William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Statistical Follies and Epidemiology: Video

A video by a man not quite raving, not as amusing as you would hope, and with an embarrassing, horribly placed pants wrinkle. Ah, linen.

He has some good points to make, but tends to ramble. One has the idea that he did not practice beforehand. His jokes don’t always hit the mark. Perhaps he contents himself with the truism that nobody bats 1.000. And why, oh why!, could he have not buttoned his damn jacket!

I think he would look better, or at least more dangerous, with a moustache, but certain Powers That Be have nixed that idea. What do you think?

Points in his favor: he did not use a pointer. He waved his arms about in so vigorous a fashion as to create a refreshing breeze for his captive audience. He went under his allotted time; always a blessing. He obviously has a great haircut.

Overall: solid gentleman’s C.


Don’t forget the Presidential Voting Study. Please vote now if you haven’t already, and please also pass this on to your progressive friends.

Not To Be Cannot Answer To Be: The Beautiful Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas — Guest Post by Rank Sophist

What does it mean to be? As soon as we hear someone ask this question, we become suspicious. “Is this guy a pseudo-intellectual,” we wonder, “or is he trying to sell something?” But it is a legitimate question. We may ask it without the intention of signing a book deal; without being reduced to New Age babble. In this post, I hope to show that the answer to this question, far from being flighty nonsense or academic preening, is in fact subtle, intuitive and, in my opinion, truly beautiful.

To achieve this goal, I will leverage the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Briggs, with his excellent series on Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition, has already broken the ice on the subject of Aquinas; and I will use his posts as a foundation for my case here. Skeptics of Aquinas’s general framework likely will not be won over by this article. However, I’d like to invite even those critics to consider the following material, if not on logical terms, then at least on the basis of sheer aesthetic power.

As Professor Briggs has written, Aristotle saw the world in terms of “actuality” and “potentiality”. Consider: we have a glass of water that sits actually full and potentially empty. Another actual entity barges in to this scene—a stray bulldozer, perhaps, entering through the wall—, and the glass is knocked over, spilling its contents. Thus, the glass’s potential emptiness becomes actual emptiness. Very simple. Aquinas, though, was not satisfied. While he agreed that the world was divided into actuality and potentiality, he thought that something was missing: an explanation of the existence of either state.

Aristotle could not answer this question. For him, actuality was synonymous with existence. Importantly, Aristotle stated that form, when it actualized matter, created an entity–such as our glass of water. (See this earlier post by Professor Briggs for more information on forms.) Aquinas countered that we may understand a form apart from matter: we may even contemplate the forms of non-existent entities (De ente Ch. 4). Consider: in the scene above, the glass of water does not really exist. We can understand what the glass is, but this does not tell us that the glass is–that it exists. Indeed, no such glass of water does exist. So, the difference between a real glass and our concept of a glass must be that the former, quite simply, exists.

This means that existence (“that-ness”) is higher than identity (“what-ness”), and higher than any distinction between actuality and potentiality. In order for an entity to be actual or potential, it must simply be, full stop. In basic terms: existence represents the is both in the sentence “the glass is actually full” and in the sentence “the glass is potentially empty” (Summa contra Gentiles B. I, Chap. XII). Without the is, there is no identity (the glass), nor any state in which that identity finds itself. Existence is so fundamental that it has no opposite, unlike actuality and potentiality. To have existence is to be; to lack existence is to be wiped from the slate. The only opposite to existence is non-existence, which isn’t anything at all.

This raises a further question, though. If the existence of the glass is higher than its identity, then where does its existence come from? Nothing like us–entities with identities–could provide existence, since existence is prior to identity. If something with an identity caused existence, then it too would require a cause of its existence, and a vicious regress would begin. Since there is nothing higher than existence, we are left to conclude that the existence of the glass, and of everything else, comes from existence itself. What does this mean? Isn’t this nonsense? Not exactly. If there was a “being” whose identity was the same as its existence, a “being” who was nothing other than its own existence, then it would be existence itself. This might sound vaguely familiar. Aquinas sure thought so.

13. And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?

14. And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

Aquinas uses this passage (Exodus 3:13-14) to support his conclusion that “existence itself” (“he who is”, “ipsum esse subsistens“) must necessarily be God. Existence itself would be free of any restriction, lacking in all composition, unreliant on anything else; and it would therefore be infinite. Further, it would be the source of every attribute that Aquinas predicates of existence in general: truth, goodness, nobility and beauty. But existence itself would not “be beautiful”, for instance, as if its beauty was a part of it. It would be beauty itself. And that’s not all: its beauty would be identical to its goodness, which would be identical to its truth, which would be identical to its very existence. Everything that existence itself is, it is.

Nothing can be added to or subtracted from existence itself—from God. He is the absolute fullness of all being, and He would not change or gain anything by creating things other than Himself. But He did anyway. As Aquinas tells us, God gives existence—gives his own being—to the created order. Again, though: this doesn’t change Him at all. He is our being, but we are not His being. When God grants something existence, what Aquinas calls “creation” occurs, and it’s always ex nihilo. (Recall that the opposite of existence is nothing at all.) Aquinas also makes it clear that God must at all times sustain every single thing that exists. Existence does not “stick”: it cannot ever be possessed by us. Rather, it is a gift that is quite literally infinite in magnitude.

However, God, despite being immanent in every aspect of creation, is nonetheless unknowable and unlike us. In order for something other than God to exist, it must be less than existence itself: its identity must be separate from its existence. This means that nothing we know really “exists” in the same sense as God. He is so radically different from us that we may only describe him via shaky analogy. An “infinite distance”, in Aquinas’s words, separates us from him. Yet, God is present everywhere, and everything beautiful, true and so forth provides a hint at the divine beauty and truth. God, then, is both utterly immanent and infinitely transcendent. To the rancor of certain Thomists, I would describe this as a form of panentheism.

One question remains: is it possible to know this indescribable God? Although we know that He exists, and although He is in some sense all around us, is it possible for us to see Him face to face? Yes; but discursive logic won’t get us there. At best, it tells us that He exists. To see God in Himself is the domain of supra-rational, intuitive contemplation, which was called intellectus by the ancients (Ratio and Intellectus). In this life, it is only the mystics who see God directly. Perhaps such a vision was the reason why Aquinas, near the end of his life, after an unnamed experience that he described to no one, shocked Reginald of Piperno by declaring that “all that I have written seems like straw to me.”

Regular readers will be familiar with Rank Sophist, a writer from these United States. Authors who have different ontological views, and can string pairs of readable sentences together, are welcome to submit rebuttals.

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.


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.

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