Chapter 11. "Statistics as Applied to Human Action" by John Venn

Table of Contents
Ideas of Interest from The Logic of Chance
The Reading Selection from The Logic of Chance
Related Ideas
Topics Worth Investigating

John Venn, adapted from H. D. Francis

About the author…

John Venn (1834-1923) studied mathematics at Cambridge. He became a lecturer in moral sciences— teaching logic and probability theory and published three influential texts improving and extending the logic of George Boole. Venn is best known for his development of "Venn diagrams" designed to analyze the validity of logical arguments. John Maynard Keynes, the Nobel Prize winning economist, described The Logic of Chance, the work from which our reading is taken, as a study that is "strikingly original and [has] considerably influenced the development of the theory of statistics."

About the work…

In the chapter entitled, "Statistics as Applied to Human Actions," from his The Logic of Chance, [1] Venn argues (against John Stuart Mill's purported determinism of the previous reading) that the logic of human conduct differs in kind from the logic of inanimate sciences. The foreknowledge of a prediction concerning a voluntary action affects the possibility of that action occurring. By distinguishing between the speculative and practical views of statistical laws, Venn explains the "fatalistic fallacy"—the belief that the reliability and certainty of natural law is inconsistent with the existence of free will.

Ideas of Interest from The Logic of Chance

  1. What are the two conditions Venn describes that prevent logic from being applied objectively to the study of human conduct?

  2. Why does Venn believe that logic cannot accurately predict the individual actions of human beings?

  3. Explain Venn's theoretical objection to Mill's supposition that the study of human conduct can be an exact science?

  4. On what grounds does Venn believe the accuracy of prediction in the sciences is irrelevant to the free will-determinism problem?

  5. According to Venn, how is the study of the voluntary actions affected by an observer?

  6. Explain clearly the difference between the speculative and the practical view of the nature of human conduct.

  7. How does the "fatalistic fallacy" turn on the ambiguity of the word "necessary"? What are the two kinds of necessity which are confused?



John Venn. The Logic of Chance. New York: MacMillan, 1876.