William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Aesthetics: Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica Part X

An objectively weepingly hideous building off Delancey.

An objectively weepingly hideous building off Delancey.

Previous installments: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX.

Remember our review of Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica? We did nine (of ten plus one) chapters, then I laid aside the book and forgot all about it. When I was rearranging my books yesterday, I rediscovered it. Off we go!

Article 1: Whether beauty is an objective reality?

You bet it is. Even if you don’t want it to be. Here’s your very own self-made proof. Take a look at “Eventos de la vida de Moisés” by Botticelli. Study it at your leisure. When ready, take an ordinary blank piece of white paper and a green crayon, and in 30 seconds recreate, to the best of your ability, Botticelli’s work.

Before you will be two works of art, yours and his. Which is objectively better? Which is the more beautiful? Be honest.

This works with music, too. Try it with St Matthew’s Passion. Listen to the piece for as long as you like, then whip out your kazoo and, by memory, recreate Bach’s masterpiece. Which was the better, i.e. the more beautiful, performance? Yours or Richter’s? Now compare your playing to the Beatles or whatever is the top “hip hop” tune. In this case, you have a solid chance of winning.

But isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? If it is, that’s a strange place for beauty to live. There isn’t a mother-loving reader out there—I assume you all love your mothers—who has not made a comparison between works of art or music and pronounced this good, that bad. That means you had an objective standard towards which the art aimed, and that one approached the objective standard more closely than the other.

There can be argument at the fine level. Richter might have two bad nights in a row, conducting the first movement well but the second not as well one night and the reverse the second night. Now which was the more beautiful performance? Tricky. Our answer may only be probable. But then so much of our knowledge is. We do not claim objective physical reality does not exist when our knowledge is only probabilistic. If Jones is in the dock on trial for the murder of Smith, we might never know for certain that Jones did the deed, but we know it is true somebody did. Just because we can’t say with certainty it was Jones we don’t say murder isn’t a real thing or that it “depends on your prospective.”

Kreeft: “Disagreement does not prove subjectivity. If everyone disagreed about the correct answer to a complex mathematical equation, or about the location of a hidden treasure, that disagreement would not make the truth of the matter subjective.”

You can’t go by preferences, neither. People often prefer that which is bad or bad for them well knowing this to be the case. This is what sin is, after all.

Article 2: Whether beauty consists in harmony?

This one has “Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Cassiodorus, Aquinas” on its side. Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, too.

Aren’t they always going on and on (Sagan not so much anymore) about how beautiful, how harmonious is the universe? You know they are, and on this subject they’re right. The mistake they and materialists make is saying the universe is the only beautiful thing.

But isn’t it so that “dissonances are often more beautiful than consonances?”

The harmony of dissonances with consonances is part of music’s higher harmonies, as colors are harmonious blends of light with darkness. The dissonances frame, reveal, and augment the beauty of the consonances as darkness does to light, absences to presences, and pains to pleasures.

Article 3: Whether beauty is the object of love?

Yes. Kreeft:

[I]f the terms are conceived broadly enough, beauty can be defined as id quod videtur placet, “that which, being seen, pleases.” Whatever (id quod) is apparently (videtur) pleasing (placet) and satisfying is the object of our desire, for desire always seeks its own satisfaction. And whatever is desired, is loved. Therefore beauty is the object of love.

Article 4: Whether beauty moves us more than truth?

Except for inveterate mathematicians, it does. After all, how many high schools blurt out, “I love these beautiful and true algebraic equations!”? Novels sell better than books of philosophy. More people line up at the cinema for adventure than for documentaries. And “there are far more poems in praise of beauty than in praise of truth. Poems may not be a reliable index of objective truth, but they are a reliable index of what moves human love.”

Given the “poetry” one hears today, in the form of popular song, what moves people isn’t pretty. Yet how many, in their ignorance, are convinced it is?

Incidentally, there are also attacks on truth, but you have to submit yourself to an education to be plagued by these.

Article 5: Whether beauty moves us more than goodness?

Yep. “If beauty did not move us more than goodness, temptation would be impossible, for temptation uses the attractiveness, or apparent beauty, of something that is evil to lure us to prefer it to what is good [emphasis added].”

Article 6: Whether souls are more beautiful than bodies?

They are. But don’t forget that the soul is the intellective form of the human being. It is not a material object. Neither are our intellects material. Our souls can move beyond particulars, which are the only things our senses/brains can enjoy, and grasp universals, like truth and beauty. And universals are greater beauties than particulars.

Since our souls are capable of greater feats than our bodies, this makes them, in principle, more beautiful. Or uglier, depending on the soul in question.

Article 7: Whether persons are the most beautiful things in the world?

Indeed, I take this as read. We only ever have to be careful of those insane or evil persons who disagree. Like those who would save a newt—or an ideology—at the expensive of a human being.

Article 8: Whether all persons are beautiful?

They are. Yet some folks are especially vile. “Since the corruption of the best is the worst, these persons are the ugliest and least beautiful of all things in nature. Hitler is uglier than a hyena.” But “[g]reat evildoers are morally ugly only because they are ontological beautiful.” (The ontological beauty of what they are, not what they do.)

[T]he most important of all moral obligations is to have love and goodwill for all persons. But we are not to love evil, only good. And whatever is good, is also beautiful. Therefore all persons are beautiful.

Article 9: Whether God is beautiful?

Certainly. Speaking analogically, God is beauty. To pick just one example:

Whatever is true and good is beautiful, for beauty is a property that flows from truth and goodness. But God is supremely true and good. Therefore God is supremely beautiful.

Article 10: Whether music is the primal art and language?

My friends, it is. This is why it is so painful to see our language so debased and stunted. When you lack words for a concept, or the meaning of those words are twisted, you can’t speak coherently or truthfully about it.

Kreeft lapses into poetry:

[M]usic is the primary art because everything in the universe is held together by harmonious musical waves of energy/matter, and God is highest music of all, which is the harmony of love. Music has the ability, more than any other art, to ravish us into out-of-body experiences, or transcendence of self-consciousness.

Next and last time: Sample questions in ten extensions of philosophy.


Analysing Perceptions Of Cute Videos Of Threatened Species

Another peer-reviewed paper for you. “Tickled to Death: Analysing Public Perceptions of ‘Cute’ Videos of Threatened Species (Slow Lorises — Nycticebus spp.) on Web 2.0 Sites” by K. Anne-Isola Nekaris and others.

Seems the authors surfed over to YouTube and watched a video of some guy tickling a slow loris. Like this one:

“Cute”, said many in comments. “I want one,” said others, overwhelmed by the cuteness but, as is usual in the English language, saying this as a figure of speech. Meaning they didn’t really intend to acquire the wee beastie, but used the phrase to indicate they thought it was adorable.

This perplexed and shocked Nekaris who knew the slow loris was “endangered.” What if everybody wanted one. So she and her fellows set to analyzing “12,411 comments” over “33 months” to this “Web 2.0″ video to quantify people’s “perceptions” of the big-eyed poisonous creature.

Because “[a]nalyses of webometric data posted on the internet allow us quickly to gauge societal sentiments.” And because—this is science, now—“Web 2.0 sites provide online platforms for people to interact and collaborate to share interests, activities, backgrounds, or real-life connections by allowing users to share their personal details, information, ideas and imagery.”

Plus “Web 2.0 resources such as YouTube are amongst the most powerful media for increasing awareness”.

Since we are all postmodernists now, there is nothing more scientific than raising awareness. This is when you tell somebody about some political cause and the act of telling them convinces them to believe instantly that which is required of them.

Anyway, “There is an urgent need to quantify the impacts the role the internet has on wildlife trade by recording user behaviour and related attitudes that may lead to such behaviours [emphasis added].”

Turns out the cutie video was posted in lots of places. Our scientists tracked where and when to “give an indication of virility of the video.” Comments from all the sites where gathered and classified. Most were of the awwww variety. Some commenters knew the filthy animal was poisonous. But—recall we’re doing science—“Comments containing more than one category (e.g. ‘it’s so cute — where can I get one?’) were scored twice.”

And then the unexpected happened. On a dark and stormy night in March 2011 a shocking new video was posted, upsetting the scientific structure of the experiment. This video:

Isn’t that the cutest thing you’ve ever seen? Then, somehow (I didn’t read that closely). celebrities got involved.

Grade-A names like Deidre Funk, Tom Kaulitz, Ricky Gervais and, yes, Betty White. Stephen Fry was caught saying “Those of you who champion the slow loris do have a point, of course.” Well, you can guess the rest.

Enter statistics: “non-parametric statistical tests”, “chi-square tests”, “outliers”, and, even a “Kolmogorov-Smirnov two-sample test.” Pure science.

Results? “The three most common types of comments referred to the animal being cute; the viewer commenting on what the animal was doing; or the viewer wanting one as a pet.”

Two spikes were discovered in viewing patterns. One, confirmed with a wee p-value, coincided with the release of the March 2011 umbrella video. “The second spike in January 2012 corresponded with the airing of Jungle Gremlins of Java,” a television program featuring various bizarre animals (recipes were not given).

Finding number two: The drop in “I-want-one” comments “was not significant after the March 2011 spike, where the proportion of commentators who stated they ‘wanted’ a loris did not significantly differ from those who stated they wanted one during the previous six months (χ2 = 1.48, df = 1, p = 0.22).”

Finding number three: Celebrities matter. “Most commentators coming to the site as a result of celebrity endorsements wrote neutral responses (75%), referring just to the celebrity.”

All this led to the discussion of tobacco. Yes, tobacco. “Since many countries have now banned the advertising of potentially harmful products in the interest of public health, the internet has become the new mechanism of choice for advertising products such as tobacco.” Perhaps there was a video of the slow loris smoking a cigar that I missed.

Anyway, more importantly, “Celebrity endorsements are meant to have a powerful psychological effect, as those viewing the endorsement are believed to follow a typical pattern, whereby they hope to identify with the celebrity, wanting to adopt their image.”

This had something to do with the depressing conclusion “In our study, despite the proportion of people wanting [a slow loris] as a pet statistically dropping, the number of commentators that wanted one remained high.”


Thanks to the Neuroskeptic where I learned of this “study.”


fMRI Discovers Freud, Distribution Plushies Lurking In Brain

Erlang is the gray one with the disapproving, Freud-like moustache.

Erlang is the gray one with the disapproving, Freud-like moustache.

Regular readers will know my opinion on fMRI research. Nothing but newfangled electronic phrenologic theory-discovering machines. Well, I take it all back.

Yes, the new paper “A Triple Dissociation of Neural Systems Supporting ID, EGO, and SUPEREGO” by Steven Z. Fisher and Stephen T. Student in the obscure journal Psyence has forced me to reconsider, recogitate, and finally recant.

Our authors chased after the elusive Id, Ego, and Superego, certain sure these were nestled, hidden from prying eyes, deep inside the skulls of college students. They gathered twenty-four of these creatures, “all 19-year-old white, undergraduates who sat near each other in an Introductory Psychology course and were raised in upper middle class suburban New England neighborhoods” and slipped them into an fMRI machine.

But they had to exclude 17 for “falling asleep in the scanner.”

The remaining seven were asked to view a “fixation cross” (shades of religion?) after which the prompt “MOTHER” would appear for twenty seconds, and participants were asked “to think about their mother” (Oedipal urges perhaps?) This cycle was repeated several times, with a “jittered intertrial time” from “2 to 34 seconds…drawn from an Erlang distribution.”

Why the Erlang? It “was selected because it is our favorite distribution plushie sold on Etsy.com by far: link” (pictured above).

The participants were video taped and—here is the unique experimental twist—“Two independent coders viewed the videotapes and made precognitive judgments of the onset of ID-related, EGO-related, and SUPEREGO-related control of current thoughts.” They selected just those coders who had the “highest scores of precognitive ability” (the scoring was based on work from a tenured professor at Cornell—ahem).

The “onset times were convolved with a canonical hemodynamic response function and used to predict neural activity across the whole brain. The three regressors (ID, EGO, SUPEREGO) seemed reasonably orthogonal”, although, they added, “we didn’t actually check to make sure.”

This is the future of science.

This is the future of science.

The results are pictured here: three regions of the brain lit up and were associated with the three regions of the brain sought after. Critics will say there are five regions glowing (count them), but these critics will have failed to realize only three regions were theorized.

Indeed, the authors say, “A large cluster of ID-related neural activity was located in the brainstem. No other regions of the brain showed ID-related activity. This result is not surprising given well known links between the brainstem and consciouness [sic].” The authors even reference another peer-reviewed work which backs this bold statement.

But it is no bolder than this:

This region is also ideally situated to translate the ID’s drives into behavioral action (10). Finally, SUPEREGO-related neural activity was localized to lateral prefrontal and parietal cortex. These effects are consistent with the top-down control aspects of the SUPEREGO.

Footnote (10) above (a common scientific source) was this: “Thus the ego, driven by the id, confined by the superego, repulsed by reality, struggles…[in] brining about harmony among the forces and influences working in and upon it, and readily ‘breaks out in anxiety’.” Standard Freudian stuff.

As always, more research is needed:

…Social Neuroscience, Neuroeconomics, and Developmental Social Cognitive Affective Clinical Neuroscience are just not cutting edge enough anymore. Do not despair. This study represents the first of what is likely to be a productive and active new field of Psychoanalytic Neuroscience.

This is undoubtedly true. Neuroanalysis will surely join neuroeconomics, neuroethics, neuropolitics, neuromarketing, neurolaw, neurophilosophy, and neurotheology and the sciences which prove, once and for all, that we are but slaves to our brains.

Update The creator of the plushies said, “I use the open-source program R to create the patterns.” This makes them reproducible, a key component of science. See also her Stat-O-Latern and the bat-winged “Standard” Normal Distribution.


Thanks to Sally Satel, co-author or the you-must-buy-it Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience for directing us to this paper.


Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape Challenge: Win Big Money!

Can you guess his secret?

Brother Luís Dias informs us that arch-atheist Sam Harris has thrown down the silken gauntlet. Pfffssshh! Or maybe it’s pfffthclunk? Because this one’s stuffed full of hope—to the tune of twenty large.

I neither joke nor jest: “hope” is the right word. For his glove is only potentially a Christmas stocking. More likely he’ll give away only a tenth the promised amount.

To explain. Harris is having a contest, inviting refutations of the central thesis to his The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. He says that if anybody can convince him, he’ll publicly recant his error and fork over the twenty gees. But in a fit of magnanimity, even if he doesn’t allow himself to see his mistakes, he’ll still sign a check for two thousand and publish the winning essay on his website.

The only dueling tool you’re allowed is one-thousand spare English words. Never mind it took Harris over fifty times that many. Which he used to entangle himself in a dense thicket of fallacy. So be of good cheer: a blade is a quicker and cleaner kill than a bludgeon. (Look at those metaphors fly!)

Here’s what you have to disprove:

Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

Anybody else notice that he started with an unjustified—and false—premise? Utilitarianism is one of philosophy’s walking dead. It was slain long ago, yet the damn thing doesn’t have the good sense—or taste—to fall down. Skip it. For now.

Harris provides himself a FAQ, of which the most interesting question is this:

2. Can you give some guidance as to what you would consider a proper demolition of your thesis?

If you show that my “worst possible misery for everyone” argument fails, or that other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be, or that my analogy to a landscape of multiple peaks and valleys is fundamentally flawed, or that the fact/value distinction holds in a way that I haven’t yet understood—you stand a very good chance of torpedoing my argument and changing my mind.

Notice he says only a “good chance”. Harris isn’t his own judge. He tapped fellow ardent atheist Russell Blackford who will judge the submissions and “evaluate” Harris’s response. Best of Irish Luck, Rusty. Hope you don’t need sleep. (Prediction: since this contest is on the internet, more judges will be recruited.)

Smart money says Harris won’t acknowledge his errors. He’ll have to pony up the two thousand (only one of which is from him; the other half of both prizes came from a secret admirer), but unless a miracle occurs best guess is he remains status quo ante contest. So let’s pray for that miracle. They happen.

I tease Harris, but at least a thou. of his own? Boy! Plus—salute the man!—he’s got the guts to do this in public. Even if he leaves on his blinders, there’s all those souls who will read the exchange and find happiness. Man, I’m so stoked about the whole thing that I vow to buy Harris a massive glass of Château Thames Embankment if ever we should meet (all I can afford; he can swap it for beer). I say this even though his statistics are rotten.

Who besides me is entering?

Here are his Official Rules. Submissions will be accepted here the week of February 2-9, 2014.

Postscript I’m not going to post my winning (or winnable) essay here until February 10th.

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