William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Only Metric That Matters

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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.

13 Comments

  1. Sander van der Wal

    August 8, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Russia/the USSR never was one of the godless countries of Northern and Western Europe. Neither was Germany. These countries are Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands. And that’s it.

    BTW, the trick of having as many people coming out of the womb as are being conceived is called “using a preservative”. Only pregnant people might want an abortion. You cannot abort anybody if you’re not pregnant.

  2. Bizarre. Just bizarre. No real arguments, a few assertions but mostly just inane wanderings.

    BTW, China, USSR, didn’t kill people for atheism. They had cults of the leader, like North Korea, where the religion is the leader. Nothing in atheism can make or enjoin people to murder or harm others, unlike the Bible, which allows for selling your daughter to her rapist, it endorses slavery and genocide over and over.
    And this is your one window into your God. It is hardly a moral book. And the only way Christians can take away some of the worst attrocities is by claiming the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’s words (even though they were written long after his death) and reading the Sermon on the Mount’s first few lines opposite to what they say. He’s come to keep the laws not abolish them. Until heaven and earth pass and all is fulfilled. Christians keep saying heaven exits. And the Earth is certainly here. And not all Christians even accept this, many Christians believe stoning homosexuals, adulterers is still the law.
    That’s another problem with Christianity, the 30,000 Christian sects that all claim to know themselves to be the One True Sect. They all have different interpretations of the Bible and different morals.

    If the Bible is the one source of morals, why are there Christians on opposite sides of every single important moral issue? Abortion, death penalty, war, prisons, feeding the poor, drones, the list is very long.

    I’m sure you’ll say they are not true Christians. The reality is, if the Bible is so easy to misunderstand or interpret in the wrong way, then it is hardly a decent book to base your morals on.
    Heck, even the ten commandments are pathetic. Only four have anything to do with morals or people being good. The rest are all about God and his huge ego.
    If I was God I would have written “Thou Shalt Not Rape”. Instead, God condones rape. Many times the Jews destroy entire peoples, but the faithful warriors are bidden to take the virgins for themselves.

    And you think that’s moral?

  3. Jimmy Jones, I don’t think your bizarre comments merit rebuttal.

  4. “The USSR was never one of the godless countries of Northern Europe.”

    Hilarious.

    I also wonder if JJ realises just how many cliched truisms he managed to include in his dime-a-dozen response. “They didn’t do it because of atheism “. Yawn. It’s these sorts of denials that prevent me from taking mainstream gnuism seriously.

  5. History does show a stark correspondence of higher religiosity with societal dysfunction. There are some chicken-or-egg issues, though, and some will point to anti-religious reactionary movements as if somehow detached from religion (?), but it seems clear to me the cognitive dissonance generated by religion is mentally unhealthy for people and societies. We’d be better off without it.

    JMJ

  6. Ye Olde Statistician

    August 8, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Some years back I ran into one of those thingies about how the US is “behind” other countries and gave as an example that the infant mortality rate in Switzerland was only 4.8 per 1,000 live births while in the USA it was a ghastly 7.2 per 1,000 live births.

    However, in the US, extreme preemies, weighing <2.2 pounds constitute one-third of all infant deaths, despite often heroic efforts to save them.

    In Switzerland, such babies (the cut-off is <30 cm, but this is roughly the same class as 2.2 pounds) are left to die and are not counted as live births to begin with. Thus, they do not show up in figures for deaths per live birth. They are counted as “stillborn.”

    If the 1/3 of US infant deaths that the Swiss don’t count were shifted to stillborn instead, the US rate would be approximately ? ?(7.2) = 4.8

    IOW the rates are about the same if the same definitions are used in both venues.

    Comparisons across jurisdictions and sometimes across years are complicated by the fact that different operational definitions are in use.

  7. There is only one metric that matters, and that is the number of souls who slip into the empyrean.

    Yup. Vanity, vanity. All else is vanity says the Teacher. (Eccles 1:2 and 12:8)

  8. Jimmy: I am constantly amazed at atheist’s interpretation of the Bible. It’s like they have to make up stuff to justify not believing in it. Atheism in itself allows tyrants to demand allegiance to themselves and kill in their name. What a creative mind you have that rewrites something that apparently makes you uncomfortable. As for various interpretations of things, try looking up atheist’s beliefs and how they justify them. No more consistency there than what you claim in standard religion. It seems we are all totally wrong in our beliefs based on your statement.

    Jersey McJones: And what precisely causes cognitive dissonance? If I recall, that’s knowing you should behave in one way and then not doing so. Some would call that a guilty conscience. The solution: Just destroy all morality and you can do what you will. Viola! No dissonance. You are a clever one there.

  9. If there is no Ultimate comparator for right and wrong, good and evil, then everything really is arbitrary. Nothing matters.

    How do you jump to the conclusion of “everything really is arbitrary” and “nothing matters”? Given a set of axioms, mathematicians can reach logical, objective (cogent) conclusions. Similarly, given axioms, rational people who don’t communicate with the Ultimate comparator can reach a logical, coherent conclusion about right and wrong, which may be different from yours that you somehow claim to be the right one.

    If we do have access to an Ultimate comparator, yes, things probably would be easier as no thinking on our part would be required. Just ask the UC.

  10. Euthyphro dilemma!

    And comparing dinky racially, ethnically, and culturally homogeneous countries with populations less than that of New York City on a weekday is silly.

    I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on the statistical evidence provided in the book. But what are you saying here? Are you saying that culture is a necessary component of morality?

    There is only one metric that matters, and that is the number of souls who slip into the empyrean.

    Sounds like that hell and heaven serves to provide morality with its normative force in your case. Nothing wrong with that, just like the concept of karma and rebirth was the motivation in my Grandma’s case.

    So Mr. Briggs, do you have the number of souls who slip into the empyrean? Not that I think any of the statistics or information used to compare atheist and religious countries/people in the post and comments make sense, or the comparisons are fruitful, but for all I know, the number could be zero.

  11. Re Matt’s original post, I opine: It’s not that simple.

    The far-from-universal dependence of relatively high standards of customary moral behavior on the (Christian) God (e.g., in Japan) was prominently noticed at least as long ago as social scientist’s James Q. Wilson’s (of the Broken Window theory of crime-stopping fame) 1993 “The Moral Sense”, and Wilson was no leftist, no atheist.

    Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in “After Virtue,” and “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?” among other places, while pointing out the deep incoherencies in the ‘modern’ language about morality, also argued that anyone’s language about morality is co-embedded, as it were, within actual practice, within an actual society, and changing these practices and societies renders certain words incoherent, mysterious, whose meaning used to be, within the former practice and society, obvious and patent to most people.

    More recently, anthropologist Peter Frost notes by implication that Western Christians not that long ago had no particular moral difficulty in appealing to ‘the logic of force’ to persuade others of the reasonableness of the Christian notion of a universally-applicable moral code:

    “When the British sought to ban the practice [of sati], they appealed to notions of right and wrong, but to no avail. Defenders of sati considered it right and even honorable. The debate was finally resolved by the logic of force, as set forth by the British commander-in-chief:”

    This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs! (Napier, W. (1851). The History of General Sir Charles Napier’s Administration of Scinde: And Campaign in the Cutchee Hills, London: Charles Westerton. p. 35)

    And devout Catholic John Zmirak commits the well-nigh unpardonable faux pas of noticing some uncomfortable facts regarding (just for instance) the ‘universal’ immorality of slavery:

    Several popes (Gregory I, Urban II, Nicholas V, Paul III) explicitly allowed for the owning of slaves by Christians and Pope Pius IX’s Holy Office was still defending the moral licitness of slave-owning as late as 1866, three years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It took until Leo XIII – after slavery had ended in most major Catholic countries – for a pope to condemn this practice outright. The Catechism of the Catholic Church now calls the practice “intrinsically evil.”

    Not to mention my own severe problems with Matt’s favorite ‘necessary’ God, the Deus Unus of school Thomism and Feserianism, which God, constantly conflated by Thomists with the Trinity revealed by Jesus the Christ, has several minor flaws, not least of which is how it renders that very Most Holy Trinity metaphysically incoherent, supportable by ‘reason’ only by hand-waving and special pleading (though, as Matt shows, Feserianism does not disavow the Trinity, regardless).

    To say it again: it’s not that simple.

  12. Ye Olde Statistician

    August 8, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    constantly conflated by Thomists with the Trinity revealed by Jesus the Christ, has several minor flaws, not least of which is how it renders that very Most Holy Trinity metaphysically incoherent,

    Doesn’t compute. Thomas spends several questions developing the idea of the Trinity.

  13. I doubt anyone would argue that good and evil are relativist so much of this article seems to be a rather pointless exercise in knocking down straw men. Of course, that doesn’t mean that what Pinker wrote isn’t especially asinine. And of course the claim that ‘morality does need divine sanction’ is exceptionally oxymoronic given the fact that we derive ‘divine sanction’ from what other people have told us divine sanction is or should be.

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