William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Reasoning To Belief: Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism — Part V

Soul music

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last.

A mistake followers of Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas would not make is to gather round a man about to die, a man who is lying on a sophisticated scale, calibrated to measure weight to the fraction of a fraction of an ounce, and make note of the precise weight while the man still breathes, and then jot it down again after the man has gone off to his reward.

The reason for this elaborate experiment, which has been tried, is to measure the weight of the human soul. Before and after, you see.

If either Mr A were resurrected today and witnessed this experiment, or another of many similar designed to catch the moment the soul “escapes” its mortal frame, their reaction would be, in modern parlance, face palms. “Can’t read plain Latin” is what Aquinas would mumble. What Aristotle would say cannot be here recorded, since this is a family blog, but it would not be flattering.

New Atheists appear to have learned their theology, in particular their Christianity, from Hollywood movies. Cinema often shows souls to be wispy material forms; therefore, the New Atheists suspects that is what theologians believe souls are. But since New Atheists are nothing if not scientific, they seek out additional evidence to verify this hypothesis. This evidence usually consists of asking some sad person who just sent a check to a televangelist, “Do you believe souls are material things, like we saw in these movies?” The sad person will say yes, and the New Atheist will rest content, his hypothesis confirmed.

The story is made complete when the New Atheist writes a book in which he sneers and rails at theists’ foolish conception of the soul. Neurology says no soul! The soul is not scientific! He will give a speech to an audience well satisfied with their brilliance and ability to understand the speech, in which he says, “The soul is ectoplasm festishism!” A question will come from the audience, “But sir, what you say is not what theologians believe. The Catholic Church, for example, claims the soul is not material.” The New Atheist will scoff and say, “I will not answer you, you poor pastafarian, because your bible preaches genocide!” Applause, derisive laughter, indexes of self esteem soar. Sigh.

The inability of the New Atheist to focus on what the theologian actually claims about the soul is astonishing. A Dawkins or Dennett will at least try and answer arguments about the existence of God, but he dismisses all arguments about the soul out of hand. “The soul cannot exist, therefore it does not exist” is his only argument, and, boy, does he cherish it.

The soul is not material. It does not have weight. It does not have color. It doesn’t smell or make noise. It cannot be felt. It cannot be seen, but it is not invisible. It cannot be seen because it isn’t a physical substance. Now, if you were a New Atheist and you heard all this, and your only retort was, “Ectoplasm!” we would be right to question your sanity or your intelligence.

Plants have souls. Yes, that’s right: but do calm yourself. I am not going to quote Obi Wan Kenobi. A plant is composed of physical matter, carbon or oxygen and so on, and a form or essence, the shape of a plant and ability to take up water and convert sunlight to fuel. I hope you agree that the material that makes the plant can take other shapes, and not just exist as a plant. Dogs also have souls, i.e. essences or forms characteristic of dogs. This does

not mean that when your favorite fern or dog dies, its soul goes to heaven. It doesn’t go anywhere but out of existence, since like the forms of rocks and tables, the forms of plants and non-human animals are mere abstractions considered by themselves, and have no reality apart from the particular material things they are forms of.

Though there’s lots of interesting things to say about forms, essences, and the like, and Feser devotes much space to these topics, how banal is this definition of a soul? Not much mysterious here; certainly, nothing that is filmable or would cause impassioned opposition.

Humans have souls, too; a “rational soul” which includes “the power to grasp abstract concepts—namely, the forms or essences of things—and to reason on the basis on them, and freely to choose between different possible courses of action on the basis of what the intellect knows.”

Uh oh. There it is. You noticed, didn’t you? Free will. Oh dear, having a rational soul implies free will, or is it having free will implies having a rational soul? But aren’t we made of meat, mere computing machines, just connections of neurons firing at times fully determined by chemical formula? No.

The power of intellect “cannot possibly require a material or bodily organ for its operation.” Why not? Consider triangles: “this or that triangle is a material thing, but the form or essence triangularity is not; snow is material, but the proposition that snow is white cannot be; and so forth. But the immaterial nature of these things entails that the intellect which grasps them must itself be immaterial as well.” And here follows one of my favorite passages, which I quote in full:

Consider first that when we grasp the nature, essence, or form of a thing, it is necessarily one and the same form, nature, or essence that exists both in the thing and in the intellect. The form of triangularity that exists in our minds when we think about triangles is the same form that exists in actual triangles themselves; the form of “dogness” that exists in our minds when we think about dogs is the same form that exists in actual dogs; and so forth. If this weren’t the case, then we just wouldn’t really be thinking about triangles, dogs, and the like, since to think about these things requires grasping what they are, and what they are is determined by their essence or form. But now suppose that the intellect is a material thing—some part of the brain, or whatever. Then for the form to exist in the intellect is for the form to exist in a certain material thing. But for a form to exist in a material thing is just for that material thing to be the kind of thing the form is a form of; for example, for the form of “dogness” to exist in a certain parcel of matter is just for that parcel of matter to be a dog. And in that case, if your intellect was just the same thing as some part of your brain, it follows that that part of your brain would become a dog whenever you thought about dogs. “But that’s absurd!” you say. Of course it is; that’s the point. Assuming that the intellect is material leads to such absurdity; hence the intellect is not material.

Ain’t that a pretty piece of reasoning? Incidentally, it is not only Feser who makes this argument; it is common in many non-theists philosophers like John Searle. Now, “the soul of a man isn’t a complete substance, that is, a man. It isn’t the soul that thinks when a man uses his intellect; it is the man himself who thinks, just as it is the man himself, and not the soul, who grows taller, [etc.] For this reason, it is not at all surprising that human thought should be closely correlated with certain brain events even if it is not identical to any of them…When the [non-material] intellect determines that a certain course of action is the best one to take and the will follows it, the body proceeds to move in a way that constitutes the action.”

Since the human soul isn’t made of stuff, it is eternal. If you draw a triangle on a piece of paper and burn up that paper, the form of triangle does not dissolve in flames. When a man dies, “the soul itself, partially operating and thus existing as it does apart from the body even when informing it, does not thereby die…That doesn’t mean that a human being continues to exist after death, for a human being is a composite of form and matter, and it is only a part of him—the form or soul—that carries on.”

The soul of a human must therefore be present at conception. Yet when the body returns to dust, the form of the body, i.e. the soul, carries on. (Awaiting resurrection of the body, say Christians.) Given that the soul “functions and thus exists independently of matter, it cannot possibly have been generated by purely material processes. And so a complete explanation of it in evolutionary theory is completely irrelevant.” Sorry, Richard.

Since [the soul] is the form of a rational animal, the matter a rational soul informs must be complex enough to sustain those material operations that it relies on in an indirect way, such as sensation. In principle, evolutionary theory could explain how living things got to such a level of complexity that it was possible for animal to exist which was capable of having a rational soul. But the actual existence of the rational soul itself would have to come from outside the evolutionary process.

No surprise what this outside Agency is, either.

The subtitle of Feser’s book is “A Refutation of the New Atheism.” Refute is a strong word, a “success word” as David Stove called it. It means to show definitively an argument is false, with no hope (as we have) of resurrection. The most prominent New Atheist argument is that theists are simpletons, believing only because they believe, folks with no familiarity with logic or science.

Whatever one’s ultimate appraisal of these arguments, the New Atheists’s pretense that a religious view of the world can only ever be the result of wishful thinking rather than objective rational argumentation is thereby exposed as a falsehood, the product, if not of willful deception, at least of inexcusable ignorance of the views of the most significant religious thinkers…[E]ven if, per impossible, their atheism turned out to be correct, they would not have arrived at it by rational means, shamelessly caricaturing as they do the best arguments for the other side, when they are not ignoring them altogether.

Now your task, dear reader, is if you are unhappy with the conclusion of Feser’s main argument is to find some small flaw in my explication of it, or to focus on some aside I made (like the last quotation), and act as if the mistake or detour is the main argument. I bet nobody will notice you failed to attend to the main point.

Next time: natural law.

Update There is some confused talk about “vegetative states” and the soul. Feser anticipated these counter-claims:

[The soul] “leaves” only when the organism dies; and that means death, not severe brain damage, and not a person’s lapsing into a “persistence vegetative state.” Though a person might not be capable of exercising his rationality, it is there nonetheless in potentiality, since the soul—the form, nature, or essence of the living organism—is still there, and rationality is part of this form, nature, or essence. As Plato and Aristotle agree, for something to fail to instantiate a form or essence perfectly does not mean that it fails to instantiate it at all.

Reminder We are all ladies and gentlemen here.


Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part Interlude, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. Part Last.

Casino Deals Unshuffled Cards

As a break from things serious, consider this scenario:

In a New Jersey casino, you walk up to an electronic slot machine, stick in a buck and punch the buttons. You win fifty. It happens. Flush, you venture another buck. You’re still up a bunch. You win another fifty. Figuring why not, you bet again. Another win. Say, this is getting good. Another bet, another win. And so on for forty-one—that is 41—times in a row!

Ah, but then four beefy guys named Guido finger your collar, drag you back to your room and bounce you up and down a bit, hoping to dislodge a device you don’t have, a device which they imagine could have secretly controlled the slot machine. In saunters a pencil necked manager wearing an expensive but garish suit and says he’s not going to pay since he claims the machine is busted.

Out the door you go…straight into a lawyer’s office? Are you upset that you didn’t pocket the proceeds? Or do you figure that this is what happens when you flirt with fortune?

I say, write the whole thing off as a lesson in how not to gamble: viz. don’t gamble. Especially in New Jersey—New Jersey, for crying out loud.

The scenario painted above happened in a sort of way. In New Jersey at the Golden Nugget. According to the AP, several players at a game of mini-baccarat

kept seeing the same sequence of cards dealt, over and over and over again, their eyes grew wide and their bets grew bigger, zooming from $10 a hand to $5,000.

Forty-one consecutive winning hands later, the 14 players had racked up more than $1.5 million in winnings — surrounded by casino security convinced they had cheated but unable to prove how.

The Casino blamed their playing card source, Gemaco, Inc., which was supposed to send them the painted boards pre-shuffled. Only this time, they forgot. Also, this wasn’t the first time: “the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort used unshuffled mini-baccarat cards for 3 1/2 hours before realizing something was wrong.” You may wonder at the level of minds that take three-and-a-half hours to discover the decks of cards they’re using are unshuffled.

The Golden Nuggest, after they finally figured—after seeing forty-one straight hands with the same damn sequences over and over and over again—their cards were rigged, weren’t such bad sports about it. It “let nine of the players cash out $558,900 worth of chips.”

But poor Hua Shi of Brooklyn wasn’t one of them. He says he went back to his room after the game to knit the raveled sleeve of care, but then in busted a quartet of Planet of the Apes cast members “who pinned him against the wall and searched him and his belongings” and then kept him there overnight.

Hua Shi’s lawyer says he got the business because he was Chinese and that his treatment had nothing to do with the winnings he racked up from the stacked decks.

Recapitulation: forty-one—41!—consecutive winning hands are dealt, Casino realizes something fishy, notices unshuffled card; casino sues Gemaco, shakes down a player Hua Shi for winning too much; Hua Shi sues Casino.

I haven’t any idea how to compute the probability of 41 identical hands, because it would requiring knowing how many players played, the numbers of decks used per game, whether every player bet the same way each time, and so forth. But good grief, quantitative probability isn’t needed! Maybe, just maybe, after seeing the second hand identical to the first, we can imagine a pit boss saying, “Well, it could happen.” But after three? And then four, and even five?

The suspicion is either we’re not getting the whole story, or that casinos would not be the best hunting grounds to search for Mensa members.

If I were the judge, I’d throw out all the suits—and I wouldn’t apologize for the bad pun.

End Of The World Approaches—This Time Via A “State Shift”

Humans reproduce and multiply

“Humans,” the species nobody asked for, “now dominate Earth,” the brutes, “changing it in ways that threaten its ability to sustain us and other species,” for it is our duty to sustain other species. So goes, plus or minus, the opening strains of a melody we have been singing for lo these forty years.

This particular arrangement was conducted by Anthony D. Barnosky and his orchestra in the Nature article “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere.

Listen to the soothing lyric! “Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds.” Notice the sly use of forced: some thing is having its naughty way with Nature. What could that thing be? You know.

Historical examples of tipping points tipped? How’s a mass extinction grab you? Sure, the last one was 65,000,000 years ago, and took “2,000,000 yr to complete”, but it “could have been much shorter” (emphasis mine, and yours!). And then there’s the Cambrian explosion—an explosion!—half a billion years ago, with a bang extending over a mere 30 million years. (Let’s don’t mention the “explosion” was one of biological diversity.) Finally, glacial-interglacial transitions, the last of which was just the other day, about 11,000 years ago, and boy was it a whopper, causing the

extinction of about half of the species of large-bodied mammals, several species of large birds and reptiles, and a few species of small animals; a significant decrease in local and regional biodiversity as geographic ranges shifted individualistically, which also resulted in novel species assemblages; and a global increase in human biomass and spread of humans to all continents.

Now it is a fact that George Bush knew of each of these events, and did nothing to stop them! We’re in luck that our current administration is more caring. Just never mind the positive correlation that the coming of ice and thriving of Man were simultaneous: what matters is the transition killed off picturesque woolly mammoths.

Barnosky’s refrain is “past critical transitions occur very quickly”, meaning if they occurred very quickly in the past, they can do so again in the future. Sure, “quickly” is in thousands to millions of years, but why don’t you stop being critical and realize that “Critical transitions lead to state shifts, which abruptly override trends and produce unanticipated biotic effects.” Unanticipated, meaning we know exactly what will happen and it won’t be good.

And since we don’t know, we need to “improve biological forecasting” to anticipate “critical transitions” that can emerge; this would “minimize biological surprises that would adversely impact humanity.” This works because forecasts are an apt substitute for actual knowledge. Right, Gav?

Let me throw two more terms at you: “synergy and feedbacks.” Ha! These terms make tipping points realer when it dawns on you that individual geologic and biologic are not as absolutely, perfectly independent. Things interact: one thing changes another, which changes the first thing back, and so on synergistically. Sure, “Potential interactions between overlapping complex systems, however, are proving difficult to characterize mathematically, especially when the systems under study are not well known and are heterogeneous.”

By God, we don’t even know how many of these feedbacks and synergisms are out there! But they’re there, bet on it. And don’t you know that because we don’t know, you just know that changes in any of them caused by the likes of you, has to change things for the worse?

This is why we must “guide the biologic future.” After all, if we don’t, who will? We must keep the Earth as she is, in pristine purity, because however she is now (or was, just before the Industrial Revolution), is how she always was and always must be. Forgot those other tipping points: they’re in the past. The Earth of 1890, or 1850, or whatever, is our goal. Those climates are not in the past. They’re our future, as long as we act now.

Otherwise, “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.” Unpredictable: this is why we must predict them! As our last presidential election taught, change is not always for the better. Indeed, change is always involves “loss”, a word Barnosky loves. Why, if it weren’t for the last glaciation, we wouldn’t even be here to complain about it. Let that sink into your brain pans.


Incidentally, the same issue of Nature finds Paul “The End Is Near And This Time I Mean It” Ehrlich wielding his pen in service to the noble goal of “Securing natural capital and expanding equity to rescale civilization”. We’ll look at this tomorrow.

Statistics Of Drinking, Emailing, Pupil Size

Today, three studies from loyal readers.

Drinking Creatively

First up, the New York Post’s Kyle Smith with an anecdote:

Father O’Brien was driving home after lunch when a policeman pulled him over. “What have you been drinking?” asked the cop. “Only water,” replied the priest. “Then what’s that next to you?” said the policeman, pointing to the half-empty bottle of pinot noir in the passenger seat. “Good Lord!” said Father O’Brien. “He’s done it again!”

This broaches the worthy topic of civilized lunches. Seems that researchers set up a statistical study which got volunteers drunk and asked them to play

a game in which they were given a group of words, such as peach, arm and tar, and asked to come up with another word that could be used in combination with any of the above, such as pit.

Tipplers delivered more correct answers and delivered them more quickly. Drinkers solved nine problems on average, versus six for the sober group, and came up with answers in an average of 11.5 seconds as against 15.2 for the teetotalers.

Well, this is good enough for me. Statistics proves drinking at lunch is good for you. There must be a p-value joke in there somewhere, but it’s early and my glass of breakfast Chablis did not appear.

Control Your Pupils!

You might not be surprised to learn that ivory-tower researchers, who are not known to imbibe at their midday meals, find different ways to stimulate themselves. One of these is in measuring the “profound sex and sexual orientation differences in sexual response…based on measures of genital arousal.” Profound. This is a strategy which, interestingly enough, has “potential limitations” such as—are you ready?—“volunteer bias” (pause and reflect, dear reader, pause and reflect) plus the unacceptable circumstance that there are “differential measures for the sexes.”

Academics have now solved this discrepancy! Instead of wiring up the naughty regions of volunteers, researchers looked them right in the eye. Yes, a pair of Cornellians “assessed the pupil dilation of 325 men and women of various sexual orientations to male and female erotic stimuli.” Peer-reviewed result? “[S]elf-reported sexual orientation corresponded with pupil dilation.”

In research funded by the—drum rollAmerican Institutes of Bisexuality, academics discovered “Among men, substantial dilation to both sexes was most common in bisexual-identified men.” Oh, the work was also funded by you, in the form of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Federal Formula Funds. Which “Formula” we are never told. And don’t you think it’s just the USA: these tricks were first tried in the Great White North in the “1950s and 1970s.”

Another hard-core finding: “sexual attraction patterns of women are less affected by a partner’s sex and more by cultural, social, and situational variables.” Yes, truly, size matters: wallet size, that is.

How did they get their volunteers? The old-fashioned way: “from a web forum where men sought both men and women for sexual reasons.” What could go wrong? Once at the “facility”, volunteers “were seated in a dimly lit room facing a monitor.” Dimly.

Then came the data manipulation and statistical modeling, which produced one or two, but only one or two, p-values of the acceptable range. Must be a joke lingering there, too.

Email Me

More peer-reviewed research (pdf) tells us that “Depression is a serious mental health problem affecting a large population of college students.” To prove it, researchers asked some college kids how depressed they were and then measured their “average packets per flow, peer-to-peer (octets, packets and duration), chat octets, mail (packets and duration), ftp duration, and remote file octets.”

Lo! There was a positive statistical correlation, with publishable p-value, between some of these measures and the depression score.

Sure, were the Pearson r values between 0.06 and 0.28? They were, they were. And did “remote file octets” (perhaps accompanied with pupil dilation) have the best correlation with depression? It did, it did. Though the correlation between gloom and “average packets per flow” was nearly nil. That’s why they switched to the Spearman’s rho for this measure, where a successful p-value was finally found. There’s more than one path to a publishable p-value!

One conclusion: “Frequent email checking may relate with high levels of anxiety, which in-turn correlates with depressive symptoms.” Which in turn leads to the dismay of statisticians who read studies like these. Depression for everybody!


Thanks to Al Perrella for the first two tipples, and to Nate West for the last.

Bias Against Conservatives In Academia: Shocking New Study

Gander at this picture:

We are shocked to discover more leftists than rightists in academia

This shows self-reported political affiliation of a group of academic social and personality psychologists (this included some graduate students and post docs). The graph is difficult to read on-screen, so download the original, from the peer-reviewed paper “Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology” forthcoming in Perspectives on Psychological Science by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers.

Our authors asked, about Economics, Foreign Policy, and Social “issues,” this: “The following questions are about your OWN political attitudes. Please note: liberal is intended to mean ‘left/progressive’ and conservative is intended to mean ‘right/traditionalist.'”

Imagine our delight at finding more self-labeled moderates and conservatives than expected under Economics. Not every academic wants to take from them which have and then empower a government bureaucracy to dole back out a portion to support academic salaries. Celebrate this. And smile that the number of conservatives and moderates in Foreign Policy is not vanishingly small.

Matching the freshness of the headline “Pope Catholic”, however, is the finding of the near absence of conservatives, and even moderates!, on Social questions. In many Departments across the land, when traditional mores are mentioned we hear only the sound of one man clapping. Or no man. Especially if that man claps too vigorously.

For, can you imagine it?, academics preach tolerance and freedom, but they do not often practice it. The word you’re thinking of isn’t hypocrite, because the professor who professes “Tolerance!” has a theory which defines that word to mean something other than indicated in its dictionary entry.

Anyway, Inbar & Lammers also asked participants to self-report answers on these questions (they asked for participants’ own opinions and then for participants to judge the opinions of their departmental colleagues):

1. If you were reviewing a research grant application that seemed to you to take a politically conservative perspective, do you think this would negatively influence your decision on the grant application?

2. If you were reviewing a paper that seemed to you to take a politically conservative perspective, do you think this would negatively influence your decision on the paper?

3. If you were organizing a symposium, do you think you would be reluctant to invite a colleague who is generally known to be politically quite conservative?

4. If two job candidates (with equal qualifications) were to apply for an opening in your department, and you knew that one was politically quite conservative, do you think you would be inclined to vote for the more liberal one?

The proper answer to each, for those holding to academic freedom, open debate, intellectual honesty, and the like, is ‘No.’ We should expect, then, for the percentage saying no to be near 0, both for themselves and for their judgment of their colleagues.

But before we come to those numbers, recall that this survey is self-reported, and that human beings lie on self-reported surveys (to the questioner and to themselves), especially on topics which are contentious. Plus, the participants are sociologists and psychologists who use surveys continuously and know well how difficult it is to hide the intentions of the survey. Thus, we might expect, given our wide experience on the reporting of contentious questions, Inbar & Lammers’s results to underestimate the true propensities.

Let’s put the main finding in the words of our authors:

The more liberal respondents are, the more willing they are to discriminate.

Another Who Knew?: “We also found that women were more liberal than men in all domains” (this was in both of two datasets they used). This is academic women, dear reader, a population differing in many respects from civilian women.

For the four questions above, here are the percentages of those who answered being at least somewhat likely (I adapted this table from an Inside Higher Ed story, to align the answers with the same order of the questions):

Question Self Colleagues
1. Grant application 23.8% 36.9%
2. Paper review 18.6% 34.2%
3. Invite conservative speaker 14.0% 29.6%
4. Vote for liberal over conservative 37.5% 44.1%

About a one-fifth of academics admit they would hold a conservative’s views against him in the areas of grant applications, peer review, or in organizing symposia. This proportion doubles for voting for what an academic thinks his colleagues would do, and is therefore probably closer to the real percentage. Our authors put it this way:

The more conservative respondents were, the more they experienced a hostile climate, were reluctant to express their views to colleagues, and feared that they might be the victims of discrimination based on their political views. These fears are quite realistic: a sizeable [sic] portion of our respondents indicated at least some willingness to discriminate against conservatives professionally…

[W]e find that the more liberal participants are, the more likely they are to react negatively to work Political diversity taking a conservative perspective.

Obviously, quite obviously, these are “on average” results, with expected wide variability from institution to institution. Not much conservative discrimination, indeed probably its opposite, is expected at, say, Calvin College, where all professors must swear to the Nicene Creed. But lots and lots of discrimination is expected, and found, at places like Harvard—and there are many more Harvards than Calvins—where even a hint that one deviates (!) from the progressive line can send one packing. Buh bye, Larry.

Inbar and Lammers gave space for participants to write comments:

One participant described how a colleague was denied tenure because of his political beliefs. Another wrote that if the department “could figure out who was a conservative they would be sure not to hire them”. Various participants described how colleagues silenced them during political discussions because they had voted Republican. One participant wrote that “it causes me great stress to not be able to have an environment where open dialogue is acceptable. Although most colleagues talk about tolerance, and some are, there are a few vociferous voices that make for a closed environment.”

Even worse, one wrote “that (s)he once doubted that implicit measures really measure implicit racism, but felt too intimidated to openly ask that question.” In other words, don’t buck the consensus. If everybody uses a measure, it must therefore be right.

I gave this warning to junior faculty and graduate students a month or so back. I repeat it again today. As my old father says, Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut. If you don’t, you’ll end up with too much time on your hands, forced to take to something as low as blogging.

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