A System of Logic

John Stuart Mill

Book 3, Chapter 23, Footnote #02
An objection considered

The evaluation of the chances in this statement has been objected to by a mathematical friend. The correct mode, in his opinion, of setting out the possibilities is as follows. If the thing (let us call it T) which is both an A and a C, is a B, some thing is true which is only true twice in every thrice, and something else which is only true thrice in every four times. Th first fact being into eight times in twelve and the second being true six times in every eight, and consequently six times in those eight; both facts will be true only six times in twelve. On the other hand, if T, although it is both an A and a C, is not a B, something is true which is only true once in every thrice, and something else which is only true once in every four times. The former being true four times out of twelve, and the latter once in every four, and therefore once in those four both are only true in one case out of twelve. So that T is a B six times in twelve, and is not a B only once; making the comparative probabilities, not eleven to one, had previously made them, but six to one.

In the seventh edition I accepted this reasoning as conclusive. More attentive consideration, however, has convinced me that it contains a fallacy.

The objector argues, that the fact of A's being a B is true eight times in twelve, and the fact of (ls being a B six times in eight, and consequently six times in those eight; both facts therefore are true only six times in every twelve. That is, he concludes that becau>e among As taken e indiscrimiuately only eight out of twelve are Bs and the remaining four are not. it must equally hold that four out of twelve are not Bs when the twelve are taken from the select portion of As which are also Cs. And by this assumption he arrives at the strange result, that there are fewer Bs among things which are both As and Cs than there are among either As or Cs taken indiscriminately; so that a thing which has both chances of being a B is less likely to be so than if it had only the one chance or only the other.

The objector (as has been acutely remarked by another correspondent) applies to the problem under consideration a mode of calculation only suited to the reverse problem. Had the question been---If two of every three Bs are As and three out of every four Bs are Cs, how many Bs will be both As and Cs, his reasoning would have been correct. For the Bs that are both As and Cs must be fewer than either s the Bs that are As or the Bs that are Cs, and to find their number we must abate either of these numbers in the ratio due to the other. But when the problem is to find, not how many Bs are both As and Cs, but how many things that are both As and Cs are Bs, it is evident that among these the proportion of Bs must be not less, but e greater, than among things which are only A, or among things which are only C.

The true theory of the chances is best found by going back to the scientific grounds on which the proportions rest. The degree of frequency of a coincidence depends on, and is a measure of, the frequency, combined with the efficacy, of the causes in operation that are favourable to it. If out of every twelve As taken indiscriminately eight are Bs and four are not it is implied that there are cases operating on A which tend to make it a B, and that these causes are sufficiently constant and sufficiently powerful to succeed in eight out of twelve cases, but fail in the remaining four. So if of twelve Cs, nine are Bs and three are not, there must be causes of the same tendency operating on C, which succeed in nine cases and fail in three. Now suppose twelve cases which are both As and Cs. The whole twelve are now tinder the operation of both sets of causes. One set is sufficient to prevail in eight of the twelve cases, the other in nine. The analysis of the cases shows that six of the twelve will be Bs through the operation of both sets of causes; two more in virtue of the causes operating on A; and three more through those operating on C, and that there will be only one case in which all the causes will be inoperative. The total number therefore which are Bs will be eleven in twelve, and the evaluation in the text is correct.

[Back to:]
Sol, Book 3, Chapter 23 Of Approximate Generalisations, and Probable Evidence