John Venn

John Venn introduced the frequency interpretation of probability in his The Logic of Chance in 1866. Venn said that his work was inspired by John Stuart Mill's A System of Logic and in the later editions of that work, Mill recommends Venn's book (Book III, chapter xviii, p.547).
Venn objected to probability theorists whose work was formal and mathematical, and who postulated a priori probabilities such as a perfect die with 1/6 chance of turning up each face. For Venn, "It is ... ignorance that makes us appeal to the theory of Probability, the grounds of it are of no importance."
Venn rejected the claims of Quetelet and Buckle to have derived deterministic laws from their observed statistical regularities in social physics. And he specifically faulted Buckle's claim to have disproved free will. But he was suspicious of real chance in the universe, which was opposed to causation and design. He was agnostic about whether every individual event had a cause, but demanded that averages are the result of an inviolable principle of Uniformity of Nature.
In Probability ultimate regularity is always postulated, in tossing a die, if not merely the individual throws were uncertain in their results, but even the average also, owing to the nature of the die, or the number of the marks upon it, being arbitrarily interfered with, of course no kind of science would attempt to take any account of it.

Can causation, in the sense of invariable succession (for we are here shifting on to this narrower ground), be denied? ...It is not easy to see how this can be done in any case, but the obstacles would doubtless be greater even than they are, if knowledge of the individual event were not merely unattained, but, owing to the absence of any causal connection, essentially unattainable. On the theory adopted in this work we simply postulate ignorance of the details, but it is not regarded as of any importance on what sort of grounds this ignorance is based.

The question then assumes the following form: Is this assumption, of average regularity in the aggregate, inconsistent with the admission of what may be termed causeless irregularity in the details? It does not seem to me that it would be at all easy to prove that this is so.

In its application to moral and social subjects, what gives this controversy its main interest is its real or supposed bearing upon the vexed question of the freedom of the will... If, therefore, Free-will be so interpreted as to imply such essential irregularity as defies prediction both in the average, and also in the single case, then the negation of free-will follows, not as a remote logical consequence, but as an obvious inference from indisputable facts of experience.

The nature of the argument against free-will, drawn from statistics, at least in the form in which it is very commonly expressed, seems to me exceedingly defective.

As a churchman, Venn wanted to disconnect the existence of real chance from its implications for a Deity.
There is, to begin with, a very old objection, founded on the assumption which our science is supposed to make of the existence of Chance...But the only rational meaning of the objection would appear to be that the principles of the science compel us to assume that events (some events, only, that is) happen without causes, and are thereby removed from the customary control of the Deity. As repeatedly pointed out already this is altogether a mistake. The science of Probability makes no assumption whatever about the way in which events are brought about, whether by causation or without it...The fact is that Probability has nothing more to do with Natural Theology, either in its favour or against it, than the general principles of Logic or Induction have.
Chance as Opposed to Causation and Design, Chapter X of The Logic of Chance
§ 1. THE remarks in the previous chapter will have served to clear the way for an enquiry which probably excites more popular interest than any other within the range of our subject, viz. the determination whether such and such events are to be attributed to Chance on the one hand, or to Causation or Design on the other. As the principal difficulty seems to arise from the ambiguity with which the problem is generally conceived and stated, owing to the extreme generality of the conceptions involved, it becomes necessary to distinguish clearly between the several distinct issues which are apt to be involved.

I. There is, to begin with, a very old objection, founded on the assumption which our science is supposed to make of the existence of Chance. The objection against chance is of course many centuries older than the Theory of Probability; and as it seems a nearly obsolete objection at the present day we need not pause long for its consideration. If we spelt the word with a capital C, and maintained that it was representative of some distinct creative or administrative agency, we should presumably be guilty of some form of Manicheism. But the only rational meaning of the objection would appear to be that the principles of the science compel us to assume that events (some events, only, that is) happen without causes, and are thereby removed from the customary control of the Deity. As repeatedly pointed out already this is altogether a mistake. The science of Probability makes no assumption whatever about the way in which events are brought about, whether by causation or without it. All that we undertake to do is to establish and explain a body of rules which are applicable to classes of cases in which we do not or cannot make inferences about the individuals. The objection therefore must be somewhat differently stated, and appears finally to reduce itself to this ;—that the assumptions upon which the science of Probability rests, are not inconsistent with a disbelief in causation within certain limits; causation being of course understood simply in the sense of regular sequence. So stated the objection seems perfectly valid, or rather the facts on which it is based must be admitted ; though what connection there would be between such lack of causation and absence of Divine superintendence I quite fail to see.

As this Theological objection died away the men of physical science, and those who sympathized with them, began to enforce the same protest ; and similar cautions are still to be found from time to time in modem treatises. Hume, for instance, in his short essay on Probability, commences with the remark, "though there be no such thing as chance in the world, our ignorance of the real cause of any event has the same influence on the understanding, &c." De Morgan indeed goes so far as to declare that "the foundations of the theory of Probability have ceased to exist in the mind that has formed the conception," " that anything ever did happen or will happen without some particular reason why it should have been precisely what it was and not anything else'." Similar remarks might be quoted from Laplace and others.

§ 2. In the particular form of the controversy above referred to, and which is mostly found in the region of the natural and physical sciences, the contention that chance and causation are irreconcileable occupies rather a defensive position; the main fact insisted on being that, whenever in these subjects we may happen to be ignorant of the details we have no warrant for assuming as a consequence that the details are uncaused. But this supposed irreconcileability is sometimes urged in a much more aggressive spirit in reference to social enquiries. Here the attempt is often made to prove causation in the details, from the known and admitted regularity in the averages. A considerable amount of controversy was excited some years ago upon this topic, in great part originated by the vigorous and outspoken support of the necessitarian side by Buckle in his History of Civilization.

It should be remarked that in these cases the attempt is sometimes made as it were to startle the reader into acquiescence by the singularity of the examples chosen. Instances are selected which, though they possess no greater logical value, are, if one may so express it, emotionally more effective. Every reader of Buckle's History, for instance, will remember the stress which he laid upon the observed fact, that the number of suicides in London remains about the same, year by year; and he may remember also the sort of panic with which the promulgation of this fact was accompanied in many quarters. So too the way in which Laplace notices that the number of undirected letters annually sent to the Post Office remains about the same, and the comments of Dugald Stewart upon this particular uniformity, seem to imply that they regarded this instance as more remarkable than many analogous ones taken from other quarters.

That there is a certain foundation of truth in the reasonings in support of which the above examples are advanced, cannot be denied, but their authors appear to me very much to overrate the sort of opposition that exists between the theory of Chances and the doctrine of Causation. As regards first that wider conception of order or regularity which we have termed uniformity, anything which might be called objective chance would certainly be at variance with this in one respect. In Probability ultimate regularity is always postulated, in tossing a die, if not merely the individual throws were uncertain in their results, but even the average also, owing to the nature of the die, or the number of the marks upon it, being arbitrarily interfered with, of course no kind of science would attempt to take any account of it.

§ 3. So much must undoubtedly be granted; but must the same admission be made as regards the succession of the individual events? Can causation, in the sense of invariable succession (for we are here shifting on to this narrower ground), be denied, not indeed without suspicion of scientific heterodoxy, but at any rate without throwing uncertainty upon the foundations of Probability? De Morgan, as we have seen, strongly maintains that this cannot be so. I find myself unable to agree with him here, but this disagreement springs not so much from differences of detail, as from those of the point of view in which we regard the science. He always appears to incline to the opinion that the individual judgment in probability is to admit of justification; that when we say, for instance, that the odds in favour of some event are three to two, that we can explain and justify our statement without any necessary reference to a series or class of such events. It is not easy to see how this can be done in any case, but the obstacles would doubtless be greater even than they are, if knowledge of the individual event were not merely unattained, but, owing to the absence of any causal connection, essentially unattainable. On the theory adopted in this work we simply postulate ignorance of the details, but it is not regarded as of any importance on what sort of grounds this ignorance is based. It may be that knowledge is out of the question from the nature of the case, the causative link, so to say, being missing. It may be that such links are known to exist, but that either we cannot ascertain them, or should find it troublesome to do so. It is the fact of this ignorance that makes us appeal to the theory of Probability, the grounds of it are of no importance.

§ 4. On the view here adopted we are concerned only with averages, or with the single event as deduced from an average and conceived to form one of a series. We start with the assumption, grounded on experience, that there is uniformity in this average, and, so long as this is secured to us, we can afford to be perfectly indifferent to the fate, as regards causation, of the individuals which compose the average. The question then assumes the following form: Is this assumption, of average regularity in the aggregate, inconsistent with the admission of what may be termed causeless irregularity in the details? It does not seem to me that it would be at all easy to prove that this is so. As a matter of fact the two beliefs have constantly co-existed in the same minds. This may not count for much, but it suggests that if there be a contradiction between them it is by no means palpable and obvious. Millions, for instance, have believed in the general uniformity of the seasons taken one with another, who certainly did not believe in, and would very likely have been ready distinctly to deny, the existence of necessary sequences in the various phenomena which compose what we call a season. So with cards and dice ; almost every gambler must have recognized that judgment and foresight are of use in the long run, but writers on chance seem to think that gamblers need a good deal of reasoning to convince them that each separate throw is in its nature essentially predictable.

§ 5. In its application to moral and social subjects, what gives this controversy its main interest is its real or supposed bearing upon the vexed question of the freedom of the will; for in this region Causation, and Fatalism or Necessitarianism, are regarded as one and the same thing.

Here, as in the last case, that wide and somewhat vague kind of regularity that we have called Uniformity, must be admitted as a notorious fact. Statistics have put it out of the power of any reasonably informed person to feel any hesitation upon this point. Some idea has already been gained, in the earlier chapters, of the nature and amount of the evidence which might be furnished of this fact, and any quantity more might be supplied from the works of professed writers upon the subject. If, therefore, Free-will be so interpreted as to imply such essential irregularity as defies prediction both in the average, and also in the single case, then the negation of free-will follows, not as a remote logical consequence, but as an obvious inference from indisputable facts of experience.

Few persons, however, would go so far as to interpret it in this sense. All that troubles them is the fear that somehow this general regularity may be found to carry with it causation, certainly in the sense of regular invariable sequence, and probably also with the further association of compulsion. Rejecting the latter association as utterly unphilosophical, I cannot even see that the former consequence can be admitted as really proved, though it doubtless gains some confirmation from this source.

§ 6. The nature of the argument against free-will, drawn from statistics, at least in the form in which it is very commonly expressed, seems to me exceedingly defective. The antecedents and consequents, in the case of our volitions, must clearly be supposed to be very nearly immediately in succession, if anything approaching to causation is to be established: whereas in statistical enquiries the data are often widely separate, if indeed they do not apply merely to single groups of actions or results. For instance, in the case of the misdirected letters, what it is attempted to prove is that each writer was so much the 'victim of circumstances' (to use a common but misleading expression) that he could not have done otherwise than he did under his circumstances. But really no accumulation of figures to prove that the number of such letters remains the same year by year, can have much bearing upon this doctrine, even though they were accompanied by corresponding figures which should connect the forgetfulness thus indicated with some other characteristics in the writers. So with the number of suicides. If 250 people do, or lately did, annually put an end to themselves in London, the fact, as it thus stands by itself, may be one of importance to the philanthropist and statesman, but it needs bringing into much closer relation with psychological elements if it is to convince us that the actions of men are always instances of inflexible order. In fact, instead of having secured our A and B here in closest intimacy of succession to one another,—to employ the symbolic notation commonly used in works on Inductive Logic to illustrate the causal connection,—we find them separated by a considerable interval ; often indeed we merely have an A or a B by itself

§ 7. Again, another deficiency in such reasoning seems to be the laying undue weight upon the mere regularity or persistency of the statistics. These may lead to very important results, but they are not exactly what is wanted for the purpose of proving anything against the freedom of the will; it is not indeed easy to see what connection this has with such facts as that the annual number of thefts or of suicides remains at pretty nearly the same figure. Statistical uniformity seems to me to establish nothing else, at least directly, in the case of human actions, than it does in that of physical characteristics. Take but one instance, that of the misdirected letters. We were already aware that the height, weight, chest measurement, and so on, of a large number of persons preserved a tolerably regular average amidst innumerable deflections, and we were prepared by analogy to anticipate the same regularity in their mental characteristics. All that we gain, by counting the numbers of letters which are posted without addresses, is a certain amount of direct evidence that this is the case. Just as observations of the former kind had already shown that statistics of the strength and stature of the human body grouped themselves about a mean, so do those of the latter that a similar state of things prevails in respect of the readiness and general trustworthiness of the memory. The evidence is not so direct and conclusive in the latter case, for the memory is not singled out and subjected to measurement by itself, but is taken in combination with innumerable other influencing circumstances. Still there can be little doubt that the statistics tell on the whole in this direction, and that by duly varying and extending them they may obtain considerable probative force.

The fact is that Probability has nothing more to do with Natural Theology, either in its favour or against it, than the general principles of Logic or Induction have. It is simply a body of rules for drawing inferences about classes of events which are distinguished by a certain quality. The believer in a Deity will, by the study of nature, be led to form an opinion about His works, and so to a certain extent about His attributes. But it is surely unreasonable to propose that he should abandon his belief because the sequence of events, - not, observe, their general tendency towards happiness or misery, good or evil,— is brought about in a way different from what he had expected; whether it be by displaying order where he had expected irregularity, or by involving the machinery of secondary causes where he had expected immediate agency.

§ 8. It is both amusing and instructive to consider what very different feelings might have been excited in our minds by this co-existence of, what may be called, ignorance of individuals and knowledge of aggregates, if they had presented themselves to our observation in a reverse order. Being utterly unable to make assured predictions about a single life, or the conduct of individuals, people are sometimes startled, and occasionally even dismayed, at the unexpected discovery that such predictions can be confidently made when we are speaking of large numbers. And so some are prompted to exclaim, This is denying Providence! it is utter Fatalism! But let us assume, for a moment, that our familiarity with the subject had been experienced, in the first instance, in reference to the aggregates instead of the individual lives.

This is denying Providence!
It is difficult, perhaps, to carry out such a supposition completely; though we may readily conceive something approaching to it in the case of an ignorant clerk in a Life Assurance Office, who had never thought of life, except as having such a 'value' at such an age, and who had hardly estimated it except in the form of averages. Might we not suppose him, in some moment of reflectiveness, being astonished and dismayed at the sudden realization of the utter uncertainty in which the single life is involved? And might not his exclamation in turn be, Why this is denying Providence! It is utter chaos and chance! A belief in a Creator and Administrator of the world is not confined to any particular assumption about the nature of the immediate sequence of events, but those who have been accustomed hitherto to regard the events under one of the aspects above referred to, will often for a time feel at a loss how to connect them with the other.
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