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Category: Philosophy

The philosophy of science, empiricism, a priori reasoning, epistemology, and so on.

April 23, 2019 | No comments

A Flood Of Evidence: From God To Noah To Hume To Nobody

Here are remarks on “Enlightenment & Sacrifice — Remarks on Joseph de Maistre” by Thomas Bertonneau, which I urge you to read in full. Bertonneau is reading de Maistre’s Elucidation on Sacrifices, in which is a dialogue, of which the most interesting part for us is this:

Take the Noachic Deluge, one of the topics in the Second Dialogue. Whereas, Maistre gives it to the Count to say, “We know very little about the time before the Flood,” yet “only one consideration is of interest to us.” The Count has in mind that “punishments are always proportional [to crimes] and crimes are always proportional to the knowledge of the guilty — so that the Flood presupposes unheard of crimes and these crimes assume knowledge infinitely1 higher than we possess today.”

This must be so. Consider that Satan does not doubt the existence of God, as we uncivilized people do. Satan’s knowledge of God, of right and wrong, is, as Maistre might have said, infinitely higher than ours. Satan must know that he requires the existence of God for himself to exist, especially since he (Satan) is an entirely immaterial creature. Yet Satan still rebelled. His punishment must be concomitantly proportional.

Eve did not doubt, nor did Adam. Nor did the people in Noah’s time. We doubt, we disbelieve. They knew. Yet still they rebelled. What an astonishing crime! It would be like if you said, “What the Hell”, and went on an elimination spree, cutting the throats of intruders disturbing your peace. You would know, in advance, what punishment you’d get, but it wouldn’t stop you. You’d show authority your back side. You know best.

Yet now we don’t believe, we doubt, we don’t know. It seems to follow our crimes are less, since our knowledge is less. And so too our punishment? Maybe it’s as Nicolas Gomez Davila said: “The modern world will not be punished. It is the punishment.”

This is only a minor observation on how far we have fallen. Read the rest of the essay for more. And then put your mind to the question of how far we have yet to go. What would define a bottom? How about when man declares all of mankind god, and when a first among equals is seen to be the embodiment of this spirit.

(1This use of infinitely was once common. It was not used in a numerical sense, but as of an order incomprehensibly higher. It is always well to speak of infinity as incomprehensible.)

Bertonneau continues:

This theory of lost knowledge links itself to the concept of supernatural enlightenment. Noah and his family, Maistre through the Count argues, must have honored a knowledge that they possessed while everyone else must have flouted the same knowledge so as to bring on themselves a cosmic enormity. In respect of the theory of knowledge, Maistre believes that modern epistemology suffers from a defect. The ancients, Maistre asserts, could see effects in causes. The modern epistemologist, by virtue so to speak of his egoistic limitation, can only “rise painfully from effects to causes”; or, what is even worse, he concerns himself “only with effects.” He therefore misjudges the ancients to the degree that he cannot imagine the spontaneity and fullness of original knowledge. The Count says that, “Plato, speaking of what is most important for man to know, suddenly adds with the penetrating simplicity natural to him: These things are learned easily and perfectly IF SOMEONE TEACHES THEM TO US.” How did the generations after Noah and his family rebuild their world? Was it by a painful beginning from the degree zero? Noah, possessing knowledge, taught it to them; and on that basis they rebuilt their world. Whence gleaned Noah that knowledge? Noah was privy to a primordial revelation. Maistre cites the Greco-Roman myth of the Golden Age, during which men governed themselves morally, and the legend of Manu, the lawgiver of the Hindus, as parallelisms. “Wise antiquity,” Maistre writes, “will tell you that the first men…were marvellous men, and that beings of a superior order deigned to favour them with the most precious communications.”

The lost knowledge was that communicated to man directly from God (or the gods), a reliable and necessary form of induction.

Maistre’s critique of modern epistemologists is sound. We have gone so far, in many case, as to deny knowledge of cause, a disease introduced by Hume and communicated orally ever since. To grasp an effect in a cause is to understand the power and nature of the cause, and these powers and natures are doubted or denied.

We do sometimes rise from effects to causes, but in the wrong way, as with much of statistical analysis, which ascribes occult causes to probability, powers which somehow—nobody knows how—act on parameters of probability models. Readers who got through this paper will understand this critique. (And if you haven’t read it, why not?) Cause is not direct in this way, but wiggles or is fuzzy. It is a bizarre view.

Effects also are perfectly compatible with probability models, which can always be agnostic on cause. But while predictions from these models might be useful, they are not revealing of nature. They are too often just a way to make a buck. It is the weakest form of science.

Noah, presumes Maistre, and conditional on accepting The Flood we have to agree, must have taught his descendants what he knew, what he learned directly from God and his messengers. Noah’s ancestors (the ones not guilty of sodomy, like Ham), in turn would have passed on what they learned, and so on down to us.

This process must have been, from simple observation, like the game of telephone carried on far too long. We have all but forgotten about the transcendent. Even those who remember it find it nearly impossible to live according to that knowledge, surrounded as we all are by scoffers.

This leaves open the possibility of God re-teaching ancient wisdom. But why would He? And if He doesn’t how far removed from Truth do we have to get before God declares and End to all?

April 17, 2019 | 35 Comments

In Opposition To Scientism

Bo and Ben Winegard start their Quillette essay (thanks to K.A. Rodgers for the tip) “In Defense of Scientism” by saying “Truth is always provisional”.

Is that proposition true, or merely provisional?

They also say, “In science, the jury is always out. This is because science is a methodological approach to the world, not a set of inflexible principles or a catalog of indisputable facts.”

Not indisputable? Walk into a coven of biologists and say, “I dispute the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution.” You will very soon learn the meaning of indisputable.

Science flatters itself by saying its inflexible principle of the scientific method is somehow unique among intellectual endeavors. It is not. Every subject—theology, philosophy, mathematics (math is not science), history, even—adapts to new evidence. Science, too.

Science is always presented as Whig history. The world was dark and formless. On day two Francis Bacon said, “Let us have control!” And science was born. It never appears to occur to scidolators to consider that before the scientific revolution the reason for the absence of (much) science was because few thought it was needed. Men believed there were more important matters.

Incidentally, it follows, and I imagine the Winegard Two would agree, that if no scientific theory is true then all scientific theories should be doubted. Even in those sciences that are “settled”. We need more Uncertainty.

“Oh, so you’re going to be negative. Briggs, science has ‘conquered deadly diseases’.”

It did, too. Yet have the increased lifespans of men done them more, or less, spiritual good? All medicine has side effects, which can sometimes be worse than the disease.

“We don’t care about your spiritual good. For science has ‘eradicated oppressive superstitions. ‘”

Except for its own superstitions. Funny, though, that those suffering under “oppressive superstitions” rarely thought themselves burdened. Just as we do not think we are suffering under the oppressive superstition that science has the answer to all or to the best questions. Which is scientism.

Winegard2‘s scientism definition at first sight appears different.

The version of scientism we will be defending here is the version advocated by Pinker, Harris, Dawkins, and [Neil DeGrasse] Tyson; the simple contention that we, as a society, should use the principles of science—skepticism, experimentation, falsification, and the search for basic explanatory principles—to determine, however clumsily and slowly, how the world works and what the best and most effective social policies are.

They advocate “‘science-based social policy’ (SBSP)”. There are two problems with this, one philosophical, one practical. (Three, if you include falsification, which is a philosophical dead end.)

The philosophical problem is this: science can never tell us what questions to ask, what subjects to investigate, nor can it rank questions in importance. This knowledge has to come from outside science. Once a subject has been identified as important, science can assist in answering questions about it—a practice to which no one anywhere objects.

The practical difficulty is what counts as evidence is itself only partly scientific, partly political, partly metaphysical. There would be no dispute about any subject to which all agreed on the importance and its consequences, but which was merely lacking measurements to best categorize uncertainty in the subject. Theories decide what facts to look for; facts which do not fit a theory aren’t seen. We have many disputes in many subjects in which we have massive amount of measurements, proving science cannot answer ultimate questions.

In short, science can only be a handmaiden to policy. It can never drive it.

Weingard Deux present and answer four objections to their version of scientism. Let’s take each in turn.

“1. Scientism Will Lead to an Unaccountable Tyranny of Scientists”

“Many intellectuals and pundits who have assailed scientism have argued that it would lead to a tyranny of bespectacled elites promoting a dangerous brand of bloodless rationalism. They associate SBSP with other failed experiments in top-down utopianism such as the French and Russian Revolutions.”

There is a large body count to back these fears. We now have (some) scientists and physicians telling us men can be women. We have others saying sodomy is “healthy”. To argue against these conclusions is to be a science denier. A tyranny of scientists is a live possibility.

To their credit, Weingard-Weingard are not blank-slaters. Yet they say “Today’s most preposterous policy proposals…usually come from those who are ignorant of or willfully deny the conclusions of modern evolutionary psychology.” This criticism is spot on in those theories which are based on Equality & Diversity.

It is easy to willfully deny the absurd, which applies to some conclusions of modern evolutionary psychology apart from Equality. That subject produces the absurd, when it does, in part because of its reliance on materialism, itself a form of scientism. If the material is not all there is, the science must be lacking.

In both cases the error arises from the metaphysics (philosophy), and not so much from measurement (though evolutionary psychologists are overly fond of Just-So stories).

“2. Scientism Has Been Responsible for Terrible Crimes in the Past and Scientists Are Often Wrong”

“Opponents of scientism …eugenics and white racial superiority…Social Darwinism, for example, wasn’t really a science, and it wasn’t based on the weight of the evidence; it was a social philosophy that incorporated a crude version of natural selection.”

Ahem. It certainly was a science, and was based on the weight of evidence. It was the theory that determined the evidence to look for. Here they are identifying the curse of scientism: that it cannot determine the importance of the consequences of any theory. And they are showing a philosophy must be behind any science; here, they do not like the philosophy, but not liking it does not make it not a philosophy.

“3. Scientism Cannot Determine Values and Therefore Is a Poor Guide to the Good Life”

The is/ought argument is almost exclusively scholastic [they mean academic], because in reality most people agree on an underlying value, and this helps us to bridge the gap between “is” and “ought.” As Sam Harris has argued in The Moral Landscape, the underlying value most people agree upon is that some form of human flourishing or satisfaction or well-being or happiness is an intrinsic good and ought to be promoted. That is, most modern people in the West agree, despite sometimes showy protestations to the contrary, that human well-being ought to be the goal of social policy and morality.

This is the Voting Fallacy, that because a (possibly weighted) majority agree that X is moral or good, therefore X is moral or good. Most people may now agree about “human flourishing” or, Lord help us, “satisfaction”, but this does not bridge the is-ought gap. That can only be done, and is done, via metaphysics, not science.

“Once we have identified a desirable end—human flourishing—we can and should use science to discover and promote the policies that encourage it. Put another way, science can and absolutely should tell people how to live.”

Put it this way, scientism has just been proven false by Twice Weingard. For agreeing—or rather deciding, and therefore avoiding the Voting Fallacy—on a desirable end is admitted not to be a scientific question. And nobody has ever disagreed with finding proper measures once the end has been decided.

“4. Scientism Attempts to Cannibalize Other Fields and is Disrespectful of Other ‘Ways of Knowing.'”

Critics of scientism frequently express the fear that science is encroaching on the turf of the humanities, devaluing once noble human endeavors such as music, painting, and literature. But this is simply a category error. Humans don’t value art because it provides empirical knowledge about the world; they value it because it offers an enjoyable and often thought-provoking experience.

If there were ever a passage more indicative of scientism, I’d like to see it. Of course we value art, music, literature, philosophy because they provide empirical knowledge about the world! Forget the dreadful images conveyed by the desire for “experience”, and look to their “thought-provoking”, which makes their contention self-refuting.

They insert a joke about poetry failing to tell us of “the relation between calories and weight gain”, which as regular readers know is Type I scientism, which is the bombast by which scientists inform people of what the people have always known; here, that eating too much makes you fat. And then it isn’t true poetry is silent on this subject.

One word more, I beseech you: if you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katherine of France, where, for
anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless
already he be killed with your hard opinions; for
Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man.

–Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2, Epilogue

Would you like fries with your scientism?

“So then what about philosophy? Many of those accused of promoting scientism, such as Dawkins and Harris, have written or said dismissive things about philosophy…But it’s clear, if one is charitable when interpreting these thinkers, that they don’t dislike or disparage philosophy per se, but rather a kind of esoteric and self-referential philosophy that has been mocked and belittled by many.”

Rot. The claim from some of these men is that science can replace philosophy. As above, it cannot: science relies on philosophy. They have the causal arrow turned upside down.

However, “adherents [of scientism] are admittedly impatient with some of the logic-chopping, yawn-inducing, and obscurantist varieties [of philosophy] practiced at elite institutions.” That such philosophy exists is true, much of the result of publish-or-perish; i.e., academics who have nothing to say but who are forced to say something and then say it at great length.

If all Weingard+Weingard mean by scientism is that, when it can, science should be used to assist answering certain questions, then you will not find one sober man who disagrees. They place science is too high a regard for such humble tasks, though. That’s where their scientism becomes false.

April 15, 2019 | 8 Comments

Randomization Isn’t Needed — And Can Be Harmful

Had a named person in statistics (Andrew Althouse) ask me about randomization, which he likes, and which I do not. “I want to compare outcomes for a specific patient group getting surgery A vs surgery B (assume clinical equipoise). If I’m not going to randomize, how should I allocate the patients in my study so I am confident that afterward I can make inference on the difference in outcomes?”

Excellent question. My response, though it was unsatisfying to the gentleman, was “I’d have independent experts allocate patients, ensuring balance of (what are thought to be) secondary causes, where the panel’s decisions are hidden form trial surgeons. Try to inject as much control as possible, while minimizing cheating etc.”

Too terse to be believed, perhaps. I expand the answer here.

Control in any experiment is what counts, not randomization. For one, there is no such thing as “randomization” in any mystical sense as required by frequentist theory. Probability does not exist. Randomness does not exist. This is proved elsewhere.

What we can do is to create some sort of device or artifice that removes control of allocating patients from a man and gives it to a machine. The machine then controls, by some mechanism, which patients get surgery A and which B.

A man could do it, too. But men are often interested in the outcome; therefore, the temptation to cheat, to shade, to manipulate, to cut corners, is often too strong to be resisted. I’ve said it a million times, and I say it again now: every scientist believes in confirmation bias, they just believes it happens to the other guy.

There is also the placebo effect to consider in medical trials. If a patient knows for sure he is getting a sham or older treatment, if affects him differently than if he were ignorant. The surgeons must know, of course, which surgeries they are performing; thus it is impossible to remove the potential for fooling oneself here. The surgeons doing the sham or older surgery (which we can imagine is A) might slack off; when switching to B they might cut with vigor and renewed enthusiasm.

Now if some sort of “randomization” (i.e. allocation control) device that spit out A and B, 100 of each (Althouse later gave this number), it could be that all 100 As were female and all 100 Bs male. It doesn’t matter that this is unlikely: it could happen. Imagine if it did. Would you be satisfied in analyzing the result?

No, because we all believe—it is a tacit premise of our coming model—that sex is important in analyzing results. Why? Because sex, or the various systems biologically related to sex, tend to cause different outcomes, which include, we suppose, the surgical outcomes of interest here. We would be foolish not to control for sex.

Which is exactly why many trials “randomize” within sex by removing the control from the device and giving it back to some man, to ensure a good balance of males and females in the groups. This makes eminent sense: control is everything.

I don’t know what the surgery is, but it has to be something. Suppose it’s some kind of vascular surgery applied near or to the heart. We know there are lots of other causes, such as CHF, that might also play a causal role in the outcomes we’re tracking. If we’re sure of this, we would also “block” on CHF. That is, we would again remove control of the allocation device and give it to a man.

And so on for the other causes. We might not have the funds or time to explicitly control for all of these, in this physical allocation sense. But we might later include these in any model of uncertainty of the outcome. This is also called “controlling”, although there is no control about it. We’re just looking at things as they stood: we had no control over these other measures. (I wish we’d drop the misleading terminology. See this award-eligible book for a longer discussion of this.)

Enter Don Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns. There may be many other causes, secondary or more removed (mitigators and so on), of the outcome of which we are ignorant. This must be so, or science would be at its end. How many such things are there in our surgery? We don’t know. They are unknown unknowns. There could be one, there could be ten thousand. The human body is a complicated organism: there are feedbacks upon feedbacks.

How will the machine allocator split these possible causes in the groups? We have no idea. It could be that the machine, like we imagined for sex, puts all or most of a dastardly cause in A and all or most of a beneficent cause in B. And this could go back and forth, and forth and back across all the other causes.

There is nothing we can do about this. They are, after all, unknown unknowns. But the mechanical allocator can’t somehow magically fix the situation such that an equal number of all causes are distributed in the groups. You don’t know what you’ll get. Worse, this ignorance is true, too, for the mechanical allocator for causes we know but don’t explicitly control for. “Randomization” is the experimental procedure of tossing darts and hoping for the best.

Notice closely, though, that the desire for uniform distribution of causes is sound. It is often thought “randomization” gives this. It cannot, as we have seen. But if it is so important—and it is—why not then control explicitly for the causes we know? Why leave it to “chance”? (That’s a joke, son.)

Consider this is precisely how physics experiments are done. Especially in sensitive experiments, like tracking heat, extreme care is taken to remove or control all possible known causes of heat. Except, of course, for the cause the physicist is manipulating. He wants to be able to say that “When I pulled this lever by so much, the heat changed this much, because of the lever”. If he is wrong about removing other causes, it might not be the lever doing the work. This is what got Fleischmann and Pons into such deep kimchi.

Return to my panel of independent experts. They know the surgeries and the goals of these surgeries. They are aware, as can be, of the secondary and other causes. They do their best to allocate patients to the two groups so that the desired balance of the known causes is achieved.

Perfection cannot be had. Panel members can be bought; or, more likely, they won’t be as independent as we liked. Who on the panel wouldn’t, deep in his heart, not like the new treatment to work? I’ll tell you who: the rival of the man who proposed the treatment. The panel might control sub-optimally. Besides all that, there are always the possibility of unknown unknowns. Yet this panel still has a good chance to supply the control we so rightly desire.

Randomization isn’t needed, does nothing, can cause harm, while blinding is often crucial and control is paramount.

Bonus Althouse also asked this (ellipsis original): “Your ‘expert panel’ has assigned 100 patients to receive A and 100 patients to receive B. 14 of the patients that received A died, 9 of the patients that received B died. Your statistical analysis is…what, exactly?”

He wasn’t satisfied (again) with my “Predictive analysis complete with verification.” Too terse once more. As regular readers know, if we cannot deduce a model from accepted-by-all premises (as we sometimes but rarely can), we have to apply looser premises which often lead to ad hoc models. These are the most frequent kind of models in use.

I don’t know what ad hoc model I’d use in this instance; it would depend on knowing all the details of the trial. There are many choices of model, as all know.

“That’s a cop out. Which model is best here?”

Glad you asked, friend. We find that out by doing a predictive analysis (I pointed to this long paper for details on his this works) followed by a verification analysis—a form of analysis which is almost non-existent in the medical literature.

I can sum up the process short, though: make a model, make predictions, test the predictions against reality.

Makes sense, yes?

April 14, 2019 | 1 Comment

Summary Against Modern Thought: Divine Providence Does Not Exclude Fortune & Chance

Previous post.

God exists. So go ahead and break out the dice! As long as we understand that chance only means lack of knowledge of cause.


1 It is also apparent from the foregoing that divine providence does not take away fortune and chance from things.

2 For it is in the case of things that happen rarely that fortune and chance are said to be present. Now, if some things did not occur in rare instances, all things would happen by necessity. Indeed, things that are contingent in most cases differ from necessary things only in this: they can fail to happen, in a few cases. But it would be contrary to the essential character of divine providence if all things occurred by necessity, as we showed. Therefore, it would also be contrary to the character of divine providence if nothing were to be fortuitous and a matter of chance in things.

3 Again, it would be contrary to the very meaning of providence if things subject to providence did not act for an end, since it is the function of providence to order all things to their end. Moreover, it would be against the perfection of the universe if no corruptible thing existed, and no power could fail, as is evident from what was said above. Now, due to the fact that an agent fails in regard to an end that is intended, it follows that some things occur by chance. So, it would be contrary to the meaning of providence, and to the perfection of things, if there were no chance events.

4 Besides, the large number and variety of causes stem from the order of divine providence and control. But, granted this variety of causes, one of them must at times run into another cause and be impeded, or assisted, by it in the production of its effect. Now, from the concurrence of two or more causes it is possible for some chance event to occur, and thus an unintended end comes about due to this causal concurrence. For example, the discovery of a debtor, by a man who has gone to market to sell something, happens because the debtor also went to market. Therefore, it is not contrary to divine providence that there are some fortuitous and chance events among things.

Notes Failure to understand all aspects and condition of a cause is chance. As is also proved in the next argument. Remembering, of course, cause is not only efficient cause.

5 Moreover, what does not exist cannot be the cause of anything.

Hence, each thing must stand in the same relation to the fact that it is a cause, as it does to the fact that it is a being. So, depending on the diversity of order in beings, there must also be a diversity of order among causes.

Now, it is necessary for the perfection of things that there be among things not only substantial beings but also accidental beings. Indeed, things that do not possess ultimate perfection in their substance must obtain such perfection through accidents, and the more of these there are, the farther are they from the simplicity of God. From the fact, then, that a certain subject has many accidents it follows that it is a being accidentally, because a subject and an accident, and even two accidents of one substance, are a unit and a being accidentally; as in the example of a white man, and of a musical, white being.

So, it is necessary to the perfection of things that there should also be some accidental causes. Now, things which result accidentally from any causes are said to happen by chance or fortune. Therefore, it is not contrary to the rational character of providence, which preserves the perfection of things, for certain things to come about as a result of chance or fortune.

6 Furthermore, that there be order and a gradation of causes is important to the order of divine providence. But the higher a cause is, the greater is its power; and so, its causality applies to a greater number of things. Now, the natural intention of a cause cannot extend beyond its power, for that would be useless. So, the particular intention of a cause cannot extend to all things that can happen.

Now, it is due to the fact that some things happen apart from the intention of their agents that there is a possibility of chance or fortuitous occurrence. Therefore, the order of divine providence requires that there be chance and fortune in reality.

7 Hence it is said: “I saw that the race is not to the swift … but time and chance in all” (Sirach 9:11), that is, among things here below.