William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Reasoning To Belief: Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism — Part II

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

Act and Potential

TLS is not a complete work of theology or philosophy, nor is it intended to be. The answers to All Questions are not found in its pages. Every distinction with a difference is not parsed, every depth is not plumbed. Feser did not, and did not intend to, build a complete theory of anything; he provided just enough material to show his central argument was true and then signed off.

Nor is this a book of religion. You won’t discover why Catholicism is to be preferred to Methodism. There is no discourse on the valuable insights on the nature of God given to us by Buddhists and Muslims. The festival of Obon never makes an appearance. There isn’t the slightest attempt to proselytize. Thus any rebuttal focusing on some Christian in history who has acted badly, or information on another who has acted saintly, is irrelevant.1 The first person to wield these themes in an effort to dispatch Feser has admitted losing the argument.

The argument is this: that there is no dispute between science and classical metaphysics, that you cannot have science without this philosophy, that it is possible to come to a knowledge of God purely through reason and here are some irrefutable arguments, that the universe is not a giant machine nor are the things in it (including us) small machines, that the charges of “wishful thinking”, “rank ignorance”, “pastafarianism”, “believers are stupid (and I’m smart!)” flung about by New Atheists are not just false, not just the opposite of the truth, but self-rebounding.

And so to work.

Realism is the “view that universals, numbers and/or propositions exist objectively, apart from the human mind and distinct from any material or physical features of the world.” Plato’s Theory of Forms is one such view, though not the only, nor the best. For that we turn to Aristotle—“The Philosopher,” as he was known to the Schoolmen—as so many have in the past, and as an increasing number are today, after a long period of shocking neglect.

On the historical slight ushered in by Bacon and others, Feser says, “Abandoning Aristotelianism, as the founders of modern philosophy did, was the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought” (emphasis original).

Just what have we left behind? Much.

Feser is fond of rubber balls: he is forever bouncing or abusing one. In TLS his ball is blue, in Aquinas he changes it to red. This is useful in itself, because it is obvious that a blue rubber ball is potentially a red one because, of course, a blue one could be painted or dyed red. A blue ball is just as obviously actually blue.

In this simple example are two concepts central to understanding Aristotle’s metaphysics: actuality and potentiality. The actual rubber ball may potentially be a gooey mess, but it is not this potential to be gooey which causes the ball to melt; something external (like heat) to the potential must act on the ball and turn the potential into a new actuality. Act turns potential to actuality.

From these observations is derived Aristotle’s dictum that whatever is moved is moved by another, which in modern phraseology is better put as whatever is changed is changed by another, a slicker way to say that a potential cannot act. A potential has to be a potential for something actual, too; only something actual can be something else potentially. There cannot be a thing which is purely potential and is nothing actually. But there can be things which are actual and which have potentialities. And it even so that there is a thing which is purely actual with no potentiality.

Other examples, more well known: a statue is potentially in a block of marble, but it takes the act of a sculptor to bring it out. A block of wood is potentially a table, but it takes the act of a carpenter to make it so. But I think it wise Feser did not emphasize these old saws because they too quickly bring to mind the idea of a designing intelligence which is rarely needed, especially in the case of rubber balls. Too see this: a blue rubber ball dropped from a soaring aeroplane at 10,000 feet is potentially at 0 feet, but it is not the potentially 0 feet which acts on the ball, it is something external.

What else can the ball potentially be? Well, it can’t be a walrus. For one thing, there isn’t enough mass or energy in a blue rubber ball that can, through the physical means known to us, be changed into a walrus. We can of course imagine the ball morphing into a living, two-ton tusked beat, say via a magical spell, but then we have left reality for the world of fantasy. It is also not that something cannot be added to the ball, like in the case of red paint turning a blue ball red, but that there is no way even adding the right amount of mass or energy the ball can change.

So far there is nothing controversial, very little which could act on your potential belief in God and make it into an actual belief in God. But that’s coming.

Note I am sorry for the brevity of this installment, which probably has more than its usual share of typos. But I am traveling and staying in a motel which has lost its internet connection, and so I’m finishing this post on my portable radiophone. My cell abuts the 24-hour laundry room and so I’m also operating on less sleep.

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


1Note: all comments about Feser’s tone or about the personalities of the New Atheists will be removed to Part I of this series. A related dodge—which is always obvious—is to say, “Feser’s arguments stink” and then to leave without saying exactly, precisely, logically why. However, you’re welcome to use this ploy if you think that, just this once, it will work. The comment by “Rob” at the top illustrates this technique.

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

USA Homicide Rates: 1950-2010; By Race And Sex

How has the homicide rate changed through time? The Bureau of Justice Statistics of our great government compiles statistics on just this kind of thing.

This data arises from the report “Homicide Trends in United States” by Erica Smith and Alexia Cooper, from their table “Number of homicide victims, 1950-2010.”

This first chart is the rate per 100,000 population. Note that the early 1980s and of course the late 2000s were period of recessions.

Homicide rates per 100,000

Let the theories fly!

The next two figures break down the rate by Whites and Blacks. Note that the scale changes from picture to picture (the White rate is about a tenth of the Black rate). There are two lines in each: the red line shows the homicide rates (the “Killed”). The black line shows rate that each group was the assailant (the “Killers”).

Homicide rates per 100,000 for Whites

Whites killed and are killed by about the same, and falling, rate.

Homicide rate per 100,000 for Blacks

Blacks kill at higher rates than they are killed. Interestingly, the difference in the killer/killed rate appears roughly constant for most years, and narrowing slightly in recent years.

Finally, the same two plots for Males and Females (note the scale change again; Males are about five times higher).

Homicide rates per 100,000 for Males

Males have either a victim deficit or they are killing at rates higher than one would expect if there were no differences in sex.

Homicide rates per 100,000 for Females

After looking at the Female data, we conclude there is a discrepancy in sex: perhaps a government program can address this.


This post was inspired by my friend Charlie Martin who gave me the link for “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008“. But that website appears down, perhaps slain by too many hits?

Reasoning To Belief: Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism — Part I

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

This begins a series of posts reviewing Ed (if I may call him that; for all I know he goes by the more elegant Edward) Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. (The posts won’t be contiguous.) We’ll also make use of Feser’s Aquinas, his Theory of Mind, and of his paper “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,”1 which contains a tight, crystalline summary of Aquinas’s Five Ways.

Every atheist must read this book. Every atheist who is sincerely committed to his belief, that is. Casual atheists who would rather stick with unproven, but comforting, orthodoxies had best keep away. Because this book will be rough on them. Perhaps, some claim, too rough for a book from a Christian.

It is well to dispense with certain irrelevant matters immediately. Feser gives us a manly Christianity, in muscular language. His words oft have the tone of a teacher who is exasperated by students who have, yet again, not done their homework. The exasperation is justifiable. “Aquinas,” he tells us, “as is well known, always painstakingly considered all opposing arguments, and always made a point of attacking an opponent’s position at it strongest point.” Yet most of Aquinas’s modern-day opponents do not consider him at all. Or they gleefully poke at the remnants of a straw effigy theologians set fire to long ago, all the while congratulating themselves on their brilliance.

This does not compute for Feser, who does not suffer (arrogant) fools well—or at all. This perplexes some readers who undoubtedly expect theists to be soft-spoken, meek, and humble to the point of willing to concede miles to gain an inch. Feser is more of a theological Patton: he is advancing, always advancing, and is not interested in holding on to anything except the enemy’s territory. This stance has startled some reviewers. Typical is the (self-named) Unpublishable Philosopher who ignores the meat of the book and whines about “ad hominems.”

Now if a man, a theist, says, “Richard Dawkins is a jackass and here is a proof showing his attacks on God’s existence fail utterly” and a second man, an atheist, is interested in whether this proof is valid, then it is irrelevant to the proof that the theist calls Dawkins a jackass—unless that statement forms part of the proof. Which in Feser’s book, which is loaded with similar phrases, such statements do not. (Feser nowhere uses the word jackass.)

However, if the atheistic Dawkins fan hears the theist, all that penetrates through to his ossicles is jackass. The word lodges deep in his auditory canal and blocks further entrance: the proof goes unheard, or it is heard but badly distorted. And this is so—it is an empirical and not a philosophical question—whether Dawkins is a jackass. The proof is forgotten and the argument turns to whether the theist is himself a jackass for claiming Dawkins is; or if he is not a jackass, then whether he is a good Christian because (the atheist once read) good Christians don’t call people jackasses, even if their targets demonstrably are jackasses, or about the use of the ad hominem, etc. Then comes the final fallacy which says that because somebody who claims to be a Christian does an unChristian deed, Christianity must be false or unworthy of study. Or that Feser’s book needn’t be taken seriously.

Feser does spend a fraction of his time upbraiding his enemies for not heeding their lessons, and he isn’t shy about publicizing the “F”s he hands out. He says that Dawkins and Dennett are “ignoramuses” because of their “embarrassingly ill-informed dismissals” of proofs of God’s existence. He calls the work of Sam Harris a “disgusting spectacle.” He says that views held by eliminative materialists “are titillating and have, for obvious reasons, an emotional appeal for adolescents of all ages. But from a rational point of view, they are completely worthless; as David Stove once said, at the end of the day their proponents have little more to offer in their defense than ‘shit-eating grins.”

He says that “smugness is half the fun of being a liberal (the other half being the tearing down of everything one’s ancestors, and one’s betters generally, worked so hard to build).” He claims the “New Atheist’s pretense that a religious view of the world can only ever be the result of wishful thinking rather than objective rational argumentation is thereby exposed as a falsehood, the product, if not of willful deception, at least of inexcusable ignorance”. “No doubt”, says Feser, a New Atheist responding to his book will be “sputtering some response” but there is also no doubt that “the response will be superficial, ill-informed, and dogmatic, long on attitude and short on understanding.”

Dawkins’s attempts to counter the Unmoved Mover argument is a “serious lapse in scholarly competence and/or intellectual integrity”. Of the now-dead Hitchens and the other prominent New Atheists he says that one “gets the impression that the bulk of their education in Christian theology consisted of reading Elmer Gantry…supplemented with a viewing of Inherit the Wind“.

Well, gasp. Keep in mind, though, that these are all questions of fact, not metaphysics. If Feser can prove them—I say he can—this is fine. But if not, it does not imply he cannot prove his philosophy.

Warning Note: Many of the arguments to come, especially about the nature of causality, will be unfamiliar to us, and were once to Yours Truly, who was raised in the Scientific Way. If any of my summaries are suspect, defer to the book. It is vastly more probable that I have screwed it up than has Feser.

Warning Prediction: you may think you have discovered a shiny new, never-thought-of-before aha-zinger that guts classical metaphysics, leaving nothing but a greasy spot, but the chance of this is low. Philosophers have been gnawing away at these questions for hundreds to thousands of years. So while you may deliver us an argument which allows you to dismiss classical metaphysics, an argument which none of us here at the humble WMBriggs.com recognize for what it is (stale fish), this does not imply your discovery is unique, persuasive, or valid. The burden is on you to search the authorities, pro and con, and definitively prove your claim.

So today—and today only—let’s argue about whether Feser should or should not have called Dennett an ignoramus, whether Feser’s empirical claims about this or that political question are right or wrong, whether the pugilistic tone had better been left out of the book, etc., etc. Get it out of our system. Get it off your chest. Adopt the ton supérieur and educate us on just what the ad hominem is and why it’s use is discouraged. Because next time we start in on the arguments themselves and we can’t be distracted by irrelevancies.

Update To newcomers unused to our ways: swearing, threats, and other idiotic behavior is not allowed. All comments which are abusive will be summarily censored.

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


1American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 85, no. 2 (2011).

Chick-fil-A And Bigotry: One Aspect Of What Marriage Is

“Chick-Fil-A Shattered Sales Records On ‘Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day'” so reads the headline at Business Insider.

Many are not so happy about this. In a unintentionally hilarious video (especially when he points to a distant group of young people and comments on them), the CFO of Vante—now ex-CFO—berates a young woman working at Chick-fil-A and calls the company a “hateful” corporation.

An employee who self-labels herself as a “closeted gay woman” wrote in the Daily Beast, “Customers sang ‘God Bless America’ in the dining room. They vocalized their support for ‘family values’ in a way that made me want to vomit.” And don’t miss the interesting argument of this young woman.

Many other are saying that those who oppose gay “marriage” are “bigots.” This is a false charge and (at least) based on a misunderstanding of what marriage is.

My dear readers, marriage is not a contract between two people. It is an understanding between two people and society. And not just the society of the United States. Marriage is an understanding between two people and everybody else.

This is easy to see. Except in rare instances, a man and woman who marry do not sign a contract with one another. At best, they fill out a form which informs their local government of the union. And this is only necessary because of certain housekeeping matters, such as tax, visitation rights and the like, that differ by locality the world over, and differ in a locality by time. But the pair are not married in their eyes, or ours, by a civil contract. They commit to one another; they swear an oath; they promise before God; they unite in love.

Consider: when this pair, now married, travels far from their homes, they are not required to prove their marriage by document. The custom and naturalness of the bonding and their word of it are proof enough of the claim of marriage. Documents are only required when the couple want to make themselves subject to the housekeeping matters of the new locality.

When a married couple encounter others, here or abroad, they expect to be treated as a married couple, in virtue of the oath they swore. This is because the couple expects others will honor the understanding that a man and woman who mate are a couple. However, if it becomes known that the two people have not made the marriage oath (“We’re just living together”) then everybody treats this non-pair, now just two separate people, in a different way, even if this treatment is only a subtle change.

What those who scream “Bigot!” are asking is thus not to be allowed to join together in pairs (or in groups, etc.), because that is already allowed. What they are asking is that everybody else, especially here in the United States, but also abroad, change their behavior. Despite suffering from other flaws, this vacates the common argument given that “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry somebody gay.” The change in the definition of marriage is not only a difference in the kind of two people it joins, but it must also change the way society (every society) and the couple interact. Supporters are thus not asking for the right to join, but are asking the government to force everybody else in society who don’t support gay “marriage” to change their behavior.

Now many, the majority as it stands, in the USA, a certainly the majority of the rest of the world, have a natural law or a religious or other philosophical and theological understanding of what marriage is. This means that those who hold these views, if gay “marriage” is legalized, will be forced to either reject those views or to not voice them or to not act on them in certain situations. Of course, those that actually reject their philosophy will be small in number. The majority will continue to hold their view. Legalized gay “marriage” may force these folks to change their bookkeeping behavior, but it cannot change their fundamental behavior.

To these people, a document from the government does not make a marriage, and they will not (at least internally) treat it as such, no matter how much this is desired. The victory won in courts will not translate to a moral victory. It will also not translate to all those other places in the world which will continue to hold to tradition.

Question About Non-Normal Distributions

Thanks to everybody who sent in links, story tips, and suggestions. Because of my recent travel and pressures of work, I’m (again) way behind in answering these. I do appreciate you’re taking the effort to send these in, but sometimes it takes me quite a while to get to them. I need a secretary!

First I enjoy your site. I have a technical education (engineering) but was never required to develop an in depth understanding of statistic.

I tend to be a natural skeptic of almost all things. One of my “hobbies” is following “bad science”. It seems that this is more common than most people realize, especially in medical, economic, psychology, and sociology. (All systems that are non-linear and controlled by large numbers of variables.) I think climate falls into this category.

I don’t expect “personal” response to this, but perhaps you could address it on your site someday.

I once read story where a noted hydrologist who was being honored at MIT, was summarizing some of his research and he mentioned this…”precipitation was not a normal distribution”. It has fat tails. (That may be why we always complain that that it raining too much or too little….because rain fall is seldom average.)

My question is this, when a phenomenon is not a normal distribution, and assumed to be so, how could this affect the analysis?

Precipitation does not “have” a normal distribution. Temperature does not “have” a normal distribution. No thing “has” a normal distributed. Thus it always a mistake to say, for example, “precipitation is normally distributed” or a mistake to say “temperature is normally distributed.” Just as it is always wrong to say, “X is normally distributed” where X is some observable thing.

What we really have are actual values of precipitation, actual values of temperature, actual measurements of some X. Now, we can go back in time and collect these actual values, say for precip, and plot these. Some of these values will be low, more will be in some middle range, and a few will be high. A histogram of these values might even looked vaguely “bell-shaped”.

But no matter how close this histogram of actual values resembles the curve of a normal distribution, precipitation is still not normally distributed. Nothing is.

What is proper to say, and must be understood before we can tackle your main question, is that our uncertainty in precipitation is quantified by a normal distribution. Saying instead, and wrongly, that precipitation is normally distribution leads to the mortal sin of reification. This is when we substitute a model for reality, and come to believe the unreality more than in the truth.

Normal distributions can be used to model our uncertainty in precipitation. To the extent these modeled predictions of a normal are accurate they can be useful. But in no sense is the model—this uncertainty model—the reality.

Now it will often be the case when quantifying our uncertainty in some X with a normal that the predictions are not useful, especially for large or small values of the X. For example, the normal model may say there is a 5% chance that X will be larger than Y, where Y is some large number that takes our fancy. But if we look back at these predictions we see that Y or larger occurs (for example) 10% of the time. This means the normal model is under-predicting the chance of large values.

There are other models of uncertainty for X we can use, perhaps an extreme value distribution (EVD). The EVD model may say that there is a 9% chance that X will be larger than Y. Then, to the extent that these predictions matter to you—perhaps you are betting stocks or making other decisions based on these predictions—then you’d rather go with a model which better represents the actual uncertainty. But it would be just as wrong to say that X is EV distributed.

The central limit theorem (there are many versions) says that certain functions of X will in the long run “go” or converge to a normal distribution. Two things. One: it is still only uncertainty in these functions which converges to normal. Two: we recall Keynes who rightly said “in the long run we shall all be dead.”

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