William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 149 of 540

Bad Ways Of Speaking About Truth


It is true that all men are mortal. It is also true that 2 + 3 = 5. Yet it is not “true” that all men are mortal, nor is it “true” that 2 + 3 = 5.

True means true. We learn from David Stove (and by experience) that by supplying scare-quotes “true” means “not true, but believed by so-and-so to be true”; which is to say, “true” means false, or, at best, unknown. Waving your fingers around truth is like becoming the assassin who puts his arm around his victim and calls him friend—as he knifes him in the back.

Yet scare-quotes are not the only, or even the best, way to sabotage logical expressions.

A slier method is to embed a truth conditionally. This example comes from Michael Voris (drop the S.T.B. Mikey, and learn to crack a smile!): “Jesus has risen from the dead, we Catholics believe.” (Voris recognized the mistake.)

This way of phrasing gives comfort to those who don’t want to acknowledge the truth—it is only the curious “belief” of some religious sect—while also releasing the teller from his duty of proclaiming a truth. So much less confrontational, you see.

Saying a truth conditionally is to kill with slow poison, not violence. “P is true, so-and-so believes”, “I believe P”, and “My professor said that P” no more imply P is true than does saying “P is ‘true’.” In other words, it is not an argument for P to say “I believe P”. It is the mere announcement of your mental state at some particular time. Since it is not an argument, there is nothing to refute, for there is no definitive way for me to know your mental state (no, not even with an electric phrenology device, i.e. an fMRI). And then all history suggests there is no point in arguing over somebody beliefs.

Update The main and obvious disadvantage of speaking this way is that it sets you back on your heels, puts you on the defensive immediately, when truth is always an offensive weapon.

Not easy

So much for the easy stuff. Let’s now talk about scientists and academic philosophers and their love of talking about conditional truths (i.e. theories) as if conditional truths were truths Stove (from his Rationality of Induction, p. 117), where he gives us three arguments:

(a) “Hume is a father, therefore Hume is a male parent”,

(b) “All male fathers are parents & Hume is a father, therefore Hume is a male parent”,

(c) “If Hume is a male parent then Hume is a father & Hume is a father, therefore Hume is a male parent”.

The first, (a), is a valid argument, which is to say that its conclusions follows from the accepted premise. Since the conclusion of (a) follows from its premise, we can augment that premise, which is why (b) and (c) are also valid (rule of logic: “if p entails q, then p-and-r entails q, for any r“).

But (b) is an example of the formal fallacy ‘undistributed middle term,’ and (c) is an example of the formal fallacy ‘affirming the consequent’ (look them up). Even so, (b) and (c) are still valid. This means that something is wrong with the formality, i.e. the theory, which declares them invalid. Yet philosophers, like scientists, are loathe to abandon a beautiful theory. This creates a severe difficulty, and even psychic pain, for those who cherish the formality (theory):

[T]he formal logician cannot call (a), (b), or (c) valid, consistently with his professional creed: hence his disapproval of them. But he dares not call them invalid either: hence his unease.

A situation so painful as this one is bound to produce distress signals, even if only half-conscious ones. Some of the commonest of these signals sound as follows. ‘Argument (c) is invalid in propositional logic‘; (b) is not valid in predicate calculus‘; ‘(a) is neither quantificationally valid nor truth-functionally valid.’ You can easily see how suitable such phraseology is to the distressed logician’s situation. A phrase like ‘invalid in propositional logic’, for example, by including the word ‘invalid’, has the effect of setting the desired tone, the tone of disapproval; while at the same time it is admirably non-committal, because after all—as the formal logician himself will hasten to assure you—‘invalid in propositional logic’ no more entails ‘invalid’, than (say) ‘suspected murderer’ entails ‘murderer.’ [p. 122]

The gist: “Arguments are not ‘in’ predicate logic, or ‘in’ any other artefact that logicians may happen to make. Still less is their invalidity or validity ‘in’ anything at all, except the arguments themselves.”

In other words, all arguments have to be evaluated individually.

Dinner With Atheists: A Mini-Play In One Act

SCENE: The monthly meeting of the Madison Atheists Evangelization Society at the I-12 Marriot Courtyard’s Badger Room, a rambunctious group sitting at a table, long side to the audience, like at a celebrity roast. The food has been eaten and cleared away. The CHAIRMAN sits in the middle, the SECRETARY is to his right, the TREASURER to his left. Others fill in.

PLAYERS: CHAIRMAN, SECRETARY, TREASURER, nine other male members, numbered from stage left to right (M1-M9, actors should use their own first names), and LATE GUY (oldest actor) who shows up near the end. The character “ALL” is where the cast should ad lib in the spirit indicated.




ALL: murmuring and general pre-meeting chatter; words not loud enough to be distinguished by audience.

SECRETARY: It’s time.

CHAIRMAN: Uh huh. Okay, everybody. Let’s settle in. Before we get started—

M2: —The opening prayer!

ALL: laughter; “God” bless us; calls saying how smart, clever M2 is.

CHAIRMAN: Which “god” should we pray to?

ALL: Thor, Zeus, Gaia, Obama, etc.; laughter; calls saying how smart, clever each other are.

CHAIRMAN: [To calm the group] Okay, let’s try to behave rationally.

M7: I think, therefore I disbelieve!

ALL: laughter; calls saying how smart, clever M7 is.

CHAIRMAN: I want to introduce one of our new members. M-9 [indicates M9, who waves] who used to be part of the Boston group. M9 is working on his Masters in…what was it?

M9: Science eduction.

ALL: applause; hi M9; science rules!; calls saying how smart, clever M9 is.

M1: That’s what’s needed! More science!

ALL: here-heres; calls saying how smart, clever M1 & M9 are.

SECRETARY: We should get going.

CHAIRMAN: Yeah, you’re right. But we can’t praise science too much.

M3: Religious people deny science! They’re deniers!

ALL: religious people are idiots, foolish, irrational; calls saying how smart, clever M3 is.

M6: Religion is nothing but organized child abuse!

ALL: religious people are idiots, irrational, foolish; calls saying how smart, clever M6 is.

M8: [Standing] It sickens me that in this supposedly free country, people are able to teach their children lies and myths as if they were reality.

ALL: calls saying how smart, brave M8 is.

M4: It’s because living by a myth is more comforting than surrendering to reality. They hate reality.

ALL: claps; calls saying how smart, brave M4 is.

M5: They don’t understand how beautiful science and reality are!

ALL: calls saying how smart, clever M5 is.

M2: [Quietly, after a lull] Cancer’s maybe not so pretty.

M7: [Angrily] That’s not the point! It’s that religious people don’t believe evolution created cancer. They’re so ignorant they don’t even know that evolution makes them religious!

ALL: God gene!; sage nods; murmurs of agreement, calls saying how intelligent M7 is.

SECRETARY: [To CHAIRMAN] Maybe we can get started?

CHAIRMAN: Yeah. But he’s right. I can’t believe how willfully stupid religious people are.

ALL: they’re fools, morons, etc.; calls saying how smart CHAIRMAN is.

CHAIRMAN: Sadly true. But let’s do something. TREASURER, how much money do we have in the fund?

M1: [Standing, interrupting] Flying spaghetti monster!

ALL: general uproar, hooting, hollering, joy; calls saying how smart, witty, clever M1 is.

TREASURER: [Who stood during merriment, speaking over crowd; holds paper] We’re actually in the hole. People haven’t been keeping up their promised donations. Somebody’s gotta pay for this meal. I’m not getting stuck again—

M3: [Standing] —We should believe in ourselves, not God!

M6: I believe! I can see you!

ALL: laughter; calls saying how smart, clever M3 and M6 are.

M4: We should really be talking about how intolerant religious people are.

M8: Yeah, they’re always telling us what to do! Religious views don’t belong in a tolerant society.

M5: They oughta be stopped. Like in Canada. We should have a law passed that nobody is allowed to foist their views on other people who don’t want them! Especially children!

ALL: applause; religious people are dopes, etc.; calls saying how smart, clever M4, M5 and M8 are.

[LATE GUY enters stage right, quietly vies for CHAIRMAN’s attention.]

CHAIRMAN: Ah, LATE GUY! You finally made it. We worried you joined a cult!

ALL: hilarity; all religions are cults, etc.; calls saying how smart, clever CHAIRMAN is.

LATE GUY: [Over laughter, trying unsuccessfully to whisper] Uh, yeah, sorry. Um, I was actually never coming. My mom found out about the group and she made me quit. I only showed up because I promised M8 a ride home.

ALL: giggles, some suppressed, some open; M8’s mom not as smart, clever as us, etc.

CHAIRMAN: Oh, that’s right. Your mom still goes to church. Don’t worry. Here. Give her these pamphlets [collects from SECRETARY] which will prove to her how irrationally stupid her faith is. She’ll come around.

ALL: lighter giggles; whispers how all religions irrationally stupid, etc.

LATE GUY: [Trying to disappear] Oh. The hotel guy asked me to tell you you’re time’s up. They need the room for the Madison Young Activists Yoga Alliance. [Author’s note: may be shortened to ‘YaYa.’]

CHAIRMAN: Okay, everybody. That’s it. Next month we build on this meeting’s success and really show why atheism’s an intellectually superior belief system.

ALL: happy applause; calls saying how smart, brave CHAIRMAN and everybody is.

SECRETARY: [Standing] Just a reminder that next month’s meeting is joint with the Unitarian Universalists. They’re giving us a talk on ‘Seeking the Spiritual Path to Atheism.’

CHAIRMAN: Should be good. They told me they got some smart people there.

ALL: people stand to go; self-satisfied jocularity; high fives, chest bumps, etc.


Regression To The Mean (And Performance Curses) Simply Explained

I complete this foursome

I complete this foursome

I’ve just read about The Second Term Curse which supposedly besets (of course) second-term presidents.

There is also the infamous Sports Illustrated Curse, which is said to befall athletes soon after they appear on the cover of that magazine. Other examples abound.

Roughly, ceteris paribus, on average, all other things equal, these “curses” more or less work like this:

Everything that isn’t a stick in the mud, or the product of a bureaucracy (or a bureaucrat), or isn’t otherwise ossified exhibits, for a given behavior, a range. Batters coming to the plate have hot and cold streaks. Actors have scintillating and dull performances. Golfers hit over and under par. Presidents please then displease the citizenry.

Now most of the time performance, for this or that person, is middling. Professional golfers don’t shoot birdies constantly and consistently, nor do they hit boogies: they hit par—which is why they call it par. For me, I don’t shoot two or three over par each time, nor do I hit nine or ten; my usual tally hovers around five or six over. I mean per hole.

But suppose I were invited to join this summer’s Internet Philosophers Open, held each July in beautiful downtown Gaylord, Michigan. Further suppose that I, strengthened by the love and support of my dear readers (and a sufficient dose of the water of life), shoot par and therefore win.

Instant celebrity would result. My picture and bio would appear on tens of blogs, I wouldn’t have to pick up the tab on the nineteenth, and I’d probably even get an interview request from the local paper. The Mayor would shake my hand. Discussions about t-shirts imprinted with my image would be had. I’d be the talk of the interwebs for hours.

This publicity would not go unnoticed and thus I’d surely be asked to participate in the Fall Bloggers Classic, which is October in Cleveland (weather permitting). Once there, it’s much more likely I’d “revert” to my average performance and finish +297 ( = 18 * 3 * 5.5 ).

Think of the headlines! “Shame and Ignominy on Full Display”, “Briggs Muffs It”, “Tournament Organizing Committee Under Investigation”, etc., etc. The psychic pain of my fall would be so intense I’d probably take to listening to NPR—and imagining that I enjoyed it.

Theories by the dozen would be propounded about why, after showing so much promise, I failed so badly. Some would place the blame on atmospheric conditions. Others would compare the quality of Polish sausages between the two locales. Many would pore over my writings between the two tournaments searching for clues about my mental state.

Some, none, or even all (in part) of these theories might be right—something caused me crumble—but the smart money before the Fall Classic would have bet on a dismal performance, simply because that was the best evidence and the most likely outcome.

But if people don’t recognize this, and only remember the see-sawing of performances between the two tournaments, they might put the changes down to a curse.

This all works in reverse, too. If you witness an atypically dismal performance, chances are good the next will be better. They have “regressed” (in reverse) to their “mean.” Or if you see somebody displaying their everyday ability, that’s most likely how you’ll see them the next time.

Sam Harris Asks, “Can Science Answer Moral Questions?” No, Sam, It Cannot

I was having a back-and-forth on Twitter with Craig Mazin ‏(@clmazin) about Sam Harris’s claim that morality is a scientific and not a metaphysical question. As evidence, Mazin pointed me to Harris’s TED talk, which I dissected.

Sam’s Happy Talk

Now, since it’s important to begin by saying something nice, I note that Harris wore a suit, for which I praise him; alas, sans cravat. The moderator wore ugly jeans (forgive the grammatical tautology) and a sloppy t-shirt.

Harris’s thesis is that, “The separation between science and human values is an illusion. And actually quite a dangerous one at this point in human history.” His introduction (with [my handy lettering]):

[A]Values are a certain kind of fact. [B]They are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. [C]Why is it that we don’t have ethical obligations towards rocks?…Because we don’t think rocks can suffer. And if we’re more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects…it’s because we think they’re exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. Now the crucial thing to notice here is that this is a factual claim. This is something we could be right or wrong about. [D] If we misconstrued the relationship between biological complexity and the possibilities about experience, why then we could be wrong about the inner life of insects. There’s no notion, no version, of human morality and human values that I’ve ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.

[A] Values in this sense can be a “certain kind” of fact, namely particular observations. Examples: “Jones holds that same-sex ‘marriage’ is moral” or “The residents of North Carolina do not.” But head counts (votes) do not make or prove a value ethically or morally right or wrong. The mere observation that people are generally “for” or “against” some value is never a proof that that value is morally right or wrong. And even if it was, the proposition “Votes [observations] decides what is morally right or wrong” is not scientific and subject to empirical verification. No escaping metaphysics here (or anywhere, considering any argument uses logic, which is not scientific but metaphysical).

[B] False: they are observations (in his sense), which may be against the wellbeing of conscious creatures, as with people who purposely inflict pain or harm (and not just negatively: think of self-defense, war, and capital punishment).

[C] It is observed people that don’t care about rocks (except for Pet Rocks, of course, and New Age crystal mongers) and do care about macaques, which is another “factual claim.” But this is just an observation, which is not a proof etc.

[D] It could be mosquitoes just want our love. But to claim all morality should begin with a “concern about conscious experience” is not scientific, but metaphysical.

Harris then lists marks of a “failed state”: things like mothers not being able to feed their children, strangers who can’t peacefully collaborate, presence of wanton murder. And then he lists, as his example of contrasting idyllic conditions, his talk (yes). All very well, but more observation. Not even a hint of a proof that metaphysics can be eliminated. He here and elsewhere seeks audience support by listing moral goods and evils which are indisputable, and by that act hoping nobody notices he hasn’t proved that mere agreement is not proof these values are the values which are best. Perhaps this is done with calculation (see below), or maybe he just doesn’t know what he’s doing.

In talking about values, we are taking about facts…[E] If we’re talking about human wellbeing, we are of necessity talking about the human brain…So what I’m arguing is that values reduce to facts, the facts about the conscious experience of conscious beings and we can therefore we can visualize a space of possible changes in the experience of these beings…[F] Perhaps there are states of human wellbeing that we rarely access, that few people access…perhaps there are other states we can’t access because the way our minds are structured but that other people can access.

[E] No, human wellbeing is not “of necessity about the human brain”, coincidentally Harris’s day-job focus, except that, say, if you lose your foot you need your brain to help shout “Ouch!” But never mind.

[F] Here comes the scientific Buddhism. Secret, hidden doors exist in your brain which can be unlocked if we could only find the key! Send $19.99 (plus S&H) and I’ll show you how to fetch one of these keys. Even if this science fiction were true—I’ve reached level 92, thank you very much—it does not prove the judgments of Enlightened Ones is more moral, it presupposes it, a metaphysical proposition.

For his next non sequitur, he mentions corporal punishment and claims the rationale for it is solely religious. “Is it a good idea generally speaking to subject children to pain and violence and public humiliation as a way of encouraging healthy moral development and good behavior?” Perhaps the main fallacy is better labeled special pleading. You be the judge. The error in fact (only religious people spank) is just sloppy research.

He finally asks if there can be an objective definition of wellbeing. He compares by analogy that changing notions of health does not make health vacuous. And then he gives examples of moral wrongs, such as the mistreat of (mainly Muslim) women, and of the common open displays of lascivious pictures (concupiscence). He wondered whether a balance might be reached (this earned audience cheers).

It was at this point in the video that my Spidey sense twinged (start at 11:30). He puzzled over whether it was A-OK for a man to kill his daughter after she had been raped in order to save his (and her) honor. Most of us say no, though our mere agreement is not a proof we’re right. But look how Harris milks it! He says it once, twice, thrice, and then brings out the onion. How big his heart is! Good thing the tear almost fell, because it distracted everybody from realizing that he left his question sitting alone in the corner, unanswered.

He next claimed those who agree with him about the existence of moral absolutes are “religious demagogues” (and to prove his childish bona fides, as an example he shows a picture of emeritus Pope Benedict). “The demagogues are right about one thing: we need a universal conception of human values.” In so admitting what is true, that there are moral absolutes, he has not proved these absolutes are scientific. So his talk is a failure, even though we agree on many of the absolutes themselves. He then lapsed into standard foolish mistakes about religion that we needn’t bother with, they not being to the main point.

Since he still had time to fill, he contrasted the Dalai Lama and Ted Bundy and their notable differences of opinion in practical morals, making the valid point that academics mired in relativism can’t say which man is right, which wrong. He develops this by comparing his opinion on string theory with those of a physicist (“I’m the Ted Bundy of string theory”, a good joke). “How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere there is no such thing as moral expertise? Or moral talent? Or moral genius? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count?…There are right and wrong answers.”

Amen, brother, there are. But they cannot be proved scientifically.

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