googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: How many jellybeans are in this jar?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

How many jellybeans are in this jar?

I was watching Michael Shermer on YouTube the other day. He was using an argument that I've written about before, where he basically says Christians are mostly atheists. We reject a myriad of gods – there's just one more God over which atheists and Christians disagree. He puts a little twist on the argument, though, suggesting that since there are so many religions out there, no one can possibly know which of them is true.

I've always found this argument to be curious. What is he really trying to say? That since we can't know which religion is true then none of them are true? That's what he'd like you to believe but he knows he can't say it in those words because it sounds absurd.

I love using analogies and sometimes try to use analogies to show the weaknesses of certain arguments. In this case, I'm going to use a jar of jellybeans to demonstrate why I think Shermer's argument fails.

Imagine there's a jar of jellybeans and we're given the task of guessing how many there are. The rules are pretty liberal; the only restriction is that we're not allowed to open the jar. If everybody made a guess, I'm sure you'd have a very wide range of answers. Of course, they can't all be right.

Just by looking at the glass, I could come up with a guess that might be reasonable. But if I were really determined to know how many jellybeans there are, I could go to greater lengths:

  • I could count how many jellybeans were visible at the very bottom, count the number along a straight line up the side, and multiply the two together. This could get me pretty close.
  • I could find an identical jar and count how many jellybeans it would take to fill it. That would be a very close estimate too.
  • I could weigh the full jar, weigh the empty jar, then weigh an individual jellybean. The difference in weight between the full jar and empty jar, divided by the weight of an individual bean should tell me about how many jellybeans are in the full jar.
  • I could compare all these different methods and see if any or all of them arrived at the same number or a very narrow range of numbers.

Consider, too, that as I narrow down my estimate, I could also rule out other people's bad guesses. I know the guy who guesses there's only 1 bean in the jar is wrong because I can see more than one through the glass. I know the guy who guesses a million jellybeans is wrong because a million wouldn't fit inside. Furthermore, I could focus on those guesses that are close to mine and ask those people how they arrived at their number. Based on what they say, I might think of other experiments which might give me even more confidence in my estimate.

My point is this: there is a correct answer. There is an objective answer that could be known if I were allowed to open the jar and count the jellybeans. There is only one correct number and every other guess is wrong. Even if I can never know the exact number, I know that by determination and investigation, I can have confidence that my estimate could be the correct number or, at the very least, be very, very close.

When we apply Shermer's argument to the jellybeans, he seems to suggest that any guess is as good as another but because we don't have the actual number, then all guesses must be equally wrong. It's like he's saying that, since I can't ever be sure of the exact number, my guess can't be correct nor even close. In the case of beliefs, Shermer is literally saying that, because there are so many beliefs, mine cannot possible be true. How does that follow? At best, Shermer might say we should all be agnostic but he isn't arguing for agnosticism – he's making a case for atheism. That would be like saying since we can't know how many jellybeans are in the jar, then there aren't any! You can see how that doesn't work.


There are lots of religions in the world. There are a lot of ideas about God. I admit, they can't all be right but that alone doesn't prove they're all wrong. Reasonable arguments can be made that God must exist. Reasonable arguments can be made that the Bible is His revealed word. Reasonable arguments can be made that Jesus lived, died, and rose again. Even if I'm wrong on some minor detail here or there, I am confident that I am very, very close to the Truth. What is not reasonable is to say that, because other people have different beliefs, then we shouldn't believe any of them.

2 comments:

Steven J. said...

Okay, but to make the analogy more exact, you can't see the jar, or know how big it is, or what size the jelly beans are, and indeed theologians have expressed wildly divergent opinions regarding what sorts of things jelly beans are, anyway. What you have are reports of various people who claim to have seen the jar and counted or estimated the number of beans, and who can't agree among themselves as to how big either the jar or the beans are.

Shermer's point, and Mehta's point that you addressed in part 2 of your reply, and John Loftus' point in his "outsider test of faith," is this: a complaint that believers apply one standard of evidence to arguments for other faith systems, and a vastly more lenient and credulous one for arguments for the beliefs they actually hold themselves. The point isn't original with the "new atheists;" C.S. Lewis was familiar with the basic form of the argument, which contrasted the vast multitude of religions in the world "all of them obviously false," with the Christian religion "which is obviously the exact same sort of thing, but fortunately all true."

Let me offer a counter-analogy, which you may regard as more or less pious than comparing God to a jar of jelly beans. Many (by no means all) evolutionists believe that there are intelligent beings on other worlds in other star systems. Virtually none of them believe any reports of "greys" or "reptilians" or "Nordics" in flying saucers, nor do they think that the Klingons or Vulcans or Twileks are real. It is perfectly possible to suppose that extraterrestrial intelligence is real (and even more possible to suppose it might be real) and yet to suppose that every account of encounters of with such intelligences, every description of just what they are like, is false. By the same token, the existence, or at least the possibility, of a Supreme Being can be accepted without accepting that any religion tells us the infallible truth about Him.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

An invisible jar that cannot be examined at all is more analogous to the Flying Spaghetti Monster than to the God of the Bible. It's true that I haven't seen God but I can examine the Book that claims to be His revealed word and I have good reason to believe it has been accurately preserved. I have the record of His words and miracles, written down by people who were eyewitnesses and I can examine the veracity of their testimonies. My point in the analogy is that there are some things about religious beliefs that can be tested so certain claims to the truth are more likely than others. Just because we cannot see Yahweh does not put Him is the same category as Zeus or Ra.

I think the willingness to believe arguments for one's own belief is not peculiar to Christians but is true for everyone. I'm sure you've seen this yourself in the political realm where the same liberals who excused or dismissed Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct/assaults were suddenly indignant at Trump's juvenile remarks that some women will let celebrities grope them. We should always be on guard to not let our biases cloud our judgment but I know it's not always possible.

You make a fair point about people who might believe in extraterrestrial life yet are skeptical of all claims of contacts with extraterrestrials. I can see how that can be true but is that really analogous of Shermer, though? Shermer is an atheist so his skepticism against religious claims is probably just his bias showing.

Thanks for your comments. I intend to get back to some of your other comments (and some comments by other visitors) as I can. God bless!!

RKBentley