Uncertainty and the World: An interview with W. M. Briggs at Ordeal of Consciousness


Our friend Dover Beach, perhaps after having taken a fall or because he stood too close to Hillary and caught her disease, considered it would be well to interview Yours Truly at his site The Ordeal of Consciousness.

Please go there and read that. When you’re done, don’t miss his interview with Jim Kalb. Or his many excellent links and videos to topics philosophical. Put his blog on your regular list of stops.

As good a job as Beach did, he left out a few essential questions, which I take the liberty of asking myself.

WMB Who are you?

Briggs Like Pope Francis said, a sinner.

WMB What is your favorite color?

Briggs I’m no racist. I don’t see color.

WMB Why aren’t more men wearing vests, also known as waistcoats?

Briggs Fear of being thought too well dressed.

WMB I understand that you identify as a yak?

Briggs I used to. I now identify as Holy Roman Emperor William I of the World. Only bigots and holyromanemperorophobes fail to acknowledge this.

WMB What will be your first acts as Emperor?

Briggs The elimination of democracy, the public flogging of pornographers, the restoration of hard currencies, both electronic and gold, the strict control of borders (any who want to leave can), the requirement that all men wear hats while outdoors, the civic recognition of the Church, and, if necessary so that there be no misunderstandings, vivid demonstrations of Authority. That’s day one.

WMB What proof have you of your Emperor status?

Briggs My assertion is all that is needed. To demand objective, scientific proof is to be a hate-filled holyromanemperorophobe.

WMB What sort of hats?

Briggs There will be many, depending on one’s status, age, rank, and, naturally, the weather. Ball caps will be proscribed outside of stadia and golf courses.

WMB What can you tell us of your future relations with Vladimir Putin?

Briggs I will negotiate for the steady importation of pelmeni and dill in exchange for barrels of Old Overholt or near substitutes.

WMB Thank you for your time. In closing, would you like to tell us a good joke?

Briggs One snowman said to the other, “That’s funny. I smell carrots, too.”


  1. John B()

    Do we need to doff our hats in your presence?

    (don’t forget Bartholomew Cubbins)

  2. Gary

    In your reign, ball caps should be permitted for any outdoor leisure activity. I always where one when fly-fishing. Some might advocate the more elitist LL Bean headgear http://www.llbean.com/llb/shop/502857?page=mens-hats but the fish aren’t impressed and the sport has become more egalitarian in the mind of the public.

  3. John B()


    Tell the truth
    Aren’t you really more concerned about HOW the ball cap is worn?

  4. Ken

    From Brigg’s linked article:

    “That people think probability is ontologically true leads to all sorts of conundrums and paradoxes. And, as always, over-certainty”

    That’s only true if one assumes that those “people” really think “probability is ontologically true”. For the most part that assumption is false. Many, most?, of the “people” to whom Briggs’ is referring are applying probability & stats tools are doing so to get a publishable result. That’s a very different objective from getting to some objective truth. They are, as the saying goes, “torturing the data until it confesses” … and as is familiar to many (from watching movies, I’d hope) torture is not a reliable means of getting to “truth.”

    In other words, the “people” are at best ignorant (if one “assumes” they are acting objectively), more likely willfully conniving, manipulative, deceitful weasels. The misuse of prob & stats is a symptom of a deeper problem of dishonesty & corruption, not the actual problem needing to be addressed so much, if at all.

    Does this make sense: “Randomness does not exist, nor does chance. They are not ontic; they have no existence. And since they have no existence, no actuality, they cannot be causative. They have no power. They are mere expressions of our ignorance. You will see language like “caused by random chance”, “due to chance”, “random effects” and so on, all which award causal powers to what doesn’t exist.”

    Yes, “randomness” is a term used to express ignorance of a complex system; almost everybody comprehends that “randomness” is an expression of complexity, where a particular outcome at a particular time is nigh impossible to predict while at the same time the realm of possible outcomes [and often how frequently they’ll occur] is pretty much known. Pretty much everybody “gets” this.

    Then consider the last assertion, “You will see language like “caused by random chance”, “due to chance”, “random effects” and so on, all which award causal powers to what doesn’t exist.”

    That is illogical. When one comprehends the expression of “randomness” to be a property of a system–not a thing with causal powers–one cannot at the same time believe the property is a cause. Briggs here is fooling himself, again, with metaphors — recognizing the metaphor in isolation but then interpreting it as literal in a separate complete sentence to address a problem that, from my experience, doesn’t exist anywhere.

    RE: “Science is utterly silent, mute by design, on every real question of interest.” Briggs goes on to address as topics of interest values & morality. Fair enough … but reputable scientists do not co-mingle objective science with values/morality. The linkage & resulting issues are contrived. Where they seem to exist we are back to the weasels (“people”) having ulterior motives enabled by corrupt tactics. Assigning and debating an issue with “science” presumes–wrongly–that the “people” are objective, and then embarks on the quest to debunk science to some extent in peculiar ways. All along missing the point that the real issue is the corrupt practices (willfully corrupt) of some who pretend to apply science. Addressing the misuse of the tool (statistics) as if education [another book on proper use] will help misses the point entirely when those misusing the tool know what they’re supposed to do, and not, but do it anyway for their self-ish ulterior motives.

    That’s like having a surgeon do something really wrong–blatant inexcusable malpractice–and instead of suing for relief for damages embark on a quest to teach the surgeon how to more effectively use a scalpel. Or an accountant that embezzles funds, instead of prosecuting train in proper accounting & banking practices.

    The abuse of stats needs to be called out for what it is–corruption by those that do and/or ought know much better, not ignorance of proper application of that set of tools in need of remedial training.

  5. JohnK

    Ken shows himself once again to be a Scientific Idealist, to coin a phrase. Real Scientists (TM) characteristically talk and act as if randomness causes things; for instance, ‘results’ reported August 5 from the Large Hadron Collider show this. To begin with, ‘results’ is in scare-quotes, because they reported their inferences from data. They reported their inference that a previous ‘bump’ in their data was due to random fluctuations, not a new particle. That’s how modern experimental particle physicists talk, how they think, and how they do their experiments and report their data.

    Matt: The referenced interview is one that I will recommend to anyone who wants a quick introduction to your book and your thought.

    However, that Plato was neither an Idealist, nor a Materialist, but a Realist, is denied only by dyed-in-the-wool Aristotelians, who take the idea of the ‘natural’ inherence of Form and Matter to be simple common sense; hence Stoves’s rather tawdry observation that he cannot imagine ever having come face to face with the Number Three. By contrast, Plato’s resort to myth and the story of the Cave, for example, can also be taken to mean that Reason cannot provide us with an inherent relation between Form and Matter.

    Second, I repeat the charge that the Thomistic ‘baptism’ of Aristotelianism was fundamentally inaccurate, because it uncritically accepted Aristotle’s notion of Substance. Despite papal and other proclamation to the contrary, Aristotle’s notion of Substance is entirely unbiblical, and, in the end, is contrary to the Catholic faith. The proof of this is a reductio ad absurdum: Thomas resorts to an ultimately nominalist account of the Eucharist, the heart of the Church. This is no small defect; it collapses the entire Thomistic project, unless there is some way to ‘save the appearances’. To ‘save the appearances’ of Aristotelianism, so that it can finally give an account of the Eucharist, the most Real Reality, is possible, but it requires a fundamental revision of Aristotle’s idea of Substance.

    The material following is adapted from Donald J. Keefe, SJ, Covenantal Theology II; Rev. Ed. with an Appendix (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1996), pp 511-527.

    Once the impanationist ventures at rooting the species of the consecrated bread and wine in whatever subject of inherence, even in the Christ, had been refused, the problem of the sign-relation of the species to the Eucharistic Christ remained baffling. Granted, with St. Thomas, that with the cessation of the species, as by corruption, the Eucharistic presence also ceases, it remains to be explained, to the pervasive cosmological quaerens which was finding an apt expression in the Aristotelian act-potency metaphysics, why this cessation of the Real Presence should follow such corruption. This quandary is inescapable, inasmuch as the form-matter analysis has put all sign-causality on the side of the words of consecration, while the notion of the species as an accidens without any subject of inherence redoubles the difficulty of finding a metaphysical account for the causal role which cannot but belong to the species of bread and wine, because an accidens, in Aristotelian usage, understood as an intrinsic cause, can exercise its causality only by reason of its relation to a subject of inherence. When there is no such subject, how can there be any causality exercised, viz., any sacramental sign-efficacy?

    Further: the unconsecrated elements of the Eucharist, the sacramentum tantum which St. Thomas had understood nonhistorically as materia (bread, wine) rather than as the event of the offering of the gifts, began to be spoken of also as the species, the visible appearances of the Real Presence of the Eucharistic Christ. The matter-form analysis did not easily distinguish the two moments of Offertory and Canon, interested as it was less in the Event of conversion than in meeting the challenge to the intrinsic antecedent possibility of the Event. The subject of interest was the point challenged by Berengarius’ symbolist interpretation of the Eucharistic liturgy: i.e., the possibility of the objective conversion of the species into the historical Christ who suffered, died, and is risen. This challenge was essentially single, to the free objectivity or historicity or free event of the Eucharistic presence, which only as a free historical Event can be understood to be the objective representation of the One Sacrifice. Berengarius’ challenge could be stated in terms of a denial of the possibility of the conversion or transubstantiation, or as a negation of the objective reality of the Real Presence: in either case it is at bottom a denial of the objective Eucharistic representation of the One Sacrifice. We have seen that often, as in the case of impanationists whether medieval or modern, the two negations are indistinct.

    However stated, impanation theories ignored the historical reality — viz., the objective transubstantiation of the Church’s offering into the Bread of Life and the Cup of Eternal Salvation of which Christ had said, “This is my Body,” “This is my Blood.” But further and more significantly, they attacked, as though it were the implicit affirmation of the orthodox faith, what had never been asserted by anyone: the antecedent possibility of this utterly unique Event — as though the Catholic faith held that it could be accounted for on any terms other than its own.

    With this pseudo-challenge to their faith put before them like a bait, the theologians of the ninth and later centuries rose to the false occasion, thereby and thereafter forgetting or ignoring the historical freedom of the Eucharistic Event, analogous to the freedom of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, which the earlier centuries had taken for granted as inherent in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

    The implications of their innocent mistake slowly became evident in the triumph of the cosmological analysis over the historical; the latter was preserved, but thereafter, even as enshrined in the Sentences of Peter Lombard, it ceased to be understood. All later Eucharistic theology has taken its cue from that mistake, which was in sum the failure to see that the challenge was far more radical than even the fathers had supposed: it implied the rejection of the historical prime analogate which alone can support a Catholic theological metaphysics.

    As the late medieval theology proceeded more and more under the grip of the necessary logic of autonomous rationality, the dichotomy, the lack of any intrinsic relation, between material substance and accident became more and more controlling, in such wise that these terms were no longer heard as metaphysical but as empirical, corresponding not to an intrinsic analysis but to an extrinsic account of the physical relation between res and res, understanding that term in the sense of a thing or object.

    The same nominalist reading of accident as thing which Thomas had introduced in his Eucharistic theology forced the act-potency distinctions within substance also to be conceived increasingly as physical rather than as metaphysical, on which basis a Suarez will be unable to understand what could justify the “real distinction” which the Thomists insisted upon placing between essence and existence.

  6. Ken

    Here’s a relatively recent article, from the WSJ, about the corruption in the peer review process to include some mentions of routinely corrupt studies — while not mentioned specifically, those studies undoubtedly applied willfully corrupt statistical methods to get to a desired result:


    There are more about this theme.

    Its the ole ‘forest for the trees’ problem — examine it study-by-study (aka with one’s nose against a given tree) and it keeps looking like people don’t know how to properly use the tools. Step back (see more of the forest overall) and viola, rampant corruption comes into view.

    Perhaps a better question to address is why so many, and so many institutions, feel willing to be so brazen about their corruption.

  7. Ken

    RE: “‘results’ reported August 5 from the Large Hadron Collider show this. To begin with, ‘results’ is in scare-quotes, because they reported their inferences from data. They reported their inference that a previous ‘bump’ in their data was due to random fluctuations, not a new particle.”

    There’s that unattributed assertion trying to say that scientists use “random” as if “random” was itself something that caused something else. That’s a manipulation of facts to achieve the ulterior motive that people who know better actually believe “randomness” is itself a force to be reckoned with.

    Here’s BBC’s reporting of the actual statements made by David Charlton of Birmingham University, leader of the Atlas experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-36976777):

    “There was a lot of excitement when we started to collect data. But in the [latest results] we see no sign of a bump, there’s nothing.
    “It is a pity because it would have been a really fantastic thing if there had been a new particle.”
    Speaking to journalists in Chicago at the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP), Prof Charlton said it was a remarkable coincidence – but purely a coincidence – that two separate LHC detectors, Atlas and CMS, picked up matching “bumps”.
    “It just seems to be a statistical fluke, that the two experiments saw something at the same mass.
    “Coincidences are always strange when they happen – but we’ve been looking very hard at our data to make sure we fully understand them, and we don’t see anything in the new sample.”

    That’s exactly how that physicist talked (unless BBC garbled the quotes) — and I don’t see any indication whatsoever that that physicist even intimated that ‘randomness’ was a force unto itself. The word ‘random’ (any form) wasn’t even spoken.

  8. Hack

    Nice interview Briggs, it succinctly sums up your positions on statistics! Ed Feser some months ago had a similar interview that nicely summed up his views on philosophy.

  9. DAV

    restoration of hard currencies

    It’s already hard to collect enough currency and you want to make it harder?

  10. JohnK

    I appreciate Ken’s industry; and I pick on him, because I consider that, if pressed, he will arrive at truth; because that is clearly his aim.

    Ken once opined that science is self-correcting, but then decided that it wasn’t, but the money that flowed into it, from businesses, would self-correct it. Now he says that there’s a lot of corruption in science (despite the self-correcting nature of the funding?), but Real Scientists (TM) don’t talk about ‘randomness’ causing things; or at least, the non-corrupt good (TM) ones don’t.

    But contemporary working scientists, including experimental particle physicists, don’t have to talk OUT LOUD that way, even once; for that way of thinking is built-in to the statistical procedures that they use. They (a) ‘saw’ a potential ‘bump’ in ‘the data’; and then, (b) they ‘saw’ the ‘bump’ go away. Somebody tell me that what they ‘saw’ in ‘the data’, in both instances, was NOT what p-values and confidence intervals and hypothesis testing told them to see; then, we can talk.

    What does ‘six sigma’ mean, anyway? Well, regardless of what it actually means, it is taken to mean, by all the best scientists, that it is very, very, very unlikely that we would ‘see’ result X ‘by chance’. For, regardless of whether a working scientist says it out loud, that is exactly what the statistics they were all taught, told them to think. And you can find expressions of the same kinds of errors right here, in the comments in this very blog, from working scientists who are quite sympathetic to Matt’s thesis. That mistake is baked-in to all the statistics that we were ALL taught, and it’s devilishly difficult to think ‘outside’ of it; which is one of the main reasons that I think that Matt’s work is so important. Even when we finally see (some) of Matt’s point, it still feels like we’re riding a bicycle backwards, wobbling, crashing into things. We must un-learn, as much, or as more, as we must learn.

    Another reason that I think that Matt’s work is so important is because it forces us back to decisions; that is, to science as a moral enterprise of men, not as a ‘Thing’ ‘out there’, and to scientists as true moral actors, who take real risks for the truth — risks of their time, their talent, their treasure, and their reputations. Scientists, qua scientists, are not amoral purveyors of a faceless technique, or cogs in a public-relations machine; they search for the truth, regardless of the cost to themselves. So, in this at least, Ken and I are as one.

    Re: ‘inherence’, but otherwise off-topic: Hanson, Robin. The Age of Em. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Review here.

    A curious imagining of the consequences arising if we were able to reverse-engineer-emulate a human brain. For example, we can now emulate one neocortical column of the rat brain. It isn’t at all a rat neocortical column, it’s a bunch of silicon+software; but we can make its behavior emulate a rat neocortical column. Then we do that for a human a neocortical column, then we multiply our emulation by one million human neocortical columns….

    Haven’t read the book, just the review. But based on the review, what’s so curious about the book is that it takes for granted the existence of frankly metaphysical things; meaning, things independent of actual matter, but which can ‘inhere’ in matter.

    To prove my point, about the review at least, here’s a pull-quote from the review: “No technical knowledge of computer science, neurobiology, nor the origins of intelligence and consciousness is assumed; just a willingness to accept the premise that whatever these things may be, they are independent of the physical substrate upon which they are implemented.”

  11. Oldavid

    For once I substantially agree with Ken. The fundamental problem is corruption; the corruption that is relativism; the corruption that is the “professional necessity” to rationalise and justify ideological prejudice.

    Mathemagicians are particularly privileged in this regard, be they statisticians, theoretical physicists or anthropologists, as they can invent their own equations, parameters, constants and variables to “prove their point” that can’t be tested by commonsense or logic. Any challenge must assume the assumptions of the proposer and slosh around in a theoretical maelstrom of conjectures detached from any certain logical premises.

    Our blog host, W’m Briggs (and his cronies), is a fine example. On one hand he proclaims that chance is not causative then surreptitiously infers that chance begets probability, then an infinitesimally small probability begets a possibility that begets a likelihood that begets a certainty. I refer, of course, to the assumption of “Evolution”… the ultimate justification for all the social, cultural, political, “scientistic”, “philosophical” etc. errors that he claims to abhor.

    The cunning perversion of the Scholastic notion of cause in that the utility of the result is the “cause” (i.e. “final cause”) of the eventuality is an adequate testimony to the corruption of reason (science) and that Reason is sacrificed on the Altar of political, social and professional convenience.

  12. Oldavid

    All this twaddle about “p-values” and its associated sophistry is a stupid fascination with symptoms… as if the superficial skin eruptions that characterise Smallpox are the disease.

    Go ahead, W’m Briggs, and all your cronies, go ahead and assume that the disease is the symptom so that “progress” can progress to the abyss. T’Googlio Monster will likely reward you with “sainthood”… if it is politically convenient for him and his ideology.

  13. Mactoul.

    An interesting story today at the Economist:
    “Distant languages have similar sounds for common words”
    The thing is
    “the researchers found that almost a third of their 100 concepts had more similarities in the sounds used by languages to express them than expected. ”

    I wonder if Briggs could analyze and show if the conclusion is warranted.

  14. Joy

    I’m a day behind and I haven’t read Dover’s thing yet. He’s one of my favourites!
    It never ceases to amaze me how a cheerful up beat post or topic can turn into a snarky row.

    Ken, In Michael Crichton’s defence and you misrepresent him:

    Michael Crichton spoke about ‘statistical significance’ years ago in an interview with Charlie Rose .
    He made the point which revealed the fault with so much research which is called science.

    When reading a study that shows’ conclusion which looks like what it is…BS, one can easily set the thing down confident in the knowledge that no further reading is necessary. Why not? the conclusion is clearly daft and contradictory or whatever.

    It’s quite another to understand the reason why these studies are given credit and merit.
    So quite the opposite, Ken

    He spoke to a public as one should speak to a patient, in plain English. Sparing the sophistry and deliberate and unnecessary, ostentatious, convoluted language which has NO PLACE in any honest explanation in science or medicine.

    Briggs is referring to the technicality of why this is wrong. They make the same point. The thing might be obviously wrong but why is it obvious?

    Crichton said words to this effect, on passive smoking:

    …they needed so many percent to prove the thing. They couldn’t do it so they changed the acceptable percentage instead…. A slightly different point aimed at the same ‘statistical significance’ which to me demonstrates in high relief, statistical significance for what it is.

    For me, it confirmed the fact that what looks like fishy nonsense very often is.
    If nobody cares to check and few have the time or inclination they, all the others, can get away with anything.

    (they) in the sense of ‘al the others’.

    I am loathed to say nice things about Briggs as it’s taken as insincere or worse.
    However, if he never wrote another word on the subject of statistics or climate, change he will have done enough.

  15. Ken

    Joy –

    I’m not sure what you’re talking about/responding to that I wrote.

    One of my major points here is really basically simple: Much of the poor quality science is not a reflection of a misunderstanding and/or application of tools such as probability & statistics methods, and, as such explanations on how to apply those correctly completely misses the more fundamental & larger point:

    Much of what is passed off as objective science consists of willful deceit, fraud, corruption & lies by practitioners with an agenda (usually a politicized agenda).

    The link to a presentation by Michael Crichton raises precisely this same issue; in relevant part on this point Crichton stated:

    “I am thoroughly sick of politicized so-called facts that simply aren’t true. It isn’t that these “facts” are exaggerations of an underlying truth. Nor is it that certain organizations are spinning their case to present it in the strongest way. Not at all—what more and more groups are doing is putting out is lies, pure and simple. Falsehoods that they know to be false.”

    As far as I can see in the plain interpretation of black-on-white letters, words & concepts on the page, Crichton & I are in total agreement. I’m saying much of the junk-science is corrupt & fraudulent, Crichton calls’m liars. I see no difference there.

    For you to say I’ve misrepresented him, etc. indicates you completely missed the point I was trying to make.

  16. Ken

    John K-

    RE: “Ken once opined that science is self-correcting, but then decided that it wasn’t, but the money that flowed into it, from businesses, would self-correct it. Now he says that there’s a lot of corruption in science (despite the self-correcting nature of the funding?), but Real Scientists (TM) don’t talk about ‘randomness’ causing things; or at least, the non-corrupt good (TM) ones don’t.”

    Science is not the either-or proposition/mindset you’re presenting (which is a garbled misunderstanding of very basic concepts I’ve addressed).

    A plurality (one hopes) of researchers are conscientious, competent and produce valid results. Some make mistakes; some do things right and for a variety of reasons may reach a wrong conclusion anyway. And too-many are unethical scoundrels. All of these can occur simultaneously. Eventually, facts arise with staying power out of the totality of what’s occurring.

    The logical fallacy is to presume that if some practitioner within a discipline/arena is bad, that by extension the entire discipline/arena is bad.

    Almost everybody intuitively grasps this:

    Medical doctors who commit fraud or malpractice are properly labeled as criminals and their deeds malpractice — the discipline of medicine is not ridiculed or dismissed by their actions.

    Individuals in aviation (pilots, mechanics in particular) that fail to perform to standards and cause an aircraft to crash & people to die are seen as careless, incompetent, etc. — but aviation is not condemned & dismissed.



    When it comes to things associated with “science” [especially in this blog purporting to be about logic] logical rationality consistently breaks down to the Sweeping Generalization Fallacy: Specific misdeeds (willful, or out of ignorance but good intent, is not only not glossed over but ignored in its entirety) and such misdeeds are repeatedly cited as examples & as a basis for condemning an entire discipline — anything associated with “science” and “science” itself. That is logically hypocritical.

  17. Joy

    Sorry Ken,
    My point is not to question your true belief in science or to misunderstand what Crichton says about it. There’s not a lot I haven’t read about what Crichton says on that topic in his essays and have exhausted searches for his videos.
    Only one of his books (was read to me), ‘state of fear’. The additional information front and back was good) So! credentials declared!

    What I meant to say on remarking that you misrepresented him was on the point about statistical significance.
    Michael C spoke a lot about politicians getting involved in science just as your quote outlines the lies, conflicts of interest, concept of consensus as science and so on.

    Your comment seems to undermine the facts about how conclusions are reached and whether they can be relied upon. The tool used is what is being discussed.
    Michael Crichton did cover that issue as well. Just as Briggs is doing in more detail.
    So although he was an atheist he would have agreed with Briggs on statistical significance.
    Though what he might have thought about Ed F is nobody’s business.
    You couldn’t put a cigarette paper between most sensible honest people on science. So how do you find so much controversy?

    Are you saying that
    1 Using statistical significance IS the way to go? Or that
    2 there’s nothing dysfunctional going on in big science?

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