William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

A Coincidence: Coyne Zinged Me Before I Him — Or, The Coyne Fallacy Redux

Ain’t I pretty?

After posting yesterday’s article, Jerry Coyne Doesn’t Have Free Will (poor fellow), I immediately saw hits coming to my place from Coyne’s. It turned out that, unbeknownst to me, the afternoon before, Coyne had published his own article “I am honored by theologians: there’s now a ‘Coyne Fallacy’!!!“, in which Coyne promotes me to the level of theologian. A fun coincidence and unexpected accolade.

Coyne was interested in his own encomium, the Coyne Fallacy, a neologism which appeared in my review of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God.

Let’s get one popular fallacy out of the way. This is the most-people-believe-what’s-false-therefore-it’s-false fallacy, or the Coyne fallacy, named after its most frequent user, Jerry Coyne. This fallacy is used to reject a proposition because most people misunderstand or hold false beliefs about that proposition. So that if the average church or temple goer has a definition of God that suffers certain inconsistencies, therefore God doesn’t exist. If you accept that then you’d have to believe that since the average citizen has mistaken ideas about evolution (holding to Intelligent Design, say), therefore evolution is false. Truth is not a vote.

Straightforward, yes? An obvious fallacy, is it not? Embarrassing to be caught using it, wouldn’t you say?

Suppose an individual proposes God is made of pressed farina and egg. (Well, people do say these kinds of things.) Would that curious proposal therefore prove, or even hint, that God does not exist? God as defined in careful and deliberate prose by Hart as the ground of being itself, the necessary being; the God of Aquinas, as laid out in this series. I mean, wouldn’t it be farcical if somebody in earnest said, “Because some people hold that God is made of pasta, therefore the God of Aquinas etc. does not exist”?

Coyne takes pains to show a list from some poll which says, among other things, that some 57% of Americans believe “Jesus was born of a virgin.” The most one could draw from that would be observations like 43% of Americans have some reading to catch up on, or we’re not doing a good job conveying dogma, and so on.

The Coyne fallacy would be committed if one were to try use the errors of Americans to hint or to attempt to prove that God does exist. Right? Here is Coyne’s answer to the Coyne Fallacy. He first quotes me, then says this:

That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. The fallacy, ascribed to me, is to claim that because a group misunderstands the nature of something, that thing doesn’t exist. So it’s just as false to say God doesn’t exist because some Christians (or atheists) have a “false” notion of who He is as it is to say that evolution doesn’t exist because many people misunderstand it.

If what I said was the “dumbest” thing he’s ever read, then it proves Coyne doesn’t get out much. The rest of that paragraph is a restatement of the fallacy. He then says:

And yes, many people do misunderstand evolution. But there’s a difference between evolution and God. Do I need to point out that we have evidence for evolution but not for any kind of god, from Demiurge to the Ground of Being? That’s a big difference. So we can correct misunderstandings about evolution because, as evolutionary biologists, we know how it works. David Bentley Hart has only a knowledge of what other theologians said and whatever revelations strike him when contemplating the Numinous.

Clever readers will have noticed old Jerry (may I call you Jerry, Jerry?) never answered the charge. He instead claims that scientists have no business using mathematics because—wait for it…wait for it—there is no empirical evidence for mathematics! Ha ha! Ain’t that rich.

Sorry, Jerry, old son. It won’t do. First, you stand guilty as charged. You have used the Coyne Fallacy before, and you use it in your attempt to claim innocence of its use. That so many Americans do believe in a Demiurge (Hart explains this term at length; see the review), or something like it, and have false notions of God, does not hint at nor does it disprove God Himself exists.

Second, as for your strange ideas about empiricism you—what’s that? You didn’t say anything about mathematics? Oh. How silly of me.

There is no empirical proof of mathematics, nor of logic, yet I’d wager Coyne (and other atheists) are happy to use, rely on, and trust both. (If you disagree, email me the infinite subsequence of an infinite sequence; any sequence will do; be sure your email client allows large files.) Logical positivism, and the extreme empiricism which accompanied it formed, as the late great David Stove said, an episode of “black comedy in philosophy.” Somehow the word about the failures of positivism did not get back to scientists. Well, these things take time. Been about a century now. Still. Grants proposals and such can distract one so.

Anyway, arguments about the nature of God are necessarily metaphysical, philosophical, and, yes, theological. About the first two, like in mathematics, empirical proof will forever be lacking, but about the last, why, there is loads of empirical evidence! The resurrection of Jesus alone, an empirically verified event, i.e. a whopping piece of observational evidence, has kept authors busy for two thousand years. So, please, no more carping about “lack of evidence.”

About me

In his post, Coyne pointed to my “Who is WMB?” page, which excited many of his readers. Many were in awe of my status as Thought Leader (Slogan: “Have your thoughts led by me”). I recall well the press release announcing this lofty post:


It can now be revealed that my recent secret trip was to secure a reverse MBAectomy, a painful operation which has frappéd my cranial capacity a statistically significant 342.7%. I am now qualified to be, and do hereby accept the title of, Thought Leader…

Coyne’s readers were, to say the least, impressed by my achievement. One, overcome by the discovery, wrote, “Thought leader? —omfg.” (That woman gets a discount when she wants her thoughts led.)

Several commenters, examining closely the picture Coyne used of me, thought that I was attempting to spin so as to fly, like a helicopter. These people were wrong. There was one night experimenting with some Irish homeopathists with achieving lift off, but I can report no success. Above, the photographer caught me demonstrating the Fourth Position in ballet. Ballet beats the skintight pants off of yoga. Besides, I look wonderful in a tutu.

I don’t know who Ken Phelps is, but clearly this fellow knows me well:

I am once again unable to resist the image of a small boy, dressed in his father’s shoes and fedora, overcoat trailing on the ground behind him, clomping about the house, waving a felt marker about as if it were a cigar, and he a tycoon.

It is human nature, I suppose, to ape those we are not. But really, inventing fallacies? Perhaps in the future you should check to make sure the cap is on the marker, Mr. Briggs, your lips lips are bright yellow.

I’m not old enough for real cigars: I substitute lemon lollipops instead. This explains the lip color.

Someone calling himself infiniteimprobabilit asks the important question, “‘Statistician to the Stars’ — wtf? Why would the stars need a statistician?” Because, of course, the Stars would never be caught dead discussing their own wee p-values.

Ed Kroc, perhaps an investigative journalist, finds it “extremely suspicious” that Cornell does not list me among its Adjunct Faculty. Well, Ed, now that you’ve read me, would you admit to knowing me? (About my book, perhaps “skimming” isn’t helping you; try reading. Your brother-in-ink Jeremy Pereira might try the same: I have an entire Chapter on the different kinds of Induction which he missed.)

Finally, Bruce Lyon suspects I might be a “climate change denier”. Let me set your mind at ease, Brian. I have never denied the climate has changed.


  1. It’s hard to think clearly when you’re being personally attacked, so we should probably do Briggs the courtesy of looking away from his attempts at analysis here. Perhaps one more quote from Coyne’s article will provide a hint for those who really want to spend the time to figure out who’s making more sense:

    “Read Aquinas or Augustine to see how literalistic they are, and how specific about the nature of God. How wrong they must have been–to have to be corrected by the likes of David Bentley Hart!”

  2. This is the second post in a row that’s founded on debating the premise that humans do, or do not, have free will — as if the question is either/or. It isn’t.

    Anybody who’s observed others, or pondered some of their own decisions (objectively) ought to realize by now that to whatever extent we have “free will” we very often to not exercise it, but pretend we have.

    The question about “free will” is more along the lines of ‘how much do we really have?’ and/or, ‘how often do we not exercise “free will” when we’d like to think we are?’

    Those are much tougher questions, and exploring them reveals a number of truths about our species, not all/ways so pleasant, but we do already have a number of useful insights.

    Scott Adams blog was recently mentioned; he describes the “moist robot” theory. The gist of of the “moist robot’ is that humans, for all the logic they pretend and actually believe they apply in reality often simply apply their emotions and then fit their interpretation of reality after the fact. We cannot choose our emotions, so when they dictate our choices we are not exercising “free will.”

    So-called “Choice Blindness” is one example where “free will” is, to some extent, demonstrated to be an illusion. E.G., http://www.verywell.com/what-is-choice-blindness-2795019. This is demonstrated, repeatedly, in a variety of scenarios.

    A related, contemporary, example is how many “anti-Trumpers” assert Trump is racist because David Duke, KKK, endorsed him (even though Trump’s stance on this topic is well recorded and totally refutes his endorsement of Duke or the KKK). By that [il]logic any girl approached/propositioned by some scumbag is evidence that girl is a scumbag…but the law [rightly] says she could be the victim of harassment if the approach/proposition meets stipulated criteria. This is one example, of many, where those opposed to Trump assert rational reasons that are blatantly illogical/irrational and provably factually false. As such, this is an example of emotion overriding rationality, and in that process, overriding “free will” while simultaneously maintaining the illusion of exercising “free will.” They dislike the guy, and then, after-the-fact, contrive and accept reasons (choices) that fly in the face of reason, but that doesn’t matter — emotion creates a feeling that in turn induces concocted (confabulated) rationalizations. The confabulated rationale (‘see, he’s endorsed by Duke/KKK, therefore he himself is racist!’) makes no logical sense, but serves as the [delusional] reason from which “free will” is believed to be exercised to conclude the individual is something he is not.

    A fact-based evaluation of the above Trump example in greater detail, and other related, is presented at: http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/11/16/you-are-still-crying-wolf/ Forward that to anti-Trumpers & then sit back & watch the cognitive dissonance.

    At any rate, the idea of humans having, or not, “free will” has become a recurring theme here, always presented as an either/or proposition when so much evidence demonstrates, repeatedly, beyond any doubt whatsoever that humans very often do not exercise “free will” when they believe they are. Useful discussion addresses where, why, and how much “free will” is really an illusion, and, when & how might one assess if their perceived exercise of their own “free will” is in reality an exercise in self-deception.

    Degenerating the topic to an either/or proposition, with emphasis on rebutting some numb-nut that’s taken some dopey extremist position is merely an exercise in stooping to their level with another extremist position that, after all the blather, provides negligible contributions other that getting one’s fans in the peanut gallery to cheer. Whoopie!

  3. Coyne and friends are upset at your criticism? Don’t they realize you couldn’t help yourself. It’s their fault for being obtuse, but of course, they can’t help that either so it’s turtles all the way down.

    @Ken, the existence of “free will” (however defined) and the exercise of it are different issues. Discussion of them doesn’t have to be “an either/or proposition.” Useful discussion addresses where, why, and how much “free will” is really an illusion, and, when & how might one assess if their perceived exercise of their own “free will” is in reality an exercise in self-deception. “Where” and “why” are predicated on the “what” of the topic. Agreed, they can be more interesting because of context and more useful because of application. Whoopie!

  4. Doesn’t anybody have a sense of humour?
    My sister years ago bought me book on squashed fairies. It’s very pretty. It is made from pressed flowers and is beautifully illustrated.

    Mr. Briggs, yoga isn’t for you and it’s not a philosophy for life whatever pants you wear.
    Ballet is a good thought but that photo shows you are not a natural. Tutus are for girls and are the only reason for ballet. Every one’s a fairy when they wear a tutu.

    “Good toes naughty toes” google it!

    Advice: while I think of it!

    Find other ways to stretch by default by default or ask advice from someone who knows what they’re talking about. Don’t hold the stretch for more than ten seconds or so, (to reduce ischaemic effects) don’t push into pain and don’t bounce or force. Even the sharp little pains that can be endured easily should not be tolerated to speed up the process of lengthening soft tissue. There is no need the tissue will give in time.

    Wasn’t going to post this yesterday but changed my mind.

    Intervention with the world takes place by communication via movement that is either:
    1 reflex or autonomic (sympathetic or parasympathetic)
    2 voluntary
    3 absent minded, which is still initiated voluntarily but continued by muscle memoryare movement patterns learned by repetition. So the conscious choice to chose certain movement combinations to perform an action is then taken over by the subconscious.
    So when you put the biscuit in the fridge and put the milk bottle to your mouth it’s a sign you’ve had too many cups of tea.

    Free will does not only extend with consideration of acts that are due for judgement.
    Moral or moral, the choice is made. The killer plots his act in detail, often and also carries out complex chosen avoidance behaviour to hide the deed. As does the high calibre conman. Imposing the will when it is in harmony with desire, good or evil is easy. When the two are conflicted the will power is felt in sharp relief whether it fails or it succeeds.

    Thoughts and beliefs will inform the activity within that system including heightening or dampening reflexes by
    altering thresholds of excitable tissue. The immune system is also involved, endocrine glands are involved all in a massively complex system. Of that system we could be said to have no immediate predictable effect that can be relied upon by which I mean the autonomic activity and it’s then effect back on the consciousness. When it comes to punching or not, we have a choice. There are scenarios when resisting that may be more or less difficult. This is why the answer to a good life lies in the heart not in the brain. Those two latter words used figuratively of course. Love is the reason why people chose good. Some fully grown people are still confused about the distinction between love and something physical. People on both sides of the God debate I might add.

    The argument about free will must go back to this basic level of movement within the physical world. More complex sets of movements and decisions are examples of the same situation of voluntary movement. To pull the trigger or not. Those decisions rely upon conscience, empathy and compassion, mindfulness after that which includes potential feeling of guilt and finally such things as fear of consequences or a knowledge of the law. For those who are less endowed with empathy or compassion such as the psychopath, the will to do good becomes a tricky business. The thought of being caught may be the deterrent and if they decide they won’t et caught or the desire outweighs the will to do the thing then so they do just as they please.

    People who say there is no free will have never resisted a thing in their life which I do not believe. It is easy to consider that will just like mind is unguided but by chemical reactions which are inevitable. Each time they move their right or left arm they tell themselves after the fact that the choice was an illusion rather than simply accepting the reality of the most obvious.

    AI proponents need to be rid of free will in order to continue to believe in the mirage. Their entire existence or personal experience becomes a self professed delusion. What a truly mad, hopeless philosophy.

  5. There is no evidence for God as “ground of all being”? Don’t things exist? Especially, things that need not have existed? The evidence is everywhere. Especially for biologists.

  6. Ye Olde Statistician

    January 5, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    That someone argues tendentiously has nothing to do with liberum arbitrium. The arguer has still made a free judgment to argue that Duke’s endorsement amounts to a taint on Trump. That does not mean he has argued correctly, logically, or even honestly. Only that he has chosen to make the argument.

  7. Careful Briggs you’ll be dragged from your office and
    nailed to a cross mounted on the head of a pin. If you read
    comments on the Coyne screed you’ll see just how luminescent
    his audience actually is.

  8. Fr. John Rickert, FSSP

    January 5, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    There has to be a term that combines the Ad Hominem fallacy, the Straw Man fallacy, and Snowflakiness.

  9. Because, of course, the Stars would never be caught dead discussing their own wee p-values.
    Ahh Matt that was star spaygled.

  10. >If you read comments on the Coyne screed you’ll see just how luminescent his audience actually is.

    It’s a board of SJWs. As in Thug Lives Matter supporters to Muslim apologists to feminists.

  11. On values of P
    I’m doing pi from scratch, or was, yesterday, but why didn’t the pi man make pi radians equal to 360 degrees?
    Then the fractions would be intuitive. Monet’s pie is superior. It has a higher p value even though the p is small. Is the light or the bird wrong?

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