William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 394 of 540

“Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change” Lovelock

James Lovelock knows of what he speaks: personal experience allows him to say that a lot of humans aren’t that bright.

But Lovelock forgets that while there are many—half!—who are below average on the IQ scale, it takes an academic to say something really stupid.

Take the Gaia hypothesis—now elevated to “theory”—Lovelock’s creation. Life forms a complex web of interactions, Lovelock says. Has anyone in all of history ever disagreed with that? It is trivially true, and noticing it is not the least worthy of praise. Yet several grant-awarding agencies still gave Lovelock a hearty pat on the back after he gave that banal observation a cute name.

James Lovelock and his pal Gaia

And a healthy dose of pre-civilized mysticism, without which Gaia theory would never have caught on. The Earth itself is “alive”; it is one self-regulating organism, says our sage. In which, Gaiaists (Gaiaers? Gaiaphytes?) say, humans are a “cancer” that ma Earth would like to rid itself of. Etc., etc.

Since it is Lovelock’s comment about human ignorance that is our subject today, it is well to point out that Lovelock himself lacks the mental capacity to see the inconsistencies in his theory, despite being given plenty of time to notice them, and being given the able assistance of many critics.

Take the statement “humans are too stupid to take care of themselves.” This implies that Lovelock has somehow discovered a way to become non-human. By which I mean, he has found a way to circumvent his humanity, to rise above it. He has found Enlightenment! He is Earth’s Prophet!

There is no avoiding this simple conclusion. Lovelock must not be one of us. How else can he know that we “[h]umans on the Earth behave in some ways like a pathogenic micro-organism, or like the cells of a tumor or neoplasm.” Gaia must have told him. He could not have figured it out as a human because, as a human, he would be part of the organism.

For example, the heart doesn’t know it’s a heart. It doesn’t even know it’s a mass of muscle tissue. It doesn’t know anything. It’s just one piece of a body. And it cannot decide whether the body would be better off without it. Neither can a cancer cell. It, too, is just mindless tissue. In order to judge it harmful, we have to be above it, to be something greater than cancer.

Now, it is logically possible that Lovelock has become something greater than human. The universe, as it has been said, operates in a mysterious way. He might be the key to our future. It is also logically possible that the Gaia theory is true and that we human beings are a cancer.

But if so, Gaia is one sick planet. She’s as cancer-prone as a four-pack-a-day smoker. Tumorous species are regularly cropping up, and just as regularly being purged from the body Earth. And talk about fickle? How about the radical cosmetic surgery Gaia did to herself 250-million years ago? The old Permian look was out; Triassic was in. So she ruthlessly carved out 90% of her own species! This was way before George W. Bush was elected to any office.

Think I’m joking? Prophet Lovelock himself wrote The Revenge of Gaia. Although it sounds like something that would have ran on channel 50 during Monster-Movie week, it is instead a book which lovingly details how our Earth goddess will pick us humans off, one by one. John: “I think I just saw the Earth move.” Sally: “Don’t be silly. We’re invincible.”

But I’ll tell you what. I agree with Lovelock about one thing. Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change. The climate will change and there is nothing we can do about it.

Forget that we’re powerless to quiet Earth’s orbital variations, or to quell the as-yet unknown cycles of old Sol, the very fact of our existence is enough to change the climate. No amount of intelligence can change this. Every breath we take, or movement we make alters the climate. Not by much, and a lot less than the sun does even when it isn’t trying. But alter it we do.

So what? Do I win an award for this commonplace observation? All I have to do is name it and success is mine! Titles and catchy names aren’t my specialty, unfortunately, so the floor is now open for suggestions.

It’s national Pass On The Briggs month here at wmbriggs.com. If your interpretation of this phrase is on the generous side, email a link of this page to a friend who hasn’t been here before. The best kind of friend is one who has need of a statistician and who has a lot of money.

What Do Philosophers Believe? Survey: Part II

Read Part I.

  1. Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism? 43% went with externalism, about 26% with internalism. It is impossible to write about this without sounding goofy or repetitive. Briefly, internalism means you know why you know something—and you know why you know why you know something. Externalism means something exterior to you causes the things that happen to you exterior to you are actually exterior to you. That straight? Let’s go with externalism because “how” questions are impossible to answer. That is, you can’t answer how something that is necessarily true can be true, but you can know it is true.
  2. External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism? Idealism is the belief that everything that exists is just thought; that there is no external reality, but there are minds that think things, and that thought is existence. If you remember anything about Bishop Berkeley, then you will remember idealism. About 4% of philosophers ignore Dr Johnson’s sore toe and still hold this view.

    Skepticism is what I call an academic belief (we meet another shortly): only academics pretend to believe these. I say “pretend” because nobody really holds these beliefs, and if they say they do they are lying or insane. Skepticism is the belief that nothing exists. 5% of the academic philosophers actually said they agreed with this. But how did these 5% even know they were answering a survey?

    Realism is the belief that an external world, independent of human belief, exists. I am happy to report that about 82% agreed with this.

  3. Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will? “No free will” is another of those academic beliefs (see the survey notes for term definitions). That is, nobody, even those who hold that we have no free will, actually believes we have no free will. I think most of the astonishing 12% who say there is no free will do so because they have not found a way to reconcile determinism (each effect has a cause) with free will. They reason that the universe is marching mechanically along, each effect becoming a cause for another effect, and thus they cannot find room for willed actions. But in doing this, these folks have forgotten an even more fundamental philosophical argument: just because you can’t think of an explanation for a thing, doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.

    You’ll also notice that those who argue against free will tend to do so to excuse people’s bad behavior. “The criminal must be let go, judge, because he had no free will!” They forget, when they make that asinine argument, that the judge can counter, “I have no choice but to incarcerate your mascot.”

    Compatibilism (79%) is the idea that free will is compatible with determinism; a secular Calvinism, if you like. Libertarianism (14%) in this sense means acting with a free will in the absence of determinism. It’s not clear—nobody knows how—determinism can sometimes shut itself off to allow free will, but libertarians believe that it can. I lean towards a mix of Searle (the mind is not a computer) and Penrose (quantum mechanics does not help you free yourself from determinism), here; that is, towards libetarianism.

    No, I cannot explain how we have free will in the face of determinism. But that does not mean that free will doesn’t exist, because I have knowledge that it does. Think of it this way: a Berkeley High School graduate will take a car ride and know he gets from A to B without having a clue how the engine works. Yet he knows he got from A to B. So traveling by car is true, but how it is true, he doesn’t know.

  4. God: theism or atheism? 73% went with atheism, about 15% with theism. This, of course, is the question. What’s most interesting about it, academically speaking, is that arguments for atheism usually consist of arguments against theism.

    I mean, a philosopher will triumphantly announce a new line of thought which, say, invalidates the ontological argument (a popular attempt at proving God’s existence), and then say, to himself only, “Well, that’s that. Since I can’t accept any of the arguments that prove God’s existence, then God must not exist. Plus, look at my fancy new smart phone, built on the laws of science. Also, I don’t need God to explain life. Of course, most of my colleagues are atheists, and I don’t want to seem a bore.” He thus sides with atheism.

    But, I need hardly add, that an argument showing the invalidity of the ontological argument is not logically equivalent to disproving God’s existence. Philosophers know that, of course, which is why they keep their reasoning to themselves.

    I have no new arguments to offer on this question, but consider this. Since all our knowledge is built on faith (see yesterday’s point #1), it is not inconceivable to suppose that knowledge of the question must necessarily rest on faith. (The Christian religion believes that.) Naturally, I can offer no proof.

In there is still interest, there are more great questions left. Like “Logic: classical or non-classical?” Classical, of course.

Read Part I.

It’s national Pass On The Briggs month here at wmbriggs.com. If your interpretation of this phrase is on the generous side, email a link of this page to a friend who hasn’t been here before. The best kind of friend is one who has need of a statistician and who has a lot of money.

What Do Philosophers Believe? Survey: Part I

What are the answers to The Big Questions? A survey was taken to discover what professional philosophers thought. We’ll have fun going through the questions and answers.

The results are, for no reason I can discern, presented in a different order than on the survey itself. I’ll follow the results page’s order. I group all “accepts” and “leans towards accepting” as saying “yes”, and similarly for “no”. For most questions, about 80% of philosophers answered “yes” or “no”, and about 20% said something else, like “Skip” or “I reject both.” This will be clear below.

  1. A priori knowledge: yes or no? 71% were inclined to say yes, 18% no. A priori knowledge are those things we know without empirical evidence. Logical probability hinges on the existences of a priori knowledge. In fact, all subjects do. Mathematics does: axioms and axiomatic rules are prime examples of facts that are accepted without proof. Since all that we eventually know rests on a base of what we cannot prove but must accept, you can say that our lives are based on faith.
  2. Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism? About 40% were inclined towards platonism, 40% towards nominalism. Individual pencils surely exist, but some are fat, others skinny. Some are short, other long. Yet we all know a pencil when we see it. Does an idealized form of “pencil” exist somewhere outside the universe, apart from the physical world, a form so pure that all actual pencils know it as their father? The “pencil” exists as an abstract object, along with “17.2” and other “numbers”, and the pure forms of all other things and thoughts. If you say so, you are a platonist (small ‘p’ because it’s not clear Plato himself was a platonist).

    If you disagree and say that there are no abstract objects such as “pencil” and “17.2”, you are one kind of nominalist, one that probably accepts universals. A thing is a universal only if it can be instantiated by more than one entity, where “instantiated” means brought into existence. If a thing cannot be instantiated by more than one entity, it is a particular. So, some say redness is a universal because red things are often instantiated: redness meets our test. But where does redness exist? Outside the universe as a pure form?

    Or is redness merely a definition of what happens between two actual, physical entities? I think something like this is true.

  3. Aesthetic value: objective or subjective? Take any blank piece of paper and any (real, instantiated) sharpened pencil. Hold the pencil to the paper, close your eyes, and in less than two minutes draw a picture of, say, the Last Supper; then open your eyes. Is your artwork beautiful? Is it as beautiful as da Vinci’s?

    If you hesitated for more than a microsecond to say “No!” to either question, then you are a subjectivist, along with 45% of academic philosophers. That set argues that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder and is nowhere else. This attitude might be what accounts for a lot of what passes for “art” today.

    But 41% of philosophers say that beauty can be objectively defined, even if we fail to define something as beautiful in a particular circumstance. Objectivists do not say that subjectivity has no role—as subjectivists do say objectivity has none—but they do insist that one thing can be more beautiful than another. As one piece of music can be more beautiful than another. For example, an objectivist would say the Beatles are what Mozart scrapped off his boot.

    I say objectivity is correct, but that does not necessarily mean that “beauty” is a platonic ideal. It could be that beauty is objective because what is beautiful conforms to something innate in our biology. Beauty, therefore, might not be unique but would exist is a narrow range.

  4. Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no? 65% said yes, 27% no. How do you know the sentence “All bachelors are unmarried” is true? Because you know that a bachelor means a man who is not married. This kind of sentence is analytic. Take the sentence: “Many bachelors are happy.” You can’t know it’s true by examining the definition of the words. Its truth could be determined externally. This kind of sentence is known as synthetic. The division was named by Kant; obviously, not all philosophers accept that such a division exists.

    The subject is complicated, but very briefly: some believe that we know things via intuition. But others say that since deeply held beliefs have been shown to be wrong before, intuition cannot be trusted. However, because intuition has been wrong before, it does not follow that it is always wrong.

    Actually, I don’t see this question as much different than the first.

Tomorrow: free will, is there an external world?, and the existence of God.

This article was inspired by Arts & Letters Daily, which linked to Intelligent Life and the article “What Do Philosophers Know?” by Anthony Gottlieb.

It’s national Pass On The Briggs month here at wmbriggs.com. If your interpretation of this phrase is on the generous side, email a link of this page to a friend who hasn’t been here before. The best kind of friend is one who has need of a statistician and who has a lot of money.

Amish Romance Meets Teen Vampire Fiction

In a Books-A-Million in Lakeland, Florida I happened down an entire row, yards and yards long, of Amish Romances, a genre I had heard of but scarcely believed existed. Each book featured a bonneted woman staring pensively into the middle distance, her face hovering over a farm on which a horse and buggy are seen driving away.

But to get to that row, I had to pass through an aisle of Teen Fiction—hundreds more titles, each evidently staring a vampire-as-superhero-slash-seducer, Twilight style.

As I thought about the popularity of all these books, it hit me: a new genre, which must be a publishing sensation.

Vampire Amish!

And so I preview for you today, the opening scene of my forthcoming novel: Lancaster County’s Dark Secret.


Jacob Burkholder glanced at his schedule and double-checked the room number for his first period Chemistry class. The teacher was Mister Harding, who, rumor had it, was Harrisburg High’s easiest ‘A’.

Jacob needed a soft class because this was his first semester in an actual, public school. One that was more than just a single room and shared by children of all ages, that is.

This was because young Jacob was Amish. He was sixteen, out living among the English on his rumspringa, the time of youthful rebellion where Amish young men and women decide if they want to remain part of the fold or forever leave it behind. Whether they would accept the Baptism or renounce the Order and be forever sworn to secrecy.

Jacob knew he would soon have to make the choice. He was thinking about this intently, so distracted that he walked right past his room and into an open locker door.

“Hey, look out, freak” said a burly jock named John Prangle, pushing Jacob against the wall. Prangle’s three friends laughed. “Learn to watch where you’re going. You trip on these clothes of yours?” He grabbed Jacob’s shirt. “What’d you do, make this yourself? Stylish.” He laughed and the four went into the room.

Steady, Jacob thought to himself. Let it go. He knew even though he had not yet had the Baptism that a flick of his wrist would have sent Prangle sprawling to the floor. But then they would know. The Order would know. They would somehow find out. They always did.

He let the moment pass, but in his anger he had unknowingly ground the pencil he was holding to dust. He held up his hand and let the yellow sand slowly pour from his fist. He allowed himself a slight smile.

It was then he heard what no other ear could have. A small gasp, filled with longing.

It came from Isabella Springer, who stood in the doorway of the biology class. She had watched the entire incident without fully comprehending what had happened. She saw Jacob sprinkle the pencil dust, but that was not, as Jacob mistakenly thought, what caused her strangled cry.

It was seeing Jacob for the first time that forced her sharp breath. She had never seen anybody who had looked like him before. He is beautiful, were her first thoughts. It was true she had known other boys who were handsome, but never before had she beheld such raw, unadorned physical perfection. His features glowed. It caused her physical pain to look at him; yet she couldn’t remove her eyes. He is too beautiful.

Jacob returned her stare when the attendance bell rang. Several late-coming students pushed past them into the room. Jacob followed, avoiding Isabella’s gaze as he did, not trusting himself to talk. Isabella’s throaty, soft moan was still echoing in his head.

What Jacob didn’t know was that Isabella was also new to Harrisburg High. This was her first semester since she had moved from a suburb of Philadelphia. It was just six months ago that her parents died in a car accident in upstate Pennsylvania. The police said her dad had been drinking, but she didn’t believe it. She never saw her father have more than one beer a night. Isabella lived with her maternal grandmother now.

In the classroom, while sneaking a look at Jacob, Isabella accidentally pushed her folder into a glass beaker, which crashed to the floor and shattered. Mr Harding hushed some boys who started laughing, and then went to the closet to fetch a broom.

Isabella leaned down and began pushing the broken glass into a pile with the edge of her folder. As she did so, a shard caught her on the finger, cutting it. “Oh!” she said.

Jacob’s attention immediately riveted on Isabella. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, barely suppressing a moan. He was starting to feel his face turn hot and red. He couldn’t take much more before…

He stood up and bolted from the room, crashing into Mr Harding who was returning with the broom.

“Ha! Look at the pansy run,” said John, “Scared of the sight of blood!” He and his crew laughed.

Isabella’s eyes followed Jacob out. After he was gone, she held up her finger, which was still bleeding slightly. “He’s not frightened.”

Somehow she knew.


If you want more, have a publisher contact me. This story simple cannot lose.

It’s national Pass On The Briggs month here at wmbriggs.com. If your interpretation of this phrase is on the generous side, email a link of this page to a friend who hasn’t been here before. The best kind of friend is one who has need of a statistician and who has a lot of money.
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