William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Video: The Crisis Of Evidence, Or, Why Probability & Statistics Cannot Discover Cause

Thanks to Jeremy Snavely at DDP for putting up the talks. Here’s a direct link. Here’s the paper.

Q & A starts around 52:30 minutes. Since some readers were curious, George Gilder questions me about falsifiability around 56 minutes.

Yes, I was aware how close to the edge of the stage I was. It was a small platform. I’m used to running up and down the aisles waving my arms around like an ape, so I felt rather constrained here.

And as long as we’re at it, I’m no fan of “slides.” I try to have few to no pictures or other aides other than those that are essential. It’s a mystery why any would want to have a picture that says boldly, “These are the words I’m saying” while I’m saying the words that they’re saying.

I have learned that businesses now call groups of slides “decks.” They speak of “working on decks”, and this is true. Vast manpower is given over to perfecting PowerPoint pictures that are shown only once or rarely. The scourge of WYSIWYG.

Summary Against Modern Thought: God Can Read Your Mind

This may be proved in three ways. The first...

This may be proved in three ways. The first…

See the first post in this series for an explanation and guide of our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles. All posts are under the category SAMT.

Previous post.

ESP on a galactic scale? Or, there is no hiding from the Truth.

Chapter 68 That God Knows The Movements Of The Will (alternate translation)

[1] IN the next place we must show that God knows our mind’s thoughts and our secret wills.

[2] For everything, in whatever way it exists, is known by God, in as much as He knows His essence, as we have shown above.[1] Now some things are in the soul, and some in things outside the soul. Wherefore God knows all these differences of things and whatever is contained under them. Now the things in the soul are those that are in our will or our thought. It remains, therefore, that God knows what we have in our thoughts and wills.

Notes The soul, don’t forget, the form of the rational animal man. Your soul is you. It is not material. It cannot be weighed. It exists, therefore, in the mind of God, as it were. We haven’t reached the book or chapter on soul yet, but here is a link to the Summa Theologica.

[3] Moreover. God so knows other things in knowing His essence, as effects are known through their cause being known.[2] Accordingly by knowing His essence God knows all the things to which His causality extends. Now this extends to the works of the intellect and will: for, since every thing acts by its form which gives the thing some kind of being, it follows that the highest source of all being, from which also every form is derived, must be the source of all operation; because the effects of second causes are to be referred in a still higher degree to first causes. Therefore God knows both the thoughts and the affections of the mind.

Notes It may or may not be surprising to you that we always come back to the First Cause. Every here-and-now change needs a first changer or first cause. That’s back in Chapter 13. Though there are any number of secondary causes, since God is the ultimate cause, He must know what He’s up to. Thus He knows what’s in your will and in your intellect.

[4] Again. Even as His being is first and consequently the cause of all being, so His act of intelligence is first, and consequently the cause of all intellectual operation. Wherefore just as God by knowing His being knows the being of everything, so by knowing His act of intelligence and will He knows every thought and will.

Notes Scary, ain’t it? Or rather sobering and plain enough. What’s the line about fear and trembling?

[5] Further. God knows things not only as existing in themselves, but also as existing in their causes, as proved above:[3] for He knows the relation between cause and effect. Now the products of art are in the craftsman through the intellect and will of the craftsman, even as natural things are in their causes through the powers of the causes: for, just as natural things liken their effects to themselves by their active powers, so the craftsman by his intellect gives his handiwork the form whereby it is likened to his art. It is the same with all things done of set purpose. Therefore God knows both our thoughts and our wills.

Notes Man is God’s handiwork. Why? It is a mystery; i.e. a mystery in the theological sense. God did not need to make us, but here we are. To say we’re here because God loves us is merely to rephrase the mystery. I have nothing to offer on this. Others do, and we’ll meet some answers in later chapters.

[6] Again. Intelligible substances are no less known to God than sensible substances are known to Him or to us: since intelligible substances are more knowable, for as much as they are more actual. Now the informations and inclinations of sensible substances are known both to God and to us. Consequently, since the soul’s thought results from its being informed, and since its affection is its inclination towards something–for even the inclination of a natural thing is called its natural appetite–it follows that God knows our secret thoughts and affections…

[8] The dominion which the will exercises over its own acts, and by which it is in its power to will and not to will, removes the determination of the power to one thing, and the violence of a cause acting from without: but it does not exclude the influence of a higher cause from which it has being and action. Thus causality remains in the first cause which is God, in respect of the movements of the will; so that God is able to know them by knowing Himself.

Notes A crude summary: your will decides to act, but the power of your will to make this move is given or caused by God. This power isn’t material, either. How this operation is carried out, nobody knows fully. It is, of course, no argument to say that because nobody understands how it could work that therefore it doesn’t work. That would be like saying airplanes can’t fly because children don’t understand them. We observe the thing to happen. We just don’t understand why, and possibly never will.


[1] Chs. xlix., l.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ch. lxvi.
[4] Ps. vii. 10.

The Only Metric That Matters


I’ve been reading reviews of the the peevish Jerry Coyne’s new book Faith Versus Fact (I don’t have any money to give him to buy an actual copy). Recommended is Austin Hughes at The New Atlantic, to be read first, and then Steven Pinker in the peer-reviewed journal of science Current Biology (sent to me by reader Jake).

Coyne has never impressed—Hughes finds the man true to form—but what’s interesting to us are Pinker’s words:

Coyne’s final chapter is called “Why Does it Matter?”. The ultimate appeal of belief in belief is that religion is needed (at least by other people) as a bulwark against selfishness, shallowness, and immorality. Coyne replies that agreed-upon moral precepts, such as telling the truth and not harming others, are rules for living together that any intelligent gregarious beings would put into their social contracts, needing no divine sanction. In contrast, little good can come from parochial doctrines that cannot be justified by universal standards of reason. Coyne doesn’t dwell on obvious historical disasters, such as religious wars and persecutions, but he devotes a section apiece to some of the more insidious harms fostered by faith today: the withholding of medical care to sick children, the suppression of heretical biomedical research and public-health policies, the opposition to assisted dying, and the denial that anything should be done about anthropogenic climate change. In several sections, Coyne plays the ultimate empiricist trump card: data from Greg Paul showing that the godless democracies of northern and western Europe are thriving, while the religious ones — most pointedly the United States — have far higher rates of societal dysfunction, such as violent crime, preventable disease, and mediocre education.

We could spend a week with this (how many people did the great atheist-socialist countries wipe out in the Twentieth Century?). But let’s focus on the end. That “ultimate empiricist trump card” is bombastic. And comparing dinky racially, ethnically, and culturally homogeneous countries with populations less than that of New York City on a weekday is silly. It’s done all the time, of course, and Coyne and Pinker are merely the latest victims of pseudo-quantification. But apples aren’t oranges.

A better, but still unfair, comparator is Sweden, which is by government mandate increasing its diversity (on all three fronts). How many grenade attacks were there in Malmö this past week? Or how many rapes in Rotherham England? On the other hand, those statistics might back Coyne and Pinker’s point after all, as some might suggest (none would dare claim) that these degradations were religiously predicated. Not the Christian religion, incidentally.

But skip it. Let education level, happiness index, or percent poverty be the pinnacle of empirical measurement. Whichever social or economic barometer picked is wrong. There is only one metric that matters, and that is the number of souls who slip into the empyrean.

Conditional first on the existence of God. And don’t ask which God. The necessary God, the God responsible for upholding creation in each-and-every moment, the omnipotent, omniscient God, the God who called Himself I Am Who Am. Christ Himself. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost. Accept at least arguendo.

Then it is no argument at all to say that Saved Souls is the only scoreboard worth watching. Anything else, as nice as it is, fades into dimness.

Strange, then, that we have Church bosses who can’t bring themselves to say this, and who instead act like arch-atheist Coyne, prattling on about energy-saving light bulbs, immigration policy, or any of the same empirical measures not of paramount interest.

Side note: a crude rough iffy proxy to this, although one far from perfect, is the yearly or decadely per capita number of saints a region or country produces. Probably next to useless, but it can be counted. Idea is that more officially recognized (by the Church) saints imply more saints overall. Though the opposite argument that more saints are present when times are worse is equally plausible. Skip this too.

Now presume what is false, that God does not exist. Since this is a false premise, we might end up anywhere. Let’s try anyway. We need a metric or metrics. Doesn’t matter what you pick. Say infant mortality rate. (You can even pick groups of these; whatever you like is fine, as long as it’s contingent.)

Are lower or higher rates better? Who says? You? What makes you so special? Suppose you find, as you will, a group of folks who are adamantly opposed to your point of view? You have only three strategies:

  1. Find enough like-minded folks to overwhelm your detractors. Might (voting) makes right.
  2. Live with the disagreement and say everybody is entitled to their own opinion.
  3. Say that it’s not really infant mortality rate that is the true measure, but insist that it is correlated with the true measure of interest, which is something else appealing to you.

Every one of these moves is an admission that the measure you picked is worthless after all. Whichever you select must eventually lead you to concede that nothing matters, not even your own life.

If you select (1), you could easily end up in the minority (somebody will be in the minority). If so, on the pain of logical consistency, you must adopt the viewpoint of the majority. You must flip flop. You must conclude that what you thought was right was wrong. Winston Smith could do it, and so can you.

Number (2) is easily seen to be squishy. What do you do if you find yourself a member of a hated group in a society bent on your group’s extermination? That society adopted (1)—and you suddenly find (2) not persuasive. Not every culture has valued human life.

And the last, (3), is a cheap out. It leads nowhere; or rather, it must stop somewhere. And wherever it does, you’re back at the beginning.

If there is no Ultimate comparator for right and wrong, good and evil, then everything really is arbitrary. Nothing matters. Your life doesn’t matter to me unless I want it to. And you can’t say it should, because who are you? And suicide? See this.

Coyne is wrong: “agreed-upon moral precepts, such as telling the truth and not harming others” are not “rules for living together that any intelligent gregarious beings would put into their social contracts”. This supposes that, for instance, not harming others is a universal good. And who decided that? Jerry Coyne? We have evidence enough that many pagan, atheistic, brutal-religion societies have not thought harming others was intrinsically evil. Coyne is merely relishing that he lives in a society which tries not to harm those who make it out of the womb (in most localities) and is mistaking this historical happenstance as defining a universal good. But then he still has to make his three choices.

Yet we all know that a universal idea of right and wrong, good and evil exists, even if we see it in some circumstances only dimly. Coyne is wrong again. Morality does need divine sanction.

Legalized Suicide Leads To Government Deciding Who Lives, Who Dies. Update: Predictions Verified


If the government believes it has the power to grant you the right to die, then it will eventually believe it has the power to decide who lives and who dies tout court

What is the “right” to die? Let’s learn by the example of a 24-year-old Belgian called “Laura” who claims to suffer from depression but who is otherwise of sound body, and who has applied to her government for the “right” to die.

Now there is no government that can stop a person from dying. Not in the sense of the determined suicide (or of the terminally ill or ancient decaying person who wants to live). Governments can and have declared suicide illegal, but not in the belief that this prevents a determined individual from killing himself, but (among other reasons) in the hopes that the act’s illegality will discourage the not-so-determined. If a person wondering whether to commit suicide figures that if he botches the job, as many do, purposely or otherwise, then he will face prison or confinement, he often will back out.

The person who kills himself affects those who are still alive. The governments that make suicide illegal care about the preserving the lives of its citizens (consistent with their natures; nobody argues keeping the aged alive “at all costs”), and it also cares about those who live on. A government that makes the act legal does not care about the lives of its citizens, in the sense that the loss of those who kill themselves and the effect this has on the remaining population is a matter of indifference. But this is too soft: not punishing those who kill or try to kill themselves must encourage others, so that indifference is at least tacit encouragement, leading, as we shall see, to active encouragement. (You can punish somebody after he dies by, for example, denying insurance benefits to his survivors or by not honoring his last will.)

What about encouragement? Those of rank and position in certain societies sometimes committed suicide as a means of self-punishment. Generals, for example, after losing winnable battles sometimes fell on their swords. This was still not rare up through World War II (and in Japan, the swords were literal; see Toland’s The Rising Sun, second volume). Others have killed themselves for fear of or for being discovered as having committed some terrible crime. These suicides were, and still to some extent are, seen as noble or even proper to some degree. Not by all and not completely, of course, but by many and in part. The effect on the rest of society has not been to encourage widespread suicide-as-self-punishment.

Most kill themselves for pathetic reasons and these acts are not looked on as noble or proper in countries where the act is (solidly) illegal. The family man who bankrupted himself and jumped off a bridge was said to be foolish, vain, and even selfish because he left his children without a father. These people sought “the easy way out”. The highly negative attitudes of the government and population formed a deterrent. And many who would have killed themselves have instead found rehabilitation.

“Laura” is pathetic. And so is ex-Englander Gill Pharaoh, 75, who killed herself recently at a “suicide clinic” because she feared growing old but who was otherwise fine. Suicide is not illegal in Belgium, and also not in Switzerland where Pharaoh was killed. Attitudes are changing. Here is the press report on Pharaoh’s suicide (ellipsis original):

She spent a last evening in Basel with her life partner John that he describes as “tranquil and enjoyable…Gill had been thinking about it for years and I had no intention of spoiling it by getting emotional and heavy.” Her daughter Caron, also a nurse, admits the decision was hard on her, but Pharaoh wrote in her blog post that while many parents expect their children to care for them in their old age, she would not to put that burden on her own kids. “I had children for the personal and selfish reason that I wanted them for the pleasure and joy they bring. I want them to enjoy their middle years without having to worry about me.” She concedes that “people will have different reactions to my choice,” but asks that lawmakers “listen to, and respect, the views of people like me, and I am not alone in holding this view.” Indeed, a study shows that 611 Brits went to Switzerland between 2008 and 2012 to medically end their lives.

And here is the report on “Laura”:

In a piece published last month that has enhanced timeliness now, Rachel Aviv asked in the New Yorker: “When should people with a non-terminal illness be helped to die?” Her article details the case of Godelieva De Troyer, who had suffered from depression since age 19 and, after meeting Wim Distelmans—a professor of palliative medicine who has had a hand in more than 100 deaths by euthanasia—died with his help at age 64 in 2012. Her son has since challenged the laws around euthanasia, laws that Aviv writes “seem to have created a new conception of suicide as a medical treatment, stripped of its tragic dimensions.”

This language is of encouragement. Suicide is not pathetic, but it is not quite noble, either. The emotion is a happy sort of melancholy. Suicide is just another “choice”. That it is seen to be so is proof that a government’s indifference to life spills out onto its citizenry.

We finally come to the “right” to suicide. It cannot be that suicide is a right other than the sense that a government does not punish those will commit or attempt to commit the act. But this is not the sense that is used in those countries which have made the act legal. Instead, “right” means that the government must provide the means of the act. And those means include a person or persons who are obliged to kill or to assist in the killing.

A person who kills under orders from a government is either a soldier or an executioner. Belgium, Switzerland, and the others who have legalized suicide are not sending soldiers to kill their citizens, but executioners. Wim Distelmans is an executioner. Yet these executioners call themselves “doctors” who reside in “clinics” and in which is practiced “medicine.”

This proves that governments who legalize suicide have and must debase and corrupt language. They cannot say what is so but must speak in euphemism. That means that they have made it a subtle form of illegality to speak the truth. If you doubt this, try using the proper words on government forms or forums in places like Belgium. In reality, we are no longer speaking of suicide but of willful death by execution; state-sponsored execution. True suicides do not need government assistance.

The main reason suicide is now seen as a good is the adoption of utilitarianism in one form or another as the foundation of ethics and morality (never mind that the foundation is built on sand). The arguments given for killing somebody are that they have outlived their usefulness, or that they can no longer operate at peak efficiency, or that there is suspicion they will not be optimally happy (think of the two brothers who were going blind and who would miss seeing each other). Even the mechanism of death is utilitarian: it must be “painless” and factory-like efficient. Contrast this with a Japanese prince committing seppuku. Virtue is never spoken of. “Dignity” is.

These utilitarian arguments are convincing to government, because without them governments never would have legalized suicide in the first place. The arguments are certainly convincing to the people who used to be doctors but became executioners. The executioners, appointed or credentialed by government, are expert, at least, in human anatomy, and thus they know efficient ways to kill. They also, however, view themselves as experts in utilitarianism and so they also claim to know when to kill.

There have already been many instances of executioners killing those who they, the executioners thought (or, worse, felt) had outlived their usefulness. There is also less or no chance of a person changing his mind. These executioners, as is already clear, have the permission of their governments to do so. Governments are not prosecuting them for illegal acts. That means government agrees with its executioners. Governments are complicit.

All that is lacking is a directive, something in writing somewhere, even a note in the back page of some ponderous book of regulations will do. This note will make the government an active agent in the process. “At the doctor’s discretion,” it might read, “those patients whose lives no longer meet the official medical standard may be gently, and most tenderly, euthanized.”

It is at that point that government will have given itself the power to decide who lives and who dies. That point is coming soon (and may even be here: I do not claim expertise in the legal and regulatory codes of those countries with legalized suicide). And when it arrives, it will be simplicity itself for governments, staffed with credentialed experts, to believe they have the right to define the official life standard so that it conforms to whatever utilitarian standard desired.

Given that this will happen in those countries that already embrace abortion, it means the government has you coming and going.

Update Also see YOS’s comment below.

Update I accept congratulations for my predictions, thank you very much. “Dutch Court Orders Woman With Dementia Euthanized“. Woman’s own doctors and family said no, but executioners at a charnel house said “Kill her”. Court agree with executioners.

This was the first time in the history of Dutch euthanasia legislation that an institution had refused to allow a patient to be euthanased. From a legal point of view, the most interesting feature of the case is that the judge gave more weight to the opinion of the doctors at the Levenseindekliniek than the woman’s own medical staff because they had “specialized medical knowledge and experience”.

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