William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 3 of 409

Disbelief In Free Will Causes Disbelief In Free Will

"I have no choice but to love thee, Theory."

“I have no choice but to love thee, Theory.”

Never was the West’s wholesale flight from philosophy and a classic education more evident than in the title of this peer-reviewed paper: Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness.

How could we have forgotten that it is impossible—not unlikely, impossible—to “disbelieve in free will”? Answer: scientism, the curious belief that science and only science is fit to answer all questions. In order to believe you must have free will because to believe is an act of will, and to believe in one proposition is to disbelieve in its contrary; therefore, in order to disbelieve you must have free will.

The paper appears in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and it’s by Roy Baumeister, E.J. Masicampo, and C. Nathan DeWall.

The abstract begins with the words, “Laypersons’ belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable.”

Laypersons. Laypersons are those unfortunate souls who are not trained in the Ways of Science and who cling to superstitions like they are rational beings.

To paraphrase the abstract: since people believe they can make free choices, the free choices they make are better than the free choices they make when they disbelieve they can make free choices.

Preposterous isn’t in it. Yet there it is. And here is more. The opening words, worth paying attention to:

Belief in free will seems widespread and intuitive. Almost every person every day has the subjective impression of making a choice in which more than one outcome is possible. The most influential religious beliefs in Western culture give prominent emphasis to doctrines of free will, assuming that human individuals can freely choose whether to perform virtuous or sinful actions and even stating that eternal judgment of individual souls rests on the choices they make. Likewise, the legal system allocates guilt and punishment differentially based on whether the rule breaker could have acted differently such that perceived reductions in the capacity for free choice (including external pressures, lack of awareness, mental illness, or intense emotion) constitute valid reasons for reduced punishment or even acquittal.

We could spend a week on this. Almost every person? Phffag. Every person. And why pick on religion, why single out jurisprudence? I’ll tell you why, because these are the areas, religion and the common law, which intellectuals are most keen on dismantling. Now that’s a judgement of psychology and not philosophy, but it’s not made lightly. Here are the authors’ next words:

Intellectuals and scientists, however, seem rather less uniformly comfortable with the idea of free will than the general public. Many scientists regard the belief in free will as untenable if not downright absurd…Although not explicitly siding with them, Wegner (2002) summarized the opposition to free will as embodying the assumption that only “bad scientists” could believe such a thing.

Do the authors consider themselves good scientists?

How in the holy heckfire do you congratulate yourself for believing you cannot believe! The only possible answer is insanity. Scientists are driven mad by love of their pure and perfect theories. They have become Pygmalion.

Authors: “To be sure, the impossibility of free will cannot be proven either empirically or conceptually.”

The reason it cannot be proven impossible is that it exists. You cannot prove that which exists does not exist, though you might conduce somebody a few slices short of a loaf to believe that which exists does not—you might even convince them that what does not or cannot exist does, like bigfoot or Utopia.

The rest of the paper is given over to “experiments” where groups of college kiddies are exposed to the researchers’ particularities and then the kiddies fill out questionnaires. The questionnaires are given numerical answers and technologically sounding names. This is what makes it science. There are statistics and wee p-values. None of this is of the slightest interest.

The end the paper with this:

The broader implication is that many people in Western culture share a belief in human freedom of action and that, moreover, human society benefits from such a belief. (Indeed, we suspect that most cultures will have found beliefs in free will to be socially beneficial and hence will tend to favor and promote those beliefs.)

I despair, I despair.


Thanks to Mangan (@Mangan150) where I first learned of this paper.

Rename “Global Warming” Contest


Andrew Jackson (‏@yodacomplex) reminded me of the screwy history of the thing that was Global Warming. The phrase has undergone many revisions, examples of which are:

  • Climate Change,
  • Climate Cataclysm,
  • Climate Chaos,
  • Climate Disruption.

Readers will have noticed the evident Anglo-Saxon preference for alliteration. If only the atmosphere would have cooperated with any of these terms, we’d at least have had a more interesting topic of conversation than The Consensus.

Consensus of what? Apparently that things are worse than we thought. I’ve pointed this out before, but if the same scientists, year after year, step to the microphone and announce “It’s worse than we thought” then the following two facts must hold: (1) these scientists are extraordinarily prone to error—can’t they ever get a prediction right?—and (2) therefore admitting membership in The Consensus is a political and not a scientific act.

Skip it. What’s true is that The Consensus was able to stir and heighten fear—even panic! even syndromes!—using the phrase “Global Warming.” Why no less than the very model of sober propriety, himself, Mr Al Gore, was made nervous enough to make a movie—and then make millions selling carbon indulgences.

Never mind. Familiarity bred its contempt and took the edge off Global Warming, but then so did the lack of global warming. So The Consensus switched to Climate Change. This was a winner in the limited sense that the climate always changes, so at least scientists wouldn’t be embarrassed by frequent flubbed forecasts. Fear rose.

But it never soared to the same heights as before. Hence quickly followed the other monikers. Yet honesty compels us to admit they were poor performers. The glory days of Global Warming are but a dim memory. People stopped caring.

This has had the effect of casting a pall over a once happy group of environmentalists. Before, Greenpeace operatives would chase you down the street, bean you over the head with their white three-ring binders, while cheerfully but adamantly delivering a “Do you have a minute to save the environment!” It was never a question, it was a mini-sermon. Whereas now they stand sullenly, offering only a weak grin and a view of their t-shirts, hoping this will be enough to enchant you into a conversation. Pathetic.

Think of all those who have devoted their lives to assuring us that the End Was Nigh! How sad, how bereft they must be! Christian charity, common human decency, requires us to take pity on these newly created intellectual vagabonds. It is our duty to cheer them, to show them hope is not lost. After all, we wouldn’t want them to all move to Belgium just so they could use that country’s generous disposal services.

Hence this New Contest to rename Global Warming. Let’s put the macabre back in meteorology! Let’s cause flesh to creep over climatology! Come on, gang: let’s get that sky falling again!


All entries must be made in the comment box below by 23:59:59 EDT 23 July 2014. One week, ladies and gentlemen.

I will be asking my pal Gav Schmidt (via Twitter) to be a judge. He might accept, too, since this contest is for his benefit. But upon his refusal or non-answer, I become the sole judge and jury.

Entries will judged on brevity, power to instill terror, memorability, and originality. The words of all entries must begin with capital letters (so I can find them).

Winners (there may be more than one) will be announced in a separate post and in this one. The winners, besides receiving the approbation due to them, will be invited to write a 300- to 400-word essay on What I Learned From Global Warming which will appear on this site. I will be in touch with the winners to arrange the details (so please use the right email when you register your entry).

Candidate #1

My entry, probably unbeatable, especially if I am to be the judge:

Apoplectic Apocalyptic Anthropogenic Atmospheric Aneurysm

Update I don’t want to single anybody out, but don’t forget the spirit of this contest. We’re here to help our sad brothers and sisters. That means a name like (I’m making this up) “Climate Silliness”, accurate as it might be, isn’t going to instill fear and panic.

On Truly Random Numbers

Don Knuth. The equations below are beautiful because of him.

Don Knuth. The equations below are beautiful because of him.

Party trick for you. I’m thinking of a number between 1 and 4. Can you guess it?

Two? Nope. Three? Nope. And not one or four either.

I know what the number is, you don’t. That makes it, to you, truly random. To me, it’s completely known and as non-random as you can get. Here, then, is one instance of a truly random number.

The number, incidentally, was e, the base of the so-called natural logarithm. It’s a number that creeps in everywhere and is approximately equal to 2.718282, which is certainly between 1 and 4, but it’s exactly equal to:

e = \sum_0^\infty \frac{1}{n!}  .

The sum all the way out to infinity means it’s going to take forever and a day, literally, to know each and every digit of e, but the only thing stopping me from this knowledge is laziness. If I set at it, I could make pretty good progress, though I’d always be infinitely far away from complete understanding.

Now I came across a curious and fun little book by Donald Knuth, everybody’s Great Uncle in computer science, called Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About whose dust flap started with the words, “How does a computer scientist understand infinity? What can probability theory teach us about free will? Can mathematical notions be used to enhance one’s personal understanding of the Bible?” Intriguing, no?

Knuth, the creator of TeX and author of The Art of Computer Programming among many, many other things, is Lutheran and devout. He had the idea to “randomly” sample every book of the Bible at the chapter 3, verse 16 mark, and to investigate in depth what he found there. Boy, howdy, did he mean everything. No exegete was as thorough; in this very limited and curious sense, anyway. He wrote 3:16 to describe what he learned. Things is a series of lectures he gave in 1999 about the writing of 3:16 (a book about a book).

It was Knuth’s use of the word random that was of interest. He, an expert in so-called random algorithms, sometimes meant random as a synonym of uniform, other times for unbiased, and still others for unknown.

“I decided that one interesting way to choose a fairly random verse out of each book of the Bible would be to look at chapter 3, verse 16.” “It’s important that if you’re working with a random sample, you mustn’t right rig the data.” “True randomization clearly leads to a better sample than the result of a fixed deterministic choice…The other reason was that when you roll dice there’s a temptation to cheat.” “If I were an astronomer, I would love to look at random points in the sky.” “…I thin I would base it somehow on the digits of pi (π), because π has now been calculated to billions of digits and they seem to be quite random.”

Are they? Like e, π is one of those numbers that crop up in unexpected places. But what can Knuth mean by “quite random”? What can a degrees of randomness mean? In principle, and using this formula we can calculate every single digit of π:

\pi = \sum_{k = 0}^{\infty}\left[ \frac{1}{16^k} \left( \frac{4}{8k + 1} - \frac{2}{8k + 4} - \frac{1}{8k + 5} - \frac{1}{8k + 6} \right) \right] .

The remarkable thing about this equation is that we can figure the n-th digit of π without having to compute any digit which came before. All it takes is time, just like in calculating the digits of e.

Since we have a formula, we cannot say that the digits of π are unknown or unpredictable. There they all are: laid bare in a simple equation. I mean, it would be incorrect to say that the digits are “random” except in the sense that before we calculate them, we don’t know them. They are perfectly predictable, though it will take infinite time to get to them all.

Here Knuth seems to mean, as many mean, random as a synonym for transcendental. Loosely, a transcendental number is one which goes on forever not repeating exactly its digits, like e or π; mathematicians say these numbers aren’t algebraic, meaning that they cannot be explicitly and completely solved for. But it does not mean, as we have seen, that formulas for them do not exist. Clearly some formulas do exist.

As in coin flips, we might try to harvest “random” numbers from nature, but here random is a synonym for unpredictable by me because some thing or things caused these outcomes. And this holds for quantum mechanical outcomes, where some thing or things still causes the events, but (in some instances) we are barred from discovering what.

We’re full circle. The only definition of random that sticks is unknown.

Your Big Government Update


Government Is Driving Inequality

One thing my lefty friends are right about is the growing number of rich. The distributions of income and of wealth are moving ever farther from uniform.

The left say it is the fault of corporations, like Google and Apple, and it is true that they’re raking it in. But to say it is the fault of corporations is like blaming the fever for the disease.

CNBC’s Rick Santelli—the guy whose previous rant launched the Tea Party—is back and has identified the cause. Government. The plot above is from Brian Maloney, a Santelli supporter, which he summarizes with these points:

1. By keeping interest rates artificially low, the Janet Yellen-led Federal Reserve has encouraged reckless government borrowing and spending while crushing savers, especially America’s retirees.

2. The Fed has focused all its efforts on making the rich even richer through Quantitative Easing while working people suffer and are ignored by Washington’s elite.

The most fun you can have is to show your lefty friends that Democrats and other big government supporters have more money (or at least no less) than Republicans and small government advocates. Big government supporters support monetary policies which make them richer. The evidence for this abounds, but it does not compute. And is therefore never accepted.

Instead, there are ever more calls for larger government to punish “the rich.” The punishment works, to an extent. Some are ruined, but except for a pittance the money flows to those who already have it. Income and wealth inequality grows.

This is why you have Joe Biden and Mrs Clinton running around saying they are “poor” and “dead broke”. Clinton shifted her millions and millions and millions into a fund which, by an accounting trick, is no longer her “personal” money. But who decides how it is spent? She does. Hilarious. Consequence? “Hillary cares for us!”

Trick is know when to move to cash. I’m thinking soon, soon. Near the mid-terms? Or closer to when our dear leader exits the scene?

Hobby Lobby Theocracy

Apoplexy wasn’t in it the day after the Hobby Lobby decision. A theocracy was only days away, screeched the left.

And you know what? The left were right again. A theocracy is coming, and when it arrives, those who refuse to deposit a pinch of incense into the flames will take it in the neck.

The new, or new-ish, religion is The State. Worship of, propitiation given to, prayers offered to, earnest supplicants for The State. The State is mother, The State is father.

Remember The State’s parable of Julia? She was held as the ideal congregant. A human being who from her lucky escape from the womb to her death relied on only one thing. The State.

Here’s what the new acolytes were angry about. The State said to employers, “Thou shalt give your employees these drugs and thou art forbidden to require from them any recompense.” Those employers who worshiped a different God said no. Sacrilege! That is the only thing that could have accounted for the frenzied anger. A god has been dishonored!

It’s true that some of the outrage was conditioned on the flight from reality (and science) that began with birth control and ends (or at least pauses before discovering a new diversion) with calls for State recognition of polyamory. Incidentally, remember when some of us predicted that? Slippery slope, said our unthinking enemies. Sigh.

That The State said It Shall Be and it wasn’t was too much for worshipers to assimilate. No debate was welcome or possible because, well, who can question a god?

Since the natural enemy of The State is Nature, which is to say Reality, look for ever shriller calls for its debasement.

The Curse of Doorknobs

Just so you don’t think it’s all doom and gloom around here, a bright (or at least funny) spot. Vancouver a short while back gave the cry, “What about the children!” and banned doorknobs.

Yes, doorknobs! Vancouver banned doorknobs.

The State having spoken, functional devices which previously all thought harmless and of little except decorative interest were seen as the true evil menaces they really were. The State cannot err.

Replacing doorknobs are those handle-type openers. If you want to see what one looks like, click to the Daily Mail, which has a picture of one sticking out of the arm of a schoolboy who ran into one.

Now I know what you’re going to say, and you’re right. At least he didn’t run into a doorknob!

Comment Policy

If you are an employee of The State, or rely on it for the majority of your living, common courtesy requires you to self-identify your conflict of interest. (Right, JH?)

Update High priests dispatched to investigate possible blasphemy.

Philosophic Issues in Cosmology: I. Introduction—Guest Post by Bob Kurland


Bob Kurland is a retired, cranky, old physicist, and convert to Catholicism. He shows that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” Psalm 19A (KJV).

“The laws of nature themselves tells us that not only can the universe have popped into existence like a proton and have required nothing in terms of energy but also that it is possible that nothing caused the big bang,” Professor Steven Hawking (Discovery Channel broadcast).

“But contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions.” Professor John Lennox (Mathematics and Philosophy of Science, Oxford University).

“I think that only an idiot can be an atheist! We must admit that there exists and incomprehensible power or force with limitless foresight and knowledge that started the whole universe going in the first place.” Professor Christian Anfinsen (Nobel Prize for Chemistry), quoted in Cosmos, Bios and Theos.

There has been much heat, and only some light after the publication of Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s The Grand Design, a work that claimed the universe started from nothing because of gravity. I’m not going to recapitulate the excellent rebuttals of the Hawking/Mlodinow thesis (including a fine one by Stacy Trasancos), but rather expand on the proposition given in the quote by Professor Lennox above. What can science tell us about Creation, and what can it not?

Let’s first inquire what science is about. Fr. Stanley Jaki maintains in The Limits of a Limitless Science that science requires quantitative, empirical verification (or rejection) of predictions based on theory. Although this restricts true science to the so-called “hard” discipline (physics in particular, chemistry and other sciences insofar as they are quantitative), I concur. This quantitative verification requirement then puts assertions that cannot be empirically verified (or falsified) into the realm of metaphysics—thus M-theory, most interpretations of quantum mechanics, and many assertions about creation should be judged as propositions in philosophy/metaphysics.

This condition applies especially to cosmology—the scientific discipline that deals with our Universe as an entity. I’ll expand on this, taking material from an article previously posted on the Magis Facebook site,1 which in turn summarized a review article by George F.R. Ellis.

What are the conditions that require cosmology to have a philosophic base?

Intrinsic limitations on scientific cosmology studies:

  1. We can’t step outside the universe or duplicate it as an experimental object;
  2. We explore the universe by electromagnetic radiation (from radio to gamma rays), which limits the distance out and, correspondingly, the past time for which measurements can be made. This limitation is of two types.
    1. The first is a time horizon due to the coupling of matter and radiation at times before the universe was about 380,000 years old, giving an opaque barrier at distances/times corresponding to less than 380,000 years from the beginning. This means that there is a time horizon—we cannot see further back in time than 380,000 years after the origin.
    2. The second limitation is a distance horizon—if the universe expansion is uniform, such that the further a point is from us (and, correspondingly, the further back in time), the faster it is moving—then there will be a distance d, such a star at that distance d will be moving away from us at the speed of light, or faster. This means that we cannot communicate at distances greater than d, since communication can only take place at the speed of light.

An important consequence of the time horizon is that we have to infer what happened before the 380,000 years from the properties of the universe we determine after that time. So theories about singularities, quantum origins, inflation can only be tested (if at all) by predictions about the state of our universe at times greater than or equal to 380,000 years from the origin.

An important consequence of the distant horizon has to do with causality. Two events cannot influence each other (since interactions cannot travel faster than the speed of light) if they are further apart than the distance horizon. This is one of the reasons that “inflation” is invoked in the very early life of the universe. (See below.) The early universe was larger than the horizon distance d (speed of light times age of the universe), so the question is how was a causal relation retained between different parts of the early universe to give the same temperatures and densities (approximately) for parts of the universe that were not causally connected.

There is also a practical limitation, a physics horizon. The energies in the early stages of the Big Bang are so high that there is no way that these could be duplicated in the laboratory, despite occasional claims of popular science writers to the contrary.

Thus, as George Ellis emphasizes, “Testable Physics cannot explain the initial state and hence the specific nature of the universe” (Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology). Accordingly, cosmology rests on philosophy, on metaphysical assumptions. Two of the most important of these assumptions are, according to Ellis:

THESIS A1: The universe itself cannot be subjected to physical experimentation. We cannot re-run the universe with the same or altered conditions to see what would happen if they were different, so we cannot carry out scientific experiments on the universe itself.

THESIS A2: The universe cannot be observationally compared with other universes. We cannot compare the universe with any similar object, nor can we test our hypotheses about it by observations determining statistical properties of a known class of physically existing universes. George Ellis, Issues in the Philosophy of Cosmology.

Read Part II.


1This will be the first of seven posts, taken in part from previous posts on the Magis Facebook site.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2014 William M. Briggs

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑