William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Dominicans And Jesuits Battle It Out Over Thomism—Guest Post by John Kelleher

Dominicans butt heads with Jesuits

First, I want to thank Matt for all he does. Not every Statistician to the Stars has risked career and fortune to teach an extraordinary and fruitful revolution in statistics, but he has. Matt is also not afraid to write about other things, like metaphysics, that All The Very Best People Nowadays seem to think are laughable, and don’t pay any attention to, and think we shouldn’t, either. To his credit, Matt disagrees.

But…I am going to present some facts not in dispute, and from them I am going to argue that however useful classical Thomism (or outlines of it from modern proponents such as Edward Feser and Peter Kreeft) may be, we already know that classical Thomism has to be seriously flawed and therefore is not going to be the last word on metaphysics.

I’m going to look under the hood of classical Thomism for a second, and without taking the engine apart, show you one place where it has has plainly ‘gotten stuck’. By ‘getting stuck’ I mean a long-standing dispute within the inquiry that’s never been resolved.

When an inquiry mires down in that sense, then one logical possibility is that reality is being its typical annoying self and prodding a previously-unknown sore spot within the inquiry. Reality is exposing some unresolved incoherence or other deficiency in the theories and assumptions that the inquiry is currently using, even if nobody has yet put their finger on exactly what the specific difficulty is.

So, I can only suggest, I can’t logically prove, that classical Thomism ‘getting stuck’ means that there’s something not quite right about classical Thomism’s fundamental assumptions, theories, and methods. But I can prove that around 1600 AD, about 300 years after St. Thomas’s death, in just the sense I mean, classical Thomism did bog down, and that it has remained at the same place, in all the years since.

The problem at hand was providing within the classical Thomist framework a coherent account of human freedom (and hence and crucially, of each man’s individual moral agency and responsibility), while at the same time providing a similarly coherent account of efficacious grace and Divine Providence.

Two competing camps of Thomists, at the time represented by Jesuits on one side and Dominicans on the other, vehemently opposed one another. And, remarkably, 400 years since the 1600s and counting, the issue has never been satisfactorily resolved within Thomism. You don’t hear a lot about it, but they’re still at odds. You can look it up:

Vast as was the subject of that controversy, its principle question, and the one that gave its name to the whole dispute, concerned the help (auxilia) afforded by grace; while the crucial point was the reconciliation of the efficacy of grace with human freedom.

Finally, after twenty years of discussion public and private, and eighty-five conferences in the presence of the popes, the question was not solved but an end was put to the disputes. The pope’s decree communicated (5 September, 1607) to both Dominicans and Jesuits, allowed each party to defend its own doctrine, enjoined each from censoring or condemning the opposite opinion, and commanded them to await, as loyal sons of the Church, the final decision of the Apostolic See. That decision, however, has not been reached, and both orders, consequently, maintain their respective theories, just as any other theological opinion is held.

Please note that the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia states that the issue has never been resolved. A coherent account, satisfactory to all, that simultaneously honors the reality of human freedom, and hence safeguards the reality of man’s real moral responsibility for his actions, while also respecting the reality of efficacious grace and hence of Divine Providence, has so far not been achieved within classical Thomism, even after all this time.

In 1607, the Pope finally in effect told the disputants to go home, shut up, and make nice; and nothing much has changed since then.

Yes, we might laugh, but c’mon — is human freedom real? is each man truly morally responsible for his actions? is there such a thing as Good? does it all matter? does God really care about us, and is He truly active in this vale of tears? — these are, just possibly, real questions.

My mission is thus not to laugh at the questions themselves, but to point out something that is true but not widely known: classical Thomism really has stalled regarding some matters that bystanders might consider important, and the problem persists, even after all this time.

To be precise, it’s not that some individual Thomist hasn’t resolved the problem to his own satisfaction. That was already the case in 1600. The problem then as now is that these individual ‘resolutions’ have not adequately persuaded other Thomists, who have been able to find what they consider to be substantial flaws in them.

I think that the issues involved: being able to provide a coherent account of human freedom, and hence, of man’s moral responsibility for his actions, while also providing a similarly coherent account of the efficacy of grace and divine Providence, are pretty serious.

And I have directly suggested that classical Thomism has remained static, and on some issues that you or I might consider to be non-trivial, may mean, despite the enthusiasm of modern day proponents of classical Thomism such as Edward Feser and Peter Kreeft, that there’s something not quite right with classical Thomism’s fundamental assumptions and theories, and thus, that it might not be the final word in metaphysics. Or, by extension, in ethics, in philosophy, in theology.

We don’t ourselves have to pinpoint the exact difficulty within classical Thomism to suggest this possibility, either. We don’t have to be the mechanic and know how to fix the problem to look under the hood and observe that something is in fact, broken.

The Most Curious Use Of ‘Only’ You Will Ever See

Let’s begin with a disclaimer: Yours Truly is not a psychologist, nor does he have psychiatric training. Therefore his use of lunatic, insane git, mentally deficient in the highest degree, dangerous submoronic infant and the like might be in error.

Now then: here is the most curious use of the word only you may ever see:

“Piss Christ” is not Mr. Serrano’s only photograph depicting an object immersed in his urine—

Yes, not only has this Serrano submerged a crucifix in a jar of urine, and then lovingly photographed it, but “also replicas of Michelangelo’s ‘Moses,’ Myron’s ‘Discobolus’ and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, as well as a statue of Satan”.

The New York Times, which generously supplied these quotations, went on to say that none of these other objets d’art “have generated as much controversy.”

The story becomes interesting when you learn that these photographs, each the size of a small man, were purposely put on display at the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in New York City. The logical implication is that they therefore were meant to be seen by members of the public, perhaps even purchased and brought home by these same peoples.

What a curiosity!

Now we can all agree that, because of certain genetic or environmental effects, say via the prolonged ingestion of harmful chemicals by himself or by his mother, a man can wake one morning, look reality square in the face and say to it, “Thou art a stranger to me.”

At this point he will exhibit perplexing behavior, such as eating raw spiders, tuning in to MSNBC, or gleefully calling his excretions “art.” Ordinarily, this man would be led into a small room, fed tooth cups of orange juice laced with aspirin and given volumes of P.G. Wodehouse in the hope that he should recover. If his disease should prove incurable, he is at least contained so that he cannot harm himself or others. Yet somehow in this case, Serrano remains at large.

A lunatic is not responsible for his actions. His mental faculties are so diminished that he deserves nothing but our charity and sympathy. We therefore cannot blame poor Serrano when he says of his so-called work, “I just feel I have to stay proud.” We should instead smile patiently and ask, gently, whether he has remembered to take his medications.

Madness is rarely contagious. And this is what is so puzzling. Because it is unlikely that the owners of the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery and its customers who purchased Serrano’s soiled wares have “caught” Serrano’s insanity. Too, it is beyond probability to expect such a large coincidental gathering of the pathologically unhinged. But these people do exist, and thus their, and not Serrano’s, slackwitted behavior demands explanation.

I have a theory. In one word: Inheritance. In two words: Paris Hilton. This infamous young lady was unlucky enough to have inherited the fortunes of her family, whose progenitors created the Hilton hotel chain. She is not insane in any clinical sense, but spending a life bathed in unearned money has allowed her to comport herself in a way not consistent with civilized society.

And there it is, you see. Serrano’s pictures sell for vast sums, the kinds of monies you find being passed by inheritance. There are self-made wealthy people who have of course not inherited, but these people by definition cannot be ignorant because they are out making the stuff they will eventually leave their children. No: it isn’t wealth alone, but its combination with idleness which generates imbecility.

True incorrigible stupidity can only come from having one’s every wish granted by the application of money. This is because real education is hard work which cannot be contracted out. Knowledge of the quadratic equation cannot be had for a fee: it requires effort, which is priceless. Mere money does not make one intelligent, but when it accumulates it is notorious for bamboozling its holders into believing that dollar signs are equivalent to IQ.

Strike that: not just its holders, but others, too. Intelligence diminishes in direct proportion to the perceived adjacency of those in the possession of fortunes. Incidentally, the effects are not usually permanent, and can be erased by simple change of situation.

These and the evident misfortune of an inheritor happening upon the insane and (thus far) un-institutionalized Serrano are all the facts we need to explain the calamity before us.

Update Be sure to read the link (and links therein) kindly provided by YOS.

Men’s Fashion & Style Dos and Don’ts

Fashion: Don’t.1

Just wrong

This outfit is what happens when people watch too much television. Or substitute fashion for style. Everything save this gentleman’s shoes is two sizes too small—and on purpose! It looks like the suit his mother bought him for high school graduation dug out of the closet for his first job interview after college. We know it is an interview because he clearly has no job otherwise he could afford to buy socks. The shoes he evidently had to borrow from his Old Man.

Never, unless you are doing a guest stint with the Blues Brothers or are wearing a tuxedo, have black in your tie. Purple neither. If you must have black, have all black. Black in a tie is depressing, not to mention ugly and cheap looking.

The flat, rectangular belt buckle is also from high school, perhaps left over from his Boy Scout days. Not much wrong with the shirt, except that for a man with a neck like a giraffe, it should have a taller collar. The beard is either Hipster Chic or pure laziness. Either grow the damn thing out and trim it properly or learn to shave!

And did you notice his right hand is missing? Photoshopped into oblivion. It was supposed to be nonchalantly resting in his trouser pocket, but his pants were so tight he couldn’t squeeze it in.

From J. Crew, The “Ludlow Suit” in wool flannel.

Style: Do.

Just right

This an instance of facial hair done properly. This look is not for every man, because not all of us can grow a moustache as luxuriantly thick. But on this young man it is particularly apt, especially since he, too, is obviously on his way to an interview and the moustache gives an air of maturity instead of frivolity as in the example above.

Which man will get the job? If the position is as a staff writer for the New York Times on the Tech beat, of course it is man number one. Another victory of style over fashion (the second man gives the air of not needing a job, and so it likely to secure a better one).

The suit here is classic and never out of place. Adding that “extra breast” turns an ordinary jacket into something twice as dressy. The lapels might, just might, be an inch wider, and the sleeves removed of a shade of extra material: but these trivial “flaws” are a matter of opinion after all. Notice the soft but still structured shoulder, and the—finally!—cinching at the waist. For too long have men been unthinking slaves to the sack suit. Time for a return to shape!

Whenever you see a plain tie, like this one, snap it up. They are surprisingly difficult to find. They are the easiest to match and are a reminder that ties are decorations for our necks and not for our bellies or crotches. Modern ties are long because men often (inexplicably) go jacketless.

Hands in the pockets again, but this time they have been spared the knife. The pocket square is a better match here too.

From Bergdorf Goodman.


1These images appeared as advertisements in the Wall Street Journal; I haven’t a scanner, so I photographed them.

1 Billion To Die By 2030: Global Warming’s Deadly Rampage!

You read that number right, friend. One billion—that’s billion-with-a-Carl-Sagan-B—fresh corpses will pile the streets by 2030. A billion! During these same years, global warming will be among us, hiding, seeking; also lurking. Is this a coincidence? Draw your own conclusions. Go ahead: draw.

Drawn them yet? Then let me give you another alarming statistic, one more frightening than the last! Between now and 2030, two billion—yes, billion again; but doubled, friend; timesed by two—fresh babies will push into view. And don’t forget that this will be the same time period when climate catastrophe starts its ballyhoo in earnest. Coincidence?

If my arithmetic is right—and this is me we’re talking about—there will be a balance of one billion bodies; not dead ones, alive ones. Global warming thus appears to aid fecundity. Conclusion: climate change is good for making babies.

I emphasize that this is my arithmetic. For there are other groups with different math. For example, Reuters reported on a report conducted by the “humanitarian organisation” DARA, which said, “A combined climate-carbon crisis is estimated to claim 100 million lives between now and the end of the next decade.”

DARA is silent on the important question of the number of births, but in their Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2nd Edition they boast climate change is “a leading global cause of death.” And you guessed it: minorities and women are the most “vulnerable.” (Perhaps sweaty white men are able to keep cooler?)

How about that discrepancy in deaths? DARA’s numbers are an order of magnitude cheerier than mine, though theirs are couched in far gloomier language. What gives?

Here is how I calculated my deaths. Every day people die. Lots of them. They have been doing so since our species made its way onto Mother Earth. And this remains true even though many earnest people have tried to “raise awareness” of the various causes of death. From this we learn that raising one’s awareness of a cause does not actually remove that cause. But never mind.

About eight people for every 1,000 hand in their dinner pails yearly, a number which has diminished by half this last century, but will not, because of the human condition, ever fall to zero. Now there are about seven billion of us roving to and fro over this temporary home of ours, and there are 18 years before 2030, numbers which taken together show that about a billion of us won’t live to see Super Bowl LXV.

It is also inescapable that each of those billion souls will have died of something: some by heart attacks, others by cancer, still more by direct and indirect acts of government, etc. Also true is that those who make it to 2031 will also eventually keel over and add tick marks to the columns of causes of mortality. These tidbits may be summarized thusly: he who is born dies. Some live longer, some shorter, but none escape.

DARA says that 100 million funerals in the next eighteen years will be chalked up to climate change. And this might even be right because, as we have just agreed, everybody has to die of something and that something may as well be “climate change.” Plus, DARA’s people are earnest and caring, and earnestness and caringness are all that counts in these kind of calculations.

But DARA also suggests that if “investments” are made—the current favored euphemism for government spending—these 100 million lives will be “saved.” And this is false. No power short of Omnipotence will save these lives, nor can anything save the other 900 million who tickets are already pre-punched.

There is a colloquial sense in which to “save somebody’s life” makes sense (you pull them from the path of a speeding bureaucrat, say). But this always strictly means “to extend somebody’s life so that they die later.” Discussing “saving lives” in the statistical sense is never right, particularly in cases like DARA’s report which is based on models which themselves are cobbled together from a series of assumptions, guesses, maybe-sos, rules-of-thumb, and nobody-said-this-was-wrongs.

We have already seen that, in absence of catastrophic climate change and given historical trends, about a billion people will die by 2030. Similar calculations show that about two billion will be be born: a surplus of one billion. Since DARA’s moral calculus is merely numbers of bodies, to make its case it has to show how its model changes these background rates, including the births. Do they mean 100 million more than the one billion scheduled will die? Or do they mean the cause of death of the 100 million of the billion will be put down to climate change? Or is it some combination? How many of the two billion to be born won’t be? Or will births increase? How many people will live longer because of climate change? Or do they claim that every human must live a shorter life (something that is extraordinarily impossible).

Update The typos inserted by my enemies have been corrected.

Anno Aetheris Scriptori XLVIII

jus soliWhat we see in today’s title the result of a lack of education. Latin nouns have more declensions than Chicago Aldermen have ways for a dead man to vote. I am at sea.

Incidentally, the gentleman who runs Scriptorium suggested a title replacement of in aethere scribo, which has its merits, before arriving at blogere, which is readily grasped though it lacks music.

Anyway, amidst the general gaiety of this happy day, and because I am on the road, there shall be no post, except to recall the words of Pascal:

Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them, and to be unwilling to recognise them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion. We do not like others to deceive us; we do not think it fair that they should be held in higher esteem by us than they deserve; it is not then fair that we should deceive them, and should wish them to esteem us more highly than we deserve.

Thus, when they discover only the imperfections and vices which we really have, it is plain they do us no wrong, since it is not they who cause them; they rather do us good, since they help us to free ourselves from an evil, namely, the ignorance of these imperfections. We ought not to be angry at their knowing our faults and despising us; it is but right that they should know us for what we are, and should despise us, if we are contemptible.

Therefore dear readers, besides the many common sins of man of which I am most guilty, and which are none of your business, I confess to you that I have used p-values publicly and in private, acts which fill me with a burning shame. I beg your forgiveness. It won’t happen again.

There: I feel better.

Ta for now because, like Rumpole warned, my blood alcohol content has sunk to a dangerous low. The series on the Summa Philosophica resumes tomorrow. I hope.

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