William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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What Do Philosophers Believe? Survey: Part II

Read Part I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Part I.

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

What Do Philosophers Believe? Survey: Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amish Romance Meets Teen Vampire Fiction

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

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

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

Vampire Amish!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow she knew.


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

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

Warnings by Mike Smith

Mike Smith :: Warnings

Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather

by Mike Smith

Buy here.

I met Mike Smith in 1994 or 1995 at an American Meteorological Society annual meeting. I tried to convince him of some crazy idea I had about making money off of short-term climate forecasts, made available monthly from the then Climate Prediction Center.

He showed the good business sense he was known for by saying, in the politest way imaginable, that I was nuts. He paid for the beer, though, which shows his generosity. As does his sending me a copy of his new book, Warnings. You might have also seen Mike as a commenter to the blog.

Like a lot of weather geeks, Smith became interested in the weather by experiencing it. In his case, the hard way: a tornado. One, unannounced, whipped through his hometown when he was a boy in the 1957. His family made it, but a lot of others didn’t.

The reason many were wiped out was that the Weather Bureau, as the National Weather Service was then known, was forbidden to issue tornado warnings. Or even to use the word “tornado.” Reason? Fear of false alarms and panics. The bureaucracy at the time thought a few dead bodies here and there was better than the bad publicity of a possibly blown forecast.

It was a combination of the efforts of private media and a long string of bad luck in the form of deadly tornado outbreaks that finally knocked some sense into the bureaucracy. Nowadays, of course, tornado warnings are considered reliable and lifesaving.

Smith started off as a television weatherman and was there at the beginning of broadcasting radar images to the public. In color! He turned his forecasting skills into profit when he started WeatherData, a company that provided custom predictions for corporate clients like train transport firms. Knowing where to avoid high winds and floods saves them a lot of money. Smith recently sold WeatherData to Pennsylvania-based Accuweather.

The story is Ted Fujita’s as much as Smith’s. Fujita’s passion was storms and storm damage. It was he that devised the well known rating scale, F0 to F5, used to classify the strength of a tornado coupled with the amount of destruction it wreaks.

In his work, Fujita pored over an immense number of photographs, compiled eyewitness reports, and assimilated massive amounts of weather data. Not just to classify tornadoes, but to show where hot spots hurricanes are. But his ideas were always regarded with initial suspicion; he always had to swim upstream.

His greatest success come from persevering through the stiff criticism of consensus, which assured the world that microbursts were fictional. These are rapid, powerful downdrafts of winds accompanying some storms. Through intense skepticism, Fujita proved that microbursts were responsible for many crashes of jets, usually on takeoffs and landings.

Meteorologists and the FAA eventually succumbed to weight of evidence and installed specialty radars at airports that could “see” wind; since then, no more crashes due to microbursts. Not that bureaucracy was defeated. The FAA still does not directly share its weather data with the public or with the NWS.

Smith includes some technical details, but very few; not enough to turn off non-mathematical readers. For example, he points out that when a gram of water vapor condenses it released 540 calories of energy, which is, of course, true. Think of it as returning the energy used to turn the liquid water into gas.

Most people, I think, don’t have a good feel for how much energy a calorie is. Smith gives the hint that supercell thunderstorms release megatons on sheer power, so those grams of condensing water really add up!

And we never learn why locating radars higher off the ground results in more ground clutter return and not less (there is more backscattering from the radar beam sidelobes). But these are trivial criticisms.

When I was starting out in meteorology, I recall talking with other weather-types about what would happen if New Orleans ever got whacked by a hurricane: they’d be dead meat. And everybody knew it. Except New Orleans and Louisiana politicians, who chose not to know it, or to forget about it.

Yet Hurricane Katrina—which was as well forecasted as a storm can possibly be—still took the appalling mayor Ray Nagin and other officials by surprise. Smith leads us through the tragedy of ineptitude step by step. One example: why were firefighters and other rescue workers a day late? They first had to stop in Atlanta to take a mandatory course on sexual harassment before they were allowed in the field. Ah, the wisdom of government and delights of political correctness.

Still, the overall story is one of success. Improvements in the science of meteorology and in the technological tools have certainly saved a lot of lives. And the future appears bright.

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