Using the Monty Hall Problem to Undercut Christianity

What is Christianity?I first came across the Monty Hall Problem 20 years ago in Parade magazine:

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats.  You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat.  He then says to you, “Do you want to pick door No. 2?”

Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

Most people think that it doesn’t matter and that there’s no benefit to switching.  They’re wrong, but more on that in a moment.

Humans have a hard time with probability problems like this one.  You’d think that we’d be fairly comfortable with basic probability, but apparently not.

Here’s another popular probability problem: how many people must you have in a group before it becomes more likely than not that any two of them have the same birthday?

The surprising answer is 23.  In other words, imagine two football teams on the field (11 per team) and then throw in a referee, and it’s more than likely that you’ll find a shared birthday.  If your mind balks at this, test it at your next large gathering.

Now, back to the Monty Hall Problem.  A good way to understand problems like this is to push them to an extreme.  Imagine, for example, that there are not three doors but 300 doors.  There’s still just one good prize, with the rest being goats (the bad prize).

So you pick a door—say number #274.  There’s a 1/300 chance you’re right.  This needs to be emphasized: you’re almost certainly wrong.  Then the game show host opens 298 of the remaining doors: 1, 2, 3, and so on.  He skips door #59 and your door, #274.  Every open door shows a goat.

Now: should you switch?  Of course you should—your initial pick is still almost surely wrong.  The probabilities are 1/300 for #274 and 299/300 for #59.

Another way to look at the problem: do you want to stick with your initial door or do you want all the other doors?  Switching is simply choosing all the other doors, because (thanks to the open doors) you know the only door within that set that could be the winner.

One lesson from this is that our innate understanding of probability is poor, and a corollary is that there’s a big difference between confidence and accuracy.  That is, just because one’s confidence in a belief is high doesn’t mean that the belief is accurate.  This little puzzle does a great job of illustrating this.

Perhaps you’ve already anticipated the connection with choosing a religion.  Let’s imagine you’ve picked your religion—religion #274, let’s say.  For most people, their adoption of a religion is like picking a door in this game show.  In the game show, you don’t weigh evidence before selecting your door; you pick it randomly.  And most people adopt the dominant religion of their upbringing.  As with the game show, the religion in which you grew up is also assigned to you at random.

Now imagine an analogous game, the Game of Religion, with Truth as host.  Out of 300 doors (behind each of which is a religion), the believer picks door #274.  Truth flings open door after door and we see nothing but goats.  Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Mormonism—all goats.  As you suspected, they’re all myth.

Few of us seriously consider or even understand the religions Winti, Candomblé, Mandaeism, or the ancient religions of Central America, for example.  Luckily for the believer, Truth gets around to those doors too and opens them to reveal goats.

Here’s where the analogy between the two games fails.  First, Truth opens all the other doors.  Only the believer’s pick, door #274, is still closed.  Second, there was never a guarantee that any door contained a true religion!  Since the believer likely came to his beliefs randomly, why imagine that his choice is any more likely than the others to hold anything of value?

Every believer plays the Game of Religion, and every believer believes that his religion is the one true religion, with goats behind all the hundreds of other doors.  But maybe there’s a goat behind every door.  And given that the lesson from the 300-door Monty Hall game is that the door you randomly picked at first is almost certainly wrong, why imagine that yours is the only religion that’s not mythology?

97 thoughts on “Using the Monty Hall Problem to Undercut Christianity

  1. The sentence “The odds are 1/300 for #274 and 299/100 for #23.” bugs me for two reasons. Firstly, the first odds are 1:299, which is equivalent to a chance or probability of 1/300. Odds and probabilities are not the same thing. Secondly, the chance of the other door is 299/300 (odds of 299:1) – maybe the 100 is a typo?

  2. Very nice.

    Interestingly the ‘birthdays test’ was tried out at Oxford Skeptics in the Pub this year. It got to 51 people before we found a match (and as it happens it was me who was the 51st). That just shows something about probability! It is only probability and not a prediction. 🙂

  3. What if Atheism is a goat? Can you really know anything? It seems to me that when all the rhetoric is boiled down you are forced to be a hard skeptic that can’t know if anything is true. Would you consider that you can’t know anything with certainty?

    Travis (anotherchristianblog.org)

      • The problem with this, and any other analogy involving statistical probabilities, is that they already presuppose the negligence of physical laws and its application to reality.

        Chance in-and-of-itself is not an actual force. It is the likeliness of the outcome of reality on the basis of the known reality.

        Like in the example of a coin toss: If we knew “the exact density of the air, where we started whether heads up or tails up, the exact amount of pressure that was placed upon the coin, how many revolutions it made, would we be able to predict with a greater than 50-50% chance where it would end up?” (R.C. Sproul)

        The answer is, yes.

        In fact, it is common for anyone to look back at something happening in hindsight and understand why something happened in the manner it did.

        By the naturalist point of view, we should be able to discern the outcome of any set of events if we knew all the forces in play.

        Nowadays, evoking probability is usually an attempt to escape reality instead of integrating it.

        When I see someone attempting to see how bad the odds are that they are able to do something, I find it very unlikely that they are actually trying to “find the explanation that best fits the facts.”

        I see it more as a premeditated self-demotivation and justification for avoiding responsibility to your own questions (and I’m not at all saying that is your intentions, and I’m sorry if it really isn’t. I’m just saying that I find this as a common ends in friends and people that I talk to).

        Just from my personal perspective, philosophically, I just see this article as asking “why ask why?”

        If that’s true, then the whole motivation for this article is a search for purpose. And I deeply respect that.

        I just encourage you to never let pride derail that search for purpose.

        God Bless

      • David:

        I see it more as a premeditated self-demotivation and justification for avoiding responsibility to your own questions

        I’m certainly not trying to shirk or camouflage the important issues (and don’t see why you worry that I do). If you see anything important being brushed away, feel free to push in center stage.

    • Realistically, yes, you CAN know things. But only on the basis of having evidence and proving things. Random guessing does not qualify. What’s more, even if you *don’t* know what the correct answer is, that does NOT prove that Christianity (or any other religion) is correct. Lack of knowledge does not prove anything, contrary to what most theists maintain.

    • You’re missing the point. Atheism cannot be a goat, because Atheism isn’t one of the doors. Atheism isn’t a religion, it’s an ABSENCE of religion.

      It’s the same reason you can’t smell or taste nothing. “Nothing” isn’t a substance, therefore it has no smell or taste. Atheism cannot be the wrong religion, because it isn’t a religion.

  4. Bob – there’s another typo you should correct. In one paragraph, you say, “He skips door #29…”
    then in the next paragraph, you mention the probability being “299/300 for #23.” Shouldn’t these two numbers (29 and 23) be the same?

  5. HA! Joke’s on you, Unbeliever. My people have worshipped the Disappointing Goat, Lord of the Doorway, for thousands of years. You only prove his power!

  6. I wish you ill-informed would stop calling Christians a religious group. Jesus could not stand religious folk; He warned and pleaded with everyone who would listen that religion is void of truth and that God demands the spirit and heart…not the physical manifestations of it’s interpretation! He pointed and showed the direct route…no doors to choose. Religion is a man-made, cheap replica of the divine. Poor foolish man who thinks that atheism isn’t a religion. Do you even know how ridiculous that sounds? Being an atheist takes an inordinate and noble effort of faith. Your God is YOU…People have laughed and joked and have looked and sounded the same all through history, whether you like it or believe it…God is real…he doesn’t need your eyes to see Him, just your heart to recognize His voice. You will not hear it in religion.

      • It may not be spiritual, but it can be a religion, depending on how you define it.

        I know a good number of atheists who believe in atheism with all the unskeptical fervor of a fundamentalist preacher. They attend skeptical workshops and conventions the way other folks attend church, they donate money the way other folks tithe, and they shout down the unfaithful with equal vitriol.

        • Yes, the definition is the key. You can define atheism as you choose, but we need to have a shared definition to communicate.

          Maybe “dogma” is a better word for an atheist who’s fanatical or evangelical or intolerant. I have a hard time using the term “religion” for something that has no supernatural elements.

    • Being an atheist doesn’t require faith. It requires being comfortable with ignorance. It means not claiming to know something I can’t know and accepting there are questions that can’t be answered. For me, it also means trying to understand what questions can be answered and how to best answer them.

  7. Interesting question, but I think your statistics are screwy. Let’s look at your stated problem – I choose #274 and the game show host leaves it and #59 closed. So you say the probability of #274 being correct is 1/300, and the probability of #59 being correct is 299/300.

    OK, imagine this. In another room is another contestant who initially chose #59. So on the same logic, for her the probabilities are 299/300 for #274 and 1/300 for #59. Neither I nor her have any more information than the other, so we should reach the same probabilities, yet the probabilities we have arrived at are totally different.

    How can that be?

    Now imagine a third person, who can see her and I in our rooms and the choices we have made. How will he assign the probabilities? For him, the only sensible answer is to assign them both as 0.5.

    It seems obvious that your original argument was faulty, doesn’t it? On all counts I’m thinking. But thanks for the interesting exercise.

    • How can that be?

      This is only surprising because you have the vantage point of knowing what the right door is. Your initial pick will always be 1/300, so the union of all the others must be 299/300. When you have the additional knowledge of knowing that 298 of those remaining doors have goats, you have valuable information. True, you might’ve picked the right one initially, but that’s not likely.

      The scholarly opinion is agreed (if that’s the right word for it). Check out the initial link for more analysis.

      • Such great memories of arguing this with coworkers and friends! For me, the “ah-ha” moment came when I realized that Monty knew where the prize was, and always chose the door that had a goat. It’s his knowledge that skews the probabilities.

        Love how unkleE argues there are only two scenarios: you picked the correct door out of 300 or you didn’t. We cling mightly to our beliefs.

    • If your third person was watching the whole proceedings, then he’s really answering a totally different question than either of the two contestants. And this of course assumes the second contestant is also now choosing between #59 and #274. Presumably, if a contestant picks the right door, the host chooses randomly between the remaining doors, so there’s only a 1/299 chance of both contestants having to pick between the same two doors, and that’s after the 1/150 chance of one of them picking correctly. It’s only because of dumb luck and additional contrivance that your observer is left with 1:1 odds.

      It’s 44849 times more likely that he’ll be looking at two contestants each picking between #59 and whichever door they each picked, in which case it should be obvious that #59 is hiding the prize.

      Actually, I realize that 1/299 figure is wrong (it’s a variation on the birthday problem, for which I don’t know how to calculate the odds), so the odds of two contestants picking from the same two doors are much better than 1:44849, but its still unlikely enough that most of the time the observe should still know exactly where the prize is.

  8. By coincidence, this week’s episode of Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel looked at exactly this problem, the so-called “Monty Hall scenario”. But, instead of sitting down with pencil and paper and working out the theory, they did it the way they ALWAYS do: by experimenting. They actually set up 2 sets of doors and arranged for random placement of prizes behind them, then one of them (Jamie) always stuck with his original choice while the other one (Adam) always switched. Switching came out WAY better in this real-life trial.
     
    Another interesting thing they found was that people are psychologically predisposed to stick with their original choices. They created a game-show set with a small audience and hauled in random people off the street who got presented with the chance to stick or switch, and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM stayed with their original choice.
     
    You can probably find the show somewhere on the internet by searching for “mythbusters monty hall”.

  9. Sorry to lower the tone, but they tested this myth out on mythbusters last week (3 doors not 300) and got almost perfect results. In discussing it with my wife (who is an academic statistician), I think the critical aspect is that there is an outside authority who knows where the goats are and where the prize is. The showhost is not therefore opening the doors at random, which therefore does not affect the probability.

    I’m not sure there is such a clear binary evidence for the truth of religion. In the illustration there is either a goat or a prize, but sometimes it is hard to know exactly what we’re talking about when we call something true with regard to religion.

    For example, we may have lied to my daughter about various things when she was small. In a very strict sense, there is no Green Cross man who is interested in teaching children how to cross the road. But in another sense, there doesn’t have to be – and she doesn’t ‘unlearn’ road safety when she realises the Green Cross code man doesn’t exist.

    And I can’t really think of who might be the objective ‘showhost’ in the religion Monty Hall game. Given that religion is not primarily in the business of logical provable statements, it is hard to prove or disprove them with scientific analyses.

    • If “God wants us to stone rape victims to death”, or “If you eat bacon you’ll go to hell”, or “hurricanes happen because god hates gay people” aren’t logically provable statements, then what value do they have? Why should we follow commands issued by a being we don’t know exist, with punishment and reward that might be imaginary?

      • Yes, but how do you know those things are (or are not) true? Why is it so offensive to you for a deity that created death to kill individuals in one way rather than another? If you believe in a divine ethic, you are not operating from a position of logic, because the usual categories don’t apply. It is no argument to suggest that God can/should not do something because you as an individual find them offensive, and that, in itself is not a way to disprove them.

        Second, how do you know those things are authentic beliefs of the religions concerned? Could they not be peripheral or fringe beliefs? How does one ever get to the heart of a religion to prove or disprove it?

        Third you imply a level of coercion which does not exist. Nobody can ever force anyone else to believe in a deity.

        • Joe:

          Why is it so offensive to you for a deity that created death to kill individuals in one way rather than another?

          Because we’re barbarians and we have standards about how we treat other living things. And yet God, who is perfect, seems quite happy with slavery and genocide. Shouldn’t he hold himself to a higher standard?

          It is no argument to suggest that God can/should not do something because you as an individual find them offensive, and that, in itself is not a way to disprove them.

          Agreed–this doesn’t disprove God. But it does disprove a good God. The definition of “good” in the dictionary prohibits it.

        • You’re basically saying “I don’t know that God doesn’t want me to murder women who wear red skirts, so I ought to do it just in case”, is that right?

          I’m not saying it’s impossible for a god to want us to kill each other in inventive ways for petty reasons. I’m saying that if we’re going to base our morality on that, we really ought to know for sure, don’t you think?

          For your second: I know what people claim to believe. I know what people write in their Holy Books. Unless you’re claiming that religious people are inherently dishonest about what they believe, I feel justified in taking these people at their word. I don’t accept that there’s some rarefied, Platonic, abstract Christianity (or what have you); there is only the forms that people actually practice. And if I’m wrong here, that just proves my point even more; people are dying and killing each other over false versions of their faith. Some kind of empirical validation would be very helpful, don’t you think?

          As for your third, perhaps my writing was unclear, but I never meant to imply any form of coercion, and having re-read my comment, I can’t see how it was implied. People hold (or have held) religious beliefs that say god approves of certain forms of murder, for certain “crimes” that harm no-one. And they act on those beliefs, despite the lack of any evidence that god exists or actually desires those things. Whether or not they force anyone else to also believe them is immaterial.

        • @bob

          And yet God, who is perfect, seems quite happy with slavery and genocide. Shouldn’t he hold himself to a higher standard?

          Again, we’re talking about the one who created life/death, right/wrong. If everything dies anyway (because you are the author of life and death) then it is hard to use terms like genocide.

          Agreed–this doesn’t disprove God. But it does disprove a good God. The definition of “good” in the dictionary prohibits it.

          Yes, but a dictionary explains the usage of a word and is therefore not infallible. Hence it is possible for something to operate outside of the parameters of a dictionary and still be true. I agree that this is a very hard thing to wrap the brain around, but again we’re talking about belief in a being in whom lies the definition of good. But I can also see that an atheist might reject those as weasel-words 🙂

          @wintermute – My moral thinking is mostly informed by Kierkegaard – I don’t think it is possible to be a balanced moral person without embracing both the logical (universal) and the divine/prophetic (ethical) ethic (even if we don’t define things in those terms. I operate almost entirely on a logical frame and hold little weight to a ‘because God told me to’ argument. But I also see that an entirely cold logical argument may be deeply flawed.

          I think you make my point for me regarding belief. There is no ‘authentic’ belief, only what individuals believe, which is a massive spectrum even within specific worldviews.

          But yes, you make a good point – those without a certain belief have to live with
          those who hold it, however obnoxious they find it.

        • Joe:

          Again, we’re talking about the one who created life/death, right/wrong. If everything dies anyway (because you are the author of life and death) then it is hard to use terms like genocide.

          The dictionary defines it: “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” Isn’t that what God commanded?

          And if you’re saying that the sand castle builder can knock down his sand castle whenever he feels like it, that’s true … except for living things. A child that owns a dog can’t just kill it whenever he feels like it. How can genocide be right for God if it’s wrong for us? Or are you saying that might makes right?

          it is possible for something to operate outside of the parameters of a dictionary and still be true. I agree that this is a very hard thing to wrap the brain around, but again we’re talking about belief in a being in whom lies the definition of good.

          I’m simply saying that we’re bound by the definition of these words. The definition of “evil” doesn’t have the caveat “except if God does it.” You must either stick with the definitions of “good” and “bad,” or don’t label God at all. What many Christians want is to label God “good” when he does nice things and avoid labeling him anything when he does hideous things. It doesn’t work that way.

        • @Bob – apologies for the poor threading of these comments..

          Again, the problem is your use of language – I don’t see how your assumptions are obviously true. How do you know that knocking over a sandcastle isn’t the same for a deity as killing a species? What criteria are you using to make that statement?

          How can genocide be right for God if it’s wrong for us?

          An impossible question to answer. How do you know life (to the deity) isn’t the same as destroying computer code (to me)? It seems a strange argument for someone who (presumably) believes that the meaning of the universe is that there is no meaning to argue that on the other hand killing something that ultimately has no meaning is genocide.

          Or are you saying that might makes right?

          I’m saying that if you postulate that there is a deity that created all things it is hard to hold it to human understanding of right/wrong because the notion of ethics is by its nature wrapped up in the existence of a creator deity.

          And no, I’m a pacifist, I don’t believe that might is right. But I struggle to see how the same rules can apply to an all powerful deity that created life and death and decided what was right and what was wrong.

          I’m simply saying that we’re bound by the definition of these words.

          Well, I’m saying that we’re not. For a start they’re referring specifically to human actions – I can’t see that we would make a moral judgement on the actions of other non-human actors when they do things that fit within this definition. If a virus killed a whole population of people, could it honestly be described as genocidal?

        • Joe:

          How do you know that knocking over a sandcastle isn’t the same for a deity as killing a species? What criteria are you using to make that statement?

          I’m appealing to common morality and the dictionary. It could certainly be the case that God (reportedly a billion times smarter than us) could know more than we do about a particular moral act, so much so that his actions appear nonsensical to us. But if God’s actions can’t be pigeonholed by English words, then don’t use them. Don’t call him “evil” but also don’t call him “good.”

          How do you know life (to the deity) isn’t the same as destroying computer code (to me)?

          I don’t. But that’s not the issue. We’re judging things with (fallible) human concepts of morality, the only tools we have here. And God fails.

          Sure, you could say that God might, from his perspective, be doing something that’s God-Right even though it is Human-Wrong. Fine, but why go down this path except to discard all evidence to salvage God belief?

          killing something that ultimately has no meaning is genocide.

          Why is this strange? You know what “genocide” means. I’m simply labeling things with labels according to the dictionary.

          Well, I’m saying that we’re not.

          I’ve got to disagree there. The dictionary says what it says. To communicate, you use words pretty much as they’re commonly defined. We’re bound by the dictionary.

          Again, this doesn’t say that God can’t abide by rules that are correct on some higher, unattainable plane. I’m simply demanding that we use words as they’re defined.

          If a virus killed a whole population of people, could it honestly be described as genocidal?

          Anything that can understand the meaning of the word “genocide” that killed all of a tribe would have committed genocide.

          BTW, why are you sticking up for this guy? Why not just let the words of the Bible speak for themselves?

  10. Bob said: ” Your initial pick will always be 1/300, so the union of all the others must be 299/300.”
    But you didn’t respond to my hypotheticals. How would you respond? I still think they show that the formulation of the problem is ambiguous.

    NumberTenOx said: “Love how unkleE argues there are only two scenarios: you picked the correct door out of 300 or you didn’t.”
    But I didn’t argue that. I said that the third person would argue that, since they could see how both the previous people would argue. I didn’t say what I thought the answer is, I simply showed how three different people could logically come to three different conclusions, which suggested to me that there was something wrong with the “official” conclusion. I invite you to respond to my hypotheticals also.

    “For me, the “ah-ha” moment came when I realized that Monty knew where the prize was, and always chose the door that had a goat. It’s his knowledge that skews the probabilities.”
    I agree,whether the game show host chooses at random (or not, as would have to be the case) needs to be considered, but I’m not sure how it affects things. The original statement here doesn’t give that information, thought the Wikipedia article discusses it.

    • How would you respond?

      You choose #274 and the other person choses #59? Each has the same probability, 1/300. If you ask, “But what is the probability that the second person is correct if I know that #59 is indeed the correct door?” Of course, the answer is 1, but now we have a different situation than the original.

      whether the game show host chooses at random (or not, as would have to be the case) needs to be considered

      The game show host knows what’s behind the doors and only opens doors he knows have goats.

  11. There are two fundamental flaws in this argument:

    1> That there are goats behind the doors. For some believers, every religion is a possible route to whatever it is that they are after (salvation/enlightenment/etc.) and so there’s no problem with sticking with what they’ve got.

    2> That people don’t want goats. Sometimes what you think people want isn’t what they actually want.

    • For some believers, every religion is a possible route to whatever it is that they are after (salvation/enlightenment/etc.) and so there’s no problem with sticking with what they’ve got.

      Agreed. The analogy to religion isn’t perfect, as I noted. I was imagining a Christian being challenged with this game rather than a pantheist.

      That people don’t want goats. Sometimes what you think people want isn’t what they actually want.

      Right, but again I was assuming that “goat” means “something nobody wants.”

      • 1> Some folks who call themselves Christians believe this as well (Notably, a good many Unitarians).

        2> That loops back around to #1; if a religion doesn’t have something someone wants, then why would they believe in it?

        Maybe I’m getting too meta for this discussion. What if afterlife, when you come right down to it (which is the “big reveal” in the religion world) isn’t actually what people value about a religion?

  12. It seems to me that if you were initially given the choice of three doors, then you have a 1:3 chance of being right. But, if you cancel one out, it is all reset, and now you have a 1:2 regardless of your first choice, so it doesn’t matter weather you switch or not. Either choice is now 1:2. Why would you have a better probability if you switched?

    • The way to see it is to realize that the probability of the prize being behind one of the two doors you didn’t pick is 2/3 and stays that way. But after the door is opened, you have new information and can pick the only one of the two that could plausibly still hold the goat prize.

    • In the first instance you have a 1/3 chance of being right, which mean that the other two doors have a 2/3 chance.

      The host knows where the goat is and so can always open a door with a goat. So this aspect of the game is not random. This is important, because it means that the choice is either between the door you have (1/3 chance of being right) and the doors you don’t have (2/3 chance of being right). The fact that you now know that it is definitely not one of the doors you don’t have means that the other door on its own now has a 2/3 chance of being right.

      Sounds ridiculous, I know, but it is proven to be true.

      • It seems that the key to this is that the host knows where the prize is. The door with the prize is not just randomly shuffled. Otherwise, the door with the prize would open every once in a while. In that case, it make sense to me that one should switch. The odds of that remaining door holding the prize would carry over.

    • I think of it this way. Once you are offered the choice to switch, there are two possibilities to consider: 1) Your first choice was wrong; you should switch. 2) Your first choice was right; you should not switch. So the question, “Should you switch?” is equivalent to the question, “Was your first choice wrong?” in that the answers to each are the same depending on if you chose well. So your odds of winning if you switch are the same as the odds that your first choice was wrong, a probability of 2/3.

  13. P.S. The argument works just fine with certain brands of Christianity that claim uniqueness for themselves and damnation for everyone else, but those folks are actually in the minority in the Christian world. The concept of the “Good Pagan” is not widely taught but is part of the dogma of many Christian groups.

      • I suspect you’d find that many Christians would refuse to make judgements about what happens to a particular individual in the afterlife – believing that to be the prerogative of God.

      • When you want to talk about science, who do you ask?

        1> A scientist
        2> A high school science teacher
        3> A high school science student

        When you want to talk about Christianit, who do you ask?

        1> A theologian
        2> A priest
        3> A congregant

        The concept of the “Good Pagan” is about as well understood by your average congregant as general relativity is by your average science student.

        But it’s out there.

        (Aside: One of my problems with the skeptic movement is that they sometimes pit what is commonly believed about spirituality against what is well understood by scientists.)

        • You’re probably right that the Good Pagan is an odd concept to most Christians. But the concept of the non-Christian is very well understood. And most Christians say that the non-Christian is going to burn.

  14. Aha, I do see it now. I was wrong, but i was also right. I was wrong that your statistics were screwy, but right that your problem formulation was in error. Here’s my analysis now …

    1. How does the game show host choose the door(s) to open?
    Your initial problem formulation doesn’t say, and yet this is the crucial point. True, you said “the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door”, but you needed to also have said (what you subsequently said in your answer to me) “The game show host knows what’s behind the doors and only opens doors he knows have goats.”. Without this qualification, the host could conceivably choose the door with the car and the game would be over. So if the host chooses at random, there is no advantage to changing choices – in the original 3 door problem there is a 1/3 possibility you are right, 1/3 that the remaining door is right and 1/3 that he opens the door with the car. I note that Wikipedia makes the same omission, although it discusses the matter later.

    It is only when you specify that the host is constrained to not open the door with the car that the probabilities work out so that it is better to change choices – as you can see if you construct a truth table.

    2. What of my hypotheticals?

    My hypotheticals are correct as far as I can see. As you say, ” now we have a different situation than the original”. And it is different because if the game show host must open goat doors, and if there is a second contestant, then the host has no choice, he must leave closed both doors that the contestants have picked. This changes the probabilities. And both contestants and the third observer all have 50/50 choices again.

    This problem illustrates an old truism in probability that we must always state how a choice is made before we assign probabilities, because this can make an enormous difference. By leaving that ambiguous, both you and Wikipedia have made unstated assumptions. But I admit I was fooled initially by that.

    Thanks again for a most interesting probability problem. Perhaps I can now return (shortly) and look at your conclusions.

    • The fact that the host knows where the prize is and must open a goat door changes things, and that’s what was confusing me at first. In this case, then it is indeed an advantage to choose the door that the host did not pick to open.

      Initially, I thought it was all random, and with one door eliminated, the three random choices moves to two random choices and your odds go from 1:3 to 1:2. This is not the case because the host knows not to open the door with the prize in it.

      • Actually, if the door eliminated is random, it just means 1/3rd of the time you don’t get to keep playing. The rest of the time the problem is exactly the same. The equivalence I pointed out above still holds true. I thought otherwise at first, but after Bob pointed this out, I thought about some more.

    • If the host chooses at random, we have two possibilities: (1) he opens the door with the prize, and the game is over and everyone goes home or (2) he opens a door with a goat and the game continues with the same analysis as before.

      I’m not quite sure where you’re going with your new game. Are you saying that there are 300 doors, with two contestants each picking one? In that case, the host would open 297 of the 300 doors, leaving one mystery door along with the two chosen doors.

      If you’re saying that the host opens 298 doors, then either he opens the prize door (chances: 298/300) or the contestants through sheer luck have chosen the prize door between them (2/300). In the first case, we see the prize and everyone goes home, emptyhanded. In the very rare second case, this game does morph into one where it’s a 50% chance for each contestant. But of course they only know this after the introduction of new information, which was seeing behind the 298 doors.

      (This 50/50 game isn’t particularly interesting IMO.)

  15. Bob, now I feel I’ve cleared my mind about the probabilities, I’d like to take issue with a few of your conclusions or applications.

    ” In the game show, you don’t weigh evidence before selecting your door; you pick it randomly. And most people adopt the dominant religion of their upbringing. As with the game show, the religion in which you grew up is also assigned to you at random.”
    While it is true that most people do adopt the dominant religion of their upbringing, we should note:

    (1) If that was totally true, christianity would never have grown from a small group to 2 billion +. At the start, almost all christians had to have adopted a different religion, with that percentage decreasing as christianity gained in numbers (it’s simple mathematics). But even today, christianity is growing fastest in non-christian countries in Asia and Africa, and slowest in so-called christian countries, and about 10% of christians come from non-christian cultures (see Is christianity just cultural?.

    (2) Even for the 90%, it doesn’t follow logically that people “don’t weight the evidence”. Most christians I know believe the evidence points to christianity being true and believe this is important – a point proven by the popularity of books by CS Lewis &, Lee Strobel, and video debates with WL Craig & John Lennox.

    “Here’s where the analogy between the two games fails.”
    I definitely agree here. Your general lesson that we humans are often wrong even when we’re sure we’re right is surely true, but it applies far wider than religion. And it applies to atheism just as much as religion. So when you conclude: “Every believer plays the Game of Religion, and every believer believes that his religion is the one true religion …. why imagine that yours is the only religion that’s not mythology?”, this applies to you just as much to me, whether we call atheism a religion or not (and whether we call christianity a religion or not).

    In the end, we are left with truth and evidence. I think the evidence points overwhelmingly to the existence of God, you do not. Both of us cannot be right, though we may both be wrong. All the Monty Hall probability games don’t change that one bit. These sorts of “arguments” you use here are diverting I suppose, but as a christian, I think they only divert from the important questions of What do I regard as valid evidence?, and Where does the evidence point? and Have I biases which prevent me from seeing the truth?

    I am enjoying your blog, and hope to go back and comment on some posts where you address such questions. Thanks, and best wishes.

    • (2) Even for the 90%, it doesn’t follow logically that people “don’t weight the evidence”. Most christians I know believe the evidence points to christianity being true and believe this is important – a point proven by the popularity of books by CS Lewis &, Lee Strobel, and video debates with WL Craig & John Lennox.

      I don’t think apologetics books are especially popular with Christians. Most Christians are content to go to church and do what they’re supposed to do without studying it a whole lot, IMO.

      There’s also what’s been called “Shermer’s Law,” the observation that adults are skilled at providing logical and intellectual defenses for a position that they didn’t adopt for those reasons. For example, they are Christians because they were raised that way, but that’s not the reason they give. They’ll say that, no, they actually believe for reasons A, B, and C (intellectual reasons).

      “why imagine that yours is the only religion that’s not mythology?”, this applies to you just as much to me

      I don’t see the symmetry.

      The point here is this: take all believers. Let’s imagine 1000 religions among them. The Christian imagines that the other 999 religions are mythology. He knows that people make up religions because that’s his explanation for all those other religions. But since rejecting religions can be (according to him) a valid thing to do, why is Christianity special?

      All the Monty Hall probability games don’t change that one bit.

      My goal is simply to help you see the commonplace in a new way. Maybe you get an insight from that; maybe not. Not every post will succeed.

      What do I regard as valid evidence?, and Where does the evidence point? and Have I biases which prevent me from seeing the truth?

      I agree that these are important questions.

  16. The limitation on the analogy is in the way the problem is set. Since religions all offer some advantages to their followers – eg provide communities of mutual support, make it easier to choose acceptable behaviour (at least within the group) offer enough attraction to enable the religion to keep going etc etc there should in practice be a bit of a prize at least behind every door. On the other hand since most are unable to be consistently good examples of the best a religion is capable of producing in practice there is at least the whiff of a goat behind every door. eg Christ teaches peace – history shows his followers somewhat goatlike on that issue. The very problem does not reflect the tolerance which in an ideal world might exist.

      • I wonder what happens to your example if you swap “specific example of superstring theory” (of which there are many) for “religion” in cases where, for example, a graduate student is working with a particular theory not because he has analyzed all of them and picked the one that seems most likely to be true, but rather which one had a research assistant position associated with it…

  17. @Todd: If you ALWAYS switch, then after the switch you will be right if your initial pick was wrong. You correctly stated that you’re initial pick is right 1/3 of the time. Therefore, your initial pick is wrong 2/3 of the time. Thus, if you ALWAYS switch, you will be right after the switch 2/3 of the time.

    If you RANDOMLY decide to switch or not, you will be right after that decision 1/2 of the time.

  18. “Most Christians are content to go to church and do what they’re supposed to do without studying it a whole lot, IMO.”
    “Not studying it a whole lot”doesn’t necessarily equal “don’t care about truth” or “don’t weight the evidence”. I think it’s that many christians, and many unbelievers also, are less rigorous about the evidence they require, or accept as evidence things that you don’t accept. Those are very different things. Most of us require more evidence for some things than we do for others.

    “There’s also what’s been called “Shermer’s Law,” the observation that adults are skilled at providing logical and intellectual defenses for a position that they didn’t adopt for those reasons. For example, they are Christians because they were raised that way, but that’s not the reason they give. “
    Yes, and that applies just as well to unbelievers as to believers. It’s also unavoidable. And it doesn’t necessarily affect the truth of the matter. Take the physics of electricity. We learn very rudimentary facts about electricity as children – “Don’t touch!”, etc. As we grow up, we learn more. If we study physics we learn more still, and we see out first impressions were limited – sort of correct but in need of revision. That’s the way we learn most things. And that’s how we learn christianity, or any other form of belief. The important thing is to be open to change and to keep on reviewing.

    “The point here is this: take all believers. Let’s imagine 1000 religions among them. The Christian imagines that the other 999 religions are mythology. He knows that people make up religions because that’s his explanation for all those other religions. But since rejecting religions can be (according to him) a valid thing to do, why is Christianity special?”
    Bob, I’m sorry, but I think your argument here falls apart as soon as it is examined.

    1. Why limit yourself to “religions”? Exactly that same argument could be made for “worldviews” or “belief systems” or “opinions”. So non-belief can be questioned in exactly the same way. proves nothing. Why is non-belief so special???

    2. The christian doesn’t necessarily “imagine” other views are “mythology”. he may have very good reasons (I certainly do). He may not think they are mythology at all, he may not even think they are 100% incorrect (I certainly don’t), he may just think they contain less truth (that’s my view).

    3. Christianity is special because there is evidence for it (many religions offer limited objective evidence), and the evidence is (IMO) good = compelling. If you are thinking christians don’t think the evidence is compelling, then you are not addressing most christians I know. You may think the evidence christians adduce is weak, but it is a strong part of christianity – that’s why Paul stresses that if the resurrection didn’t really occur, the whole thing’s a waste of time, why John talks about what he heard and saw and touched, and Luke describes his historical method in classical Greek historiographic terms. The other religions (in the main) don’t offer all that.

    I really hope you can see that there are many different christians and if you take the most mindless as your example, you will not be addressing what most thoughtful christian think. Some people use that strategy as a debating tactic (it’s easy to defeat illogical straw men) but if (as I assume) you are above that and interested in truth, then you really need to address thoughtful chrstianity.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to comment.

    • Addressing your three points (with the benefit of brevity):
      1/ Non-belief is special because it contains the word ‘non’.
      2/ That’s simply vacuous tosh!
      3/ The other religions offer exactly the same amount of objective evidence. (Basically – none.)

      Oh come on! Give us something better than that!


      • I did not.
        Oh you did!!
        No, no, no.
        You did just then.
        Nonsense!
        Oh, this is futile!
        No it isn’t.
        I came here for a good argument.
        No you didn’t; no, you came here for an argument.
        An argument isn’t just contradiction.
        It can be.
        No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
        No it isn’t.
        Yes it is! It’s not just contradiction.
        Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
        Yes, but that’s not just saying ‘No it isn’t.’
        Yes it is!
        No it isn’t!

    • Yes, and that applies just as well to unbelievers as to believers.

      It applies to someone defending childhood beliefs but not to someone who’s abandoned or rejected those beliefs. For example, the atheist who’s left Christianity or the Christian who’s no longer an atheist.

      The important thing is to be open to change and to keep on reviewing.

      Agreed, and that’s the point of Shermer’s Law. When you marshal your intellect to defend your beliefs regardless of the facts, you might be able to put up a credible front (both to any antagonist and to yourself), but this isn’t being intellectually honest. This isn’t following the facts where they lead.

      1. Why limit yourself to “religions”? Exactly that same argument could be made for “worldviews” or “belief systems” or “opinions”.

      We’ve been over this, haven’t we? All religions could be wrong, even all the ones we haven’t thought up yet. Not so worldviews. There is one (or more) worldviews that are maximally correct. And yet we don’t know that any religion is correct.

      2. The christian doesn’t necessarily “imagine” other views are “mythology”.

      Very few Christians study every other religion, past and present, before he makes his choice. Anyway, that isn’t the issue. I’m simply saying that most Christians accept as obvious the idea that Mankind invents/creates religion.

      If you are thinking christians don’t think the evidence is compelling, then you are not addressing most christians I know.

      Again, Shermer’s Law applies. When a Christian gives an involved intellectual argument for his beliefs, is that why he’s a Christian? Almost certainly not. These arguments didn’t get him into Christianity; why should he imagine that they’ll get me into Christianity?

      If your point is that there is evidence for Christianity, I can accept that. I just think it’s far too little to support the monumental claim of the existence of God.

      The other religions (in the main) don’t offer all that.

      Hardly a reason to adopt Christianity, IMO. If you pick and choose, I agree that you can argue that Christianity demand that you follow the evidence. But if you pick and choose other verses, you can prove the opposite.

      if you take the most mindless as your example, you will not be addressing what most thoughtful christian think.

      I reject using straw man arguments. Point them out when you think you’ve found any.

      • G’day Bob, I think we are getting nowhere, do you agree?

        You seem to have it fixed in your mind that (a) the only honest person is one who’s changed their beliefs, (b) most christians have never changed their beliefs, have never considered any other options and believe regardless of the facts, therefore (c) christians are dishonest. Assumptions something like this seem to underline most of your answers above.

        Now that may be true of some christians, it may be true of all christians where you come from (though I doubt it), but it is clearly false for other christians.

        1. I was not brought up in a christian home and neither was my wife (her parents were a strong atheist and a definite agnostic, mine had vague cultural god-belief only). I was sent to Sunday School because that’s what decent people did back then but got no teaching at home; my wife was excluded from all religious instruction until she chose to attend against her parents’ preference. My brother and I believed, my parents followed us, not vice versa.

        2. In two groups of christians I checked on recently, both contained approximately 50/50 people brought up in christian homes and people brought up in pagan homes. In Australia, secularism is the default culture, and it is generally non-believers who are following the culture and believers who have to stand against it.

        3. Most christians have good reasons for believing in christianity and rejecting other religions. I could give you a list of reasons if you wanted it, and most christians I know are aware of them, although they probably don’t think about them often and they don’t go very deeply into them. As I have said before, it isn’t that they don’t have good reasons, it is often that you don’t recognise those reasons, which is a very different thing. (Also, you speak about “other religions” as if there are hundreds of plausible alternatives, when in reality there are very few that are even vaguely plausible.)

        So I don’t think I’ll bother with this line of discussion any longer. You are free to imagine christianity is whatever you like. But it will mean your arguments are not addressing many real christians and are instead addressing a stereotype that may not exist. But why should I worry if yet another atheist is beating a straw man!? : )

        One final point. You say: “All religions could be wrong, even all the ones we haven’t thought up yet. Not so worldviews. There is one (or more) worldviews that are maximally correct. And yet we don’t know that any religion is correct.”

        You seem to think that you can compartmentalise things up to gain an advantage for your chosen worldview – nice try! But it is equally true to say that all non-theistic worldviews could be wrong, and we don’t know that any non-theistic worldview is correct. Your worldview and mine are both equal in that regard, yet you seem unable to accept this.

        I find it interesting and distressing that so many atheists criticise faith and praise rationality, then go on to use such irrational arguments that sound just as much based on faith as the ones they criticise. I’m afraid you seem to be falling into the same trap.

        Perhaps it is time for me to vacate this discussion, do you agree? best wishes.

        • I think we are getting nowhere, do you agree?

          Yes.

          You seem to have it fixed in your mind that (a) the only honest person is one who’s changed their beliefs, (b) most christians have never changed their beliefs, have never considered any other options and believe regardless of the facts, therefore (c) christians are dishonest.

          No.

          In two groups of christians I checked on recently, both contained approximately 50/50 people brought up in christian homes and people brought up in pagan homes.

          There’s a strong correlation between the religious environment of one’s upbringing and one’s adult religious beliefs. Don’t you agree?

          Most christians have good reasons for believing in christianity and rejecting other religions.

          I’m aware of many apologetic arguments, if that’s what you’re talking about. Or are you talking about Christianity vs. other religions?

          you speak about “other religions” as if there are hundreds of plausible alternatives, when in reality there are very few that are even vaguely plausible.

          Yes, I do. But why a priori judge only a handful as plausible? Those people who followed some obscure religion 1000 years ago in Borneo certainly thought that their religion was true; Christians today think theirs is true. Why celebrate one view over the other?

          You are free to imagine christianity is whatever you like.

          Am I caricaturing Christianity? Of course Christianity has many flavors, and I don’t imagine that any one offensive sect (Fred Phelps, Jim Jones, etc.) is representative of the whole.

          Your worldview and mine are both equal in that regard, yet you seem unable to accept this.

          You’re saying that this game could equally be played with the atheist? But how do you label the other 299 non-theistic doors? I see only one door: Atheism.

  19. Oh well, the water seems warm….

    1. If it is Truth opening the doors then Truth has no option but to say that all doors contain some element of truth, but no door contains all of The Truth (which can only be explained by words which are poor facsimiles of concepts or ideas which are poor interpretations of parts of Reality so in fact Truth can’t be hidden behind a door).

    Yes, a Christian stuck in dogma will not realise the truth behind the door, which is only a poor representation of Truth anyway. Just as an Atheist stuck in dogma will only realise their own truth. (I call myself a Christian by the way but many Christians say I’m not.)

    2. Probability also has no place in an argument that potentially has Absolutely One answer (but with many parts). It is like picking a paper card from a deck and asking “What is the probability of it being made of paper?”. Therefore the entire argument is invalid.

    • If it is Truth opening the doors then Truth has no option but to say that all doors contain some element of truth

      Yes; to make it binary, the analogy behind goat/prize in the Christian version was god-doesn’t-exist/god-does exist.

      It is like picking a paper card from a deck and asking “What is the probability of it being made of paper?”.

      But everyone knows the answer. I think the religion analogy would be more like hiding behind a curtain and then saying, “What card am I holding up … or am I holding up no card at all?”

      • 🙂

        I think the dogmatic atheist position is to hide behind the curtain with no card and then say “Which card am I holding up”.

        The trouble is that I don’t believe what you say is true and it is full of logical holes but I can see your point. The best atheistic saying I’ve heard is that we are all atheists at heart and Christians don’t believe hundreds of gods exist, its just that I believe in one less God than you do.

        The way you describe “God” or an “Absolute Creator” with words of any language is the same way you can describe quantum mechanics using kindergarten language – not very well. The concept is beyond the language so it becomes easy to pick holes in the language and forget there’s a concept behind it.

        But even though I disagree it was an entertaining post and the discussion is a credit to you. Thanks.

        • The trouble is that I don’t believe what you say is true and it is full of logical holes but I can see your point.

          Well, that’s an odd combination of good and bad news!

          The way you describe “God” or an “Absolute Creator” with words of any language is the same way you can describe quantum mechanics using kindergarten language – not very well.

          To some extent, but the basic claims–God exists, he created everything, Jesus was a historical figure who rose from the dead, etc.–are easy to understand. It’s trying to handwave away the lack of evidence that is the real problem IMO.

          But even though I disagree it was an entertaining post and the discussion is a credit to you. Thanks.

          And that’s about the most I can hope for. Thanks!

  20. “It’s trying to handwave away the lack of evidence that is the real problem IMO.”

    I can’t leave this one alone.

    We are talking about the cause here, not the effect. Sceince deals with the effects (evidence) and tries to formulate ideas as to the cause. All evidence is the effect. “Graivity” is just a word. The effect is a ball falling. The cause of the ball falling is still unknown and there are varying and often contradictory ideas as to the cause. Take the big bang (or even the big “e” word) and what we have in the universe is the effect. What is the cause? Mere speculation with no evidence.

    Yet here you are saying that there is no evidence for God, but there is no evidence for the Big Bang either. There is effect, such as stars and galaxies and red shifts etc. Then there is speculation as to the cause. There is zero evidence for the Big Bang itself and it is impossible to get evidence because it was in the past.

    If an atheist is to be logically consistent then they must say they don’t belive in the big bang (or the “e” word) because there is no evidence for the actual cause but simply speculation over a cause. If they believe in either they might as well say they belive that “gazumtillian” was the cause or any word as long as it is not “God”.

    If a “believer” says God created the universe they are howled down as delusional since there is no evidence.

    I’m just asking for logical consistency. Both world views (creator or no-creator) rely on blind faith. In fact the belief of no-creator in a universe of cause and effect defies the laws of the universe but I won’t try to stop you from believing it.

    • Mere speculation with no evidence.

      You’re saying that science doesn’t yet know what caused the Big Bang? Yes, I agree. But so what? Science has lots of questions for which it doesn’t (yet) have the answer. Maybe it’ll never find some of them, but that doesn’t mean that Christianity therefore has the answers by default.

      Have you read my “Don’t Move the Goalposts“? This touches on this problem.

      you are saying that there is no evidence for God, but there is no evidence for the Big Bang either.

      To be precise, I’m saying that there is paltry evidence for God. And, of course, he could be here but just be very shy.

      I don’t know why what you call “effect” (red shift, etc.) is not evidence for the BB. You reject Big Bang theory?

      If a “believer” says God created the universe they are howled down as delusional since there is no evidence.

      I’ll agree with you there.

      I’m just asking for logical consistency. Both world views (creator or no-creator) rely on blind faith.

      Don’t ask for consistency, demand it! And I see no inconsistency in my position.

      You’re saying that there’s as much evidence for Yahweh as there is for the Big Bang? You’re saying that scientists are deluding themselves when they think they’ve provided a solid theory?

      I think I must be misunderstanding your position. Please clarify.

  21. Hi,

    I just read the goalpost topic and I like the way you think about these things. Maybe apply the same rules to yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

    I will stand firm if you insist and call you an apologist (for the sake of discussion). You constantly move the goal posts and say “if science can understand lightning then it will understand everything”. You say Christians get it wrong because they move the goalposts by making mistakes, well you do the same by claiming unwon victories. That is not science based but is simply dogma to prove science is infallible, now and forever more.

    There is NO way you can say science will understand everything except through blind faith and blind faith alone. There is no way to say that understanding (if found) will fit into your existing worldview except by blind faith and blind faith alone.

    I can easily disprove it by saying that science relies on evidence and physical evidence. If there is no physical scientific evidence then science MUST remain silent on a topic therefore science cannot be used to either prove or disprove God, which by definition lies outside of physical science.

    Again I’ll stand firm and use the Big Bang as my flag in the ground. I believe it and accept it for what it is – a physical explanation for physical evidence, and it is limited to just that. Using science and logic again there is the second law of thermodynamics so if we assume the universe is a closed system then it is impossible for the order that we currently see around us to exist. If it is not a closed system then there MUST be something outside the universe that is bigger than it and more poweful than it that drives entropy in the reverse direction.

    What that “thing” is, is pure speculation. You believe it is physical based on blind faith (the belief in things unknown). I believe it is God based on blind faith (the belief in things unseen). For you to claim intellectual superiority is illogical, irrational, and just slightly delusional. As I said last time the “infinite, intelligent non-physical creator” is the theory that actually fits best within the framework of cause and effect. If you have a physical entity or force then you go into the spiralling loop of what caused it.

    How’s that for standing firm?

    I’m happy to be proven wrong.

    • You constantly move the goal posts and say “if science can understand lightning then it will understand everything”. You say Christians get it wrong because they move the goalposts by making mistakes, well you do the same by claiming unwon victories.

      Science learns new things about reality, not Christianity. It’s not like there’s symmetry here. The progress is in one direction only: Science explains new things, and things that previously only had “God did it” as a plausible explanation now have a decent scientific explanation.

      One error I must watch out for in myself is saying, “Oh, don’t worry about that–science will get around to answering that in time.” Science does seem to be an unstoppable juggernaut, but maybe some questions will be intractable. Maybe after a few decades of science banging its head against the wall (making no progress on abiogenesis, for example), we’ll have to consider the God explanation. But I hope you see my point that jumping in as soon as the question is formed with, “God did it!!” isn’t a credible argument.

      There is NO way you can say science will understand everything except through blind faith and blind faith alone.

      OK. Good thing I don’t say that.

      science cannot be used to either prove or disprove God, which by definition lies outside of physical science.

      OK

      Using science and logic again there is the second law of thermodynamics so if we assume the universe is a closed system then it is impossible for the order that we currently see around us to exist.

      That’s your explanation? Do the guys who know (the physicists and cosmologists) agree with this thinking? I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing not.

      My point is that science at the leading edge completely confounds common sense. Saying, “Common sense tells us that …” is a poor way to start a scientific argument.

      What that “thing” is, is pure speculation. You believe it is physical based on blind faith (the belief in things unknown).

      When you drop a ball 1000 times and it always falls at 9.8m/s^2, is it blind faith to hypothesize that it’ll do the same the next time?

      When science has resolved uncountably many problems with 100% natural explanations, is it blind faith to imagine that the next scientific explanation to come along will also be 100% natural? The blind faith is in expecting something radically new without precedent.

      As I said last time the “infinite, intelligent non-physical creator” is the theory that actually fits best within the framework of cause and effect.

      Despite the fact that science has seen zero instances of such a creator? Or a supernatural being of any kind?

      You must really have a low opinion of the naturalistic alternatives!

      If you have a physical entity or force then you go into the spiralling loop of what caused it.

      Ditto for explaining things with a supernatural being.

      • “But I hope you see my point that jumping in as soon as the question is formed with, “God did it!!” isn’t a credible argument.”

        I never said it was. I farted this morning but I didn’t say Goddidit then either.

        “My point is that science at the leading edge completely confounds common sense. “… “When you drop a ball 1000 times and it always falls at 9.8m/s^2, is it blind faith to hypothesize that it’ll do the same the next time?”

        So common sense is invalid unless it suits your argument? Can you see my point that you are moving the goal posts?

        My point is that the physical evidence is the ball dropping. Name one scientist that is willing to say they fully understand gravity or has any evidence for the cause of gravity (not the effect) and I’ll show you a liar or someonw who has no idea (because science at the leading edge confounds common sense as you rightly say – but then you ignore confounding possibilities – again illogical and irrational behaviour).

        God is the cause not the effect. You are confusing the two because we use the same wordof “gravity” for both the cause and effect. Causal gravity has no evidence and cannot but the evidence for the effect is everywhere. A muslim would say “Everywhere you look is the face of Allah”. The effect is everywhere, although the cause cannot be seen.

        As I have said it is an impossibility for science to ever see evidence of the creator exactly as it is impossible to see evidence of the cause of gravity (only the effect of the ball dropping). Turn your logic on yourself if you dare. You are using the impossible to “prove” your dogma that science will have the answers and even if it can’t find it then it will still be “scientific”.

        “You must really have a low opinion of the naturalistic alternatives!”

        Not at all. I have the highest regard for them and study them for work and pleasure, but I use them for what they are and not for what they cannot ever be. To do otherwise would be delusional, don’t you think? (You can answer that question directly rather than having a go at what you think a Christian might think.)

        “Ditto for explaining things with a supernatural being.”

        Not at all. An infinite intelligent creator does not have a beginning and so is out of the loop of cause and effect – exactly as it should be (confounding isn’t it). It is only when your logic is blindfolded by dogma that you can’t see out of the loop and assume everything must be as you think it should be.

        • So common sense is invalid unless it suits your argument?

          No, relying on common sense as a guide at the leading edge of science is foolish for laymen (like I am) to do.

          Can you see my point that you are moving the goal posts?

          Nope.

          Turn your logic on yourself if you dare. You are using the impossible to “prove” your dogma that science will have the answers and even if it can’t find it then it will still be “scientific”.

          Have I been unclear? I prove nothing. Neither does science. Science may never come up with the answers to some questions.

          An infinite intelligent creator does not have a beginning and so is out of the loop of cause and effect – exactly as it should be (confounding isn’t it).

          Where in the Bible does it say this? You can enumerate properties for God, but I wonder with what authority you do so.

        • “Where in the Bible does it say this?”

          I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

          “Have I been unclear? I prove nothing. Neither does science. Science may never come up with the answers to some questions.”

          So then on what authority do you say that God is not an option and if there is or is not an answer then it will back up your world view?

          You can’t have it both ways. Either you admit the possibility of God and allow Christians to believe what they believe without interference, or you definitively say there is no God in which case you need to substantiate the backing for the claim using some kind of evidence or logic or rational discussion to say that there is no God. Without evidence (which is impossible in this case) science cannot back you up so you fall back on blind faith or your own reasoning based on your own assumptions. If all you have is blind faith then good for you but have the decency to admit it or it back up your claim, or admit that “God” is a vialbe alternative.

          Which is it? Which door are you hiding behind? Put your own flag in the ground and stand behind it, ready to fall if it is pulled out of the ground. Use your own goalposts as your standard.

        • I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

          And from that you conclude “An infinite intelligent creator does not have a beginning and so is out of the loop of cause and effect”? That’s quite an imagination!

          So then on what authority do you say that God is not an option

          I’ve made clear in many comments that God is an option (just one for which we have paltry evidence at the moment).

          Either you admit the possibility of God and allow Christians to believe what they believe without interference

          This really isn’t hard. (1) I admit the possibility of God and (2) I don’t encroach on Christians; rather, I push back only when they encroach on me. When Christians respect the First Amendment (no push for prayer in schools; no Creationism in schools; no God in the national motto; no crosses on public property; and so on) then I’m good.

  22. Bob, I think we continue to talk at cross purposes, but I’ll have another go.

    “There’s a strong correlation between the religious environment of one’s upbringing and one’s adult religious beliefs. Don’t you agree?”
    I have already agreed. But there are so many problems with your data and so many exceptions to the rule that your further conclusions are very dodgy. You have never answered these objections (as far as I can remember):

    1. Christianity grew from 1 to 2 bn +. It could only do that by continual conversions from other beliefs.
    2. Many of the countries your map coloured as christian are in fact secular, and christian numbers have been declining for years. And some of the countries your map identified as non-christian (Korea, China) are exhibiting fast conversion growth. One could plausibly construct a hypothesis that conversions occur in foreign cultures and loss of faith occurs in so-called christian cultures.
    3. How does any of this lead logically to any conclusion about truth?

    “I’m aware of many apologetic arguments, if that’s what you’re talking about. Or are you talking about Christianity vs. other religions?”
    I’m simply saying that most christians have what they believe are good reasons to disbelieve other religions. They are often the corollary of or counterpoint to the reasons they believe in Jesus. Yet you persistently believe otherwise. Why not do a post on the topic and see how your argument stands up?

    “Yes, I do. But why a priori judge only a handful as plausible? Why celebrate one view over the other?”
    It isn’t a priori buta posteriori. I can only briefly outline the argument here (for a slightly less brief outline, see Choosing my religion).

    1. Christians have many reasons to believe, including (i) the origin and design of the universe is difficult to explain without God, (ii) the origin and reality of conscious, autonomous, freely-choosing, rational, ethical life is difficult to explain without God, yet it is difficult to live without these beliefs, (iii) personal experience and others’ experience of God, and (iv) the life of Jesus, his apparent resurrection and his apparent claims to be divine. To explain these things requires a creative, powerful, personal, ethical God who wants to be in relationship with us, and who is succeeding in that.

    2. If you examine other religions, most of them (e.g. the old pagan polytheistic ones) cannot explain any of those four lines of evidence (their gods are generally not powerful creators, but inhabitants and even victims of the physical universe), even some of the major ones (Hinduism, Buddhism) appear to fail that test. Only about six of the world’s major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Baha’i, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism) can pass the first couple of tests and several of them fail at other points. My personal opinion is that only Christianity and Islam pass enough to be considered plausible.

    Most christians probably wouldn’t express it like that, but those are the basis of the reasons why most christians believe.

    I really hope you can get it into your head that most christians aren’t as blind and stupid as you seem to infer, doing things for no reason. We have good reasons, some of us work them out more completely than others, some of us depend on what the others have worked out. You obviously don’t agree with our reasons, but that is no reason to misunderstand them.

    How’s that? : )

    • Bob, I think we continue to talk at cross purposes, but I’ll have another go.

      I hear you. These conversations yield little fruit. Still, hope springs eternal, eh?

      1. Christianity grew from 1 to 2 bn +. It could only do that by continual conversions from other beliefs.

      … or Christian families making babies.

      2. Many of the countries your map coloured as christian are in fact secular, and christian numbers have been declining for years.

      I’m baffled about why these maps trouble you so much. I didn’t invent the idea. The meaning of the colors is well defined. No one’s trying to deceive anyone. The concept doesn’t bother me, but if you don’t like them, complain to the makers.

      And some of the countries your map identified as non-christian (Korea, China) are exhibiting fast conversion growth.

      It records the dominant religion. Easy, right?

      3. How does any of this lead logically to any conclusion about truth?

      I would hope that the lesson of the doubt inherent in Christian claims would encourage Christians to be a little more humble in the proclamation of their beliefs.

      Was that not clear from the blog post?

      1. Christians have many reasons to believe, including (i) the origin and design of the universe is difficult to explain without God,

      This is a deist argument. It brings you to Brahma as surely as Yahweh.

      Your other arguments I find completely unconvincing. ii: we could look at these adjectives individually, but they seem to me to either be yet more puzzles that science is working on (Where did consciousness come from?) or empty (But where did morality come from except God??). iii: OK, and the Shinto believer claims personal experience, too. Neither is convincing. iv: I understand that there’s a claim for resurrection; I find it a weak claim.

      If any of these answers perplex you (I’m guessing you’ve been in these discussions before), I can elaborate.

      most of them (e.g. the old pagan polytheistic ones) cannot explain any of those four lines of evidence

      And yet those other believers just keep on believin’. As an outsider, I don’t see much difference.

      I really hope you can get it into your head that most christians aren’t as blind and stupid as you seem to infer, doing things for no reason.

      I’m not sure where that came from.

      We have good reasons, some of us work them out more completely than others

      I’ve had discussions with many Christians who agree with me that a minority have thought much about their beliefs. Obviously, I can’t imagine anyone not being a believer without good reasons, and you’re providing your best. That’s good, but most Christians (IMO—I haven’t seen stats) believe pretty much because they were told to as children. I also argue (and I’m repeating myself) that the thoughtful intellectual arguments that the minority of Christians can put together are not the reasons they became Christians. They’re justifying their position after the fact.

      Doesn’t prove it wrong, of course, but it is an odd way to argue (almost as if they’re simply trying to rationalize their beliefs …).

  23. Hi,
    “And from that you conclude “An infinite intelligent creator does not have a beginning and so is out of the loop of cause and effect”? That’s quite an imagination!”

    I don’t want to bog you down with quotes but search for “eternal” in the Bible and you’ll find plenty of evidence. No imagination needed. No beginning and no end – outside the loop of cause and effect. (Actually the creator of the cause and effect universe. A world of relativity within a realm of Absolute. No I can’t prove that one without a long dissertations.)

    “I’ve made clear in many comments that God is an option (just one for which we have paltry evidence at the moment).”

    Sorry, that’s my mistake. I thought you were an atheist and deny the existence of God or at least the Christian God. As I’ve said there can be no “evidence” for God (apart from everything that exists but that won’t meet your criteria) so you will always be proved right in your belief so you are on unshakeable ground.

    “This really isn’t hard. (1) I admit the possibility of God and (2) I don’t encroach on Christians; rather, I push back only when they encroach on me. When Christians respect the First Amendment (no push for prayer in schools; no Creationism in schools; no God in the national motto; no crosses on public property; and so on) then I’m good.”

    Again, a fair position. I don’t understand your 1st amendment but here in Australia it is more a freedom “of” religion rather than a freedom “from” religion. Peaceful coexistence. Both sides push the boundairs.

    I saw this blog as a push and not a push back and when I hear the old “irrational or delusional” talk from a “there is no such thing as God” person I just enjoy trying to make them realise they are the same but add hypocritical to the list.

    Why? When it gets to the unknown (which this is) it is all beliefs based on assumptions, or experiences that can’t be verified except internally or seeing if other people have the same experience. But then many asylums are full of people sharing experiences. It comes down to faith, one way or another.

    Sorry for the misunderstanding. Enjoy your day.

    • search for “eternal” in the Bible and you’ll find plenty of evidence. No imagination needed. No beginning and no end – outside the loop of cause and effect. (Actually the creator of the cause and effect universe. A world of relativity within a realm of Absolute. No I can’t prove that one without a long dissertations.)

      And any proof will be handwaving. The concepts that 21st-century apologists wrestle with (inside/outside time, infinity, beginnings or lack thereof, cause and effect, natural vs. supernatural, Big Bang cosmology and how God fits in, and so on) do not come from the Bible and are extrapolations. They could be valid, of course, but I’m saying that this thinking is a big extrapolation.

      I thought you were an atheist and deny the existence of God or at least the Christian God.

      I am indeed an atheist–that is, someone who has no god belief.

      As I’ve said there can be no “evidence” for God

      I look for the most plausible explanation in a world without complete information.

      I saw this blog as a push and not a push back

      Good point. My motivation is exclusively because Christianity pushes against society here in America. If all Christians respected the First Amendment (I realize that the rules may be different in Australia), I’d go find another hobby.

      But now that I’m into this, I do push against what I see as Christian nonsense. Thanks for the chance to clarify.

      • I understand better now, thanks. I can understand why your push back would go on and on a bit when the push does as well. Some of those Bible bashers are darned annoying.

        Just one last thing…

        “The concepts that 21st-century apologists wrestle with (inside/outside time, infinity, beginnings or lack thereof, cause and effect, natural vs. supernatural, Big Bang cosmology and how God fits in, and so on) do not come from the Bible and are extrapolations. They could be valid, of course, but I’m saying that this thinking is a big extrapolation.”

        Yes, you are absolutely correct that it is an extrapolation. But please tell me anywhere in the Bible that says the Bible is to be the only source of information from the moment it was written forever more? It doesn’t exist. Yes, some fundamentalists will say the Bible is the only word and if it isn’t in there (or can be twisted out of it) then it simply doesn’t exist as a thought. I’m not one of those, and many others aren’t either. “truth” can be found behind many doors just as goats can.

        You see Christians are just like Atheists. Some of them are nice and polite and try to have respectful conversations (thanks again) while others leave you with a sore head and sinking feeling.

        We really are all just the same. No two Christians have identical beliefs and neither do two people of any sort have identical beliefs. They form groups and pretend they’re similar but there’s always some difference somewhere.

        You really need about 6 billion goats. 🙂

        • tell me anywhere in the Bible that says the Bible is to be the only source of information from the moment it was written forever more?

          Granted. And that was my point.

          You can say that God has properties X, Y, and Z, but let’s just be clear about where that comes from. “God is good” is in the Bible. “God is outside space/time” is not. Apologists blithely toss out properties of God as needed in a discussion like playing cards (“Ah, but I dodge that problem with the ‘God is outside space/time’ card!”) without considering whether those properties are grounded in the Bible (not much of an authority IMO, but it’s at least consistent) or just invented as needed.

          Sounds like we’re on the same page here.

  24. G’day Bob,

    I’m sorry, but I find most of your comments here to be missing the point:

    “… or Christian families making babies.”
    Did you have a source for this claim? I checked a few sources on the web and found that, over the last few decades, christians are having less babies than the world’s average (Wikipedia and this is even more true of the countries coloured “christian” on the map you referenced – e.g. the US natural growth rate is about half the world’s average, and most of Europe is close to zero growth (see About.com/

    I’m left with the feeling that you made this statement to defend your argument without checking the facts. Which shows your argument is on very shaky ground.

    “I’m baffled about why these maps trouble you so much. ….. No one’s trying to deceive anyone.”
    Bob, you referenced the map, and then you built an argument on them. The culmination of that argument was this statement: “For discovering reality, religion comes up short. Next time someone nods his head sagely and says, “Ah, but Christianity can answer the Big Questions®,” remember how shallow that claim is.” Now if the maps are wrong, your argument loses its basis. As a rationalist who has “no use for faith”, you should be concerned about this. You should in fact either find a reliable source of facts that supports your argument, or withdraw the argument.

    To further investigate the facts of this matter, I constructed a little model. Assuming christians have the same birth rate as other people, I used a spreadsheet with world and christian population estimates over 2000 years to estimate the numbers of conversions vs the numbers of births at the end of several period of time. The result is pretty much what you’d expect – almost everyone was conversion growth back then, with the percentage reducing over time to about 10% now.

    So, if we are interested in christian culture, we can assume close to all children in christian cultures remain in that culture (relatively few people move to another continent). But if we are interested in christian belief we have to allow for the fact that not everyone in a christian culture is a christian (for which you are evidence) and not everyone born to christian parents stays a christian. If you assume 50% of children born to christian parents stay christian, then clearly just over 50% of present christians were converted from non-christian upbringings, and just under 50% were born “christian”.

    So unless you can establish some different percentages, your whole argument about christians mostly believe because they were born into it is not supported by the evidence.

    “It records the dominant religion. Easy, right?”
    Yes, it records which religion is dominant in the culture, even if the country is mostly secular, it doesn’t record the level of actual belief. yet you draw conclusions about christian belief from it, which is inconsistent with the type of data.

    “I would hope that the lesson of the doubt inherent in Christian claims would encourage Christians to be a little more humble in the proclamation of their beliefs. Was that not clear from the blog post?”
    No Bob, this wasn’t clear from the blog post because it isn’t in the blog post! Your conclusion was the one I quoted above. Your statement here is a misrepresentation of your own post, I can only assume because you can no longer sustain your original conclusion. Again, a retraction rather than obfuscation would be a more rationalist response. I’m sorry to be so frank, I would much rather be friendly, but I find your response difficult to respect.

    “Your other arguments I find completely unconvincing.”
    This response also misses the point. We were discussing whether christians have any reason why they believe and you made certain statements about how they made a priori decisions about belief based mostly on their upbringing. I pointed out several arguments that, at least in a rudimentary form, would be reasons why most christians believe. So you start to argue that you don’t find the arguments convincing.

    But Bob, I know you don’t find them convincing and I wasn’t trying to convince you of their truth. What I was doing was supporting my statement that christians had reasons which we think are valid. But you have glossed over that answer – why?

    “And yet those other believers just keep on believin’. As an outsider, I don’t see much difference.”
    Yet again, this avoids the point. We both agree that other religions have limited truth. I was pointing out (in response to another claim of yours) that christians have reasons why we don’t believe in the other religions, and you answer a point I wasn’t making rather than address the point I was making.

    So you see, it is extremely frustrating to be discussing with someone who claims to be rational and logical, but who seems to base their views on wrong or no data, and then changes the topic rather than admit when their statements have been shown to be wrong. How could we ever get to discuss the really important questions if you are so unconcerned about evidence and valid conclusions?

    Again, I’m sorry to be so critical, but really, this comment of yours deserved it. Best wishes.

    • I checked a few sources on the web and found that, over the last few decades, christians are having less babies than the world’s average

      So what? You said, “Christianity grew from 1 to 2 bn +.” (And by 1, I assume you meant Paul 😉 )

      How is the fertility rate of Christians today relevant to how Christianity has grown over the past two millennia??

      Your point was that the huge number of Christians today was due to conversion and I simply pointed out that making babies within Christian communities is another important way to growth.

      I’m left with the feeling that you made this statement to defend your argument without checking the facts.

      And I hope I’ve put your mind at ease on this point.

      Now if the maps are wrong, your argument loses its basis.

      Seriously–this map thing is a tangent. If Australia is colored blue and blue means “Christian,” that simply means that the predominant religion in Australia is Christian, not that everyone is Christian or even that a majority of citizens are Christian. That’s just what the map means. No, your clarifications about the map do zilch to undercut the argument.

      Assuming christians have the same birth rate as other people, I used a spreadsheet with world and christian population estimates over 2000 years to estimate the numbers of conversions vs the numbers of births at the end of several period of time.

      And the assumption that every society acted identically is the problem. Some stayed put, but some colonized. The colonizers’ beliefs would take hold in the new lands.

      Have you read Guns, Germs, and Steel?

      So unless you can establish some different percentages, your whole argument about christians mostly believe because they were born into it is not supported by the evidence.

      The Faith in Flux poll (Pew Forum, 2009) says that, while there is much change between denominations of Christianity, only 4% of US citizens were raised Catholic but are now unaffiliated and 7% were raised Protestant but are now unaffiliated. 56% have retained their childhood faith, and 20% have gone between Catholicism and Protestantism.

      When you discard the 15% or so of non-Christians, that means that most Christians do indeed stick with Christianity.

      you draw conclusions about christian belief from it, which is inconsistent with the type of data.

      How this undercuts the point of the blog post eludes me.

      a retraction rather than obfuscation would be a more rationalist response

      Show me where a retraction is required.

      But you have glossed over that answer – why?

      Perhaps because, like a cornered animal, I’m just lashing out irrationally. Or perhaps I wanted to give a very brief rebuttal to your points, since you’d taken the time to raise them. You decide.

      If your point was simply to show that the list of arguments you find convincing has more than zero entries, OK.

      So you see, it is extremely frustrating to be discussing with someone who claims to be rational and logical, but who seems to base their views on wrong or no data, and then changes the topic rather than admit when their statements have been shown to be wrong.

      Misunderstandings happen. Where I’ve misunderstood the point of your argument, my answer isn’t obfuscation but an honest attempt to answer the question. Where I’ve made a mistake, point it out. Concluding that I’m being evasive is without basis.

      I’m sorry to be so critical, but really, this comment of yours deserved it.

      Ditto.

  25. Bob I appreciate your even temper, and I appreciate that you say: “Where I’ve made a mistake, point it out”. My problem is that when I do point out inconsistencies, you change the point of the argument or avoid answering my objection. I don’t really want to go over it all again – I don’t like being negative or criticising all the time – so I think I’ll leave it there. Thanks and best wishes.

  26. Since you have several days of posts, I was only able to go through a few of them. My question would be, in the original scenario. Why would it not be 50/50.? Sure, the original odds were as you mentioned but now not only have the odds changed (e.g. you are being asked to choose between two doors, not 300) but as you postulated, you have host who KNOWS what is behind each door.
    In addition, none of the doors could be examined or looked into to see if there may be evidence for choosing one over the other. I don’t think that a person’s faith, although certainly influenced by upbringing should be something the fails to stand the test of questioning. If a person’s were in an idol that he fashioned out of wood, I doubt it could stand much insight. Other faiths certainly would withstand more scrutiny.

    Just a thought but it doesn’t seem like it is a fair test to judge the validity of one’s faith.

    • I’m not sure what you’re asking. In the case of 300 doors, one having a prize and the others having goats, the point is that the probability (1/300) of your original pick is unchanged. Whatever’s left (all 299 doors, or the only one of that set left unopened) must be have a probability of 299/300 of holding the prize.

      I agree that a wooden idol doesn’t make a powerful supernatural claim, but why would Christianity be any different? There’s no more proof of Christianity than the wooden idol. Prayers are answered no more reliably when directed to Yahweh than to the idol. It’s only our familiarity with Christianity that gives it any luster at all.

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