William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Cardinal Dolan Lectures Democrats and Republicans

His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan took to the podium at both the Democrat and Republican conventions and addressed our leaders with these most forgotten words:

Help them remember that the only just government is the government that serves its citizens rather than itself.

The personage His Eminence was appealing to was the Fellow who was dropped by an “oversight” and only found His way into the Democrat convention after a fixed vote (the usual way, the Chicago way). But never mind all that. We most of us won’t come to agreement on that matter.

What is important is that His Eminence used these same words at both convocations. Which is to say, he said them twice. First as above at the RNC, and then like this at the DNC:

Help them remember that the only just government is the government that serves its citizens rather than itself.

What a strange prayer to offer for an assemblage of politicians! Especially (but far from exclusively) Democrat politicians, who during DNC issued an ad which sang, “Government is the only thing we all belong to.” About that, perhaps the best rebuttal came from retired Senator Fred Thompson:


This shows that this election, to simplify, is a neat divide between those who want capital-G Government to care and coddle it charges, above all to dole out “free” stuff to the populace, versus those who want citizens to be left the hell alone to the maximum extent possible. Between those, that is, who believe they always Know Better and those who can admit they don’t. Between those who believe Government is always the solution and those who see it as the source of many ills.

His Eminence, like God Himself, almost did not make it to the DNC floor. Dolan originally offered to attend both the RNC and DNC, but was initially only accepted by the Republicans. In a preview of the DNC floor vote fiasco, word about the rebuff got out, talk about how this would be seen by independent and undecided “bitter clingers” began, and decision makers quickly reversed course and accepted the good Cardinal’s offer, stating that it was “always” going to be accepted.

Since most of this took place behind the scenes and wasn’t put to an embarrassing voice vote, it escaped national attention. But the progressive Salon magazine noticed (they would rather Dolan not have spoken). As did the LA Times which opined, “Democrats had little choice but to say, ‘Amen.'”

There exists in the American Catholic Church a divide which mimics the political landscape. It has its own New York Times, the National Catholic Reporter, which each day finds some new “injustice” over which to lament, and its own Fox News, the combined New Advent and National Catholic Register, sites which reminds the faithful of the ultimate and real goals of that faith.

One side wishes the Church would lighten up and allow “gay marriage”, give the thumbs up to abortion, and concentrate solely on empowering Government to take care of the “poor”. The other folks toe the line of the Magisterium, see the necessity of tradition, and wish the Church would keep its eyes on the Prize. In other words, the standard left-right lines.

His Eminence is the de facto leader of both parties, and boy did he hear it from each corner about the invites; but the cry was especially loud after he invited President Obama and future-President Mitt Romney to the annual Al Smith charity dinner in New York. The left was thrilled, as they view Obama as the One (well, perhaps the second One), but the right was incensed. Obama was the fellow who mandated (via HHS) the Church to give up its ideals and fund contraception and abortion for its employees because, well, employees should be given free contraception and abortions because they are employees, and what sadder, needier, more directionless creature is there than an employee?

The Cardinal proved to be an adept politician. At the RNC, he chided pols, gently, on immigration and social programs. But at the DNC, holding strictly to official teachings, he scolded:

Grant us the courage to defend it, life, without which no other rights are secure. We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected…

We praise and thank you for the gift of liberty. May this land of the free never lack those brave enough to defend our basic freedoms. Renew in all our people a profound respect for religious liberty: the first, most cherished freedom bequeathed upon us at our Founding…

Empower us with your grace so that we might resist the temptation to replace the moral law with idols of our own making, or to remake those institutions you have given us for the nurturing of life and community.

And at both conventions, he spoke these most important words, which it does no harm to hear once more:

Help them remember that the only just government is the government that serves its citizens rather than itself.

Soon & Briggs: Sunspots do impact climate

Had you thought I had forgotten about the doom that awaits us once global warming strikes (it’s on it’s way!)? I had not. Today’s post is at the Washington Times:

SOON AND BRIGGS: Global-warming fanatics take note
Sunspots do impact climate

Scientists have been studying solar influences on the climate for more than 5,000 years.

Chinese imperial astronomers kept detailed sunspot records. They noticed that more sunspots meant warmer weather. In 1801, the celebrated astronomer William Herschel (discoverer of the planet Uranus) observed that when there were fewer spots, the price of wheat soared. He surmised that less light and heat from the sun resulted in reduced harvests.

Read the rest here.

Two cautious reminders: editorial writers do not write their titles and editorials nearly always suffer curiously placed wordectomies.

Update A third reminder: First one to scream “peer review!” loses 20 points, unless he also yelled it each time Jim Hansen or some other this-is-the-end-unless-we-give-government-lots-of-our-money guy published an op ed or blog post. Fair’s fair, you know.

We Have Evolved Beyond Evolution: How Can Evolution Help?

There is an argument favored by some fans of evolutionary psychology that goes something like this:

For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.

But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future.

That is the major premise. The minor premise is: “evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates.”

The rollocking conclusion is:

Moral Bioenhancement…Enhancing our moral motivation would enable us to act better for distant people, future generations, and non-human animals…Our knowledge of human biology — in particular of genetics and neurobiology — is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process.

That was a lot of words, so let me simplify. (1) Evolution made us exactly and everything that we are. (2) Through evolution we learned to create many things. (3) We are now beyond evolution. (4) So we must use our evolutionarily gained skills to create things to catch back up to where we would have evolved to if we evolved along with our inventions.

Make sense?

David Stove called this approach the Cave Man way: “you admit that human life is not now what it would be if Darwin’s theory were true, but also insist that it used to be like that.”

In the olden days (so the story goes), human populations [were subject to evolution]…But our species…escaped long ago from the brutal régime of natural selection. We developed a thousand forms of attachment, loyalty, cooperation, and unforced subordination, every one of them quite incompatible with a constant and merciless competition to survive…

The Cave Man story, however implausible, is at any rate not inconsistent with itself. But the combination of it with Darwin’s theory of evolution is inconsistent. That theory is a universal generalization about all terrestrial species at any time. Hence, if the theory says something which is not true now of our own species (or another), then it is not true—finish…

If Darwin’s theory of evolution is true, no species can ever escape from the process of natural selection.

In short, we cannot evolve beyond ourselves.

Paradoxically, purveyors of the Cave Man argument are split on whether ancient mankind was peaceful, coexisting with nature as in a James Cameron fantasy and that he is now hyper-competitive and a positive harm to himself, or that mankind was then brutal, leading nasty, violent existences and that he is now on the verge of New Consciousness, Utopia is within his reach if only he would do X.

X for the authors—the ever-appalling Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson—of the current incarnation of the Cave Man is jiggering with genes, i.e. “moral bioenhancement.” Something like: Stop the badness in the womb before it escapes and pollutes the world.

Savulescu, in the manner of our president asking if he has any faults and his retorting “I care too much,” offers three “criticisms” of his theory.

Objection #1: We may be too late to apply our panacea. “Moral educators have existed within societies across the world for thousands of years — Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, to name only three — yet we still lack the basic ethical skills we need to ensure our own survival is not jeopardised.” The omission is noted.

Objection #2: Who can evolve beyond evolution and discover the way out of being human? Moral gene replacement therapies “will have to be developed and selected by the very people who are in need of them.” And how can this be if those who will do the developing are stuck in the pre-enlightened evolutionary state? Savulescu has no answer save to say it “is possible for humankind to improve morally to the extent that we can use our new and overwhelming powers of action for the better.”

Objection #3: Some people might actually vote for Mitt Romney against their better judgment. (Just kidding!) “[T]here is good reason to believe that voters are more likely to get it wrong than right.” All we need do is stop “Powerful business interests” from holding us back from voting the proper way.

Rarely do we come across a man who argues so badly and yet reaches such a lofty position as Savulescu has. The only explanation is indeed evolutionary: many people like to have power over other people and will say anything to get it.

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Note: the appalling Savulescu with Persson has written a book entitled Unfit for the future: The urgent need for moral enhancement. Has anybody a copy they would like to lend? I’m averse to putting money in that man’s pocket.

Reasoning To Belief: Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism — Part Last: Skulls Full Of Nothing

Don’t Think
Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last. Buy the book ($12.92 as of last glance).

There is a curious phenomenon unwinding throughout secularism. One wing is busy elevating animals to the status of humans. And another is dedicated to demoting humans to the level of animals. The overarching goal appears to meet in the middle and declare as equal, in every respect, human creatures with, say, dolphins and colobi, or any other species which is deemed photogenic or does not regularly make appearances on dinner menus.

The former are not just “outraged” members of PETA, or those who push fur-wearing bans. This new group of the Very Concerned are scientists, like those signing the “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” or who organize conferences around “Consciousness in Humans and Non-Human Animals.”

Those who attend First Annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference will be lectured on a “purely data-driven perspective on the neural correlates of consciousness.” There the “most advanced quantitative techniques for measuring and monitoring consciousness will be presented, with the topics of focus ranging from exploring the properties of neurons deep in the brainstem” presented. It is neurons—exceptionally scientific objects of study—deep in the brainstem that tell us that monkeys are the same as you and I. Not in the sense of being conscious, which animals of course are, but in the sense that their intellect and rationality and our intellect and rationality are equal.

It is also neurons deep in the brain which tell us that humans are animals. Not in the dull sense that like annelids we are capable of self-motivation, or like birds we respire, or like mosquitoes we like to eat blood, particularly in our case in the form of breakfast sausage. No, even past popes knew we had bodies and were animals in that sense. What scientists are now “discovering” is that our brains are mere mechanical engines. Input data, provide a glucose power supply, turn the crank and what comes out is perfectly predictable. We are just machines, these scientists say: unthinking, deterministic machines. Slaves to our neurons.

Wait, that’s wrong: not slaves. A slave is a man wrongly imprisoned. Neurologists tell us there is nothing sentient there that can know it is imprisoned. We are just masses of tissue, reacting in pre-programed, unwilled ways to external stimuli, just as the dumbest gnat or cockroach does.

These two views—the simultaneous elevation of animals and demotion of mankind—are of course incompatible. They cannot both be true. If some animals are rational, intelligent beings, then so are we, but then we cannot be mere machines. If we are robots acting out the script provided by our selfish genes, then so are animals, neither group being entitled to any special treatment. Yet we race to embrace both theories. We are therefore converging towards a special state of lunacy.

It is partly a psychological question why this is occurring in our society, but since Yours Truly has no expertise in deviant behavior I remain silent on this matter. There is a theological explanation for our comportment, but we can’t bear thinking on this. Therefore, let’s jump right to the philosophical underpinnings.

Now, if it cannot be so that some animals are just like humans and all animals including humans are unthinking beasts, it can be so that both views are wrong and that instead, just as common sense and all observation suggests, we humans are unique, far different than any animal. That, except when under the influence of alcohol or theory, we are possessed of rationality, of self- and other-awareness, of intentionality. It “should be obvious that it is simply a conceptual impossibility that [intentionality] should ever be explained in terms of or reduced to anything material”.

Free will, as you might guess, is perfectly explainable:

In an Aristotelian-Thomistic analysis, the relationship between a choice and the action it results in can be understood as an instance of formal-cum-final causation. The matter of “material cause” of the action is the sequence of neural firing patterns, muscular movements, and the like by means of which the action is carried out. The formal and final causes of the action—that which gives intelligible structure to the movements—is just the soul considered as a kind of form, and in particular the activities of thinking and willing that are distinctive of the soul’s intellective and volitional powers. The action is free precisely because it has this as its form, rather than having the form, say, of an involuntary muscular spasm. Nor are the intellect and will themselves determined by such things as physical law, because they exist as parts of the realm of formal and final causes, not material and efficient ones.

Let’s don’t forget that Aristotle did not use the word cause in its modern sense of “temporally ordered events”, but as answers to four Ws: What’s the thing made of? (material cause) What’s its form? (formal cause) What actualized its potential? (efficient cause) What’s the thing for? (final cause). A thing must have all four causes: it cannot have just one. In particular, all things have a final cause, in the sense that all things (almost always unconsciously) are “directed toward” some “goal.” This should be utterly uncontentious, given that we see that everything in fact is “directed toward” some (limited range) of “goals.”

But it is contentious, and many moderns reject the idea of final causality. Mostly because they don’t like the implications of accepting it, or because they believe that “science” has proven final causality false.

Let me be clear about something. However widely accepted, these claims are, each and every one of them, simply untrue. They are false. Wrong. Mistaken. Erroneous. Non-factual.

(Regular readers may recognize the tone.)

Rejecting final causation “immediately created a number of serious philosophical problems that have never been settled to this day, but instead have only gotten progressively worse; indeed, historically unprecedented in their bizarreness and rationality.” In Yours Truly’s own field, the “problem” of induction is one of these. Grown men and women actually deny that inductive beliefs are rational (while never ceasing to use them). What this did to statistics is obvious (hello, p-value!).

But the rejection of final causality has also slain rationality in neuroscience. Feser quotes W.T. Stace: “The world, according to this new picture, is purposeless, senseless, meaningless. Nature is nothing but matter in motion. The motions of matter are governed, not by purpose, but by blind forces and laws.” That view led to the slaughter of the universal morality—a subject Feser’s pursues briefly, and which we’ll investigate another day.

For now, we examine the logical conclusion of the modern enterprise: eliminative materialism, a fully mechanical picture of all reality, including the stuff that goes on inside our heads. We have already seen the proof that our intellect cannot be material, yet there are is no shortage of scientists and philosophers who claim the mind does not even exist, except perhaps as an epiphenomenon of wiring together large numbers of neurons, each following a preset “program.” As “John Searle (who, as we have seen, is no religious believer) has argued, every form of materialism implicitly denies the existence of the mind, whether or not it intends to.”

For as Searle has emphasized, there is a difference between following a rule and behaving as if one were following a rule. Suppose someone tells me to follow the following algorithm: 1. Move from the front of the desk to the back of it and go to step 2; 2. Move from the back of the desk to the front and go back to step 1. If I comply, then I will begin circling the desk. Now suppose an earthquake knocks a marble off the desk and after hitting the floor it begins to circle the desk. The marble acts as if it were following the algorithm, but of course it isn’t, while I really am following it.

Because of intentionality, of course. The marble has none. Feser gives several—as in several—other, what should be well known, but which are not, arguments proving, and not just suggesting, that the mechanical picture of our minds is false. He also shows that final causality is necessary to understand or explain what we are.

So what happened? Why were Aristotle and Aquinas abandoned? Nothing more banal than this: “Apart from scholars who specialize in these matters, most academics and other intellectuals, and certainly most journalists and popular writers, simply cannot think about the Middle Ages, Scholasticism, the scientific revolution, and related topics except in terms on the crudest clichés and caricatures.” In other words, laziness and desire the old stuff be wrong.

[T]he rabid anti-Scholasticism of the early moderns was driven less by dispassionate intellectual considerations than by a political agenda: to reorient human life away from the next world and toward this one, and to weaken the rational credentials of religion so as to make this project seem justifiable and inevitable.

I can testify that one can graduate from a PhD program in the sciences at a prestigious university and never, not once, be required to take a philosophy course. There was no expectation that we would even know who Aristotle was. This is especially screwy in my own field of probability applied to physical models because we toss ideas of causality around all the time. Fancy never having to think about what you’re doing! As Mermin said about quantum mechanics: it was “Shut up and calculate.”

But, as Feser says, Aristotle will have his revenge. There is a growing interest in some of us to return to our roots,to discover what we’ve been missing out on, to dispense with “the problem of this” and “the problem of that” in a coherent, sensible, satisfying, and correct way. Of discovering, that is, what is true. The Last Superstition is thus required reading for any scientist who thought they knew what they were talking about when it came to philosophy.

Update I just saw this at Feser’s site. Watch the video. Hilarious. “These are thrilling times.”

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Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last.

Movies I’ll Always Watch (If They’re On)

This is it! Last day of vacation, girls and boys. To honor doing nothing, here is complete fluff: a list of movies that I will always watch. These are not the only movies I watch, nor the only ones I like: just flicks that if they make an appearance on television (really only TCM) I will tune in to, even if I’ve seen them recently.

As a memory aide, I used the well-organized movie site Films 101. I sorted by year and went from 2010 to 1930, glancing at the entries. My list today would not be the same as the one I might have compiled twenty years ago, which would have been more heavily weighted toward science fiction.

I have been honest: every movie I would always watch is on the list, even the bad ones. But my memory is not particularly good, so if somebody reminds me of a classic, I’ll add it. My journey through the years confirmed what I already believed: that movies are growing less and less watchable. That joy and beauty have been replaced with cynicism and ugliness. And we musn’t forget the horrible intrusion of computers, the use of which is inversely proportional to a movie’s timelessness.

These are only in rough order, crudely sub-grouped by actor, director, or genre.

  • Double Indemnity The origin of the anklet parody in Naked Gun (see below).
  • Top Hat
  • Stalag 17 Ach so.
  • Swing Time
  • The Apartment
  • Shall We Dance Pretty much anything with Fred Astaire, really. Especially Holiday Inn or any movie featuring Edward Everett Horton.
  • Adam’s Rib Or many of the other Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn matchups, esp. Desk Set.
  • Springtime in the Rockies If you haven’t seen these early John Payne vehicles, you’re missing out. Like Tin Pan Alley or The Great American Broadcast. Plus, E.E. Horton!
  • Miracle on 34th Street Perfect. Maybe I should put this first.
  • Witness for the Prosecution Billy Wilder tops any list.
  • Laura The best film noir.
  • The Blue Gardenia Maybe the second best.
  • Grand Hotel Soap opera; Wallace Berry at his best.
  • Road to Morocco Really any Hope-Crosby Road flick.
  • Going My Way Really any Bing Crosby movie, even the poor ones.
  • My Favorite Brunette Really most Bob Hope movies; those before, say, 1950. The ones after that don’t travel so well.
  • The Man Who Came to Dinner Monty Woolley. What? You don’t know this one? What a treat!
  • Mr Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse First seen on channel 50 with Bill Kennedy at the movies. Add in any other early Cary Grant movie, esp. those with Irene Dunne.
  • Casablanca
  • The Thing From Another World The original, baby.
  • The Thing Best remake since The Maltese Falcon
  • Big Trouble in Little China I’m still searching for the alley in SF’s Chinatown.
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still I’ve heard they made a remake.
  • War of the Worlds I’ve heard they made a remake.
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • The Big Sleep You get the idea: add Bogart.
  • The Seven Samurai or most early Akira Kurosawa, especially Yojimbo and Ikiru.
  • The Thin Man Any in this series, esp. The Thin Man Goes Home.
  • Libeled Lady Or any other William Powell-Myrna Loy flick. Got a set of these for my birthday once. Love it!
  • Romance on the High Seas Any early Doris Day; especially Teacher’s Pet (Clark Gable) or Love Me or Leave Me (James Cagney).
  • To Be or Not to Be Mel Brooks remake. Jack Benny better on radio.
  • A Night at the Opera You’re supposed to say Duck Soup, but I won’t. I’ll say Horse Feathers instead.
  • Singin’ in the Rain But I always go to the bathroom in the “Gotta Dance” interlude.
  • The Quiet Man Often heard while watching: “Didn’t you just watch that?”
  • Donovan’s Reef The King of the United States of America.
  • Big Jake Your fault, my fault, nobody’s fault. It won’t matter. I’m gonna blow your head off. No matter what else happens, no matter who gets killed I’m gonna blow your head off.
  • The Searchers Add in Rio Bravo, and maybe any other John Wayne movie
  • Buck Privates Yes, or most any Abbot and Costello team-up.
  • The Sound of Music
  • From Here to Eternity
  • Tora, Tora, Tora! Pearl Harbor is an interest
  • Twelve O’Clock High
  • A Shot in the Dark
  • A Christmas Story The Ovaltine secret-decoder gag was first used on the Bing Crosby radio show, St Patrick’s Day 1947, with Margaret O’Brien sending in boxtops.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life And I’m admittin’ it, too.
  • Switching Channels Yes, one of the many remakes of His Girl Friday, which is herewith on the list.
  • Naked Gun! From the Files of Police Squad Cops and women don’t mix. It’s like swallowing a spoonful of Drano. Sure, it’ll clean you out. But it’ll leave you hollow inside.
  • Hot Shots! If you have trouble hitting your objective, your secondary targets are here and here: an accordion factory and a mime school.
  • Jaws
  • Man of the Century I provided a link since most will not have heard of this.

In addition to these, any old B mystery movie or vehicle featuring a big band or musical with Betty Grable or Alice Faye. Also, movies with James Cagney, Jimmy Durante, Uncle Felix or dancing before “choreography” hit, as parodied by Danny Kaye in White Christmas—a movie which should be added to the list.

Your list?

(Your author, incidentally, says, “I’m seventeen! Plus thirty.”)

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