William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Summary Against Modern Thought: Failed Arguments For The Eternity Of The World I

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.

I’m departing from the usual format for this and next week. In Aquinas’s next six chapters, the first three are arguments for the eternal existence of things; the following three are his refutations of the same. I’m doing one of the arguments today; rather, highlights from it. The A reference are those arguments in favor of things existing eternally from the point of view of God, and the B reference are Thomas’s refutations. I’m highlighting only the most interesting arguments on both sides, else this post would run to 4,000 words.

A REFERENCE: Chapter 32 Arguments of those who wish to prove the eternity of the world from God’s side of the question (alternate translation)

B REFERENCE: Chapter 35 Solution of the foregoing arguments, and first of those that were taken from the standpoint of God (alternate translation)

A Every agent that acts not always, is moved either per se or accidentally: per se, as fire which was not always burning, begins to burn, either because it is newly lit, or because it is newly transferred so as to be near the fuel:–accidentally, as the mover of an animal begins anew to move the animal with some movement made in its regard; either from within,–as an animal begins to be moved when it awakes after its digestion is complete,–or from without, as when there newly arise actions that lead to the beginning of a new action. Now God is not moved, neither per se nor accidentally, as we proved in the First Book. Therefore God always acts in the same way. But created things are established in being by His action. Therefore creatures always have been.

B For it does not follow that God is moved either per se or accidentally if His effect begin to be anew; as the first argument pretended. Because newness of effect may argue change of the agent in so far as it proves newness of action: since it is impossible for a new action to be in the agent, unless the latter be in some way moved, at least from inaction to action. But newness of effect does not prove newness of action in God, since His action is His essence, as we have proved above. Neither therefore can newness of effect argue change in God the agent.

A Again. The effect proceeds from the active cause by the latter’s action. But God’s action is eternal: else He would become an actual agent from being an agent in potentiality: and it would be necessary for Him to be reduced to actuality by some previous agent, which is impossible. Therefore the things created by God have been from eternity.

B And yet it does not follow, if the action of the first agent is eternal, that His effect is eternal, as the second argument inferred. For it has been shown above, that in producing things God acts voluntarily. Not, however, as though there were an intermediate action of His,–as in us the action of the motive power intervenes between the act of the will and the effect,–as we have proved in a foregoing chapter: but His act of understanding and willing must be His act of making.

Now the effect follows from the intellect and the will according to the determination of the intellect and the command of the will. And just as every other condition of the thing made is determined by the intellect, so is time appointed to it: for art determines not only that this thing is to be such and such, but that it is to be at this particular time, even as a physician determines that a draught is to be taken at such and such a time. Wherefore, if his willing were per se efficacious for producing the effect, the effect would follow anew from his former will, without any new action on his part. Therefore nothing prevents our saying that God’s action was from eternity, whereas His effect was not from eternity, but then when from eternity He appointed.

Notes Don’t forget “eternity” means outside of time, not existing on a time line indefinitely. Time is change; if everything were always actual and changeless, like God, there’d be no potentiality, and no time. So God exists necessarily and is outside of time, but His creations are in time, and so there can be a beginning of time. Some of A’s premises are true (the implied one about God not being in potential).

A Moreover. Given a sufficient cause, its effect must necessarily be granted. For if, given the cause, it were still unnecessary to grant its effect, it would be therefore possible that, given the cause, the effect would be or not be. Therefore the sequence of the effect to its cause would only be possible: and what is possible, requires something to reduce it to actuality. Hence it will be necessary to suppose some cause whereby it comes about that the effect is made actual, and thus the first cause was not sufficient. But God is the sufficient cause of creatures being produced: else He would not be a cause; rather would He be in potentiality to a cause: since He would become a cause by the addition of something: which is impossible. Therefore it would seem necessary, since God is from eternity, that the creature was also from eternity.

B Hence it is also clear that, although God is the sufficient cause of bringing things into being, it is not necessary to suppose that because he is eternal His effect is eternal; as the third argument contended. For if we suppose a sufficient cause, we suppose its effect, but not an effect outside the cause: for this would be through insufficiency of the cause, as if for instance a hot thing failed to give heat. Now the proper effect of the will is for that thing to be which the will wills: and if something else were to be than what the will wills, this would be an effect that is not proper to the cause but foreign thereto. But just as the will, as we have said, wills this thing to be such and such, so does it will it to be at such and such a time.

Wherefore, for the will to be a sufficient cause, it is not necessary for the effect to be when the will is, but when the will has appointed the effect to be. On the other hand, it is different with things which proceed from a cause acting naturally: because the action of nature is according as nature is; wherefore the effect must necessarily follow if the cause exist. Whereas the will acts, not according to the mode of its being, but according to the mode of its purpose. And consequently, just as the effect of a natural agent follows the being of the agent, so the effect of a voluntary agent follows the mode of his purpose.

Notes A is a clever counter-argument and it ought to be studied for its form, to show how easy it is to be confused when discussing infinities/eternities and chains of causes, and in particular the tacit arguments about the primary and all secondary causes. Now just how (and why) God, who is timeless, causes things to be in time I have no idea.

I left off four other arguments, which you can and should read. I don’t include them because I think the point is already well made, and because next week we have another group of similar arguments and rebuttals (from a different perspective).

Think You Can Simulate A Brain? Think Again

A technician communicates with the future futurist Ray Kurzweil.

A technician communicates with the future futurist Ray Kurzweil.

Since is Silly Saturday, a few fun back-of-the-envelope calculations on simulating a brain. I’m drawing from the marvelous, must-read (go do it now) essay “The empty brain: Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer” by Robert Epstein.

(Update: About what I mean by “simulating”, see the exchange with DAV below.)

Lots to mine from this article, many fascinating implications, which we’ll come back to in the future. For now, what about the idea that we can “simulate” a brain in the Ray Kurzweil sense of being able to “download” a man onto a chip. Can we quantify the scope of the problem?

Think how difficult this problem is. To understand even the basics of how the brain maintains the human intellect, we might need to know not just the current state of all 86 billion neurons and their 100 trillion interconnections, not just the varying strengths with which they are connected, and not just the states of more than 1,000 proteins that exist at each connection point, but how the moment-to-moment activity of the brain contributes to the integrity of the system. Add to this the uniqueness of each brain, brought about in part because of the uniqueness of each person’s life history, and Kandel’s prediction starts to sound overly optimistic.

Okay, that’s 100 trillion interconnections, or 1013, times the number of active proteins (103) at each connection, and we’re at 1016 degrees of freedom at a minimum. For each “moment” of action. (The basic “step time” unit is microseconds or smaller.)

And this is only in the brain itself, and doesn’t include the rest of the nervous system (which, in our metaphor, makes it sound like a separate entity) and it’s connections. Then add That Which We Do Not Yet Know about workings we should be modeling but aren’t, and can’t because, by definition, we don’t know what they are, and we’re probably at 1020 (see inter aliaBlood exerts a powerful influence on the brain“). At the least. I’m only guessing. You can make your own guess. I’m doing all this on one cup of coffee. Mistakes will be made.

All this is happening in three-dimensions. Proteins move. Chemicals swap electrons at the connections between synapses and between nerve cells and other cells in the body. And so on. This adds several more orders of magnitude. A wild guess here, which I’m happy to disdain upon cogent criticism, but I’d say, for fun, about 1,000 degrees per protein, though maybe up to a million. We’re up to 1023~1026. And this on on the low end. Think of it as A Very Best Case Scenario.

Now computers are (at this point still) made of transistors. How many transistors does it take to model the actions of one protein? Well, an Intell Quad-core + GPU Core i7, an everyday processor, has 1.4 x 10 9, and this is enough to do one protein. Not very speedily, but it can do it with some power left over. Is one i7 enough to do two proteins interacting? I’m not an expert.

What we’re after is the number of processors it takes to simulate those 1023+ degrees of freedom. Say a billion for each degree of freedom. That puts us in need of 1031+ transistors, at a raw minimum, to fully simulate the organism which is a brain (and its connections). This simulate ignores vast areas of a human being, of course. But let’s pretend those areas don’t matter.

I’ve mixed up the time component in there surreptitiously by speaking of modeling a protein. Probably this is another underestimation. Probably a laughable underestimation. It must be, because those proteins are made of finer stuff, all of which has to be taken into account. I wouldn’t be shocked if 10100 (or more) is the right answer.

If we believe Moore’s “Law”, the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. We have a billion now and want to arrive at 1031+. I make it something less than a century (73 years). Maybe less if “quantum” computers fulfill any of their promises, maybe more depending on how badly I’ve botched the above calculations. All assuming Moore doesn’t break down and become logarithmic, which every single innovation in human history has done.

(Incidentally, I’m betting Moore lasts only twenty years more, or even fewer, before the vigor is gone.)

Of course, that’s on one “chip”. We can string processors together and reach the goal faster. Right now we’d need 1022 i7 computers linked up. That’s a big number.

So, plus or minus, it’s a century from now (or even two or three) and we might have the computer muscle, and the intelligence enough to figure out how to program such a monstrosity. No small thing, either, because many of the interactions we’ll have to model are quantum mechanical, and nobody in the world has any idea—as in NONE, even if the computers are quantum computers—of what actualizes potential states of QM objects. Are these potentia actualized one-by-one? Or is there coordination, which is to say a sort of entanglement, between some, a few, all of the elements? Not only do we not know this, I think we cannot know this.

Anyway, forget the insurmountable difficulty. We’ve got the thing. We switch it on and…

It still won’t work. “Brains”, which is to say the organisms (in their entirety) which are us, are not solely material. Our intellects are not just the physical stuff which makes us up. We are more than animated dust.

This sad finding destroys some science fictional concepts, but it invites new ones.

Brits Psychologists Cry “BS!” Over Research Practices. Or, Die P-Value, Die Die Die

This is a bull. And what comes out of this animal?

This is a bull. And what comes out of this animal?

In The British Psychological Society’s official organ The Psychologist, two gents Tom Farsides and Paul Sparks, call BS on standard research practices.

There is a worrying amount of outright fraud in psychology, even if it may be no more common than in other disciplines. Consider the roll call of those who have in recent years had high-status peer-reviewed papers retracted because of confirmed or suspected fraud…It seems reasonable to expect that there will be further revelations and retractions.

That’s a depressing list, but out-and-out lies in psychology may be the least of our worries. Could most of what we hold to be true in psychology be wrong (Ioannidis, 2005)? We now turn to several pieces of evidence to demonstrate compellingly that contemporary psychology is liberally sprayed with bullshit…

Leading this evidence is…drum-roll, please…”Lies, damned lies and statistics”.

Almost all published studies report statistically significant effects…

Which is why the term “statistically significant” ought to be banned, purged, stabbed through the belly, gutted, and left to rot on the street.

But maybe this isn’t harsh enough. Statistical “significance” is pure magical thinking, and nothing else. Results which tout it aren’t science, they’re magic.

There. Is that harsh enough? No scientist wants to be accused of being irrational. And speaking of magic, ladies and gentlemen, I give you…more drums, please…The Magic Number!

So-called ‘p hacking’ also remains rife in psychology. Researchers make numerous decisions about methods and analysis, each of which may affect the statistical significance of the results they find (e.g., concerning sample size, sample composition, studies included or omitted from programmes of research, variables, potential outliers, statistical techniques). Simmons et al. (2011) vividly illustrate this by reporting a study that ‘revealed the predicted effect [that] people were nearly a year-and-a-half younger after listening to When I’m 64 than they were after listening to ‘a control group tune that did not mention age…

If that isn’t asinine enough for you, I don’t know what is. Maybe the hundreds of similar “findings” you and I, dear reader, have dissected over the years.

For example, evidence is increasingly revealing that alarming numbers of psychologists are willing to admit having engaged in questionable research practices…Many published studies have selectively included or omitted evidence to support claims that authors must know are far from accurately representing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…

Unconvinced readers can discover for themselves how easy it is to ‘Hack your way to scientific glory’ by visiting an online tool (tinyurl.com/pjhh5m8) and selecting different sets of variables from a genuine database to find (or ‘fail’ to find) a significant relationship between the US economy and a particular party being in office.

I’m stealing that line: Hack your way to scientific glory!

Many researchers and reviewers simply do not have the methodological or statistical expertise necessary to effectively engage in science the way it is currently practised in mainstream psychology…Scientists and reviewers also increasingly admit that they simply cannot keep up with the sheer volume and complexity of things in which they are allegedly supposed to have expertise…

That’s because there are too many scientists and too much science, most of it now very poor grade stuff. Having to sort through it all sucks up time that would be better spent doing something useful. Solution: massively cut back on government funding of science.

Who wants to bet that this will happen? I mean, before the collapse.

Few successful attempts have been made to rigorously replicate findings in psychology. Recent attempts to do so have suggested that even studies almost identical to original ones rarely produce reassuring confirmation of their reported results…

Why? P-values, of course, and all the other standard sloppiness already discussed.

And now comes my favorite line in the paper (in the original bold):

The system is screwed

To which we can only say Amen. Preach it.

Most prestigious journals also have a strong preference for novel and dramatic findings…

Whatever brings the press in, eh, boys? And the money. Don’t forget the money. The authors didn’t:

[I]t is in the individual researcher’s best economic interest to downgrade the importance of truth in order to maximise publications, grants, promotion, media exposure, indicators of impact, and all the other glittering prizes valued in contemporary scientific and academic communities…

I wept when I read this. Tears of joy. Among their solutions, these:

Psychologists and their institutions should do everything within their power to champion truth and to confront all barriers to it…

Be honest. Championing truth requires honesty about ignorance, inadequacies, and mistakes…Denying flaws helps no one, especially if our denials are accompanied by poorly received assertions of invincibility and superiority…

Important as they are, experiments are neither necessary nor sufficient for empiricism, scholarship or ‘science’…

Experiments within psychology are usually (at best) little more than demonstrations that something can occur. This is usually in service of rejecting a null hypothesis but it is almost as often misreported as suggesting (or showing or, worst of all, ‘proving’) something much more substantial — that something does or must occur.

Well, universities are no longer the best places to search for and defend truth, so if psychology wants to prosper, it will have to flee the confines of political correctness.

The philosophical point about the value of experiments is spot on. Trumpet it everywhere, neighbors and friends. The epistemological point about what experiments show is also correct and important. Repeat it to yourself often until it sticks.

Watching Porn Makes People More Religious? The Severe Limitations of Quantifying Behavior


One paper reports, “People who watch porn more than once a week tend to become more religious, a researcher claims, while those who watch racy videos occasionally tend to drift away from religion.”

Seems if we want godlier people, we should serve up more hardcore, right? Well, it’s science, and science specializes in discovering anti-intuitive things. It’s dangerous to question science.

The research referred to is “Does Viewing Pornography Diminish Religiosity Over Time? Evidence From Two-Wave Panel Data” by Samuel Perry, published in The Journal of Sex Research.

Now this work has its own difficulties, which I’ll outline. But it is also a prime example of what has gone wrong in much research. For instance, Perry begins his work with this comment: “persons who score higher in religiosity tend to report viewing pornography less frequently”.

Maybe you didn’t notice the fundamental error, accustomed as we are to numbers. Numbers, numbers, everywhere numbers. We are under sway to the same idea that gripped Lord Kelvin, who said, “I often say that when you can measure you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.” So used to numbers are we that we rarely stop to ask: can we really quantify a man’s religiosity, or any emotion or belief?

If you think we can, ask yourself how happy you are right now. On a scale from -17.2 to π2. We need this numerical scale; it after all is the numbers which turn your happiness into science. What value do you give? Well, are you at ease? Or feeling benign? Or ecstatic, pleased, of good cheer, crapulent, irrepressible, smirking, sanguine, ebullient, exultant, tickled pink, winsome, content? Or maybe you aren’t so happy and are on the sad side of things. Maybe you’re merely melancholic. Or sadhearted. Or forlorn, horrible, or aggrieved or grieved, or woebegone, edgy, shattered, black, downbeat, grim, joyless, distressed, iridescent, glum, or just plain awful.

We have so many words for states or absences of happiness, or for any other emotion, because moods are infinitely shaded and impossible to capture perfectly. Literature is a better guide to human nature than slide rules.

Anyway, suppose your neighbor scores himself a 2.017 on our happiness scale, and you say 2.016. Is your neighbor happier than you? Always? In every aspect?

So how religious are you? Just what does being religious mean? Exactly, now. Are you always as religious as you are now? Or do you vary? How do you capture this variability? And how much porn do you watch? Are you into gay sex? You can tell me. It’ll be our secret: I won’t tell your wife. Are people who are more religious likely to rate material as pornographic as non-religious?

The conceit of science is that emotions or states of belief can be captured and graded numerically. Though no scientist claims numbers assess emotions perfectly, scientists do act as if the unmeasurable aspects of emotions and beliefs can be safely ignored. This always leads to the Deadly Sin of Reification, where the measurement becomes the thing; the numbers become all that is seen. Yet the reality must surely be that that which can’t be quantified is essential.

All this introduction is necessary to understand the central criticism of Perry’s work (and other works like his). He says:

While the general assumption is that religiosity leads to lower levels of porn use, recent research suggests that more frequent porn consumption, especially for religious persons, is associated with guilt and embarrassment, potentially diminishing interest in religious or spiritual activities while also potentially creating feelings of scrupulosity that may draw individuals away from religious community.

Academics specialize in making the simple sound important with highfalutin language. They also create for themselves claims of discovering things already known well by common people. But skip that.

Perry’s idea was to look at surveys of some folks over a six-year period asking them of and then quantifying their “religiosity” and porn habits. Perry admits “social desirability could discourage honest answers, given that porn consumption in larger amounts is still viewed as morally objectionable.” Still.

His numbers were input into a statistical model the limitations of which Perry is apparently unfamiliar. (Regression with quadratic effects on porn viewing.) There isn’t space here to criticize his technique (I have done so here and here), but suffice to say his technique cannot prove cause, and that it’s far, far too easy for the method he used to declare “significance.” Worse, Perry does not show the numbers from the survey; instead, he gives only the output of his statistical model.

Now Perry admits his model agrees that, as all non-scientists already knew, “viewing pornography can reduce religiosity over time” and that porn is “secularizing agent, helping to weaken religious vitality among those who consistently view it.”

But then Perry’s model says porn viewing “at more extreme levels may actually stimulate, or at least be conducive to, greater religiosity”. Which sounds absurd—but only to those who have, say, a Christian notion of “religiosity”. Echoing this, Perry says “greater levels of religious practice do not necessarily amount to traditionalist sexual views” and that some porn viewers “see no severe moral conflict between viewing sexually explicit materials and their religious beliefs”. If this is true, it also means his quantification of “religiosity” has no comparative meaning, but so hungry for numbers is he that he didn’t notice this.

That his “finding” is likely a statistical artifact did not occur to Perry. And he, like nearly all researchers, shows no comprehension of the severe limitations of quantifying human behavior.

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