William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 151 of 744

Writer Says Discovery Of Extraterrestrial Life Would Be Bad News For God. God Says Nope


The danger of writing about that in which you are ignorant is that you’re bound to look foolish. Let’s see an example.

Jeff Schweitzer, who bills himself as a scientist and “former White House Senior Policy Analyst”, writes that because astronomers recently discovered yet another planet “we come ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe“. Actually, since astronomers have been telling us for quite some time that planets besides those in our solar system are exceedingly common, we are no closer at all, especially since there have not been any discoveries of extraterrestrial life.

But that let pass: it is a harmless mistake. Schweitzer goes on to make blunders which are far more fantastic. It’s his guess that if life is discovered on some remote planet, it will set the world’s religions on their ears.

I predict with great confidence that all will come out and say such a discovery is completely consistent with religious teachings. My goal here is to declare this as nonsense before it happens.

In a way, you have to admire the brazen conceit of such modern atheists. They consistently believe, in direct contradiction to freely available evidence, that they are the first to have thoughts on many subjects. (Reminds me of a joke I saw on Twitter: An atheist, vegan, and crossfitter walk into a bar…I only know because they told everybody within two minutes.)

In 2009 the Vatican had a conference on SETI (and more details here). Before that, the chief astronomer of the Vatican, Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, gave an interview at which he said extraterrestrial life is no problem for the Church, and that it fits in fine with Catholic theology.

The philosopher David Oderberg has written on the philosophy of rational beings like ourselves, and finds no difficulty (see this paper). There is a branch of religion called exotheology whose purpose is to study how fits into the usual Christian beliefs. C. S. Lewis wrote the novel Perelandra exploring questions of sin and redemption among aliens.

I could go on, but you get the idea. There is nothing new or frightening about the idea of rational material beings other than ourselves to Christian theology.

Schweitzer continues:

Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation: the earth is the center of the universe, only humans were made in the image of god, and all life was created in six days. All life in all the heavens. In six days. So when we discover that life exists or existed elsewhere in our solar system or on a planet orbiting another star in the Milky Way, or in a planetary system in another galaxy, we will see a huge effort to square that circle with amazing twists of logic and contorted justifications.

The man does give some indication that he has glanced through the text, but he managed to miss the point. And angels: he missed angels, too. Angels are, as Peter Kreeft often reminds us, extraterrestrial rational, but not material beings, also made by God.

As I’ve often pointed out, atheists are overly prone to read the Genesis account literally. Let St Augustine have the last word on this topic:

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.

We’ll also skip over the Galileo business, and think about this from Schweitzer:

None of the 66 books of the bible make any reference to life other than that created by god here on earth in that six-day period. If we discover life elsewhere, one must admit that is an oversight. So much so in fact that such a discovery must to all but the most closed minds call into question the entire story of creation, and anything that follows from that story. How could a convincing story of life’s creation leave out life? Even if the story is meant to be allegorical, the omission of life elsewhere makes no sense.

Ignore that Schweitzer uses an expurgated Bible, and focus on Schweitzer’s I-Know-What-God-Would-Do Fallacy, an exceedingly obnoxious and frequent error. Who says God shouldn’t mention other life in the universe? Schweitzer says. And how does Schweitzer know? Schweitzer doesn’t: he made it up.

Schweitzer then uses his self-created belief about God would do to say that because God didn’t do this or that particular thing, therefore God cannot exist.


Thanks to Sheri for bringing this to our attention.

The Crisis Of Evidence: Why Probability And Statistics Cannot Discover Cause. New Paper

A PM2.5 Storm

A PM2.5 Storm

Cancer of the albondigas is horrifyingly under-diagnosed. See your doctor today and ask him if Profitizol is right for you.

Today’s post, in a way, is at Arxiv: The Crisis Of Evidence: Why Probability And Statistics Cannot Discover Cause. Here’s the abstract (the official one has two typos, meaning my enemies are gaining in power and scope!):

Probability models are only useful at explaining the uncertainty of what we do not know, and should never be used to say what we already know. Probability and statistical models are useless at discerning cause. Classical statistical procedures, in both their frequentist and Bayesian implementations, falsely imply they can speak about cause. No hypothesis test, or Bayes factor, should ever be used again. Even assuming we know the cause or partial cause for some set of observations, reporting via relative risk exaggerates the certainty we have in the future, often by a lot. This over-certainty is made much worse when parametric and not predictive methods are used. Unfortunately, predictive methods are rarely used; and even when they are, cause must still be an assumption, meaning (again) certainty in our scientific pronouncements is too high.

I use PM2.5 (particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller, i.e. dust) as a running example, since it is one of the EPA’s favorite thing to regulate. I’ll be giving a version of this paper at this weekend’s Doctors for Disaster Preparedness conference in LA. I’ll concentrate more on the PM2.5 angle there, naturally, but I will and must hit the primary focus, which is that probability cannot discover cause.

“But, Briggs, isn’t all of statistics designed around discovering what causes what? Isn’t that what hypothesis tests and Bayes factors do?”

This is true: this is what people think statistics can do. And they are wrong. We bring knowledge of cause to data, we don’t get cause from data. Not directly. Understanding cause is something that is above or beyond any set of data. To understand that, you’ll have to read the paper, a mere 21 pages. If you expect that you have understood my argument by only considering what is in this post, you will be wrong.

An out-of-context-ish quotation (in a low or no group of 1,000 5 people got cancer of the albondigas, and in the “some” or high PM2.5 group of 1,000 15 did):

There is no indication in the data that high levels of PM2.5 cause cancer of the albondigas. If high levels did cause cancer, then why didn’t every of the 1,000 folks in the high group develop it? Think about that question. If high PM2.5 really is a cause—and recall we’re supposing every individual in the high group had the same exposure—then it should have made each person sick. Unless it was prevented from doing so by some other thing or things. And that is the most we can believe. High PM2.5 cannot be a complete cause: it may be necessary, but it cannot be sufficient. And it needn’t be a cause at all. The data we have is perfectly consistent with some other thing or things, unmeasured by us, causing every case of cancer. And this is so even if all 1,000 individuals in the high group had cancer.

This is true for every hypothesis test; that is, every set of data. The proposed mechanism is either always an efficient cause, though it sometimes may be blocked or missing some “key” (other secondary causes or catalysts), or it is never a cause. There is no in-between. Always-or-never a cause is tautological, meaning there is no information added to the problem by saying the proposed mechanism might be a cause. From that we deduce a proposed cause, absent knowledge of essence (to be described in a moment), said or believed to be a cause based on some function of the data, is always a prejudice, conceit, or guess. Because our knowledge that the proposed cause only might be always (albeit possibly sometimes blocked) or never an efficient cause, and this is tautological, we cannot find a probability the proposed cause is a cause.

Consider also that the cause of the cancer could not have been high PM2.5 in the low group, because, of course, the 5 people there who developed cancer were not exposed to high PM2.5 as a possible cause. Therefore, their cause or causes must have been different if high PM2.5 is a cause. But since we don’t know if high PM2.5 is a cause, we cannot know whether whatever caused the cancers in the low group didn’t also cause the cancers in the high group. Recall that there may have been as many as 20 different causes. Once again we have concluded that nothing in the plain observations is of any help in deciding what is or isn’t a cause.

There are some papers by Jerrett mentioned in the body. See this article, and links therein, for more details.

Update Typo-corrected version uploaded! Same link as above.

Stream: Vatican Environmental Conference: A Marriage of Bad Governors and Bad Science


Today’s post is at the Stream: Vatican Environmental Conference: A Marriage of Bad Governors and Bad Science.

The excerpt here keeps my caveman joke which was lost somewhere downstream.

Jerry Brown, the majestic governor of California, a state with a list of stultifying regulations longer than the available “genders” on Facebook, while he was at the Vatican, called me, a climate scientist, a “Troglodyte“.

I immediately thought of the Jimmy Castor Bunch and their song of the same name.

He’d go down to the lake, where all the woman would be swimming, or washing clothes or something. He’d look around and just reach in and grab one.

“Come here. Come here.”…

This one woman just lay there, wet and frightened. He said: “Move. Move.”

She got up. She was a big woman. BIG woman. Her name was Bertha. Bertha Butt. She was one of the Butt sisters.

Since I am a troglodyte, it follows that my wife is one of the Butt sisters. I told her so. It was then I learned, in certain and colorful terms, that Governor Brown was wrong.

Go there to read the rest.

Is God is a Mathematician? Guest Post by Bob Kurland


Coincidentally, Bob Kurland sent this guest post on the day of miracles, a good follow up to yesterday’s post.

Feynman: “Do you know calculus?” Wouk: I admitted that I didn’t. Feynman: “You had better learn it…It’s the language God talks.” Herman Wouk, conversation with Richard Feynman in The Language God Talks, p.5.

In his very fine book, Is God a Mathematician?, Mario Livio gives a good history of mathematics and its foundational applications to science. He also discusses whether mathematics is a Platonic ideal or is a construction of the human mind—i.e. is mathematics “discovered” or “invented”? But he does not address the question posed in his title.

Now it goes without saying (although I will say it), that if God is omniscient, he knows everything and therefore, perforce, must know all mathematics. These propositions do not, however, require that reality is altogether mathematical, as suggested by Max Tegmark in his book, Our Mathematical Universe. If reality is altogether mathematical, then everything can be quantified, represented by numbers or properties that can put into correspondence with numbers. Is this so?

I invite the reader to suggest things that cannot be quantified by numbers. Here’s my list of a few such: self-awareness, consciousness (“Cogito, ergo sum”), moments of communion with God, The Holy Spirit, Jesus, love of another, shame, anger, pain, happiness, joy, feelings aroused by nature, feelings aroused by music, feelings aroused by intellectual discovery, the literary excellence of a poem, a short story, a novel, boredom on reading blog posts dealing with the reality of mathematics, etc.

Now psychologists might say that most, if not all of the above can be quantified: just use the simple 1-5 scale as, in satisfaction response surveys. I claim that, unlike measuring the mass of a steel ball or its radius, such a procedure would not yield a universal measurement—one person’s “2” might well be another person’s “4”. The qualia referred to in the above items are non-quantifiable, in the sense that a universally applicable measurement cannot be applied.

Let’s explore just one of the above in more detail—feelings aroused by music. In another post, God’s Gift to Man—the Transforming Power of Music, I’ve discussed the emotional and spiritual impact music has had on me, an effect which cannot be explained by mathematical relationships. The Pythagorean harmonies have no place in the dissonances of Bartok, Berlioz or even Mozart (Symphony #40, the Great G-Minor).

The inability of computation–mathematics—to emulate musical creativity is illustrated in a science-fiction story by James Blish, “A Work of Art“. In this tale “mind sculptors” of the future install a recreation of Richard Strauss in a non-musical volunteer. The volunteer thinks of himself as a resurrected Strauss, composes an opera, and then realizes it uses old musical devices and is not creative. At the concert in which the work is premiered, the volunteer knows that the resounding applause is for the mind sculptors, not for his musical work.

The eminent mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose, has said the mind is not a computer. Penrose demonstrates, using Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem and Turing’s Halting Theorem, that the human can know the truth of a mathematical theorem even when a computer can not.

In Shadows of the Mind he gives four types of belief or non-belief in the possibility of Artificial Intelligence (AI), that self-aware intelligence can be programmed by some set of algorithms:

  1. Consciousness is reducible to computation (the view of strong-AI proponents);
  2. Consciousness can be simulated by a computer, but the simulation couldn’t produce “real understanding” (John Searle’s view);
  3. Consciousness can’t even be simulated by computer, but nevertheless has a scientific explanation (Penrose’s own view)
  4. Consciousness doesn’t have a scientific explanation at all (the view of Thomas Nagel—see Mind and Cosmos)

The philosopher John Searle posits, as does Penrose, that consciousness has a scientific explanation , but that it will be an explanation in which consciousness is an “emergent” property of the brain’s biochemistry and biophysics, much as wetness can be explained by theories of surface tension for water.

A quantum computer (i.e. a scientist engaged in quantum computation), Scott Aaronson, has given an amusing and almost-convincing critique of Penrose’s thesis in one of his Physics Lectures. Some of his criticisms can be answered, particularly the one dealing with the Libet experiment, but I don’t propose to engage that discussion here. The critique relies primarily on two features: the activities of the mind are finite, not infinite; a computer which would be allowed to make mistakes would not be bound by Goedel’s Theorem.

Finally, note that Max Tegmark does not show in Our Mathematical Universe how consciousness can be explained as a mathematical phenomenon. He claims that this will be done in the future, but that seems to me very much like a scientism of the gaps.

If mathematics is to be the end-all and be-all of what is, then it seems reasonable to suppose that mathematics is complete in itself—there are no loose ends. A primitive view of Goedel’s and Turing’s theorems suggest that this is not so.

Faith, religion, beauty, love are non-mathematical and above the bounds of logic. As Pope St. John Paul II, said in Fides et Ratio:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

So my answer to the question in the title is, God is much more than a mathematician.

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