Scientists Claim Brain Scans Can ID Pre-Criminals

The axe-murderer is #22.
The axe-murderer is #22.
“I’m sorry, sir. We cannot recommend Mr Jones be granted parole,” said the man in the impressive white coat, on which was embroidered his name and the awe-inspiring initials “MD”.

“Why’s that, doctor?” asked the chairman.

“Jones has a beady anterior cingulate. The mark of a clear recidivist.”

The board members peered at Jones, who sat in a chair attempting a sheepish smile. The chairman imagined he could see Jones’s whithered anterior cingulate. Satisfied, he nodded to himself.

“Our patented statistical models, based on the very most scientific functional magnetic resonance imaging, shows Jones has a 95.2% chance of committing new crimes within the next four years. Probably of a highly anti-social nature.”

“Take him away!” shouted the chairman. “Next case!”

Not fiction, ladies and gents. A foretelling of our future. Newspapers and Nature are already excited. Why?

Seems some enterprising doctors led by Eyal Aharoni (and pushed along by Michael Gazzaniga) hooked 96 crooks to their fMRI machine and claimed that the “odds that an offender with relatively low anterior cingulate activity would be rearrested were approximately double that of an offender with high activity in this region, holding constant other observed risk factors.” They published their results in PNAS with the disquieting title “Neuroprediction of future rearrest”.

Wary readers will have noted the all-important fudge words “holding constant other observed risk factors”, which means the new crime-detector is actually a complicated statistical model. How did they arrive at it?

First, they measured the crooks’ anterior cingulate cortexes (ACC) and gave each a questionnaire, sort of like you can find in women’s magazines which ask “What type of animal are you?” Now questionnaires are the basis of much modern science, so we daren’t question them. This one was “a go/no-go (GNG) impulse control task”. Results?

Wait. You would think a study which purported to claim men with beady ACCs are more likely to become recidivists would give us the number of men with beady ACCs who did and did not in fact become recidivists, so that we could compare it against the number of men without beady ACCs who did and did not became recidivists. That way all civilians could tell at a glance whether beady ACCs had anything to say about crime.

Problem was: every man in the study was re-busted (I discovered this only after examining the supplementary data)! The study was therefore also a bust. But when you have numbers, you can play. Like this:

By using hierarchical linear regression, we examined the association between ACC response and the percentage of commission errors in the GNG task. As expected, lower ACC activity entered at step 2 corresponded to a higher rate of commission errors, controlling for variance attributable to age at step 1 (R2 = 0.08, ΔR2 = 0.04, β = −0.21, P < 0.05).

If you can read this standard shorthand, it means the explanatory power of the model after adding ACC only reached the official level of, “You’re kidding me, right?” An R2 improvement of 0.04 isn’t even trivial (the measure goes from 0 to 1, which numbers closer to 1 indicting better models; numbers near 0 should be laughed at). But p-values less than 0.05 are science, so now we know beady ACCs cause one to suffer on go/no-go impulse control tasks.

Just what is a go/no-go impulse control task? Glad you asked.

[A way to present] participants with a frequently occurring target (the letter “X”; occurrence probability, 0.84) interleaved with a less-frequent distracter (the letter “K”; occurrence probability, 0.16) on a computer screen. Participants were instructed to depress a button with their right index finger as quickly and accurately as possible whenever they saw the target (“go” stimulus) and not when they saw the distractor (“no-go” stimulus).

Besides asking the crooks to press a bunch of Xs and Ks, they asked if the crooks were drunks, whether they took a toke, etc. Their race, age, IQ, and a bunch of other stuff were measured. Much of the other stuff was input into a “factor analysis” which spit out factor scores. These scores and the stuff that didn’t go into the factor analysis was all re-input into a survival analysis model, which—finally!—showed that men with beady ACCs were more likely to be re-arrested quicker. A p-value less than the magic number (0.05) confirmed the association.

Now I did this quickly, so I could be in error, but using their data I looked at the variables indicating months to rearrest (MinMonthsDV_noPVs) and beady ACC (dACC_14mm_split) and found a mean 19.5 months to rearrest for beady ACCs and 24.5 months to rearrest for non-beady ACCS. The time-honored t-test (not “controlling” for the slew of other variables) gave a p-value of 0.08, which means not significant.

Which p-value is right? Neither. There is no “right” p-value in classical statistics. You’re allowed to use any you like—including the smallest one.


Thanks to Al Perrella for pointing us to this.

Natural Theology: Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica Part III

Part II

Back into the fray! Article 3 is Natural Theology. The juiciest articles are eight through ten.

Remember, we’re doing summaries of summaries here; only bare sketches are possible. Buy his book for more detail.

Article 1: Whether natural theology is possible?

Yes. Since you cannot desire what you do not (or cannot) know, you couldn’t desire God if He didn’t exist (see also Art. 5). “And insofar as anything is knowable by reason, it can be the object of a rational science, whether physical, mathematical, or philosophical.” Yes, lads and lasses, theology is a science; indeed, as Newman said, the Queen of them all. When the world was young, it was thought impossible, and it was true, that to receive an education lacking royal exposure was no education at all. It is still true.

How can you study an infinite creature such as God, since we cannot know infinity?

God can be defined negatively. as the non-finite being, the non-temporal being, the non-caused being, the non-potential being, etc.

Playing with infinities is also the daily toil of mathematicians, who would recoil if you were to tell them that because we cannot know the value of the last number, infinity doesn’t exist.

God can be an object of faith or reason. Here’s something you hear all the time: “We now know how this certain protein folds.” We know nothing of the kind, at least if we is taken as all of mankind, instead of a small fraction of highly trained (and gifted) individuals. A physicist can tell his mother a neutrino has mass and she will reply, “Yes, dear” and believe him. One knows by reason, the other by faith. The latter class is always much larger.

(Scientists usually accept this, except for evolution, where ignorance is considered sacrilegious and as justification for verbal stonings.)

Article 2: Whether there is one primary meaning to the word “God”?

Yes. Atheists love to tell theists, “I am almost like you. I reject all the same gods you do. I just go one further.” It’s a good line, if you have a back-slapping fetish, but it is fallacious if used to say God therefore doesn’t exist. It’s also an (indirect) and unfair aspersion against mathematicians. How?

John Von Neumann was asked by a colleague for a proof of some contention. Von Neumann asked which of several theorems his questioner knew, and then proceeded to prove the contention by one or two theorems. There is usually more than one path to the right answer. Or to the partial answer. Just because one religion emphasizes one aspect of God, and a different religion highlights another, does not mean that both are wrong, in the sense of completely, utterly wrong (though of course they might be wrong in part).

Anselm’s definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” is “agreed to by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and even Buddhists and Taoists.”

Article 3: Whether God’s existence can be proved from the concept of God (Anselm’s “ontological argument”)?

No. We covered this before.

Article 4: Whether God’s existence can be proved from the cosmos?

Yes. Kreeft then gives his précis of a Kalam-like argument, which he calls “the Emo argument.” Here is my précis of his précis, which is therefore too short by far.

  1. All matter, time, and energy came into existence, probably at the Big Bang.
  2. “Either this event was caused or uncaused.”
  3. If uncaused, then we have defenestrated causality and Cole Porter was right: Anything Goes. Including, for no reason whatsoever, the popping into existence of Emo, “a large blue rabbit with the name ‘Emo’ tattooed on its tail.” Emo couldn’t have caused his own appearance, neither could anybody have been the tattooer.
  4. “This (Emo) is absurd.” God help you if you disagree.
  5. Therefore matter, time, and energy must have been caused by something outside itself (quantum fields are not outside themselves). Which is to say, God (being itself, “I Am”) created physical existence.

Article 5: Whether God’s existence can be proved from human existence?

Yes. Besides the argument from conscience (we all have one, it came from somewhere, and all agree it should be obeyed; why?), and the argument from intelligence (only something at least equal to our intelligence could have caused our intelligence; and, yes, evolution could have been a tool here), there is the argument from desire.

We all desire perfection, beauty, goodness, etc., and desires can only correspond to real objects (“real hungers entail real foods”), thus the only thing that fits the bill is God. What of unicorns? Glad you asked:

The objects of ideas can be mere potential beings, or mere essences, like unicorns, but the objects of desires are real goods.

Article 6: Whether God’s existence as man’s ultimate end can be proved?


If we weigh the idea of God, in the scales of the mind, against all other ideas and ideals that have ever appeared in all the minds of men who have ever lived, this single idea infinitely outweighs all others. For it is the idea of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” the idea of an infinitely perfect being. What a dirty trick it would be if all the other ideals we could aspire to were real and attainable and this one alone, the greatest of all, were not…It would indicate not randomness but the existence of a God behind this carefully designed trick, but his name would be Satan.

Article 7: Whether God’s relation to man (“religion”) can be proved?

No. God can be known to man, but mere “knowing is not religion.” It is “not to have a personal relationship.”

Aside: Stalkers also get this wrong, but in reverse.

Article 8: Whether the existence of evil disproves the existence of God?

No. An unhappy guy bumped into me when I was moving a box, which caused me to slip and cut my right middle finger. Just a pinprick, really. But it stung when I washed my hands and again when my dental floss rubbed up against it. Ouch.

On the scale of evils, this rates somewhat below Communism or faulty tenure committees (but I repeat myself). Still, it is evil. Even lower down the scale is the sentencing of thousands of otherwise joyful souls to suffer a third of each day in a “cubicle” (see torture, instruments of). Don’t forget the one everybody leaves out, the philosopher’s favorite premise: All men are mortal.

How could an all-loving, all-powerful God could have allowed evils like these to flourish? Why doesn’t He just drop (antioxidant rich, transfat free, etc.) manna in front of us at regular intervals so we don’t have to move? Shouldn’t our physical lives be unrelenting bliss, all desires satisfied on demand? For anything short of that perfection bespeaks of a deity who is willing to let bad things happen.

[T]he existence of infinitely good God and the existence of evil are compatible because of the existence of time. For an infinitely good God could allow evil to exist in order to bring out of it, in time, an even greater good than could have existed if evil had not been allowed to exist. Evil will, indeed, be totally destroyed, but in its proper time.

Evil is allowed to exist in order to preserve free will…Also, the premise that evil exists is not, strictly speaking, true, for evil is not a substance, but existence is properly predicated only of substances.

Article 9: Whether human free will and divine predestination are logically contradictory?

No. It’s difficult, probably impossible, to write of free will from the point of view of God, who is outside of time. We’re stuck in it, and in a sense made out of it. For us, it is enough to observe we have free will (our intellect understands choices, and the consequences of choices). This observation, incidentally, falsifies all theories which say free will is an illusion (of course!; only rational beings with free will could comprehend illusion; only intellects can comprehend!).

Kreeft puts it in terms of a story, which is under control of an author but which is populated by creatures with wills (or who follow rules). It’s only an analogy, though, because it’s easy to imagine writing a story where a character is made to do whatever we want; and then the character doesn’t really exist except in our intellect. The analogy is not entirely satisfying.

But tough luck. Just because you don’t understand something, doesn’t it make it false (unless you can prove it false; but then you understand it: how much depends on whether your proof is merely demonstrative or constructive).

Article 10: Whether God changes (or is in “process”)?

No. If God at some point changes for the better, he was imperfect; and then if He changes for the worst, well then He becomes imperfect. Perfection cannot change.

God’s love is an act. There are two kinds of act. (1) “First act,” or actuality (as distinct from mere potentiality), does not necessarily imply change. (2) “Second act,” or activity, follows and depends on first act, and implies change in its object, but not necessarily in its subject. An unchanging cause can produce changing effects, and this would entail changes in the relationship between them.

Kreeft doesn’t mention it, but there some who posit a changeable God as a solution to free will. The solution is to deny God knows the future, which is as “open” to Him as it is to us. Ever wonder what tomorrow will bring? So does God in this view. But as there is no predestination, it’s easy argue for free will. The price for this is a radically diminished God who cannot understand what He created. This deity is sort of a superior space alien who one day said to himself, “I wonder what’ll happen if I press this button?” Kind of sort of like Deism.

Read Part IV.

Metaphysics: Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica Part II

Been a while since we began these (last September), and I only just now realized that we never finished (too many distractions). Therefore, before continuing, I’m reposting the first two in the series before we start again on Part III tomorrow (God willing).

Read Part I.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t–till I tell you. I meant ‘There’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them–particularly verbs, they’re the proudest–adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs–however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

The good Doctor Dodgson’s sideshow tour through philosophy’s Wonderland has done nothing to dissuade many Enlightened from adopting Humpty’s position and claiming that there is nothing behind what they say, that truth is relative, that reality is subjective, that words mean just what they say they mean and nothing more. “Believe me when I tell you that nothing can be believed with certainty!” Modern eggheads in particular will argue in a circle like this: the one ring that rules them all1.

Alice couldn’t be suckered into accepting relativism. Pus truth and realism were never entirely abandoned, of course. These lovelies still exist in the academy, too, but in somewhat shriveled form. Kreeft’s book aims to change that by building up our philosophical muscles. Let’s continue laying the foundation.

Some claim (Article 2) that metaphysics does not originate in experience. One Objection goes like this:

If metaphysics, like the special sciences, originated in experience, then its questions would be resolvable by experience, as the questions of the special sciences are, in which experienced data constitute the standard which verifies or falsifies hypotheses. But the questions of metaphysics are not resolvable by experience, for if they were, they would have been resolved by now…

To which the simple reply:

The objective truths sought by metaphysics are indeed a priori, for the are true universally, true of all possible experience. But the psychological process of arriving at these truths begins with experience.

Metaphysics also answers the questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? What are the characteristics of reality? What can we know? Does God exist? And so on. “Those who intend to avoid metaphysics do not really do so. For any indicative sentence, that is, any assertion that something is (an existential judgment), or that something is what it is (a copulative judgment about what it is, thus about both essence [“what”] and existence [“is”]), is by its nature a metaphysical statement, a statement about what is, even if the one who utters it does not attend to that fact.” (all markings original).

Incidentally, “nothing” does not mean quantum fields, dark energy, the “laws” of physics, mathematical axioms and theorems, etc. Nothing is complete non-existence. So how do we pop from absolutely nothing to having just a little something? This has an answer, which we’ll come to next time, but I’ll give you hint: the answer does not and cannot originate from science.

Answers to the Big Questions come instead from, for example, the study of universals. What’s that you say? “All universals are unreal”? That’s what I thought you said, Humpty. “Bah,” you reply, “There’s an exception to every rule.” To which I say, I heard you the first time.

After you’re done circling back on yourself, I’ll meet you here and we can do one of Kreeft’s metaphysical exercises. How about Article 8, “Whether time is real?” The Objections say no. “I answer that to say or think that time is unreal takes time. So if time is unreal, we cannot say of think that time is unreal. But if we cannot say or think that time is unreal, we cannot argue for that proposition, for we cannot argue for what we cannot say or think.”

Okay, that was an easy one. How about, “Whether all that is real is material?” One Objection is that “No one has ever seen the invisible. But all knowledge begins with and depends on sense observation of the visible, or the object of one of the other senses. Therefore the existence of invisible, immaterial beings cannot be known, only believed.”

I answer that (1) the knowledge of any object cannot be part (or dimension) of that object. For if it were—if the-fact-that-I-knew-X (let us call that Y) was one of the parts of X—then the X that existed independently of my knowing it would not be the same as, but would be less than, the X that I knew, since it would lack one part: namely, of the-fact-that-I-knew-X. But in that case my knowledge of X would not be a true knowledge of X, for true knowledge is the identity of knowing subject and known object.

(2) But I can know material things. Materialism could not be true if I did not know material things.

(3) Therefore my knowledge of material things must be not merely part of the material things I know.


“Would you tell me please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

Next time: natural theology


Read Part I.

1You know you want to laugh.

Logic: Peter Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica Part I

Since we had so much fun pulling apart Ed Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (start here), I thought we’d do the same for Peter Kreeft’s brand new Summa Philosophica, a book I’m delighted to report which has emerged unburdened of a subtitle.

St Thomas Aquinas’s—a Doctor of the Church, and stalwart physician ready with cure for what ails us Moderns—most famous work is the Summa Theologica. It is a primer for readers like you and me; that is, people who can parse a syllogism without developing a headache, have opinions about philosophical and theological matters, and want a précis to all the Big Questions.

The Summa, like many another Medieval philosophy book, is as rigidly structured as a symphony. It is divided by distinct movements called Questions, the answer of each handled by several themes, or Articles. For example, “Question 2. The existence of God” is answered by “Article 1. Whether the existence of God is self-evident?” (No), “Article 2. Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?” (Yes) and “Article 3. Whether God exists?” (Yes).

The Articles are divided into two parts: nay and yea. The “nay” methodically lists Objections to the Articles, the lead Objection starting with “It seems that the answer is the opposite of what is truth.” Only the most pertinent and strongest Objections are shown.

The “yea” follows sonata form. Immediately after the Objections, the exposition “On the contrary” appears as introduction to a pithy dismissal. Development begins with an “I answer that“, the meat of the serious case for truth. Finally, recapitulation where the theme is used to rebut each Objection.

Throughout, economy of words rules. It is a dry form, a mere skeleton to which fuller arguments can be later attached. But this format is easy to read, as long as one does not, as PG Wodehouse warned of his collection of Jeeves stories, attempt too much at once. Words blur and blend together after the second Question. It is best to think of the Summa as philosophical poetry: read snatches, then digest.

Now, this over-long introduction was necessary because Kreeft wrote Summa Philosophica in the Medieval manner. Like Aquinas’s work, it is thus difficult to summarize, since the original is a summary. Nevertheless, we’ll do our best and hit every Question, but not every Article. Away we go. These posts won’t be contiguous.

Logic & Methodology

It might have been true that philosophy begins as the love of wisdom, and in his first Article Kreeft argues that it still must, but he is clever to separate small-p philosophy from its academic step-cousin, where love of anything besides grants, tenure, and paper count is largely absent. “Philosophy was not a ‘department’ to its founders. They would have regarded the expression ‘philosophy department’ as absurd as ‘love department.'” Our first Amen.

Every department, every person, has a philosophy: even the materialist scientist who boasts, “I have no philosophy!” espouses one. Which brings us to scientism, which is dealt the first of many blows. The assumption that “the scientific method is the only valid or legitimate method” for uncovering truth

is self-contradictory and self-eliminating because it cannot be proved by the scientific method. If the objection [we are past philosophy and onto science] assumes that only verifiable or falsifiable ideas are legitimate, and that only empirically or mathematically verifiable or falsifiable ideas are verifiable or falsifiable, that very assumption is self-contradictory and self-eliminating because it is not empirically or mathematically verifiable or falsifiable.

No matter how many times this (simple, really) argument is presented, it never seems to sink in; the dedicated empiricist just can’t admit to having an ultimately unverifiable philosophy. Stubbornness? Something worse? Let it pass.

Similarly, philosophy cannot use the “method of universal doubt” for “one must first believe something in order to then doubt it.” Skepticism is a theory only ever entertained, but never believed, by mischievous academics. Try increasing a skeptic’s class load and you will soon hear from him all about Truth.

Article 5 asks “whether philosophy should be a required subject in schools?” Objection 1 begins: “It seems that it should not, for 95% of American colleges and universities have decided this question in the negative.” Perhaps an underestimate. Logic (Art. 6) too should be required even though it is “dull and empty of content, like mathematics.” Our second Amen.

Article 8: Whether deductive arguments (e.g. syllogisms) really prove anything?

Objection 1: It seems that they do not, for as the ancient Greek skeptics pointed out, every syllogism depends on its premises, which it assumes rather than proves. In order to be certain of the syllogism’s conclusion, these premises must be proved by other syllogisms, whose premises in turn depend on still other syllogisms and other premises, et cetera ad infinitum, so that nothing is ever proved with certainty…

Reply to Objection 1: Aristotle answered this objection very simply: the infinite regress of proving the premises of premises stops at two points: direct and indubitable sense experience and the direct and indubitable intellectual experience, so to speak, of logically self-evident first principles such as “Do good, not evil” in practical reasoning and the laws of identity [X is X], non-contradiction, and excluded middle (either p is true or not true) in theoretical reasoning.

Regular readers will be on solid ground here (e.g., this is why I argue probability is part of logic). The pun is apropos: on a foundation of axioms, simple logical truths for which there is no evidence but which we know, via faith or revelation or however you want to phrase it, and direct sense experience (we know we exist and have experiences), every truth is built. Further, every argument is a finite (and usually short) chain of earlier arguments, all of which must end at this axiomatic, experiential base. Those who doubt this are invited to pick up any fundamental mathematical text and see it for themselves in its simplest form.

Consider that any objection to this argument must be itself an argument, which will have premises, which themselves must be proved true by earlier arguments and so forth, all ending upon axioms which we each of us know are true. There is just no escaping this—or any, really—truth.

Deconstructionism, or rather its corpse, is displayed in Article 9 for its pathological curiosities, after which it is re-interred. And then comes our final Amen, Article 10, which asks whether symbolic logic is superior to Aristotelian logic. The answer, for most people and most purposes, is a resounding No.

Symbolic logic, and in mathematics symbolic equations, are just the thing for anxious logicians and mathematicians who want to focus on a narrow subject and calculate. But they are a positive menace and bar to clear understanding for the rest of us (particularly beginners) who want to understand. There are many who have memorized statistical equations, for example, but few who understand what they mean. Excessive symbols are the cause of reification, a terrible disease epidemic in the academy, causing people to actually prefer their abstractions over reality (cf. climatology). The cure is obvious: remove the source of the infection until one’s reasoning powers are sufficiently strong to have built up an immunity.

Next time: metaphysics.

Reminder: civilized discourse rigidly enforced.