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The Power and Danger of Bayes’ Theorem

BayesTheorem

I've noted many flaws and points of confusion in Sean Carroll's new book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Dutton, 2016), but one of the strongest sections is its explanation of Bayes' Theorem. The Theorem is a quantitive way to express confidence in certain beliefs. It requires assigning credences (or probabilities) to events or statements, and then tweaking them based on new information.

For example, suppose you're wondering whether a randomly flipped coin will turn up heads. Your prior credence (or initial probability) is 0.5, since it has a 50% chance of landing on heads. But then suppose you learn that the coin is rigged, and there's extra weight added to one side. That new information would naturally cause you to adjust your credence, either up or down depending on the information.

This all should be pretty familiar. Whether we realize it or not, we all use this process, sometimes called induction, to make decisions every day. We start with beliefs, take in new information, and (ideally) adjust those beliefs to better correspond with reality. Bayes' Theorem simply adds a more quantitative dimension to that calculation. Instead of using mere intuition to adjust our credences up or down in light of new information, Bayes uses hard statistics.

According to Carroll, we can learn three lessons from Bayes' Theorem:

  1. Never assign perfect certainty to any belief (i.e., no belief can have a credence of 1.0)
  2. Always be prepared to update our credences when new evidence comes along
  3. Trust mathematics to show how new evidence alters our existing beliefs

Carroll especially shines when explaining how a piece of new information can either boost our confidence up, or bring it down—but it can't do both. For instance, many atheists claim the problem of evil should reduce the probability of whether God exists. But many theists suggest that the problem of evil is actually evidence for God, since an objective moral standard depends on a divine lawgiver. We may be tempted to accept both proposals: the problem of evil brings the probability of God down a little, and it also raises the probability back up. But as Carroll explains, the Theorem doesn't allow that. Each new piece of information can either raise or lower our prior credences. It can't do both.

(Another example is the huge size of the universe. Atheists often point to that in arguments against God, or at least against the idea that humans occupy a special place in the cosmos. Typically, theists respond that God designed a vast universe because (1) it was the only physical way to provide a space hospitable for human life, (2) God is not limited in any way so efficiency is not a concern, and (3) since almost all people marvel at the scale of the cosmos, and wonder is good, God created a large universe as a gift for us to experience and explore—the same reason we prefer a wondrous mountain over a plain pebble. But in light of Bayes' Theorem, the theist can only use those arguments to support their belief in God if they can show they are more likely true than not, that God would do those things if he existed. If the theist cannot or will not make that case, then the best they can hope for is mitigating how much the "large universe" argument bends the probability of God toward atheism.)

On paper, Bayes' Theorem is very helpful, and Carroll admirably shows why. But my one complaint with his presentation in the book is that he skirts around some of its main criticisms. For example, the Bayes calculation depends entirely on the accuracy of the credences. Assigning credences is easy for things like rolling idealized dice, flipping idealized coins, or dealing an idealized deck of cards. But what about more complex things? What's the prior probability of the existence of God? How probable is evil given God's existence? What's the statistical probability of a miracle given certain background information?

In non-idealized scenarios, which pretty much means all of everyday life, it's extremely difficult to assign accurate credences. It's often just a subjective shot in the dark. Carroll admits this, writing, "Some people don't like Bayesian emphasis on priors, because they seem subjective rather than objective. And that's right—they are. It can't be helped; we have to start somewhere" (80). His hope, however, is that Bayes offers a sort of course correction because new credences—what Bayes followers call "consequent probabilities"—will make up for imprecise prior credences. However, this leads to a major problem. If the prior credences are subjective and imprecise, then introducing new subjective, imprecise credences will not solve the problem—it will only compound it.

Throughout the rest of his book, Carroll regularly suggests that Bayesian reasoning supports his poetic naturalism, or components of it. But he almost never shows us the actual Bayesian calculations, with specific credences than can be examined and challenged.

In one of the rare places where he does provide actual credences, the chapter titled "Abducting God," Carroll applies Bayes' Theorem to God's existence. He assigns a prior credence of 50%. In other words, without considering any background evidence, we can initially assume that God's existence is as equally likely as not. That's not a bad starting point. But the rest of the chapter is filled with Carroll's wild presumptions about what the world would or would not like, given God's existence, and how the Bayes calculation should be updated. For example, he argues that the existence of evil, the massive size of the universe, and the lack of consensus about God all bring that 50% confidence level way down. Why? And by how much? It's tough to discern from his book since he provides no specific credences for his views, nor does he defend his belief that certain events would be more likely, given God, than not. He just throws around terms like "more likely" and "less likely" as if they were consensus views we all accept.

The chapter in question offers a perfect case study of how Bayes' Theorem can be both powerful and dangerous. Like a table saw, it can be very useful in certain tasks, but wildly destructive in the hands of a sloppy worker (note: I'm not necessarily suggesting Carroll is sloppy; this is just a general remark about Bayes' Theorem.)

The Theorem's effectiveness depends completely on the accuracy of the credences you put into it. And if we can't agree on the credences—or if, like Carroll, you refuse to even identify specific credences, much less defend them—then the output is irrelevant at best, and dangerously misleading at worst. On paper, Bayes' Theorem is a fantastic way to apprehend truth; in practice, it often has the opposite effect.

In the next post, we'll explore Carroll's answer to another fundamental question: why does the universe exist?

Brandon Vogt

Written by

Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author, blogger, and speaker. He's also the founder of StrangeNotions.com. Brandon has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. He converted to Catholicism in 2008, and since then has released several books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), and RETURN (Numinous Books, 2015). He works as the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their five children in Central Florida. Follow him at BrandonVogt.com or connect through Twitter at @BrandonVogt.

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  • LHRMSCBrown

    The probability of God vs. *god*?

    I really have no idea what Non-Theism's "autonomous nature" looks like, or even could look like. And neither do Non-Theists. The definitions of God and of god arrive on scene. “Probability” cannot even be entertained until such definitions are agreed upon by all parties involved.

    Probability equations void of causal language. I don't know what that looks like, or even could look like. And neither do Non-Theists. Science void of causal language. I don't know what that looks like, or even could look like. And neither do Non-Theists.

    On Carroll’s own terms the question on the probability of *God* vs. *god* (“...reality’s wellspring of being….”) reduces to calculations expunged of causal language. Which is absurd given that the whole of physics, of reality’s fundamental nature, is one seamless continuum. Nothing “adds” to the fundamental nature of reality. Unless one wishes to posit this:

    The nature of all things, of all levels, of what nature is constantly without ceasing, from its wellspring of (non ?) causation and being upward, *doing*, was once upon a time [Reality] and, then, something new was added, and the nature of reality, what nature is constantly (perhaps even timelessly) *doing*, what she always *is*, from her wellspring upward, became [Reality + 1].

    That has to be earned.

    Merely rearranging the fundamental nature of reality and stacking slices of it upon one another in network after network does not “change” (any) reality’s fundamental nature. Some have pointed out “having one’s cake and eating it to….”. The phrase question begging comes to mind.

    L. Breuer expressed it this way: “Do you know of anywhere where Carroll talks about causality not existing at level N but existing at level N + 1, and then how the two levels differ such that causality can exist at the higher level but not the lower? Because if his ontology cannot actually allow this, then I think the ultimate result will be the erosion of causation.”

    Elsewhere Jim(hillclimber) asked, “The idea that the lower level descriptions can be used to "derive the higher level descriptions" seems completely at odds with his own admonition not to "mix up vocabularies". He says: It’s only when you start asking “what effect do my feelings have on my protons and neutrons?” that you start getting syntax errors. Fine, I guess, but if that's a category error, then why is it not also a category error to ask "what effect do protons and neutrons have on my feelings"? For that matter, I thought he was arguing that causes play no role in the language of fundamental physics, so it would seem to be out of bounds to ask how protons and neutrons can have effect on anything (unless, perhaps, protons and neutrons are not "fundamental enough" (exactly how fundamental does the scope of inquiry need to be for causal language to become unnecessary?))”

    Since having a cake and eating a cake is impossible, I don't know what calculating the probability of *god* using bracketed [useful illusions] in one's equations looks like, or even could look like.

    Non-Theisms’ road to *god* is thus littered with the scorched and decomposed, and ultimately dead, remains of causal language. But then whence the "probability" "equations" of *god*?

    I don't say that lightly. But we're seeing it more and more as Non-Theists confront that inevitable ontological seam. From Hologram to Illusion to Absurdity, one thing is clear: On Non-Theism, at some ontological seam somewhere in our race to reality’s fundamental facts, to *god*, causal language must go.

    • LHRMSCBrown

      Perhaps, then: Bayes’, Evil, and Evidence:

      In staying within the narrow theme under review (Bayes’ etc…) perhaps (perhaps not?) the following approach would be appropriate:

      At each step of the way we have to take care to allow clarity on terms. *God* (“...reality’s wellspring of being….”) on Christianity is not void of causality (causal language applies) in the sense that we speak of the proverbial uncaused cause, and so on. Whereas, on Non-Theism questions of probabilities relative to *god* (“...reality’s wellspring of being….”) reduce to calculations expunged of causal language.

      Given that we are forced to take the Non-Theist at his word and proceed with calculating the probability of *God* vs. *god* using numerators and denominators void of causal language, is the brutally undeniable reality of irreducible evil evidence for *God* or for *god*?

      [Useful Untrue Stories] are, we find, even on Carroll’s terms, void of causal powers as he too (wisely) avoids (or seems to avoid it so far) the obvious overreach of any appeal to strong emergentism. L. Breuer points out the vacuity of “weak vs. strong” emergentism” as well: “You might want to modify your discussion of emergence to castigate 'weak emergence', which does not have some of the key properties of 'strong emergence'. One way to think of this difference is to consider whether 'rationality' is a real thing, or just a sort of approximation of ultimately impersonal forces doing their truth-agnostic thing. Only on strong emergence can 'rationality' be a real thing, with real causal powers.”

      Being careful not to mix up vocabularies (Carroll’s terms), and recalling the fact that that which *is* [Reality] void of causality (causal language does not apply) finds no seamless ontological path into that which *is* [Reality + 1] soaked through with causation (causal language applies), and taking care not to mix our vocabularies, we come to the following with respect to evil, god, and God: Are we speaking of (actual) evil and does it entail (actual) causation? Or will we have to dive all over again into the following two quotes (context and definitions) from elsewhere:

      “Do you know of anywhere where Carroll talks about causality not existing at level N but existing at level N + 1, and then how the two levels differ such that causality can exist at the higher level but not the lower? Because if his ontology cannot actually allow this, then I think the ultimate result will be the erosion of causation.” (Breuer)

      “The idea that the lower level descriptions can be used to "derive the higher level descriptions" seems completely at odds with his own admonition not to "mix up vocabularies". He says: It’s only when you start asking “what effect do my feelings have on my protons and neutrons?” that you start getting syntax errors. Fine, I guess, but if that's a category error, then why is it not also a category error to ask "what effect do protons and neutrons have on my feelings"? For that matter, I thought he was arguing that causes play no role in the language of fundamental physics, so it would seem to be out of bounds to ask how protons and neutrons can have effect on anything (unless, perhaps, protons and neutrons are not "fundamental enough" (exactly how fundamental does the scope of inquiry need to be for causal language to become unnecessary?))” (Jim(hillclimber))

      Given that *God* on Christianity rejects “Occasionalism” (on causation), we find a coherent ontology which subsumes (without contradiction) the issue under review (evil) and (for completeness) also has ample room for differentiation of impersonal vs. personal causality. Bayes’ could (in principle) do some (actual) “work”, as it were.

      Whereas, should we force the proverbial “ontological collision” of [1] (actual) evil entailing (actual) causation and [2] *god*, then we must both form all of our probability equations void of causal language and we must redefine “evil” to one of Carroll’s “domains” in which evil itself, and all our rage with it, suffers a fall into some sort of Bayesian vocabulary of [Useful Untrue Stories].

      Finally:

      [1] Probability equations void of causal language. I don’t know what that looks like, or even could look like. And neither does the Non-Theist.

      [2] Evil void of causal language. I don’t know what that looks like, or even could look like. And neither does the Non-Theist.

      [3] The Non-Theist’s race to *god* entails the following: all causal language must go.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      I am exposing myself as a weak-willed person by continuing to comment when I said I would stop, but I'm just such a sucker for anything to do with Bayes' Theorem :-)

      Probability equations void of causal language.

      Strictly speaking that only becomes a problem in the moment you think those equations have something to do with consequential reality (when you begin to think there is a reason those probabilities should take some values and not others), but I think you are hinting at an even deeper problem. How about probability equations that are assumed to address an ultimate question about consequential reality, but are void of an ultimate context of possibilities?

      In mathematics, one speaks formally of probabilities with reference to a measure space. A measure space includes:

      1. A set of potential "outcomes".
      2. A sigma-field of "events".
      3. A measure that maps each element in the sigma field to the interval [0,1] (or more generally to the positive real line, but [0,1] if it is a probability measure).

      In that mathematical framework, it is pure nonsense to make statements about P( the set of outcomes that ground the measure space of P does not exist ). If you tell me you have proved a theorem or a lemma involving that quantity, I don't need to look at the proof. It's obvious from the git-go that you are not even thinking in the right terms.

      Correspondingly, if we are going to apply the concept of probability to make inferential statements of ultimate significance about consequential reality, that means that we have already pre-supposed that:

      1. There is an ultimate context of possibilities, and
      2. There are various constellations of possibilities that are defined with reference to that context, and
      3. There are probabilities that can be assigned to those constellations of possibilities.

      By analogy to the way that we reasoned above with respect to pure mathematics, so in this consequential context it makes no sense to evaluate, or even speak of, P(an ultimate context of possibilities exists) or P(an ultimate context of possibilities does not exist). By the time you have started using probability, you have already implicitly assumed (even if unwittingly) that an "ultimate context of possibilities" (a.k.a. "God") exists.

      • David Nickol

        I am exposing myself as a weak-willed person by continuing to comment when I said I would stop, . . .

        Take heart! It is not that you are weak willed. According to Sean Carroll, free will is an illusion. And since you are no more than a collection of subatomic particles, you are an illusion. And I am an illusion, too, so far be it from me to judge you for being weak willed, since you, I, will, and judgment are illusions.

        • Will

          Lol, that's what I was thinking.

      • LHRMSCBrown

        Well..... perhaps this, *if* I, novice that I am, read you correctly: It seems there are (in fact) reasons wherein the probability of X is altered in one way by Y1 and in some other way by Y2. All the stuff of causal interfaces such as a flat tire and the probability of a crash, so to speak. X impinges upon, changes, Y in some real way. It seems (if I read you right) that such causal interfaces carry us to a consequential reality. If there are (in fact) no such causal interfaces, then it seems we have found the ultimate context of *god* (not *God*). But then so much for reasons and probability (perhaps?). Does cancer cause the death of a child? Is there a causal interface? Is such causation evil? Does Person A cause...... evil X.... and so on? Is there a causal interface? Is such causation evil? If so, well then such is, first, direct evidence against *god* for *god* (void of causal language) and evil (causal interfaces -- whether personally or impersonally determined) become, to one another, unintelligible, incoherent. Secondly, such is direct evidence affirming *God* for *God* and evil become (to one another) intelligible, coherent. I suppose, *if* that is tenable, that evil as privation, as The Good minus something, will carry us (speaking of probability and evidence) even closer to the Christian *God*.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          Ha, you seem to be much less novice than I am!

          I was just making the limited, important, but somewhat nit-picky point that probabilistic notation is sufficient only for correlational analyses, and needs to be extended if one is interested in causal analysis. So, all probability equations, in themselves, are, in fact, void of causal language, even if we embed those equations in causal narratives (usually without announcing that we are doing so) and so deploy them to answer causal questions.

          Your last point reminds me of the Julian of Norwich (and later T.S. Eliot) line that "sin is behovely". I am not sure if God and evil are "intelligible to each other", but perhaps God can only become intelligible to us in our movement toward God, and perhaps that movement toward God is not possible if we do not begin from a position of separation from God, i.e. sin.

          OK, I really gotta leave off now. Thanks for the chat. Until next time.

          • LHRMSCBrown

            Edit: A bit more (perhaps) with Probabilistic Causation Theories: [1] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-probabilistic/index.html and its supplement [2] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-probabilistic/supplement7.html On causal interfaces, a brief excerpt from your linked PDF “Bayesianism and Causality, or Why I Am Only A Half-Bayesian” in its opening:

            "Thus, in this broad sense, I am a still Bayesian. However, in order to be combined with data, our knowledge must first be cast in some formal language, and what I have come to realize in the past ten years is that the language of probability is not suitable for the task; the bulk of human knowledge is organized around causal, not probabilistic relationships, and the grammar of probability calculus is insufficient for capturing those relationships."

            A search term of "Bayesianism and Causality" takes one to some interesting (perhaps helpful?) links. Evil, whether impersonally or personally determined, becomes illusory in the Non-Theist's race to expunge all causal language. Children dying of cancer *is* in fact irreducibly evil. On Christianity, that is. Does cancer cause the death of a child? Is there a causal interface? Is such causation evil? Does Person A cause...... evil X.... and so on? Is there a causal interface? Is such causation evil? If so, then *God* and not *god*.

        • LHRMSCBrown

          On Bayes’ and Evil: The probability of Carroll’s *god* is zero given the sort of universe in which we awake to find ourselves. It is obviously the case (given Carroll’s terms and conditions) that the Non-Theist’s race to expunge all causal language forces us to redefine evil as one of Carroll’s domains in which evil itself, and all our rage with it, suffers a fall into some sort of Bayesian vocabulary which is cosmically reducible to some sort of [Useful Untrue Story]. Cancer, being causally related to the probability of the death of a child, and in fact in some cases overwhelmingly so, satisfies *both* Bayes’ in a purely correlational mode *and* in more robust probabilistic causation extensions. Cancer in children in fact demonstrates a causal interface with the death of children. On Christianity, or, on *God*, such is irreducibly evil. All of it. The cancer. The death of the child. An array of cosmically irreducible casual interfaces. And so on. Whereas, on *god* such not only “is not” the case but in fact such cannot be the case.

          The probability of cosmically irreducible evil such as children dying of cancer is zero given Carroll’s *god*. However, given that we *do* find ultimately or cosmically irreducible evil and *not* ultimately or cosmically illusory evil, we rationally reject Carroll’s *god*. Evil exists, or, “The Good minus something” exists. The universe as it is is exactly the way we would expect it to be *if* in fact we were to posit [1] The Good, [2] privation/evil, [3] causal interfaces and (therein) both [4] impersonally determined and [5] personally determined possibilities. All such lines unquestionably disavow *god* (the probability of “cosmically irreducible x” is zero if “cosmically irreducible not-x”, so to speak) and unquestionably affirm, not *god*, but *God*, and, specifically speaking, the Christian God.

          • Will

            You can say cancer causes death. Except when it's not terminal cancer. Except when the cancer is removed before death. Except when the cancer goes into spontaneous remission. Except when something kills the patient before the cancer. I'm sure there are more exceptions, but the point is the problematic nature of causation.
            Similarly, you can say that spoken causes cancer. Except that only 15% of male lifetime smokers and 9% of female smokers get cancer. So smoking only rarely causes cancer, and is more likely to cause lung cancer if you are male. Can we also say that being male causes cancer? Is probabilistic causation real, as often you have the cause without the effect? Causation has real problems in philosophy of science, and fundamental physics is really completely void of causal language. Before you said that the theist and non-theist don't know what science looks like without causal language. You've simply revealed yourself as someone who knows little to nothing of science, and philosophy of science.

          • LHRMSCBrown

            Edit: William, the links to Plato earlier look at the heterogeneous sets of variables you (rightly) discuss. No one ever asserted otherwise. "Except when something [else] kills the patient..." Then we agree that things cause death. As someone who watched my loved one die from cancer, you've no interested listener here. Thanks.

  • VicqRuiz

    Existence of evil - argues for God, and against him. Okay, I conclude that this issue is not particularly useful in settling the question of God's existence.

    Size of the universe - argues for God, and against him. Ditto.

    Lack of consensus about God - Hmmmmmm. Brandon, in what way does this argue for the existence of God???

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      See the fable of the blind men and the elephant. That they had nine different ideas of what they were touching did not in any way conclude to "there is no elephant." Rather, that by nine different channels they had some notion of what they were touching argues that there was something there to touch.

      • Will

        I like the fable, but an important part of it is that everyone is wrong about what is actually there. Perhaps everyone's believe about the nature of a first cause is the same. Just because no one has it right, doesn't mean there isn't one, but if the first cause doesn't have the properties assigned to God, is it still God?

        • Ye Olde Statistician

          There are no properties "assigned" to God. There are attributes of God that are deduced once Primary Cause is established as necessary to account for causation -- or that motion in the world leads inescapably to an unmoved mover. Etc. etc. Once we wind up with a being (existant) of pure act, one whose existence is its essence, then all the other stuff just comes tumbling out: immaterial, eternal, full of all powers, and so on. After a while, it adds up to the revealed God.

          https://thomism.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/the-first-eleven-questions-of-summa-derived-from-the-first-way/#comments
          The point about the nine blind men and the elephant is to illustrate how disagreement on what X is does not constitute evidence that X does not exist. It may in fact prove that

          https://thomism.wordpress.com/2016/08/02/objections-and-responses/

          • Will

            Wouldn't it be better evidence if everyone had the same revelation? What if God had directly revealed to Muhammad the truth of Thomism?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Who knows? Would it be better evidence for quantum mechanics if everyone had the same interpretation of the equations? Instead, we have Copenhagen, many-worlds, standing wave, transactional, et al.

            Material being is a compound of potency and act and as such always falls short of pure act, i.e., God. This means that errors, shortcomings, mistakes, disagreements, evil in the broad sense, are inherent to material existence.

          • Will

            At least everyone agrees that QM is our best theory of the microscopic. A minority of the world believes in Christianity and we get more variations with each passing. Over time Christianity has experienced divergence, the opposite of convergence. Essentially all cultures are converging on science. Is convergence an indicator of truth? More often then not I'd say. Expert consensus is quite useful, wouldn't you say?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            QM is not a theory. It's a set of equations that work. Just as the Ptolemaic model and later the Tychonic model was a set of equations that worked. The theories are the narratives that try to make sense of them. (Instumentalists take the opposite tack. They are content with patterns and laws and don't care about physical theories. "Maxwell's Theory just is Maxwell's system of equations.")

            Over time Christianity has experienced divergence

            Has it? About two thirds of all Christians are members of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches and, while there is some differences between them in details of formulation, they have been in agreement on central doctrines for two thousand years. The Oriental Orthodox Churches are also largely congruent in doctrine, as summarized in the Nicene Creed. That the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church are administratively separate does not mean that Orthodoxy is diverging. And that the half-dozen members of Bill and Ted's Excellent Bible Shack are a bit off the curve is hardly significant.

          • Will

            Quantum mechanics (QM; also known as quantum physics or quantum theory), including quantum field theory, is a fundamental branch of physics concerned with processes involving,

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mechanics

            QM, also known as quantum theory. Of course, when I wrote that, I was thinking of quantum field theory, specifically, but still..

            Has it? About two thirds of all Christians are members of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches and, while there is some differences between them in details of formulation, they have been in agreement on central doctrines for two thousand years.

            If you do the math, it's more like 60% of the world's Christians are orthodox. There are some significant differences even within Orthodoxy, I've seen many Catholics complain about the Jesuits, lol. It's fascinating to see a list of all of the flavors

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_denominations_by_number_of_members

            Page upon page upon page. Only 3 interpretations of QM make up 75% of this poll, and Carroll rightly calls it embarrassing :)

            http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/01/17/the-most-embarrassing-graph-in-modern-physics/

            And that the half-dozen members of Bill and Ted's Excellent Bible Shack are a bit off the curve is hardly significant.

            But they were my favorite! Comically, in the book we are discussing, Carroll says that Bill and Ted's moral axiom of "be excellent to each other" isn't a half bad starting point for morality. Maybe he attend's the Bible Shack...

          • Will

            Material being is a compound of potency and act and as such always falls short of pure act, i.e., God. This means that errors, shortcomings, mistakes, disagreements, evil in the broad sense, are inherent to material existence.

            Isn't it simpler to say that we didn't evolve to think rationally? We do seem to have a hard time of it in general, though we like to think we are rational.
            One off the wall question, if God doesn't make mistakes, why is the human optic nerve coming out of the front of the retina to create a blind spot. God got it right in octopi as they have no blind spot because the optic nerve evolved out of the back. If God was guiding evolution, why did he allow that? Isn't a bad design a mistake? In my world of engineering we consider that, and we are mere compounds of potency and act.

            The following link shows the bad design vs the better one in the diagram on the right:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cephalopod_eye

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Isn't it simpler to say that we didn't evolve to think rationally?

            Right. Evolution stems from differential reproductive success. There is nothing in rationality that enhances reproductive success and reproductive success does not aim at truth, only survival. So our rationality must come from somewhere other than natural selection.

            We do seem to have a hard time of it in general, though we like to think we are rational.

            You may be thinking of "rational" as "reaches the same conclusions as me." But the root meaning of those who defined man as a rational animal is not the assurance of always reasoning correctly, but the capability of reasoning at all. This occurs through the abstraction of universals from experienced particulars and is evidenced by the use of language. Someone who concludes that all the woes of the world are due to the bankers or Jews may have given a wrong reason, but they have still given a reason.

            if God doesn't make mistakes, why is the human optic nerve coming out of the front of the retina to create a blind spot.

            Why is that a mistake?

          • Doug Shaver

            There is nothing in rationality that enhances reproductive success

            Not even if rationality helps me distinguish between fertile and infertile potential mates?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            How does it do that? How does the lack of rationality impede the selection of mates by other animals?

          • Will

            I'm baffled at how you don't see the survival benefit that rationality has. Planning, avoidance, building, and especially communication. Humans found a different route to eusociality than ants, and rationality plays a critical role in human organization.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Planning, avoidance, building, and especially communication

            You don't need reasoning to do all these things. Pretty much any animal can do these things using instinct. Beavers build dams, birds build nests. They can communicate with cries, actions, even odors. They also can avoid things via animal prudence. They build their nests and such before they need them, which is planning. Do not discount the powers of the imagination. One needn't have the intellective ability to abstract universals from particulars in order to find mates and reproduce.

          • Will

            There is an entire conversation to be had here, but it's too off topic for this thread...perhaps when it's relevant :)

          • Doug Shaver

            You don't need reasoning to do all these things. Pretty much any animal can do these things using instinct.

            I don't need a wrench to tighten a nut. I can do it with pliers. That doesn't mean I couldn't do a better of job of it if I used a wrench.

          • Doug Shaver

            How does the lack of rationality impede the selection of mates by other animals?

            I didn't say that rationality facilitates mate selection per se. You said that rationality cannot enhance reproductive success, and that's what I'm disagreeing with. You aren't reproductively successful just because you've found someone to have sex with. Or do you also disagree with that?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            You aren't reproductively successful just because you've found someone to have sex with.

            Are elephants reproductively successful? Swamp rats? Peacocks?

            When it comes to finding mates, in fact, a great many humans become somewhat irrational. Or have you never tried to reason a friend out of being in love with an objectively unsuitable mate?

          • Doug Shaver

            Are elephants reproductively successful? Swamp rats? Peacocks?

            When it comes to finding mates, in fact, a great many humans become somewhat irrational.

            You're changing the subject. I have claimed neither that rationality is necessary nor that it is always sufficient for reproductive success. I have only disagreed with your claim, which was that it cannot have any effect at all. Your words again: "There is nothing in rationality that enhances reproductive success."

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            So how does the ability to abstract universal concepts from concrete perceptions enhance one's ability to find mates and reproduce? Remember, this must be done more successfully than the predecessor population of instinctual critters, otherwise they will not be naturally selected.

            Natural selection moves toward reproductive success. The intellect moves toward truth. The two are not the same thing. A great many folks argue that 1) humans evolved an ability to run away from waving grass because it might be a lion AND that the lion might not be true, so there seems to be agreement on this point.
            (Personally, I think it more likely that they would run from the smell of the lion. Stray breezes are far too common to merit panic. But then I wasn't there either.)

          • Doug Shaver

            So how does the ability to abstract universal concepts from concrete perceptions enhance one's ability to find mates and reproduce?

            I never said it does. I do not regard rationality to be equivalent to the ability to abstract universal concepts from concrete perceptions.

          • Language? Aristotle's Sapient, rather than sentient being? Kant's Power of Judgment, which is not always able to obtain an 'empirical?' universal? etc. etc. etc. Your excellent analysis and summary of Bayes?

            Remember when I suggested you were more Kantian than I when I suspected Hume's 'associative thoughts!'alone led into some kind of support that all we had was the problematic inductive reasoning, (fundamentally - i.e. even understood as judgment!) because I could not explain or know just precisely what Kant's transcendental deduction was all about? (edit: and you insisted on the 'priority?' of deduction over induction). Then does this Bayes argument say just what Kant concluded, based on the unity of the apperception, the power! of synthesis,the analogies of experience, resulting in Kant's case, with the concept as (dare I say it) the/an - a priori, (But I guess not in 'all cases'...yes there is the problem of the 'liar'!!! or 'deception'.) So- do these three ways of assessing hypothesis, credences, in the Bayes Theory operate according to Kant's Transcendental Deduction (meaning beyond empirical evidence?perception? etc. i.e. even within quite simply -the explanation??? for language??? perhaps???- and can we explain 'that' this understanding of the concepts within language generally derives from such a theorem?)

            Would Bayes be in agreement that it is a 'Transcendental' Deduction' of some kind that allows for hypothesis, etc., and involves a similar process? Is it being suggested that there is a similarity in Bayes to what Kant derived as the categorical, hypothetical, and reciprocal choices inherent in the relationships which outline his adoption of the Law of Non Contradiction as his third category- or not? (Edit: Indeed, does Bayes theory account for such things as 'principles', etc.) Is this Bayes theorem a case of philosophy 'repeating itself' at least to some degree but with more perhaps 'precision' -edit: in the details?

            Can you 'explain' why there appears to be no reference to a God, and if so, and whether this relationship alone would suggest that the Transcendental would be in some way related to such even within the context of Power, and if so require a explanation of how? (I could speculate here, but 'dare not'!!!, and am thankful that I place my ignorance - agnosticism between naturalism and religion for this 'reason'!! With respect to the 'powers?' of 'my' reason, however, in relation to 'experience', can I within this context, acknowledge/admit, that reason, for me, still remains a 'problematic'. edit: Of course, this problematic of the 'Transcendental' assumes that Bayles position does indeed accept the arguments given in Kant's antinomies, which recognize the dualities within possible arguments both for and against such 'transcendentals'.) So I guess this could be perhaps cited as a 'reason', that I just don't understand how/why it is possible to even make such 'transcendental' deductions.

            Please note that I fully appreciate your remark that I do not always make myself understandable. (The evil overlord's comments with respect to incoherence, are also noted). I admit that I find it difficult to understand the 'depth' of much argument. Indeed, I have even admitted that I find it difficult to engage in argument because it can be so difficult to find 'true premises'!!! Just wondering whether you would acknowledge whether or not you feel I am getting the 'general picture'. (Also, the relevance of Kant's regulative application of both the universal and the necessary with respect to his categorical imperative, would acknowledge a fallibility with respect to morality as well as 'science', would it not? --Well, we are after all - all sinners!! and without then the universality of the Final Judgment!!....!!!)

            I trust that you can (to some degree!) understand this 'breaking of my silence, at this time, and unfortunately, the 'ruination' of the lovely rounded number on Disquis that helped me despite my 'weak will' leave these 'arguments' ... In any case, hopefully these comments will result in at least some appreciation of the 'humor' of it all. especially, if you can clarify, validate, or even 'correct' these 'musings.

            Thanks Doug. Hope you find me 'doing' well!!! I certainly 'believe' you are (edit- within the 'fold'), whether within the context of Bayes or Kant, based of course on my (limited?) 'experience'....

          • Doug Shaver

            Just wondering whether you would acknowledge whether or not you feel I am getting the 'general picture'.

            Sorry, but I can't understand you well enough to figure out what you're getting.

          • It's OK. Doug. Thank you for trying. In any case, I forgot to include the all important to Kant - schemata, or the Post Moderns interest in structure, and now I am being introduced to the more scientific terminology - and the various systems. Yeah for me, that's the essence of - may I say - metaphysics.... but don't believe a word I say. Anyway, I've got James Chastek, who I can, (edit- at least) pretend to 'understand'. And he's both an Aristotelean Thomist as well as a post-modern. (edit: My 'understanding') Perhaps I can't do better than that. In any case, It's my journey, and I'm only attempting to 'make sense of it all' on that level. So I'll go back to the 'stories/narratives', and even listening to the sounds of silence. I do enjoy dropping in on you guys though. Oh, and Geena and Susan, of course. Glad there are some women -about. Take care. - and what do you think? Do you find this guy readable? I suspect he's some kind of genius, but who am I to tell! https://thomism.wordpress.com/2010/03/09/more-virulent-strains-of-scientism/

            Edit: (New Just Thomism post) The following comments have been made after the presumed conclusion of the conversation with Doug Shaver. However, perhaps those who find this will still find it relevant to this argument. Of course, you may understand that my constant confusion also includes the fact that I know not how to distinguish the implications of say: Special from General relativity within this given context. Why did Kant make the Law of Contradiction the basis of his third category of 'Relationship'? I intuit that I have some understanding of this, but... I wonder.... Would Kant's categories be applicable within a description of say - Quantum mechanics? What of - Induction Abduction Reduction Deduction: Are we that aware of our ongoing thoughts to always identify them in passing? Yes. I do not understand The Transcendental or 'G/god' deduction - even within such possible 'paradigms' as Logos,Language,Limit or to be Scientific --Schemata,Structure,Systems - but I'm not 'giving up'. It is perhaps merely the time to 'really' jump off that ladder spoken about by Wittgenstein. (No I'm not about to commit suicide. His comment was but another reflection on the end of philosophy, reason, the enlightenment and a possible 'justification?' of even animal - 'faith'...) http://bigthink.com/videos/rob-bell-on-atheisms-positive-effect-on-religion?utm_source=Big+Think+Weekly+Newsletter+Subscribers&utm_campaign=3b9da8d98f-Newsletter_081016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6d098f42ff-3b9da8d98f-40890277

            Is it possible within the implications involved in the acceptance of the four antinomies found within 'reason' - to assume that one knows, and understands, particularly within the context of 'power' - THE Transcendental Deduction? These of course include the relation of causation to -freedom- Is this distinction relative or not to the 'argument' .
            Hopefully, I am finding the 'will' - whether an illusion of a free or weak will, - to have nothing more to say: or should I 'say' - to be less 'metaphorical' and more 'relevant' or 'specific' or 'mathematical': - to add nothing to nothing, 0 to 0 - (but isn't there scientific systems that mathematically? reduce the 'universe' to 0?....or "something"??!!) and make 'no' further comment on this commentary.

            More musings: Thank you again for your patience guys, and in defense of a possible rationality within this farewell, may you be assured that I remain grateful for even the Idea, Ideal, Iconography- 'overlord' -which merely as a concept perhaps leaves me within the subservience of this 'a priori' ! Yet, perhaps there can be a behoveness of irony (thank you JH) even within the context of the/a 'scientific' theology! And so, indeed, with perhaps only an 'animal faith'?... whether or not this, my understanding of reason/rationality/ratio derives from a self that is considered to be reflective or referential, may I say: I no naught! https://thomism.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/time-and-causality-or-scientific-models-are-like-nature/

            Is there no end? Maybe if I were to read about Parmenides' poem and it's adoption by Plato, and possible Aristotle's conclusion that Plato did not have the truth- and thus centered his philosophy of 'material realities'....I am merely exploring or thought experimenting with the idea that the problem is not to explain how or why ' nothing comes from nothing' or Heidegger's 'the nothing nothings', but rather how we came to 'have a nothing' in the first place. Perhaps, like the tautology, the emptiness of our 'reasoning', we had best explain our thought or that Transcendental Deduction, as how we got to Nothing, Nirvana, call it what you will - in the first place. If only I was a mathematician and could understand "0" perhaps that would help me... Yes. There is the need to search for more 'correlations' - which could also perhaps explain why Kant believed that Mathematics was based on a synthetic judgment rather than an analytic one, but this also implies for me that it would consequently be based on 'something'....or 'other' ..... or 'Something'!!??
            Addendum: Nov. 12th, 2016. Still working things out!! https://thomism.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/the-recollection-argument-reformed-as-a-transcendence-argument/

          • Doug Shaver

            Do you find this guy readable? I suspect he's some kind of genius, but who am I to tell!

            I do find him readable, and I judge him to be intelligent.

          • Mike

            "rationality facilitates mate selection per se. You said that rationality cannot enhance reproductive success, and that's what I'm disagreeing with."

            doug sounds like you did imply it at least. also looking around it seems to me that animals are way better than us at reproducing, at least by judging by where i live where some young adults don't want any kids.

          • Doug Shaver

            In the statement from which you excerpted that quote, I specifically denied claiming that "rationality facilitates mate selection per se."

            sounds like you did imply it at least.

            I am denying YOS's assertion that it cannot do so. The only implication of that denial is that it can do so. And "can" does not imply "always does."

            it seems to me that animals are way better than us at reproducing, at least by judging by where i live where some young adults don't want any kids.

            Your apparent assumption that you can learn all you need to know about humanity by looking around your neighborhood is noted.

            Roughly 10,000 years ago, the worldwide population of human beings was, by most estimates, somewhere around 10 million. It is now over 6 billion. That is an increase of about 60,000 percent. Do you know of another species whose worldwide population has increased by that amount over the past 10,000 years?

          • Mike

            i see what you mean and i agree. i guess what you're saying is that we are the top of the food chain bc we are smarter and we are smarter bc we are 'rational'. what puzzles me though is why generally the lower the education ie lower "smarts" the more children. in every culture this seems to be true.

            btw i too have a hard time seeing how rationality wouldn't make us more successful at breeding.

          • Doug Shaver

            what puzzles me though is why generally the lower the education ie lower "smarts" the more children.

            Because the real world can be very complicated. It is almost never the case that if you change one thing, only one other thing changes as a result.

          • Mike

            btw wouldn't we have been even more successful if we hadn't been 'rational'? i guess what if we were just like the other animals maybe we'd be at 25 billion now bc we'd be living in 'harmony' with the env and wouldn't have killed some many ppl in wars? we wouldn't have 4,000 sf houses for a family of 4 but live with 12 kids in much more simple places? just some thoughts.

          • Doug Shaver

            btw wouldn't we have been even more successful if we hadn't been 'rational'?

            I doubt it. Reproductive success isn't only about mate selection. Our population growth has been facilitated by many other factors, most of them also at least partly dependent on our reasoning ability.

            i guess what if we were just like the other animals maybe we'd be at 25 billion now bc we'd be living in 'harmony' with the env

            There is no way that 25 billion of us could live in any kind of harmony with the environment. We could not do it now with only 6 billion of us, and that is not because too few people care about the environment.

            and wouldn't have killed some many ppl in wars?

            As a fraction of our population, we're already not killing as many people as we used to.

          • Mike

            i hear you. btw did you know that if you gave every man woman child in world 1000 sf you could fit everyone in texas alone? i did the calc and it works. anyway whether we could support more ppl my guess is yes bc i think tech can get much better but who knows. maybe we're good at reproduction but we can bomb ourselves out of existence whereas bunnies or zebras can't which makes it hard to judge who exactly it better at perpetuating their species.

          • Doug Shaver

            anyway whether we could support more ppl my guess is yes

            Sure, we could. For a while. But we cannot indefinitely support our present population.

            i think tech can get much better but who knows.

            It can definitely get better. It can get way better. But sooner or later we're going to run out of something that we can't do without -- and the more of us there are, the sooner that will happen.

          • Mike

            do you mean water or oil? i've read that peak oil may be hundreds of years away. china and india are car mad and yet oil is low very low. alot depends on how we decide to live and what alternatives we find or figure out. also i think human ingenuity via 'free markets' is a force like no other.

            also isn't it true that if only 1 generation fails to reproduce that it will lead to the extinction of the whole? there are what 25 years from say 15 to 40 to reproduce but if all 15 to 40 year old women in the state of say wyoming didn't have children then everyone would die out as they would be too old to change their minds. no real point here just thinking about how easily pop growth can be handled if truly desired.

          • Doug Shaver

            i've read that peak oil may be hundreds of years away.

            And I've read that we're already past it.

            do you mean water or oil?

            I wasn't thinking of any particular resource. I was thinking just that it is not reasonable to assume that the supply of every last thing we need to sustain our current lifestyle is inexhaustible.

          • Will

            Homo sapiens are by far the most prolific large species on the planet. There are more chickens than humans, but that is because we breed them for food:

            http://www.livescience.com/33571-human-animal-population-comparisons.html

            Humans still have more biomass than ants, but they do outnumber us by quite a bit, though they are quite small (which affords a number of reproductive advantages in itself). The idea that human intelligence doesn't afford reproductive advantage is pretty comical to me, as it flies in the face of almost all the evidence we have. Typical for an apologetic position to be at odds with all evidence.
            At 7 billion members of our species, there is excellent reason to believe that the number of humans is a threat to the species itself. For long term success, it becomes rational to reduce reproductive success.

          • Mike

            ok fine just seems to me that the more education the fewer kids ppl want. where i live many ppl who are highly educated won't want any at all.

          • Phil

            I never said it does. I do not regard rationality to be equivalent to the ability to abstract universal concepts from concrete perceptions.

            Out of curiosity, what do you believe rationality to be?

          • Doug Shaver

            The semantics of rationality can be pretty slippery, and much depends on context. In a context like this one, what I'm usually thinking of is our ability to foresee the possible or probable consequences of our actions and make decisions with those consequences in mind.

          • Phil

            Interesting, so you would say that rationality really doesn't have an intrinsic connection to truth and truth-seeking in general?

            [The account of rationality you suggest may be appropriate for non-human animals, (although we don't normally attribute rationality to them). But it would seem to fall very short in accounting for human intellect/rationality.]

          • Doug Shaver

            so you would say that rationality really doesn't have an intrinsic connection to truth and truth-seeking in general?

            I don't see how that would follow from what I said.

          • Phil

            You didn't mention truth, as you only mentioned consequences. Consequences have a direct connection to correlation. Correlation does not equal truth, only causation equals truth.

            So if rationality has no way of coming into actual contact with causality, then rationality is not intrinsically ordered towards discovering truth.

          • Will

            Correlation can have truth value on its own. I usually only see one of my friends with his wife. That's a true, and useful statement, even though the presence of the two together generally lacks obvious causation (either one can want to go somewhere so they both go).
            In many types of science, correlation is established first, and just a correlation can have truth value in many ways. Humans have developed sun up and sun down times that correlate with the time that sun rises and sets, but there is no causal connection between the two. If an asteroid impact suddenly altered the earth's rotation, all sun down and sun up times would suddenly all be wrong. Much in science is modeled this way, without causation. Where is the causation in the schrodinger_equation:

            https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/53/Schrodinger_Equation.png

            Or even newton's laws? F=ma. Does acceleration cause force, or does force cause accelleration? The two are related by correlation, but I don't think you can seperate them enough to establish any causation except in specific circumstances.

          • Phil

            But remember, we are speaking of ontology and epistemology here. Those two must precede and ground what you write above. All those things are nice that you write above, but unless you are actually discovering causal powers of entities you have mere correlation, which does not equal causation or truth.

            If the human mind is not capable of in some way coming to know actual causal powers through coming to the know the nature of entities (i.e., formal/final causes; universals abstracted from particulars as Ye Olde Statistician mentions above), then causation can never be established above 0% certainty.

            In short, if correlation does not equal causation and if the human mind is not in some kind of direct contact with casual powers in reality, then no amount of correlation can establish any sort of causation

          • Will

            Those two must precede and ground what you write above.

            Well, since I'm closer to a physicalist than anything else, physics is my fundamental epistemology, and thus there is no causation in the fundamentals, as there is no causation in fundamental physics. Physics not only doesn't require, but doesn't even have causation as a concept. Philosophers who say all science requires causation are just dead, and laughably wrong. Some types of science do require it, however, like epidemiology.
            When we do ontology and epistemology, we are really talking about the best way to model reality. The idea that there is only one workable way to model it is quite false, but certainly some ways are better than others. Causation is always an oversimplification of reality (in my models), but it is certainly a useful one. The fact that we always have to protect statements about causation in ceteris_paribus clauses should tell us something about the concept. The fundamental rules of physics are always true, as far as we know, and do not require ceteris paribus. Causation always requires context, and so extracting it as something stand alone always loses important aspects of what's going on.

          • Phil

            Physics not only doesn't require, but doesn't even have causation as a concept. Philosophers who say all science requires causation are just dead, and laughably wrong. Some types of science do require it, however, like epidemiology.

            Interesting!

            So when you throw a ball through a window you would say it wasn't the ball that caused the window to become broken? And why does the window break instead of turning into a turkey when the ball hits it?

            Also, what is the "cause" of your comment reply above? I don't even know how to phrase these questions without assuming that causality exists!

            How does one get coherently and consistently get rid of causality!?!?

          • Will

            There are no balls and windows in physics. We can model the movement of a thrown ball with trajectory equations

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trajectory_of_a_projectile

            Why isn't the weakness of glass the cause. Certainly if the ball is moving slow enough, it will simply bounce of the glass. Why isn't gravity the cause? If there were no gravity, or if gravity were weaker, the trajectory would be different (see trajectory equations), so gravity is part the cause. Why isn't the hardness of the ball the cause? Certainly a softer ball wouldn't have broken the glass. Why isn't the design of the window the cause? A different design wouldn't have cause the ball to be deflected. There are many more statements I could make like this, and they would all be true. You simply can't claim that the ball, alone caused the glass to break. The entire system was involved.
            Human minds use causation for blame. In your case, it's useful to say the ball caused the glass to break so you can get the person who threw it to pay for the glass. That doesn't mean that there really is an isolated cause, but...all other things being equal...

          • Phil

            But you didn't get rid of causality above, you simply moved it to a different level outside of the ball and window itself. Would you agree with this?

            There are no balls and windows in physics.

            Are there oxygen and hydrogen molecules in physics?

            We can model the movement of a thrown ball with trajectory equations

            Sure, and a model is just that...a model. It isn't reality itself. Just because we can model it doesn't mean we have somehow shown that the throwing of the ball at the window brought about the state of the broken window.

          • Will

            Fun discussion, btw :)

            But you didn't get rid of causality above, you simply moved it to a different level outside of the ball and window itself. Would you agree with this?

            What causation critics point to is that everything is a cause in a system. Even the wall that holds the window up, the earth that supports the building. If anything had been significantly different, the window wouldn't have broken. If everything is involved, how is it logical to point to just the ball as a cause? Besides, it wouldn't be the ball itself, it would be the kinetic energy of the ball being absorbed by the glass, technically.

            Let's say we were engineers trying to build shatter resistant glass. In the scenario where the ball breaks the glass, we would say that the cause is a faulty design, because the ball wasn't supposed to be able to break the glass. Nothing physically changed, just our point of view in telling the story. Causation is embedded in the story, not the fundamental physics. Saying the glass broke due to a faulty design is just as true as saying the ball broke the glass, what matters is who we are blaming for the break :) I obviously don't expect you to agree, I'm just trying to get across that it's quite rational to reject causation on a fundamental level (irony intended ;)
            I will add that I strongly disagree with anyone who wants to rid the world of causal language because of the usefulness of the concept. Useful != fundamentally true, however. Sometimes I do tend to have a positive view of a pragmatic epistemology.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pragmatic_theory_of_truth

            In my field, engineering, are my designs true? To accomplish any goal, there are many possible designs, many have strengths or weaknesses compared to others but I have no idea how one would argue that one design is "true" compared to the others. The pragmatic usefulness (related to telos) determines the value of the design. I will say that I'm pretty confident that engineering will always talk about cause and effect as I have as specific effects are what engineering is all about. I don't think anyone thinks engineering is fundamental, though.

          • Phil

            If everything is involved, how is it logical to point to just the ball as a cause?

            I will absolutely not dispute that the entire physical system in involved in some way (just think about the basic fundamental forces which stretch through all material reality).

            What I would debate is that there is nothing significant about it being a ball, let's say baseball to get more specific, that broke the window.

            If there is nothing significant about the baseball whatsoever in breaking the window, then the same exact thing should happen when we throw a feather against the window. But we find that the same thing doesn't happen. That means there is some significant difference between the ball and the feather.

            In short, it matters that is was a baseball that was thrown at the window rather than a feather.

          • Will

            In short, it matters that is was a baseball that was thrown at the window rather than a feather.

            I agree, I'm just saying that everything else is significant too. Perhaps it's simpler to say, at the very least, that there are no single causes in the universe, if you really dissect what's going on. Everything that occurs is the result of an absurdly high number of causes, we just single particular one's out for our purposes in a given context. There are certainly interactions of fields in fundamental physics, but it's not clear how that relates to philosophical cause. Out of curiosity, can you name anything that happens that has a single cause inside the universe? I can't, and that makes me suspicious when an argument shows that the universe exists because of a single cause (not even mentioning that we are using patterns inside the universe to try to reason about things outside the universe).
            One additional question, is it significant that it was a baseball instead of a brick? How about a football? In the case of the latter, we would need more physical information to determine if the glass would break via football vs. baseball, though certainly a brick would get the job done, ceteris paribus. Things get messy when we start using modal reasoning.

          • Phil

            There are certainly interactions of fields in fundamental physics, but it's not clear how that relates to philosophical cause. Out of curiosity, can you name anything that happens that has a single cause inside the universe?

            I absolutely agree that there are tons of things working at once (you are actually referencing exactly the point of Aquinas' 1st and 2nd "ways" to God through reason).

            Aquinas and Aristotle themselves talk about primary and secondary causes, which you are referencing.

            There is no single cause in anything within the physical cosmos, and obviously that does not mean we then concludes that causality doesn't exist.

            But we can also conclude that because a feather thrown at a window doesn't break it, while a baseball thrown at a window does break it, there is some substantial difference about the baseball itself that brought about the broken window. Therefore, we can conclude that a baseball has some casual power to break the window, while a feather does not.

            I can't, and that makes me suspicious when an argument shows that the universe exists because of a single cause (not even mentioning that we are using patterns inside the universe to try to reason about things outside the universe).

            The cause for the material cosmos' existence is not within the cosmos itself (while saying this is running the risk of stating the obvious!), so the cause of the material cosmos must be outside and transcend the material cosmos. Therefore to say that there are a multiplicity of causes always working within the material cosmos doesn't preclude that there is a single causes outside the material cosmos causing it to exist as it does.

            ,blockquote>One additional question, is it significant that it was a baseball instead of a brick? How about a football? In the case of the latter, we would need more physical information to determine if the glass would break via football vs. baseball, though certainly a brick would get the job done, ceteris paribus. Things get messy when we start using modal reasoning.

            Anything that actually breaks the window has the causal power to break the window (again, more of a "duh" statement).

            Something that can't break the window doesn't have the causal power to break the window.

            A-T metaphysics is all pretty straight forward. A simple and powerful theory normally ends up being the best, both in science and philosophy.

          • Will

            Are there oxygen and hydrogen molecules in physics?

            Technically, now we are talking chemistry, except for the subbranch of molecular physics

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_physics

          • Phil

            Technically, now we are talking chemistry.

            Sorry if I wasn't clear. Are oxygen and hydrogen existent things, or is it only the fundamental particles that make them up with which physics deals that actually exists?

            (And are you of the view that chemistry reduces ultimately to physics? I know some reductionists/eliminativists do hold that.)

          • Will

            (And are you of the view that chemistry reduces ultimately to physics? I know some reductionists/eliminativists do hold that.)

            Yes, I do think chemistry reduces to physics, but that doesn't mean molecules don't exist. The problem is that requires a tremendous amount of calculation to get from physics to complex chemistry, but it looks like quantum computers will likely be able to get us there. The first accurate hydrogen atom simulation was accomplished recently:

            http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/google-boasts-quantum-computing-breakthrough-first-display-real-world-use-1571823

            If I am wrong, and chemistry can't be reduced to physics, then trying to use physics to simulate chemistry isn't going to work. If we are right, then we will be able to use this technology to test chemical reactions without experimentation, only simulation will be needed. The ability of a quantum computer predict chemical interactions/behavior will prove that chemistry is reducible to physics beyond any reasonable doubt. None of that means the human mind is capable of imagining chemistry given physical laws, but that will just be a limit of the human mind.

          • Phil

            If I am wrong, and chemistry can't be reduced to physics, then trying to use physics to simulate chemistry isn't going to work

            Gotcha. The reason I'd lean towards chemistry not being purely reducible to physics is that chemistry functions off of the metaphysical assumption that oxygen and hydrogen have different causal powers which flow from a nature not purely reducible to the primary "matter" that makes them up (i.e., the primary particles that physics studies).

            If chemistry was perfectly reducible to physics, then there would be no rational explanation why "oxygen-arranged" matter behaves as it does and why "hydrogen-arranged" matter behaves as it does.

            In the end, some of chemistry may be reducible to physics, but I'm skeptical that all of it could be.

          • Will

            I've taken many chemistry classes, and there was never any talk of causal powers. Almost comically, the reason why hydrogen reacts different from oxygen is couched completely in terms of physics. It's all about electrons:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valence_electron

            I assume you've never taken any physics or chemistry classes, as this is very basic. Explanation of valence electrons is derived from the number of protons in the nucleus, all of which is physics. If chemistry were not reducible to physics, we wouldn't have explanations for these things, thus it seems your metaphysical assumptions are backwards, in my mind...

          • Phil

            Chemistry *assumes* causal powers, that why is doesn't normally talk about them. (So does physics of course.)

            (I have taken basic physics and chemistry classes, but I am much more proficient in philosophy of physics and philosophy of chemistry which study the underlying principles of physics and chemistry.)

            As I mentioned above, I may be very possible that much of chemistry could be reduced to physics. But if absolutely all of it could, I dunno.

          • Will

            Chemistry *assumes* causal powers, that why is doesn't normally talk about them. (So does physics of course.)

            I've read a few books on philosophy of science, and highly recommend this course:

            http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/philosophy-of-science.html

            The role of causation is still much debated in the low level sciences. Philosophy of science is a very large and complex field, but according to the instructor of that course, it has failed to keep up with and capture what's going on in science so far. That doesn't mean it isn't important, of course. There is no view in philosophy of science that doesn't have weak points, and that includes reductionism/physicalism. If you want to know why much of what you say doesn't necessarily hold up in analytic philosophy, I suggest taking the course, no way to do it justice in a comm box.

            The original meaning of metaphysics just meant "after physics". Thus, it seems critical to get the physics right first, and develop implications into metaphysics from there. It's not just me, of course, most philosophers of science would certainly agree :)

          • Phil

            There is no view in philosophy of science that doesn't have weak points, and that includes reductionism/physicalism.

            I agree partially -- the only view that doesn't have the weaknesses of a materialist/reductionism/physicalism/dualistic/idealistic view is a hylomorphic Aristotelian-Thomistic one.

            Unfortunately, so many teachers haven't seriously studied A-T metaphysics because it was dismissed for mainly political reasons back during the Reformation/Enlightenment period as a reaction to the Catholic Church and Scholasticism. It wasn't primarily dismissed on its intellectual merits.

            I will have to check out that course, though funds are a little tight these days (one doesn't study to become a priest for monetary reasons!)

            But in the end, truth will always win, so we shall see.

          • Will

            But in the end, truth will always win, so we shall see.

            I hope you are right that the truth will always win :)

          • Phil

            Ha, yeah...I'm absolutely confident but its always a matter of the timeframe when exactly truth rears its beautiful head.

            Because things not based upon truth tend towards self-implosion since untruth is non-being and you can't build upon non-being. (For example, much of our society in general has been tending towards untruth for some time which is why we find the structures of government, economics, and politics on the precipice of self-implosion.)

          • Will

            Out of curiosity, do you think there are any objectively true political or economic structures? The way I see it capitalism, socialism, democracy, Republics, monarchies, ect. are all fictions (though no fiction is completely free from some connection to reality), but certain fictions seem to be effective at achieving certain ends than others. Ideologies like capitalism are much like religions, complete with dogmas and the belief by it's strongest followers that it's the answer to everything.

          • Lazarus

            You're studying to become a priest? I must pay more attention here. That is wonderful to hear. All the best, Phil.

            If only I was thirty years younger ;)

          • Michael Murray

            You can find out more about Phil here

            https://strangenotions.com/author/philip-lewandowski/

          • Lazarus

            Thanks, Michael

          • Doug Shaver

            You didn't mention truth

            I didn't think I had to. Anticipating consequences means thinking things like "If I do A, then X will happen, and so if I don't want X to happen, then I'd better not do A." I thought it was too obvious to mention that that sort of thinking is not even possible without some notion of the difference between truth and falsehood.

          • Phil

            Sure, one can say that if I do A, then I expect X to happen, but that doesn't mean that A actually caused X.

            So conditions and consequences merely equate to a correlation, they don't equal truth.

            If reason/intellect is not coming in real contact with the casual powers of material entities in some way, then rationality has nothing intrinsic to do with truth.

          • Will

            If reason/intellect is not coming in real contact with the casual powers of material entities in some way, then rationality has nothing intrinsic to do with truth.

            I don't think it does. In computer science we have a rule called GIGO: Garbage in, Garbage out. If you put garbage into logical arguments, you'll get garbage out. Thus the ability to think rationality only helps if you have good premises and information going into the algorithm. The power of skepticism is to help filter the premises/information, so only the best makes it in :)

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garbage_in,_garbage_out

          • Phil

            Sure, but it takes rationality in the first place to figure out which are good premises and information in the first place. This is assuming rationality and its ability to figure out the truth of good premises and information: I.e., "Is this true that this is a good premise/information?"

            Rationality grounds absolutely everything the human mind is capable of.

          • Will

            Most premises are inductive. Induction is just recognizing patterns. My cat is very good at that, actually. For example:

            Premise: All men are mortal.

            I could be wrong, but I don't see where reason plays a role in this statement, it's just an inductive statement based on observation. Certainly we could reason about it using science, but even hunter gatherer tribes understand that everyone dies...just because it's an unbreakable pattern. We feed the patterns we recognize (perception) into rational arguments to get reasoning, but it all starts with patterns that aren't inherently rational, as far as I know.

          • Phil

            But how do you decide between that which is a good premise and that which only appears to be a good premise? If all you have are the physical facts, one can't establish anything beyond correlation no matter how many times it happens.

            Simply because every time you heat up a match it combusts doesn't then mean that heating up a match brings about (i.e., causes) combustion (on the account you are presenting).

          • Doug Shaver

            one can say that if I do A, then I expect X to happen, but that doesn't mean that A actually caused X.

            Nothing is so just because we say so. Agreed.

            So conditions and consequences merely equate to a correlation, they don't equal truth.

            I have not attempted to identify truth with "conditions and consequences."

            If reason/intellect is not coming in real contact with the casual powers of material entities in some way, then rationality has nothing intrinsic to do with truth.

            This assertion presupposes your Aristotelian conclusion.

          • Phil

            This assertion presupposes your Aristotelian conclusion.

            It's the other way around -- Something like A-T metaphysics/epistemology is rather my conclusion based upon what we experience in reality.

            If reason/intellect is not coming in real contact with the casual powers of material entities in some way, then rationality has nothing intrinsic to do with truth. So then the rational conclusion is that the intellect actually does come into contact with the casual powers of external entities.

          • Doug Shaver

            Our brains are affected by external entities. No one denies that.

    • Will

      If you think nothing would exist without God, then everything that exists adds credence to the existence of God. I think that's begging the question, but if you don't, Bayes theorem won't help anyone in the debate. I would argue that the belief that nothing would exist without God is fixing the prior at 1, however.

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        The sequence of deductions first establishes that contingent being concludes to the existence of necessary being and this to a being whose existence just is its essence. (The Third Way). Demonstrating this concludes immediately to the fact that God must be Existence Itself (i.e., the ground of being). Nothing can exist unless Existence Itself exists.

  • David Nickol

    On paper, Bayes' Theorem is a fantastic way to apprehend truth; in practice, it often has the opposite effect.

    It is not at all clear to my why this wouldn't also apply to, say, the syllogism. Or to rational thinking in general.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    Oy, more statistics by laymen. Bayes Theorem is fast becoming holy writ in the hands of non-professionals: a magic calculation, to be sure. But notice the assumptions hidden in P(B|A)=P(A|B)P(A)/P(B).

    Spot it? Ja doch. It assumes there are unconditional probabilities for A and B. But all probabilities are conditional, so where do P(A) and P(B) come from?

    From: http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2014/03/americas-next-top-model-part-ii.html

    A model is a mechanism to assign probabilities to propositions p, given evidence E: Pr(p|E)

    Usually, the evidence E is extended by tacking on “I believes.” For example, “I
    believe p is represented by a normal distribution with parameters, μ
    and σ.” These “I believes” comprise the model, M. This makes the model "credo-ble."* The probability that X>c depends on whether X is modeled by a normal, a lognormal, an extreme-value, a Weibull, or some other distribution. There is no P(X>c) without that assumption.

    (*) credo-ble. No, YOS will not apologize. He's glad he said it. Glad, he tells you!

    So the probability is assigned to propositions p, given evidence E and model M: Pr(p|EM).

    You could lump E and M together into the same formal symbol, but it is never
    a good idea -- that's "never" as in "not ever" -- to confuse the assumptions of your model with actual, like, you know, evidence.

    YOS tells you three times: There is no such thing as a probability without evidence+model; that is, without facts and a structured relationship among those facts.* Most probabilities you see in the press releases of activist groups,
    government agencies, businesses, and other special interests have no
    more punch than Pee-Wee Herman.

    The worst model is where you claim you are not using one, because that
    means that you are unaware of your own assumptions. Nothing good
    can come from that.

    (*) structured relationship. In Latin, fictio. Facts acquire meaning as part of a fiction.

    • Will

      I have to agree with you that statistics are horribly misused, especially by the media. I would even have to say that many "social science" groups are really activist groups in disguise and misuse statistics to further agendas (hard to say if it's intentional or just bias). That doesn't mean I think social science isn't science, it is just much more prone to bad science in my reading, especially when you actually examine how they reach their numbers.

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        According to Peter Dear, in addition to a couple of cultural and collegial factors, the pillars of the Scientific Revolution are:
        1. The vision of the world as a kind of machine.
        2. The distinction between primary and secondary qualities (i.e., objective and subjective)
        3. The use of deliberate experimentation to obtain "made" observations ("facts")
        4. The privileging of mathematics as the preferred language of science.

        This fit well the physics of motion, which was the vanguard of the revolution, and as well in the rest of physics. A century later it worked well for chemistry, too.

        It began to founder in biology, where the objects of study were animate and individualized. Biophysics, biochemistry, and genetics survived the revolution. (It's telling that the first deliberate experiment in biology was conducted by Gregor Mendel, a degreed physicist.)

        As the revolution moved into anthropology, sociology, psychology, it encountered objects of study that were not only individuated but could talk back. If you throw a rock and a human being off the roof of a building, both will fall at the rate of 32 ft/sec² but the rock is less likely to object to the experiment.

        At the same time, scientists began to encounter problems that exceeded the capacity of the mathematical pillar. Initially, physics had dealt with simple problems: a couple of variables in idealized conditions (frictionless surfaces, perfect vacuums, ideal gasses, etc.) But eventually, problems became complex: many variables. At first the complexity was disorganized -- all the units behaved in essentially the same manner -- and could be handled "on the average" with statistics instead of mathematics. But eventually, organized complexity raised its head and even statistics became inadequate and we had to rely on models. These transitions corresponded to the movement away from the hard sciences, but were not entirely the same as it. Nonetheless, the social "sciences" unlike the real sciences often must define subjectively the very units of study, which immediately violates the second pillar. Experiments become problematical not least of all because the units (a/k/a people) are individuated and the responses of this sample of people may not predict at all the responses of another sample.

        • Will

          You have a point, but it isn't true that no social/psychological experiments can be replicated. In this study, 39 out of 100 were, which is pretty bad. It still isn't sufficient to say none are repeatable.
          The demarcation between science and non-science often isn't clear, and I'd put social science right next to economics. Not many people consider economics to be science, but it certainly is useful. The same can be said for better results from psychology social science, but these field require a deep level of skepticism. In my view, society incorporates fiction into it's very fabricate, so anything that studies society, humans minds, and human interaction, is, in part, a study of fiction, not fact.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Not many people consider economics to be science,

            but it certainly is useful.

            Surely. Economists predicted ten of the last three recessions.

            The same can be said for better results from psychology social science, but these field require a deep level of skepticism.

            Social studies has discovered many things that are true and novel. But those that are true are no novel; and those that are novel are not true.

            This pair of essays may be amusing:

            http://www.jerrypournelle.com/science/voodoo.html

            In my view, society incorporates fiction into it's very fabricate

            You're right! Latin "fictio" means a construction or arrangement. Therefore, when facts are construed into a theory, that theory is a fictio. :)

          • Will

            Surely. Economists predicted ten of the last three recessions.

            Lol! One can determine general patterns like supply and demand, hope that fractional reserve banking is low risk (with a probability based on induction, which cheerfully ignore's Hume's problem of induction), but predict the ups and downs of such a chaotic system? Better luck with the weather...

            Speaking of social science/psychology, is this new and untrue, or true and not new. Watching criminals in slow motion makes them look guiltier. The experiment was repeatable, and quite relevant to whether courts should allow such footage to sway a jury:

            http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/07/27/1603865113

            http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/08/jurors-perceive-more-intent-when-they-watch-videos-in-slow-motion/

            The fact that we can create a controlled experiment, and repeat it as long as everyone is properly blinded is pretty scientific, is it not? Proper blinding and other methodological considerations are critical, of course, and blinding is where many of these studies fail. I've taken some classes on philosophy of science and the "soft" sciences are a big topic. Calling them science ends up being pretty defensible.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            The fact that we can create a controlled experiment, and repeat it as long as everyone is properly blinded is pretty scientific

            Or one that seems to be controlled. Was the only difference between the two groups that one saw slo-mo and the other did not? And what was this "model" of which they spoke? A deeper problem is that the objects and qualities of study are not objectively defined. What does it mean operationally to "look guilty," for example? How it guilt-lookingness to be measured? A poll of volunteer participants? Were the volunteers all WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic)? That is, "the kind of folks who make up 96% of the study participants 'of the top journals in six sub-disciplines of Psychology from 2003-2007'.”
            http://wmbriggs.com/post/5566/
            And why did they not conclude that viewing at normal speed led people to overlook clues that pointed to guilt rather than the other way around? When the definitions of the phenomenon and the wording of the results are already matters of interpretation, it's hard to say if they saw what they claimed to have seen. Did they try running the tapes at higher speed?

            Three mini-opinion polls taken by the same folks reaching the same self-desired conclusion does not count as replication.

  • Lazarus

    Pardon me hitting the "fast forward" button, but I would love to see Carroll's take on why the universe exists. The book is still not available here.

    • Michael Murray

      Geena from the darkside has asked me to pass on the message that you can get most of the book on Google Books.

      • Lazarus

        Thanks Michael and Geena, I will have a look.

        • Michael Murray

          No problem. She has put some more info over at EN. I probably shouldn't cut and paste it here but I'm sure you can find it.

          • Lazarus

            I did, thanks. Very helpful.

  • Doug Shaver

    On paper, Bayes' Theorem is a fantastic way to apprehend truth;

    I don't perceive it that way. I see Bayes, as I see logic more generally, as a way to apprehend the consistency of our beliefs. Schematically, a Bayesian argument is simply: A, B, and C, therefore D; and its validity depends on nothing but doing the math correctly. As with any argument, we can justifiably have no more confidence in the conclusion than we can have in the premises. Of course, whenever we present an argument of any kind, we tend to assume that all our premises are indisputably true, and thus we’re tempted to talk about logic as a method of starting with truths and finding more truths. But to say our conclusions must be true begs the question of whether our premises are true. Logic tells us that if we're given a valid argument, then either the conclusion is true or else at least one premise is false, but logic alone cannot tell us which is actually the case.

    He assigns a prior credence of 50% [to God's existence]. In other words, without considering any background evidence, we can initially assume that God's existence is as equally likely as not. That's not a bad starting point. But the rest of the chapter is filled with Carroll's wild presumptions about what the world would or would not like, given God's existence, and how the Bayes calculation should be updated.

    I can understand how anything that disagrees with Catholic orthodoxy would look like "wild presumption" to a Catholic. Let us stipulate Carroll's claim that we have no prima facie reason to either accept or reject God's existence. In that case, if you actually believe that the world is exactly the way we should expect it to be if God is real, then Bayes will tell you that you that your theism is justified. But we atheists -- or most of us, anyway -- actually believe that the world is very different from the way we should expect it to be if God were real, and so Bayes tells us that our atheism is justified. At this point, you and we are being equally reasonable, because our belief in the consequent of this argument is consistent with our beliefs about the premises.

    You may then, of course, attack our beliefs about the premises -- and you must, if you reject our conclusion. You said:

    For instance, many atheists claim the problem of evil should reduce the probability of whether God exists. But many theists suggest that the problem of evil is actually evidence for God, since an objective moral standard depends on a divine lawgiver. We may be tempted to accept both proposals: the problem of evil brings the probability of God down a little, and it also raises the probability back up. But as Carroll explains, the Theorem doesn't allow that.

    If Carroll actually said that (I don’t have the book handy as I write this), then he is mistaken. It isn't Bayes that doesn't let us do that. It's the law of noncontradiction. It cannot be the case that evil is both more and less probable given God's existence. It is possible that we don't have good enough reason to believe one way or the other, but if that is the case, then, Bayes or no Bayes, neither side can justifiably criticize the other for what it believes. Alternatively, the evidence might actually favor one side, and if so, then that side will be justified in accusing the other of faulty reasoning, notwithstanding their inability to change the minds of their adversaries.

    The Theorem's effectiveness depends completely on the accuracy of the credences you put into it.

    There are three credences at issue in any proper Bayesian analysis. These are the prior probability of the hypothesis being tested, the probability of the evidence given the hypothesis, and the probability of the evidence given the negation of the hypothesis. Given those three credences, a consequent probability is determined, and the accuracy of that consequent is clearly dependent on the accuracy of the credences, and so we may say that the theorem’s effectiveness at establishing the truth of the hypothesis depends on the accuracy of the credences.

    But the theorem may also be effective in a way that is arguably more important and certainly at least as important. It can force the adversaries in a dispute to confront the real bases of their disagreement, which are likely to involve presuppositions that are typically not made explicit when the arguments are presented in a less rigorous format.

    In particular, all three credences must be assessed on the basis of something called background knowledge. This is to acknowledge that it makes no sense to evaluate any argument in an epistemological vacuum. For an example, I will adapt an observation made by William Lane Craig when he was commenting on an argument against the resurrection. As he noted, the prior probability of a resurrection is indeed very low given the background knowledge of a naturalist, likely too low for the extant documentary evidence to result in a consequent probability exceeding 0.5. But he said it is much higher given background knowledge that presupposes the existence of the God of classical theism. So, should we or should we not include God in our background knowledge? Bayes itself cannot tell us whether we should or shouldn’t. We can only concede that if a theist is entitled to say, “We know God exists,” then he is entitled to accordingly assess the prior probability of a resurrection. That is provided that his knowledge of God is independent of any documentary record of the resurrection. The prior probability of the hypothesis is by definition the probability we should have assigned it before becoming of aware of the evidence at issue. Otherwise the Bayesian argument becomes circular. A Christian who says he believes in God because of the resurrection cannot then use his theism as background knowledge when evaluating the documentary evidence for the resurrection.

    And if we can't agree on the credences—or if, like Carroll, you refuse to even identify specific credences, much less defend them—then the output is irrelevant at best, and dangerously misleading at worst.

    Yes, the credences must themselves be justified, but if you use a particular set of credences to justify a consequent probability that I don’t accept, then the burden is on me to pick at least one of those credences and justify my disagreement with it. Do I think your prior probability is too high? Then I’d better say exactly why it should be lower. You should not let me get away with any objection as vague as “Well, there’s got to be something wrong with your credences.”

    • Interesting point on the resurrection and Bayes was noted in Secular Outpost, maybe a year ago, is that even on theism the Resurrection still has a near zero prior probability.

      The idea is even a theist must acknowledge that God had never resurrected anyone prior to Jesus, and that since then no one has been resurrected. Therefore the background knowledge still makes it extremely unlikely, even on theism.

  • Good piece. I have no dispute that the strength we have of the premises or credences of an argument are hugely important to any result one gets. I think it is fair game to criticize anyone who thinks that using Bayes' theorem is any sort of solution or assistance to premises or credences that are unknown or highly speculative.

    I do not think I see here any accusation that Carrol has misused Bayes or overstated its power. I suppose it is that not enough time is spent talking about how difficult it is to assign reasonable probability to things? Even though he expressly states that the assessment of this in this context is problematically subjective?

    Nor do I see any alternative. As Richard Carrier pointed out in Proving History, we all use Bayes in our reasoning anyway, we just do not do it expressly. But we all assign prior probability and assess how new information affects it. Bayes just identifies the formula.

  • Thought I would delve into a little discussion of how this applies to theist arguments.

    Say the moral argument.

    P1 Absolute objective morality would not exist without a God
    P2 Absolute objective morality exists
    C1 Therefore God exists.

    Bayes forces us to assign probability to these premises and gives us probability for the conclusion.

    As Brandon has noted that the real difficulty is not the validity of the argument structurally, but the soundness of the premises. How confident are we of either of these premises? How could we possibly find out? I would have nowhere to begin to find evidence to assess such claims.

    Because there is no way to assign probability on this and many other issues (how likely it is that all material existence is contingent, that the constants of the universe are tuned by an agent and not necessary facts) that many theist arguments get us nowhere.

    Where we do have significant ability to adduce data is in scriptural arguments. We can assess how often God resurrects people, how often ancient manuscripts are forged or exaggerate, and so on.

    • Phil

      Because there is no way to assign probability on this and many other issues (how likely it is that all material existence is contingent, that the constants of the universe are tuned by an agent and not necessary facts) that many theist arguments get us nowhere.

      Though I don't think Bayes thereom is very useful in general, these type of questions are always phrased as: "Can material reality, even in principle, be non-contingent?" If the answer is 'no', then the theist has a good argument on their hands.

      I guess if one wanted to apply Bayes Theorem to this then the probability that material reality could be non-contingent would be 0.

      • Right. Absolute certainty. This has nothing to do with Bayes, but rather the epistemology and strength of the argument that leads you to say you know this with certainty.

        I would not say I know it at all, I would not know where to begin to make such a determination.

        So my criticism of this argument from contingency is by what means did you discover that it is impossible that material reality be necessary?

        From your earlier comments, I take it that it is the failure of materialists to explain all phenomena in material terms? I would reject such an argument on the fallacy of arguing from ignorance. I see no way one could get to absolute certainty.

        • Phil

          Ultimately the contingency discussion is not a "philosophy of the gaps" argument, where because science hasn't explained how material reality is non-contingent, therefore all reality is contingent.

          The question is could a material reality, even in principle, be non-contingent. This is a ontological question. This means it doesn't rely upon what science has discovered or could ever discover.

          I know we've had some discussions on this topic so I won't go into the whole ontological discussion. But I simply wanted to make the point that the modern physical sciences are pretty irrelevant to this question of contingency.

          (But always remember that metaphysics/ontology itself, though not a physical science, doesn't ignore empirical evidence, in fact that is exactly where it begins. Where the physical sciences begin with empirical observations and stays right there, metaphysics/ontology begins with the empirical observations and moves beyond it to abstract reasoning about the underlying structure that must exist for reality to exist as we experience it.

          I heard it best put that metaphysics/ontology is the middle "science" between mathematics/geometry and the physical sciences. It uses principles of both.)

          • The question is on what basis is the assertion that material reality is contingent made?

            This basis will either justify absolute certainty or not.

            I am saying I am unaware of any basis to make conclusions on this one way or another. The best I can do on a probability would be 0.5.

            I guess you are saying that because it is an ontological or philosophical issue you do not need a basis? I would reject that.

            The only basis I have ever heard from you is an argument from ignorance. This is a philosophical criticism that your reasoning is fallacious and thus your conclusion weak, if not wrong.

          • Phil

            The only basis I have ever heard from you is an argument from ignorance. This is a philosophical criticism that your reasoning is fallacious and thus your conclusion weak, if not wrong.

            Not at all -- It is actually quite "simple" and could be stated as such:

            1) To be non-contingent something cannot be composed of any parts and must necessarily exist as they do.
            2) Material realities are composed of parts and do not necessarily exist as they do.
            3) Therefore all material realities are contingent.

          • I do not accept 1) what is your justification for this?

          • Phil

            I do not accept 1) what is your justification for this?

            -If there is a real difference between you and I, then the statement that material reality is composed of parts is true.

            -The follow up is that if something is composed of parts, then it is contingent upon something outside itself to explain being composed of those parts.

            (This is the easiest and strongest one to see and this argument works even apart from the second part of the premise. I just put two arguments into one.)

          • There is a real difference. You are asserting this is a fact, I have no idea. I do not know or have any beliefs about what it takes to make something non-contingent, other than it cannot depend on something else for its existence.

            How do you know this?

          • Phil

            Put another way -- Only something that is perfectly simple (having no composition whatsoever) can be perfectly self-explanatory in and of itself.

            So if material realities cannot be perfectly simple, then they are contingent.

  • Peter

    For example, he [Sean Carroll] argues that the existence of evil, the massive size of the universe, and the lack of consensus about God all bring that 50% confidence level way down.

    Sean Carroll has always argued that the massive size of the universe is evidence against God. He argues that life and humankind could have come into being with a much smaller universe. Being excessively massive, the universe does not exist just to create human beings. It does not exist purely for the benefit of human beings as theists claim. Therefore a universe not created exclusively for humans is a universe not created by God.

    Of course, the great flaw in the above reasoning is to assume that theists believe that the universe is created just for humans. Creationists may believe that but mainstream Christianity does not. Carroll's mistake is in conflating the two. The revelation of a massive fertile universe is evidence in favour of God, and not against God as Carroll claims. It opens the possibility of multiple sentient races worshipping their Creator. It is precisely the kind of universe an omnipotent and infinitely generous God would create.

  • LHRMSCBrown