William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Category: Philosophy (page 1 of 113)

The philosophy of science, empiricism, a priori reasoning, epistemology, and so on.

The Rise Of Bayes

The man himself.

Thanks to reader Frank Kristeller we learn that the far left New York Times yesterday ran an article by F.D. Flam praising the rise of Bayesian statistics: The Odds, Continually Updated.

The replacement of frequentist statistics is, if true, moderately cheering news. And Bayes is the next step in the removal of magical and loose thinking from statistics. But far from the destination. That, I argue, is logical probability, which you can think of as Bayes sans scientism and subjectivism.

However, baby steps:

Bayesian statistics are rippling through everything from physics to cancer research, ecology to psychology. Enthusiasts say they are allowing scientists to solve problems that would have been considered impossible just 20 years ago. And lately, they have been thrust into an intense debate over the reliability of research results.

Nothing like a little hyperbole, eh? I don’t think our frequentist friends would agree they couldn’t solve the same problems as Bayesians. And of course they can. But so can storefront psychics solve problems. What we’re after is good solutions.

Flam got this right:

But the current debate is about how scientists turn data into knowledge, evidence and predictions. Concern has been growing in recent years that some fields are not doing a very good job at this sort of inference. In 2012, for example, a team at the biotech company Amgen announced that they’d analyzed 53 cancer studies and found it could not replicate 47 of them.

This is what happens when you base your decisions on p-values, little mystical numbers which remove the responsibility of thinking. P-values aren’t the only scourge, of course, willful transgressive thinking (especially in fields like sociology) and false quantification are just as, and probably even more, degrading.

False quantification? That’s when numbers are put to non-numerical things, just so statistics can have a go at them. Express your agreement with that statement on a Likert scale from 1 to 5.


“Statistics sounds like this dry, technical subject, but it draws on deep philosophical debates about the nature of reality,” said the Princeton University astrophysicist Edwin Turner, who has witnessed a widespread conversion to Bayesian thinking in his field over the last 15 years.

This is true. But just try to get people to believe it! Most academics, even their Bayesian variety, feel the foundations are fixed, that most or all that need be known about our primary premises is already known. Not true. Philosophy in a statistician’s education is put last, if at all. The error here is to assume probability is only a branch of mathematics.

One downside of Bayesian statistics is that it requires prior information — and often scientists need to start with a guess or estimate. Assigning numbers to subjective judgments is “like fingernails on a chalkboard,” said physicist Kyle Cranmer, who helped develop a frequentist technique to identify the latest new subatomic particle — the Higgs boson.

This isn’t really so. The problem here is blind parameterization, which is the assigning of probability models for the sake of convenience without understanding where the parameters of those models arise. This is an area of research that most statisticians are completely unaware of, so used are they to taking the parameters as a given. Logical probability removes the subjectivism and arbitrary quantification here, so that the true state of knowledge at the beginning of a problem is optimally stated.

Others say that in confronting the so-called replication crisis, the best cure for misleading findings is not Bayesian statistics, but good frequentist ones. It was frequentist statistics that allowed people to uncover all the problems with irreproducible research in the first place, said Deborah Mayo, a philosopher of science at Virginia Tech. The technique was developed to distinguish real effects from chance, and to prevent scientists from fooling themselves.

Mayo (our friend) is wrong. It was the discordance between scientists’ commonsensical knowledge of causality and the official statistical results that allowed us to see the mistakes. Statisticians do causality very, very badly. Indeed, frequentism is based on a fallacy of mixing up ontology (what is) with epistemology (our knowledge of what might be). Bayes does slightly better, but errs but introducing arbitrary subjective opinion.

Uri Simonsohn…exposed common statistical shenanigans in his field — logical leaps, unjustified conclusions, and various forms of unconscious and conscious cheating.

He said he had looked into Bayesian statistics and concluded that if people misused or misunderstood one system, they would do just as badly with the other. Bayesian statistics, in short, can’t save us from bad science.

Simonsohn (whom I don’t know) is right, mostly. The problems are deep. But you notice he left out p-values.

Flam missed that resistance to Bayes is still strong in many traditional fields, like medicine, where p-values are demanded. Still, that Bayes is becoming more available is good. But since we’re at the start and let’s try and do it right, and not, say, re-introduce old notions (like p-values!) into new theory.

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Is Not A Body. Part III

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

This is the last part proving God is not a body (more proofs, that is; we have already had several), a proposition which in unfamiliar to moderns and therefore not under much dispute, except for the steady stream of demiurges put forth by modern atheists as misconceptions of who or what God is. Yet I see that we’re growing weary of this subtopic, and so we’ll finish it today, and in a circumscribed fashion. I’ll also keep my footnotes to a minimum. Don’t forget we already know the Unmoved Mover, God, is outside time, i.e. is eternal. There are a lot of infinities involving God, and today we meet some of them. Next week, we start on a new and essential topic, that God is His own essence.

Chapter 20: That God is not a body

13That the power of the first mover is infinite is proved thus. No finite power can cause movement in an infinite time. Now the power of the first mover causes movement in an infinite time, since the first movement is eternal. Therefore the power of the first mover is infinite.i

The first proposition is proved thus. If any finite power of a body causes movement in infinite time, a part of that body having a part of that power, will cause movement during less time, since the greater power a thing has, for so much the longer time will it be able to continue a movement, and thus the aforesaid part will cause movement in finite time, and a greater part will be able to cause movement during more time. And thus always according as we increase the power of the mover, we increase the time in the same proportion. But if this increase be made a certain number of times we shall come to the quantity of the whole or even go beyond it. Therefore the increase also on the part of the time will reach the quantity of time wherein the whole causes movement. And yet the time wherein the whole causes movement was supposed to be infinite. Consequently a finite time will measure an infinite time: which is impossible…ii

16The second objection is that, although a body be divided, it is possible for a power of a body not to be divided when the body is divided, thus the rational soul is not divided when the body is divided.iii

17To this we reply that by the above argument it is not proved that God is not united to the body as the rational soul is united to the human body, but that He is not a power residing in a body, as a material power which is divided when the body is divided. Wherefore it is also said of the human intellect that it is neither a body nor a power in a body.[11] That God is not united to the body as its soul, is another question.[12]

18The third objection is that if the power of every body is finite, as is proved in the above process; and if a finite power cannot make its effect to endure an infinite time; it will follow that no body can endure an infinite time: and consequently that a heavenly body will be necessarily corrupted. Some reply to this that a heavenly body in respect of its own power is defectible, but acquires everlastingness from another that has infinite power. Apparently Plato approves of this solution, for he represents God as speaking of the heavenly bodies as follows: By your nature ye are corruptible, but by My will incorruptible, because My will is greater than your necessity.[13]iv

19But the Commentator refutes this solution in 11 Metaph. For it is impossible, according to him, that what in itself may possibly not be, should acquire everlastingness of being from another: since it would follow that the corruptible is changed into incorruptibility; and this, in his opinion, is impossible. Wherefore he replies after this fashion: that in a heavenly body whatever power there is, is finite, and yet it does not follow that it has all power; for, according to Aristotle (8 Metaph.)[14] the potentiality to (be) somewhere is in a heavenly body, but not the potentiality to be. And thus it does not follow that it has a potentiality to not-be.

It must be observed, however, that this reply of the Commentator is insufficient.v Because, although it be granted that in a heavenly body there is no quasi-potentiality to be, which potentiality is that of matter, there is nevertheless in it a quasi-active potentiality, which is the power of being: since Aristotle says explicitly in 1 Coeli et Mundi,[15] that the heaven has the power to be always. Hence it is better to reply that since power implies relation to act, we should judge of power according to the mode of the act. Now movement by its very nature has quantity and extension, wherefore its infinite duration requires that the moving power should be infinite. On the other hand being has no quantitative extension, especially in a thing whose being is invariable, such as the heaven. Hence it does not follow that the power of being a finite body is infinite though its duration be infinite: because it matters not whether that power make a thing to last for an instant or for an infinite time, since that invariable being is not affected by time except accidentally…

28Again. No movement that tends towards an end which passes from potentiality to actuality, can be perpetual: since, when it arrives at actuality, the movement ceases. If therefore the first movement is perpetual, it must be towards an end which is always and in every way actual. Now such is neither a body nor a power residing in a body; because these are all movable either per se or accidentally. Therefore the end of the first movement is not a body nor a power residing in a body. Now the end of the first movement is the first mover, which moves as the object of desire:[21] and that is God. Therefore God is neither a body nor a power residing in a body…vi

31Hereby is refuted the error of the early natural philosophers,[23] who admitted none but material causes, such as fire, water and the like, and consequently asserted that the first principles of things were bodies, and called them gods. Among these also there were some who held that the causes of movement were sympathy and antipathy: and these again are refuted by the above arguments. For since according to them sympathy and antipathy are in bodies, it would follow that the first principles of movement are forces residing in a body. They also asserted that God was composed of the four elements and sympathy: from which we gather that they held God to be a heavenly body. Among the ancients Anaxagoras alone came near to the truth, since he affirmed that all things are moved by an intellect.

32By this truth, moreover, those heathens are refuted who maintained that the very elements of the world, and the forces residing in them, are gods; for instance the sun, moon, earth, water and so forth, being led astray by the errors of the philosophers mentioned above.vii


i[Comment updated to fix stupid typo.] Don’t forget to review what these terms mean. The first movement is not some movement that caused the universe to start on its way in the dim dark past. It is the movement that starts all other movements, and we have seen that it must take no time. Again, I ask you to review Chapter 13. And Chapter 17, which proves God is not made of matter, and Chapter 15, which proves God is eternal. These are all premises here.

iiThis is not as bad as it looks when you first scan it. Read it. Two objections answered about conditionals and divided bodies are skipped.

iiiThe first time we hear the soul is immaterial! See also the next point, at that word “united.” This is only a hint of what is to come in other books of STG. Book One is all God all the time. Do not become a Descartesian over this one small word.

iv“For the sword outwears its sheath…And the soul wears out the breast.”

vSo much for slavishly following his predecessor!

viThis is pretty, but you must have Chapter 13 assimilated before you understand what he’s talking about. For instance, movement is actualization of a potential, and some actual power must actualize the potential. Potentials are powerless. (There’s a new business slogan for you.)

viiThe two-paragraph passage has interest in itself, as philosophical history, but is also proof that progress can be and is had in philosophy and theology, just like in science. Decay and distraction, again just in like science, also happen. Theology is thus, in the same sense as science, self correcting.

[11] Cf. Bk. II., ch. lvi.
[12] Cf. Ch. xxvii.
[13] Timaeus xli.
[14] D. 7, iv. 6.
[15] Ch. iii. 4; xii. 3.
[16] See above: But the Commentator…p. 46.
[17] 3, iv. 11; 6, ii. 8.
[18] Averroës, 12 Metaph. t. c. 41.
[19] See above: To this we reply…p. 46.
[20] Ch. vii. seqq.
[21] Cf. ch. xiii.: Since, however,…p. 31.
[22] Bk. IV., ch. xcvii.
[23] Cf. 1 Phys. ii.

On Being Certain There’s No Certainty

I’m certain I’m pretty sure that that’s Voltaire.

Neurologist Robert Burton describes this “delusion of certainty” in his book On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not: “Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of ‘knowing what we know’ arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.”

This was quoted in “Christianity is wildly Improbable” by John W. Loftus in the book The End of Christianity edited by the same gentleman (this is the book in which Richard Carrier’s deeply flawed essay appears). Loftus was concerned of his friend’s disquieting certainty that God exists.

Loftus, who was certain he was right that his friend’s certainty in God’s existence was flawed because one cannot be truly certain, was quoting Burton in support of his (Loftus’s) certain belief that one cannot be certain, because Burton is authoritatively certain that his theory, that no one can really be certain, is certainly true.

Got it?

Now what I’m hoping is that Loftus’s passion that he be certain that there is no certainty has misled him about Burton’s theory, and that Burton didn’t really mean what his words seem to mean. Where would academia be if people actually thought things like that?

On the other hand, don’t we already know?

Wasn’t it Voltaire, another reliable voice, perhaps following Pliny the Elder who said “The only certainty is that nothing is certain”, who said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”? Yes; yes, it was Voltaire. I’m certain of that. Voltaire was certain that certainty was absurd. And I’m pretty sure that it was John Stuart Mill who said, “There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life.” I am sure that Mill—if, indeed, it was Mill, and it surely was—was certain there was no such thing as absolute certainty.

And didn’t the greatest brain of them all (forget he rejected the confirmed portions of quantum mechanics as being certainly wrong), Albert Einstein, say, “I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am” (and now recall that he rejected the confirmed portions of quantum mechanics of being certainly wrong).

This is how we can be certain that many modern philosophers are skeptics when it comes to certainty. I have witnessed the uncertainty in certainty. These fellows—fellowettes, too!—agree that one cannot be truly certain of anything. And that’s a certainty.

Why, take Mr Falsifiability himself, Karl Popper, who unmistakably said, “Our aim as scientists is objective truth; more truth, more interesting truth, more intelligible truth. We cannot reasonably aim at certainty. Once we realize that human knowledge is fallible, we realize also that we can never be completely certain that we have not made a mistake.” Make no mistake: he also said, “Since we can never know anything for sure, it is simply not worth searching for certainty”. I certainly won’t.

I don’t know if the skeptical philosophers, who are legion in the academy, in being certain there is no certainty, know of Burton’s work that all certainty is really just various arrangements of neurochemicals (or whatever), that it’s our brains telling us to feel certain, even when there is no certainty. But if these philosophers aren’t aware, upon hearing of it, it’s certain they would be certain Burton is right, because Burton’s theory would be pleasing to them, as certain confirmation their philosophy holds.

How nice to think we are nothing but irresponsible unaccountable unpunishable, and of course in a few cases superior, bundle of chemicals!

Ad Hominem, My Sweet


Ad Hominem, My Sweet, a mini-play in one act.

MOOSE: “Hey, Hayden. C’mere.”

HAYDEN: “Not now, Moose. Please?”

MOOSE: “What are you? Deaf as well as stupid? I said get over here.”

HAYDEN: “But Moose…Ouch! That hurts!”

MOOSE: “When I say get over here, it means get over here. You savvy?”

HAYDEN: “Okay, so I’m here. What’s so urgent.”

MOOSE: “I got something to tell you, and I don’t want no argument about it. You ready? Listen good, ’cause I ain’t gonna repeat it, and you better have it—or else. Got me? Here it is. If P, then Q. Q. Therefore P. Now say it back.”

HAYDEN: “Hey! There’s no need to hit me. I heard you. If P, then Q. Q. Therefore P.”

MOOSE: “Whadda ya know! He can learn!”

HAYDEN: “Only…”

MOOSE: “Only what, smart ass.”

HAYDEN: “Only…oh never mind. Look, I’m late to see my mother. She expects me. You know if I don’t show or call, she worries.”

MOOSE: “Always a mama’s boy. But you’re not gettin’ outta here until you have it. Now. Do you have it. Yes or no?”

HAYDEN: “I have it. Butitisn’tright!

MOOSE: “Whadda ya mean, it isn’t right. I told you. That should be enough for you.”

HAYDEN: “But…but…isn’t that a formal fallacy? That I should believe you just because you threatened me?”

MOOSE: “Don’t give me any of that fallacy malarkey. You just do what I tell you and you’ll get through this.”

HAYDEN: “Hey! I told you! No Hitting!”

MOOSE: “I’ll do what I need to. Just so you know that. I’ll do what I need to.”

HAYDEN: “Someday…You just wait and see.”

MOOSE: “I don’t know why I like smacking you around so much. It’s that look on your face. Now say it again.”

HAYDEN: “Fine! If P, then Q! Q! Therefore P! Have it your way!”

MOOSE: “That’s right, Spunky. My way. It’s—”

PHILIP: “—Hello, big guy. Circus in town?”

MOOSE: “What? Just who do—”

PHILIP: “—Only I just heard your boyfriend here, and she’s right. Right twice. You can’t bully him into believing a fallacy. Affirming the consequent is as old an error as denying Truth exists. See how you like it. If you hold to fallacies, you’re a bully. You’re a bully. Therefore you hold to fallacies.”

MOOSE: “Who’s a bully! He likes it. Don’t ya, Spunky.”

HAYDEN: “He hit me!”

MOOSE: “Besides, you can’t tell me I’m wrong because I’m givin’ Spunky what he needs. That’s you’re own fallacy. A grade-A ad hominem.”

PHILIP: “No, it isn’t.”

MOOSE: “The hell it ain’t. I know what you’re tryin’ to do. You’re appealing to Spunky’s prejudices and emotions, his special interest in not being pushed around, rather than to his intellect or reason. And you’re attacking my character rather than answering my argument. That’s an ad hominem, pal. No gettin’ around it.”

HAYDEN: “Don’t hurt him, Moose!”

MOOSE: “Ah, these amateur philosophers ain’t worth hurtin’. Now blow, Socrates, before I squeeze your spinal column into some symbolic logic.”

PHILIP: “Who wants to stay? It’s clear brawn is no substitute for brains.”

MOOSE: “See what I mean, Spunky? A little friendly pressure and Socrates here starts in with remarks which cannot be construed as necessary or objective. Ad hominem all the way.”

HAYDEN: “You should be nice to Moose, mister. He doesn’t take disagreement well.”

PHILIP: “Nicest thing you can do for somebody is tell them the truth. He has it. He doesn’t want it.”

MOOSE: “What truth? All I hear are insults. You think by makin’ me look bad in front of Spunky, here, that we’ll forget you don’t have an argument. Noting’ but distractions.”

PHILIP: “There are none so blind as those who won’t listen.”

MOOSE: “Ha! He can’t even keep his metaphors straight. C’mon, Spunky. We’re never going to get through to this guy. So long, Socrates.”

HAYDEN: “Okay, Moose. We can go. But I have to see mother first.”

Richard Carrier’s Argument To Show God’s Existence Unlikely Is Invalid And Unsound

Self-described world-renowned author and speak Richard Carrier.

Self-described world-renowned author and speak Richard Carrier. Image source.

In the comment section to an earlier piece of mine on Strange Notions, Richard Carrier invited me to “interact” with him through his article “Neither Life nor the Universe Appears Intelligently Designed”, found in The End of Christianity, edited by John W. Loftus. This article is the “interaction” Carrier requested. I apologize for its delay.


Richard Carrier’s argument to show that God probably didn’t create the universe, and therefore He probably doesn’t exist, in Carrier’s “Neither Life nor the Universe Appears Intelligently Designed”, like many attempts to use probability in defense of atheism or theism, is invalid and unsound, and based on fundamental misunderstandings of who God is and of the proper role of probability.

It is also a maddening, rambling screed, little more than bluff, bluster, and bullying, as well as an endless source of egotistical phrases, pace “critics know (and when honest, admit)”, “what any rational person would conclude”, “everyone else who’s rational and sane”, and “no rational person can honestly believe”. Nevertheless, let us “set aside ignoramuses who don’t know what they’re talking about and don’t even try to know” and analyze his main errors (it would take a monograph to examine every mistake).

His argument, repeated in different contexts, is essentially this. If God did not exist, life, the universe, and everything in it (including our minds) would look just the way they do. But if God exists, He could have created life, the universe, and everything in innumerable ways and, Carrier conjectures, surely not in the fractured, imperfect, pain-guaranteeing way we see. Therefore, because “the probability that a ‘designing’ god exists but never intelligently designed anything is likewise virtually zero, since by definition that’s also not how such a god behaves” and for other reasons Carrier creates, it is likely God does not exist.

The first and last part are pure bluff. We have no idea what a “designing god” would do for a living, nor what the universe would look like had God not created it. To say we do assumes we have (absent God) an explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, which we do not have. Note carefully that “something” includes quantum fields, the “laws” of the universe, mathematics, anything you can think of. To say we know what the universe would look like had God not created it, is to claim one knows precisely why whatever physical, mathematical, mental, and philosophical foundations exist, exist the way they do, without circularly drawing on those foundations for their explanation. And that is impossible.

The second part is bluster. Call it the Carrier-as-God thesis, which can be summarized: “If I, Carrier the god, were to design the universe, it would pink and happy with ‘bodies free of needless imperfections’ with endless complimentary ice cream for all. Since the Christian God obviously did not create this delightful world, he must not exist.” This is as silly as it sounds. How can Carrier presume to know why God did what He did?

The last part is bullying, probabilistic persiflage. Carrier thinks that by thumping the reader with (unnecessary, as it turns out) mathematics that science is happening, and thus nothing else need be said.

Carrier’s main argument

Carrier first defines “nonterrestrial intelligent design”. “By ‘intelligent design,’ I mean design that is not the product of blind natural processes (such as some combination of chance and necessity), and by ‘nonterrestrial,’ I mean neither made by man (or woman) nor any other known life-form.”

Anything that happens by necessity, must happen; necessary events are determined, i.e. caused, to happen in the way they did. But nothing happens because of chance: chance is measure of knowledge and not a cause; it is not an ontological force and thus cannot direct events. Chance cannot be creative, though necessity, which implies design, is creative by definition. “Natural processes” cannot therefore be “blind.”

God is not a “life-form”. He nowhere takes up physical residence, nor does He live amorphously in some outer reach of the universe. God is not a creature, nor is He the same as the universe. In his inadequately described “designing god”, it’s clear Carrier doesn’t understand he is rejecting a god classical theologians also reject. Carrier’s god is not the ground of being, He whose name is I Am, existence itself, a necessary being who sustains all creation in each and every moment. Carrier’s god is instead a smart, long-lived creature possessed of fancy toys, perhaps made of pasta, who occasionally likes to tinker with bits and pieces of the universe but who is subject to the wiles and rules of the universe like other beings, though perhaps not to the same extent, an extent which Carrier always left vague.


Carrier introduces Bayes’s probability theorem, but only as a club to frighten his enemies and not as a legitimate tool to understand uncertainty. I must be right, he seems to insist, because look at these equations. Bayes’s theorem is a simple means to update the probability of a hypothesis when considering new information. If the information comes all at once, the theorem isn’t especially needed, because there is no updating to be done. Nowhere does Carrier actually needs Bayes and, anyway, probabilistic arguments are never as convincing as definitive proof, which is what we seek when asking whether God exists.

A simple illustration. Suppose we accept the prior evidence (a proposition) “A standard deck of 52-playing cards, from which only one card will be pulled, and only one of which is labeled eight-of-clubs” and we later learn that “Jack removed the Jack of hearts from the deck.” Conditional on these facts, we want the probability of the proposition, “I pull out an eight-of-clubs.” This probability is obviously 1/51 whether we start with the first proposition and update with the second using Bayes, or just take both propositions simultaneously. Incidentally, this example highlights the crucial distinction that all probability is conditional on evidence which is specifically stated (there is no such thing as unconditional probability).

Carrier artificially invents for himself various sets of “prior” information which he later tries to update using Bayes, but it’s all for show. Just like in the cards example, nowhere did he actually need Bayes for any of his arguments. Carrier further shows he misunderstands his subject when he says “Probability measures frequency”. This is false: probability measures information, though information is sometimes in the form of frequencies, as in our card example. Suppose our proposition is “Just two-thirds of Martians wear hats, and George is a Martian.” Given that specific evidence, the probability “George wears a hat” is 2/3, but there can be no frequency because, of course, there are no hat-wearing Martians.

Probability errors

There is more than ample evidence Carrier is confused about the difference between probabilistic and philosophical argument. Here are some examples.

In order to form his priors, Carrier says the frequency of observed designed universes “is exactly zero.” A statement which, of course, assumes what he wants to prove, a classic error in logic, an error he duplicates when he insists he knows “full well” that intelligent extraterrestrials must, somewhere or somewhen, exist. In both places, Carrier has substituted his desire for proof.

Again, “Yet any alien civilization selected at random will statistically be millions or billions of years more advanced [at designing life than we are].” Which alien civilizations are we selecting “at random”? What proof beyond conjecture and desire is there that (a) any other alien civilization exists and (b) that if any does exist it will be technologically and “statistically” more advanced than we, and that (c) even if they are more advanced, they would want to use their technological prowess to build lifeforms? This statement is nothing but an unproven science-fiction argument from desire. There is no set of premises which all can agree on that would allow us to deduce a probability here.

“You cannot deduce from ‘God exists’ that the only way he would ever make a universe is that way. There must surely be some probability that he might do it another way. Indeed, the probability must be quite high, simply because it’s weird for an intelligent agent of means to go the most inefficient and unnecessary route to obtain his goals, and ‘weird’ means by definition ‘rare,’ which means ‘infrequent.’ which means ‘improbable.'” Carrier constantly assumes he knows not only what God would do, but what various lesser gods would do. His case would have been infinitely strengthened had he given the evidence for these beliefs, rather than merely stating them.

“Conversely, the probability that a ‘designing’ god exists but never intelligently designed anything is likewise virtually zero, since by definition that’s also not how such a god behaves.” Who says? Has Carrier conducted a survey among deistical gods and their designing proclivities? Or is he merely assuming, without proof, that the gods must needs design (maybe it scratches some intergalactic itch)? Anyway, Carrier’s god can’t create a universe (defined as everything that exists). That level of heft requires the God of infinite ability, the only way to get something from nothing.

“Hence it’s precisely the fact that God never does things like that in our observation that makes positing God as a causal explanation of other things so implausible.” So much for miracles, then; and a rather dogmatic dismissal at that.

Design and intelligence

Carrier misunderstands other aspects of probability, too. He appears to believe, like many, that evolution occurs “randomly” and is a “product of chance”. That’s impossible. Nothing is caused by “chance” or occurs “randomly” because chance is not a cause and neither is randomness. Chance and randomness are measures of our ignorance of causes, and are not themselves ontological realities. It is always a bluff to say that “randomness” or “chance” caused some effect. You either know the cause or you do not. If you know it, state it. If you do not, then admit it (using probability).

Intelligent design enthusiasts make the same mistake, and when they do, to his credit Carrier is there to show us. “Michael Behe’s claim that the flagellar propulsion system of the E. coli bacterium is irreducibly complex and thus cannot have evolved”. The system’s evolution, to Behe, was completely “improbable.” Yet improbability arguments don’t work for or against evolution. If a thing has happened—and the propulsion system happened—it was caused. That we don’t know of the cause is where probability enters, but only as a measure of our ignorance of the cause. Whether we know or don’t know of the cause, there is still a cause. Things don’t “just happen.” That’s why when we see that organisms have evolved, which is indisputable, we know there must be some thing or things causing those changes.

What about the start of all life, i.e. biogenesis? Carrier says, “by definition the origin of life must be a random accident.” Thus does hope replace reality. Life could not have sprung up “randomly”, for randomness isn’t a cause. As it is, there is no direct evidence of how life arose, a gap which Carrier replaces with bluster, a science-of-the-gaps theory. I have no idea how life got here. God might have done it, or merely designed the system so that it had to arise. But something caused it. To say “I don’t know what the cause was” is not proof that “God was not the cause”.

How about the start of the universe? Carrier says, “Suppose in a thousand years we develop computers capable of simulating the outcome of every possible universe, with every possible arrangement of physical constants, and these simulations tell us which of those universes will produce arrangements that make conscious observers (as an inevitable undesigned by-product). It follows that in none of those universes are the conscious observers intelligently designed (they are merely inevitable by-products), and none of those universes are intelligently designed (they are all of them constructed purely at random).” And “Our universe looks exactly like random chance would produce, but not exactly like intelligent design would produce.”

No, no, no, no no no no. It’s now a cliché to say so, but this isn’t even wrong. It is impossible—as in not possible, no matter what—for “random chance” to create even a mote on the speck of a quark let alone an entire universe. Anyway, how would Carrier or anybody know what a designed universe looks like? No guidebook exists. To say this one isn’t designed is stunningly bold, a belief without evidence of any kind—except the desire that it not be so.


Perhaps the following sentences reveal how Carrier so easily fooled himself: “Hence I have demonstrated with logical certainty that the truth of Christianity is very improbable on these facts. And what is very improbable should not be believed. When enough people realize this, Christianity will come to an end.” And, contradicting himself in the matter of certainty of Christianity, he later says, “Christianity is fully disconfirmed by the evidence of life and the universe.”

Carrier nowhere in the body of his argument spoke of Christianity, but only vaguely of ETs, gods, and some curious ideas of what God would act like if He were Richard Carrier. Strange, then, that he should be so confident he has destroyed all of Christianity. And no other religion.

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