does, equate transcausality with God. And we have to be careful about correlation, too. If we use it in the sense of relevancy, we’re on solid epistemological ground; but as lacking-causal-connection, we are not. (Besides, statisticians have the bad habit of speaking of correlation as if it only involves straight line undefined—perhaps causal, perhaps not—“links”.)

Non-locality, of course, applies to our material world. Since God is at the base of all existence, the First and Sustaining Cause of all (see the beginning of this series), Zorba’s suggestion makes sense. God is not here now, and there later. In a crude analogy, if you think of the universe right now emanating from a single point, a singularity, all points and all times are present to this singularity at once, which puts this singularity in the perfect time-place to be a (the) transcause.

I’ll skip over the bits about how our intellects work, which brings up many subjects, such as induction (such as also discussed in Uncertainty).

I thus posit that the information-laden perfect randomness observed in nature at the microscopic level entails the existence of an “oracle,” a transintelligence, namely, an omniscient being. To further identify this Being with God–who is conceptually defined as omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect–is not facilely accomplished, albeit such identification is not uncommon[4].

The transintelligent being inferred in this article must be omniscient and omnipotent due to the proposed ontological (creation/selection of quantum events) and epistemological (information-theoretic nature of the irreducible randomness of the quantum world) connection. Linking omniscience/omnipotence to moral perfection, as assumed or done in various forms of ontological argument (e.g., in Plantinga’s modal argument[5]), is beyond the scope of this article[6].

(About Plantinga’s version of an onotological argument, click here; and don’t miss the comment by Paul Brandon Rimmer.)

Zorba’s kicker is this: “If God is, by definition, infinite, absolute and singular, then, generally speaking, in what other pattern will a finite being—such as a human being—perceive Him other than randomness?”

This is far from a proof, though I agree with Zorba’s aim. God is “mysterious” in the sense that we do not know why this wave “collapsed” to this point. Of course, this hinges on the absolute correctness of quantum mechanics as it is now known. If, say, next week string theorists finally convince the world they know of what they speak, then would Zorba’s argument be weakened? Probably not, because (as far as I understand it) string theorists have no answer to what is actualizing the potentials of strings, either.

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