William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Thomas Aquinas & Philosophical Realism

The Statistician to the Stars, Writer of the Stars, and Rock Star Philosopher.

The Statistician to the Stars, Writer of the Stars, and Rock Star Philosopher.

Dozens of big brains, and one fat head held aloft by Yours Truly, crammed into a small room yesterday to hear all there was to know, more or less, about Thomas Aquinas & Philosophical Realism.

The meta-lesson of the conference was, that each and every day, unlike the mass of unfortunates who switch on the television to learn what to think, you should visit the blogs of Ed Feser, Mike Flynn, and Yours Truly. Immunize yourself against silliness. Spread the words!

Now to the regular lessons. First, realism does not necessarily mean what a civilian means by realism. But that’s the case with many, most, or maybe all philosophical jargon.

A civilian looks out his kitchen window to his car sitting in his driveway and thinks, “I have to replace that wretched muffler.” But an academic philosopher who has set his mind against realism will say, “The muffler, the car, the window, and even this kitchen, is a product of my imagination.” This won’t save the academic from having to visit his mechanic, but it might land him a job at a prestigious university.

But never mind. Thomistic realism is the kind of realism you most likely have in mind when you bother to think about the subject at all. Stuff exists, it’s out there; other people exist; trees make noise if nobody is around to hear them fall, and so on.

James Brent

James Brent, OP.

James Brent, OP.

Leading off was James Brent, O.P. (“Oh, a Priest”), from The Catholic University of America, with his patriotically titled “The Principle of Non-Contradiction Yesterday, Today, and Forever.”

Brent, incidentally, gave his talk in the form of an scholastic argument, which is a clean form for presenting objections and resolutions. See this argument of Thomas for an example.

Can we know any truths? Yes. And if you disagree, you agree. The principal of non-contradiction, so familiar its earned its own acronym, is one of these truths, which comes in three flavors. The one most familiar to readers here is the epistemic version, which is that a proposition cannot be both true and false simultaneously (given the same evidence). The metaphysical flavors are that something cannot be and not-be at the same time, and something cannot exist and not-exist simultaneously.

The PNC is something each of us knows. How do we know it? We don’t know. This knowledge was a gift. We cannot prove the PNC. It is obviously true. Well, the PNC is not the only item we know without proof. This is why we have the word axiom.

One of the better objections to the PNC, and by “better” I do not mean good, is the “So what?” objection. Nothing, the critic ventures, follows from the PNC. The answer to this is, “Oh yeah? So what yourself.”

No, really: that is the answer. Even if nothing follows from it, it doesn’t follow the PNC isn’t true. Nothing follows from Peano’s first axiom, either. We need to add to it a couple of other true-without-proof propositions, and then all of mathematics tumbles out. The PNC, I repeat, is not the only thing we know.

(I pay most attention to Brent and Feser’s talks because they cover ground well trodden by regular readers.)

Candace Vogler

Candace Vogler.

Candace Vogler.

Speaker two was Candace Vogler, University of Chicago with “Nature, Human Good, and Culture in Aquinas”.

As far as I understand it (which isn’t very far), there has been a creeping, cautious return to teleology in metaphysics. Directedness, powers, and all that is what frightened the Enlightened into Hume’s curious views of causation, created the so-called “mind-problem” problem, and so forth. See, if there is a direction, if actualities and potencies and all that are the right way to think of things, then this implies there might be somebody in charge of traffic flow. And that somebody is somebody we moderns are anxious not to know.

But there just isn’t any way to expunge teleological talk in many areas of science, particularly biology. “What’s the heart for?” “It’s not for anything! Everything is random meaninglessness.” People say that sort of thing, but nobody believes it. But they do say these things, which we must understand as their blustery strategy of keeping teleology at bay.

Vogler gave an interesting summary of how certain philosophers are reconsidering the old ways. They speak in new words. This has two advantages: it keeps civilians baffled, and it proves what many philosophers are ever anxious to prove, that they are independent of all those other philosophers. (That’s my view, not Vogler’s, who is vastly politer than I.)

Her best quip, in answer to a question about modern physics: “I have yet to meet the analytic philosopher who is troubled by physics.”

Again, we must keep in mind the differences between metaphysical explanations of causality and the epistemological implications of this. We don’t, it is obvious, always recall the distinction.

Ed Feser

Batting third was Ed Feser (whose picture at the podium I neglected to take; but see above), Pasadena College with his “An Aristotelian Argument for the Existence of God”. Regular readers know it (see the extended review of his book The Last Superstition). Feser had a handout which delineated the argument in a way that would make any mathematician smile, complete with diagrams. Luckily it was already given in another paper (or I would have been far too lazy to type it out):

  1. That the actualization of potency is a real feature of the world follows from the occurrence of the events we know via sensory experience.
  2. The occurrence of any event E presupposes the operation of a substance.
  3. The existence of any natural substance S at any given moment presupposes the concurrent actualization of a potency.
  4. No mere potency can actualize a potency: only something actual can do so.
  5. So any actualizer A of S‘s current existence must itself be actual.
  6. A‘s own existence at the moment it actualizes S itself presupposes either (a) the concurrent acutalization of a further potency or (b) A‘s being purely actual.
  7. If A‘s existence at the moment it actualizes S presupposes the concurrent actualization of a further potency, then there exists a regress of concurrent actualizers that is either infinite or terminates in a purely actual actualizer.
  8. But such a regress of concurrent actualizers would constitute a causal series ordered per se, and such a series cannot regress infinitely.
  9. So either A itself is purely actual or there is a purely actual actualizer which terminates the regress of concurrent actualizers.
  10. So the occurrence of E and thus the existence of S at any given moment presupposes the existence of a purely actual actualizer.

Feser very carefully—one could almost say painstakingly—one will—and painstakingly differentiated two kinds of series, accidentally and essentially ordered. Accidental series are those like “for the want of a nail a kingdom was lost.” These do not form the basis of his proof. Essentially ordered series do. The old saw of stick-pushes-rock modified is the saw is cutting the wood, the arm is pushing the saw, the muscle is pushing the arm, the cells are releasing proteins, the atom are wiggling this way, the quarks that way, and so on down to the foundation, which initiates the process, which is operating now; all members in the series are changing now, in this simultaneous moment, all pushed along by the foundational unchanging and unchangeable cause.

There must be a foundation to any such essentially ordered series: it cannot infinitely regress like an accidental series or nothing could ever change. That foundation, it turns out, has to have certain properties, all of which may be summarized with the word God. Yeah, that guy.

After Feser’s talk, a line of his numerous fans started forming at the podium. Mike Flynn, the Incomparable Marge, the Number One son, and I tried to walk to the back of it. But the line was so long it led out the door, down the sidewalk, and ended in front of a pub—where we repaired and drank pints of Guinness to wait out the storm and to sing sad songs about nobody buying our books.

John Haldane

John Haldane.

John Haldane.

Cleanup was John Haldane, St. Andrew’s University and “Aquinas and Realism”. Turns out there are several things that can be meant by “realism”: hard versus moderate versus anti, metaphysical versus epistemological, and so on. Thomas is what people usually call a “moderate” realist, the version of realism most closely akin to commonsense.

Among other things, Haldane built a circumstantial case that a well known (to other philosophers, anyway) philosopher named Étienne Gilson came to his view of Thomas’s realism because G.K. Chesterton had the same view. Or, no, wait: it’s the other way around. Anyway, the Guinness and the massive plate of eggs (topped by, I kid you not, what was billed as “angry” Hollandaise sauce) I mistakenly ate had its effects and I admit that what was left of my powers of concentration were bent on finding a corner into which I could squeeze myself into and doze.

I did hear the terms “avowers and deniers”: I liked “avowers.” Something about knowing things as they are in themselves. And that put my mind back to David Stove’s contest to discover the Worst Argument in the World.

I’ll say this for Haldane (to whom I apologize for my not paying attention): he was only one of three people in the room to wear a pocket square. Curiously, his respondent, a professor my son knew from Fordham, was the second. You know who the third was.

The brings us to our second meta-lesson. Stay away from pubs before lectures.

Infinite loop update Click on this link, then click on the appropriate link on the link. Repeat.

Hyperdrive update The OFloinn himself weighs in here.

Hammertime update Jerry Pournelle plugs the post here.



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Obamacare Predictions: How’d We Do So Far?

Quiet! The secrets of WMB are about to be revealed.

Quiet! The secrets of WMB are about to be revealed.

One of life’s real pleasures, though it lessens us to admit it, is when we get to say I told you so.

Nobody in the world, except those who believe in magic, wants health insurance. Most people, except those who like hanging about in waiting rooms, don’t even want health care. People want health. And not everybody wants that. Many people are willing to trade health for other pleasures or risk health for great rewards. Life, these people say, is meant to be lived and not spent cowering in a corner saving up health points…to be spent where? Hell? Heaven?

The government says all people want health all the time and, by gum, it will force them into it whether they want it or not. Hence bans, such as trans fats, and the monstrosity which is Obamacare.

Obamacare commits many fallacies. The first is obvious: health insurance is not health, nor does it guarantee health. The fallacy that insurance equals health is also embraced by a growing number of citizens, who now won’t venture outside without first checking with the government whether they—and therefore you, too—should wear a sweater.

Here’s a conundrum: if people didn’t spend money on health insurance, which disguises and necessarily increases the cost of health care, they would have either saved it for health care or saved or spent it on something else. Which set of people are healthier? Those who bought (expensive) health insurance? Or those who knew they’d have to pay for their own health care? I say the latter: knowing you have to pay changes your behavior, and towards those activities which are more likely to bring you to the level of health you desire (and not all desire high levels of health).

Now you can say many things to this argument, but what you cannot say is that it is certainly false. Just as you cannot say it is certainly true that forcing people into buying (expensive) insurance makes them healthier. People are going to be required, mandated, muscled into spending not just more, but much more. Hello, stress!

From a friend on Facebook, this image, which shows his Humana insurance went from $80 a month to $350 under Obamacare. I’ll leave for homework what shocking percent increase this is. His poor heart! Luckily he has insurance.

Fallacy two: government experts know the precise insurance which is not only best for you, but for your neighbor. Monstrous hubris, here.

Fallacy three: despite what his robedness (yes, robedness) John Roberts said, being forced by law to fork over your money to another private citizen is not a tax. It is extortion. The mafia was never as efficient. It is crony capitalism at its purest, most vile. Just you watch the bottom lines of insurance companies. Bonuses for everybody!

But enough. Let’s see how our predictions fared, keeping in mind that the other penny hasn’t dropped. That is, the employer mandate strikes next year, which effects more people.

Prediction Scorecard

Back in March of 2010 we made a forecast of the fun which would befall us when Obamacare hit. Lots of material here, so we’ll only cover the two main posts which were entitled “Obamacare Predictions” (Part I, Part II). I introduced only this caveat:

Here are some things I think will happen if Obamacare is passed. When I say “you” or “your”, I mean “people on average.” Obviously, some people will benefit.

Your insurance costs will increase. Nailed it.

I have tried many times to show that insurance is a bet. You are betting you will get sick and the insurer is betting you won’t. If you do get sick, the insurer pays. If you don’t, you pay. This bet is remade monthly. If you bet you’ll get sick and you already are, you are, in effect, cheating. The insurer has to pay and there is no way that the money you give him will make up for his loss.

Your health costs will increase. Got this one, too. Not only are deductible rising, but so is the cost of care. And so will it continue to rise, too. There’s also words about what will happen when the employer mandate strikes:

You or your employer will face higher insurance premiums. Thus, the extent of your coverage will be shrunk. To keep costs down, you will see higher deductibles, lower limits on payouts and such forth.

The costs of insurance paid by your employer will be offset by either cutting pay, reducing future raises, or most likely by hiring fewer workers in the future. That later will be especially true of large employers.

Your taxes will increase This one is an open question, but surely true. The full force of Obamacare has not yet been felt. However, one this is certain: government spending, as we predicted, has increased. Tax increases must inevitably follow, so this prediction will eventually come true.

Taxes are already guaranteed to increase to pay for many of Obamacare’s provisions: this is in the bill. But they will increase more than estimated because the bureaucracy must be fed. All experience shows that bureaucracies grow fatter in time, consuming more tax dollars as they do so. There has never been an instance in history where this was not so. Health bureaucracies especially grow quickly.

Your health care will degrade. Haven’t had enough time for this one, either. This is actually quite a technical prediction, and to save space here I’ll assume you have clicked through to Part II and read the prediction in full, which differs from what some pundits are saying.

Health care must eventually be “rationed,” in the same sense as it is in other countries with socialized medicine…Doctors will receive less money for their services, and this will persuade some that would opt for that career to do something else.

Your liberty will be restricted. Oh, baby! Score will bells on. Man, oh man, did I ever tell you so? I did, I did: I did tell you so. I weep over my own prescience.

Health can mean, and will come to mean, anything which is related to human behavior. Absolutely everything you can think of, or say, or do can be plausibly related to health.

Since the government will be paying the bills, it will feel it has the right to proscribe or tax any behavior that would adversely affect your “health.”

Your sense of paternalism will increase. I’m out of superlatives, but if you have any, here’s your chance to use them. I’m worried my hat won’t fit anymore. Oh, I’m so good, so very good.

But no more. Increasingly, people see “government” as something other than themselves. They see “government” as an entity that somehow exists independently and can be called upon to fix all ills, even personal ones. Resources appear like magic.

People will not be as quick to think that they or their families can take care of themselves. They will more often go to the government and asked to be looked after.

And they will be.

Results

Although you shouldn’t trust me with presidential predictions (too much wishcasting on my part), everybody should come to a hush, just like in those old stock broker commercials, when it comes to my insights into bureaucracy. When W.M. Briggs forecasts, people listen.

If you’re upset over my crowing, be happy in knowing that my reward shall be a smaller wallet and smaller list of freedoms. Same reward you get, coincidentally.

Further reading Search for Obamacare on this site for plenty of juicy words. But don’t miss Obamacare: Sympathy for Homeopathy?, Supreme Court To Rule On Obamacare for other predictions, Mark Twain On The Dictatorship Of Health, My Failure To Purchase Something In The Market Subjects Me To Regulation, Sandra Fluke Mows The Lawn: A Play In One Act.


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Beneficent Government To Ban Another Thing (Trans Fats)

We ban because we can.

Studies show the government cares about you more than you care about you, that the government loves you more than your fractured ability to love it back, that this most beneficent government, people to a man (and to a woman!), with infallible, caring, really quite brainy and ardent experts, knows what is best for you: best for you to eat, to drink, to read, everything.

I know what you’re thinking. But if the government occasionally has to lie to you, well, it’s for the greater good, for your greater good. The ends justify the means. And when the ends are bliss itself, human and earthly perfection, life without inequalities and disparities of any kind, then any means are the right means.

The hell with clinging to God and guns: the other G is where it’s at. The Government has your back, bro.

The latest bump to be removed on the path to Utopia are trans fats. The expert-filled Food & Drug Administration— without this watchful group to guide us people might eat brick dust1—has decided that you are not allowed to make a choice about whether to eat trans fats. They will ban them.

As I was writing this, a reporter came on the radio to announce the FDA will accept public comments about the “proposed” ban for the next so many days, “and then it will implement the ban.”

Yes, even reporters know what “public comments” means to agencies like FDA and EPA: nada, rien, nichts, nil, nix, nothing. (See how diverse I am?) They will do whatever they want regardless of what any member of the public says, and everybody knows this in advance.

I might remind you that the FDA is a part of the executive branch of our most wonderful government, and that bans such as this are not laws per se, but mere bureaucratic rules, fiats, made under the umbrella of whatever legislation the FDA’s clever lawyers might point to. Bans are, in effect, presidential actions. So much for Congress having the power to make laws. Truly, the Constitution is outdated.

I don’t give a damn about trans fats. The last time I thought about them was when Nanny Bloomberg—soon, alas, only citizen Bloomberg, replaced by a genuine communist; but never mind—bade the city ban them. I neither avoid nor seek trans fats. I have no idea, and have no interest in having any idea, how many of them I consume.

What’s that? You say “Research shows they’re bad for you”? So? What is that to you? You avoid them and leave me alone. Why force me to be like you? Are you worried about passive trans fatism? That stray molecules of trans fat from my cookie will waft to your gob and instantly cause your arteries to seize? Then stay far away from me.

Or are you so pathetic that you can’t exercise any self control and will gobble up any quantity of trans fats without Big Brother slapping your hand away? What an awfully sad person you must be.

“But if they government has determined that trans fats are bad, then there is no harm in banning them.” Two claims here, both wrong.

There is harm. The ban will cause a great many people inconvenience, loss of livelihoods, loss of freedoms, and so on. But worse will be in the increase in servility. People will assume the ban was right because it was the government that proposed it. Citizens are willingly entering into serfdom in exchange for a pittance.

The government may have determined trans fats are bad, but this is far from proof that they are. I have seen the statistical evidence against trans fats. It is poor, it is marginal, it is on the threshold of detection. It is ambiguous: not every study that seeks a connection between trans fats and, say, heart disease finds it.

This means the government’s claim that banning trans fats “could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year” is far from certain. Wait. Strike that. The government is 100% correct. Banning trans fats “could” save so many lives. That is logically true.

But the ban could also cause heart attacks and other deaths. That is also logically true.

The full truth is that nobody knows what the ban would do to the healths of Americans. This is not an argument in favor of a ban, in the form of some foolish precautionary principle, because we could say the same about any substance. Why not ban wheat or cars or #2 pencils because we have no idea of their effects?

We are under those sympathetic to the slogan “Whatever is not forbidden is mandatory.”


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1See this pdf on history of FDA banning drugs. Via MedicalSkeptic (@medskep).


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Students Eschewing Humanities In Favor Of Science

This magnet taught me that stealing is wrong.

This magnet taught me that stealing is wrong.

The Times is reporting that students are high-tailing it away from the humanities, scurrying into “STEM” departments.

STEM is the educational buzzword of the day—theorists in education surf from fad to fad like teenage girls deluge then snub clothing stores in a mall—and it means science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Who can be against those?

Well, I, a scientist and mathematician, user and creator of modern technology, am against them. At least I’m opposed to the idea that they are adequate replacements for history, philosophy, literature, art, music. In the last, and at base, all of those are more important.

Science and math give us terrific toasters, efficient ways of annoying strangers with our electronic toys, and are darn good fields at extracting money from Leviathan. But none of them say word one about what is the best in life, which is the ideal way to live, what life is about, why life even exists, why anything exists, what is good and what evil, what is right and what wrong.

Sure, STEM extends the lives of a few of us. But just as a for instance, consider the hidden implications of that statement. Is living longer always better? Surely not. Otherwise there would be no mountain climbers, soldiers, priests—or doctors, come to that (exposed to plenty of diseases, those fellows). Are three extra years in Shady Acres nursing home strapped to an oxygen tank worth pursuing? Or should you smite the sounding furrows like Joshua Slocum? And you can go on and on, with not one question answerable by STEM.

There are two reasons for the turning tide away from a classic education, both of them rational, more or less.

By now the almost ineradicable idea that college is a jobs training program has seeped into the minds of parents and would-be students. Not many positions teaching philosophy, music, or art history. And those venturing into these courses have to endure repeatedly the you-wants-fries-with-that “joke”, and suffer jocular taunts that they must not want a lot of money.

And there it is: money. Always money. You can use all those equations you learned in STEM classes to track your endless bounty of money. What STEM can’t tell you is what the love of money leads to. Or why should want it in the first place. Incidentally, it’s not the pursuit of money which is objectionable (even bloggers have to eat), but its unthinking pursuit.

And there’s the real problem. All of life’s real questions are left tacit with STEM, to be filled in happenstance. Everybody thinks they know the answers to questions which they’ve spent scarce time studying.

Reason two: who the hell wants to sign up for a humanities class taught by raving ideologues, by professors more intent on indoctrination than on honest exploration of truth?

Exceptions? Sure there exceptions, and plenty of them. But they are exceptions and not the rule.

Who signs up for “Philosophy of Feminism” or “Theory of Gender” courses? Something has gone badly wrong by the time a student expresses interest in a “Studies” program (Black, Women’s, Queer, Latina; endless, endless). Academic historians are fascinated by race and sex quotas. Do teenagers need courses in masturbation (yes, these exist)? And modern music and art seem purposely designed as instruments of torture.

Is it any wonder students emerging from these majors are snot-nosed brats?

What’s worse is those kiddies who spend four years studying “disparities” think they know everything worth knowing about science, technology, and mathematics. They all quote cherry-picked statistics showing the end is nigh because the world isn’t being run along what they imagine to be Utopian lines. This wouldn’t be so awful except these people have the audacity to lecture STEM graduates on STEM topics.

What a dismal situation.

Solution? There is none. Or, at least, I have none to offer. Except this: turn off all your gadgets and go read a book, preferably one written before the demographic characteristics of the author became more important than his (or her!) words. Or go talk to a priest.


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