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Tue May 1, 2012, 04:46 PM

Giant Jar of Jellybeans



What does this have to do with religion? I'll get there.

Most of us I assume are familiar with the idea of a jellybean jar contest. Participants attempt to guess the number of jellybeans in what's typically a large, and possibly oddly shaped, container of jellybeans. The person who guesses the correct number of jellybeans, or, in a more lenient version of the contest, guesses closest to the correct number, wins a prize.

Those running the contest might not even know the correct answer themselves until the contest is being decided and a careful counting is performed.

The relationship to religion I'm getting at? The difference between a scientific and rational approach to problem solving and a religious or mystical approach, as well as the problems of trying to be a bit too generous about wanting to say that everyone is "right" in their own special way.

DISCLAIMER: Yes, the analogy is less than perfect. Discussing how the analogy does and does not work could be an interested part of this discussion, and I don't want to discourage that. All I ask is that people who see a mismatch don't jump down my throat as if I'd insisted the analogy was perfect, terribly upset that I'd dare compare these things and be oh so terribly wrong about them.

(1) There is a truth, a single truth that's true for everyone, even before anyone knows what that truth is.

(2) The more precise your guess, the more likely that you're wrong. Although there might not be a prize for being vague, a guess like 1000-1200 is more likely to be correct than 1048.

(3) If there's a price for entering the contest, the smartest choice might be not to play at all, or only play the game in your mind without committing to anything.

(4) Two people with different guesses can only be correct at the same time if they both guess ranges rather than exact numbers, and those ranges overlap. If one person guesses 2030, and another guesses 1443, either one is wrong or both are wrong. Parables about blind men and elephants can't fix that.

(5) It's fine not to give a damn about the contest or the prize, but not giving a damn doesn't mean that there isn't a correct answer, or that everyone else should share your disinterest in the answer. Your desire for everyone to stop arguing over the jellybeans and just "try to get along" doesn't make the question or the answer go away. Your insistence that there are more important things to worry about than jellybeans doesn't mean that people arguing over the jellybeans have somehow abandoned all other concerns in life.

(6) Some answers are obviously crazy, like 2 or 3,000,000,000,000,000,011. The fact that "no one knows for sure" doesn't open up a door that makes all guesses "equally valid".

(7) I don't need to know the correct answer myself to judge the odds of your answer being correct. If you guess 89009, I say that's way too high, and you snap back, "Well then, what's the answer Mr. Know-it-all!?", that's frankly a stupid retort. I don't need to "know it all" when limited knowledge and understanding is sufficient to rule out some answers or approaches to obtaining answers.

(8) Even if there is no prize or I don't care about the prize, the challenge of getting to the answer might be interesting in and of itself. I might learn something by trying to come up with a good guess.

(9) Choosing an answer that "makes you happy" or that "works for you" (like maybe your child's birthday) will have no bearing on your odds of being correct, even if doing so has some other side-effect benefit of amusement for you.

(10) A person who says the answer "came to them in a dream" could turn out to be right. A person who performed a complicated mathematical analysis could be wrong. Probability favors the math over the dream, however, and the mere chance that the dream might be correct doesn't make the dreamer's approach "equally valid".

(11) If you're going to appeal to quantum mechanics to find a way that everyone can be correct -- for example, the multiverse interpretation -- then you have to accept that there are still many more ways for most people to be wrong, not to mention plenty of universes where the contestants all turn into jellybeans themselves or die in an asteroid strike before the contest ends, and you will then have stepped so far off the deep end searching for a way for everyone to be correct that you will have made discussion of the problem, not to mention everything from charity hospitals to retirement planning to congressional representation, pointless in the process.

26 replies, 3535 views

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Replies to this discussion thread
Arrow 26 replies Author Time Post
Reply Giant Jar of Jellybeans (Original post)
Silent3 May 2012 OP
Goblinmonger May 2012 #1
Gore1FL May 2012 #2
dmallind May 2012 #3
dimbear May 2012 #4
longship May 2012 #5
rug May 2012 #6
trotsky May 2012 #8
cleanhippie May 2012 #9
rug May 2012 #11
Silent3 May 2012 #12
rug May 2012 #14
Silent3 May 2012 #15
cleanhippie May 2012 #17
rug May 2012 #19
Silent3 May 2012 #10
rrneck May 2012 #7
deucemagnet May 2012 #13
Jim__ May 2012 #16
eqfan592 May 2012 #18
Jim__ May 2012 #20
eqfan592 May 2012 #21
Silent3 May 2012 #22
Jim__ May 2012 #23
Silent3 May 2012 #24
Jim__ May 2012 #25
Silent3 May 2012 #26

Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Tue May 1, 2012, 04:49 PM

1. I like it

And I think I could stare at that picture for quite some time.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Tue May 1, 2012, 04:58 PM

2. I'm reasonably OK with that.

I would add, the real way to the truth is not believing other people's guesses, and to discover new and better ways to count the beans using the scientific method.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Tue May 1, 2012, 05:40 PM

3. Quite useful yes. I have to muse further a bit though

While only one answer can be correct, it doesn't stop a generous organizer giving a prize to anyone and everyone who gets close.

Maybe the idea is that contestants are judged on how they try to work it out not even how close they get.

And remember - at least we have evidence (in that terribly limited reductionist positivist biased way of course) that the jar of jelly beans exists.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Tue May 1, 2012, 06:00 PM

4. Eenie meenie, jelly beany, the spirits are about to speak:

I'll just count on their revelations, thank you.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Tue May 1, 2012, 06:26 PM

5. But how many are ear wax flavored?

Sorry.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Tue May 1, 2012, 08:28 PM

6. Religion is not an approach to problem solving.

Although engineering is.

Nice jellybeans.

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Response to rug (Reply #6)

Tue May 1, 2012, 08:59 PM

8. That would be news to the vast majority of religious believers. n/t

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Response to rug (Reply #6)

Tue May 1, 2012, 08:59 PM

9. What is religion an approach to?

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Response to cleanhippie (Reply #9)

Tue May 1, 2012, 09:06 PM

11. At it's base, it's an attempt to encounter the divine

trite though it may sound.

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Response to rug (Reply #11)

Tue May 1, 2012, 10:25 PM

12. Which may or may not be there to be encountered...

...or might be there only as a product of vivid human imaginations, or might be there by defining "the divine" so broadly (if one bothers to define it at all) that whatever one encounters can conveniently become the divine you were looking for.

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Response to Silent3 (Reply #12)

Tue May 1, 2012, 11:09 PM

14. Or it might be there.

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Response to rug (Reply #14)

Tue May 1, 2012, 11:37 PM

15. I already allowed for "might be there" in my last post.

Some special reason you felt the need to reiterate that possibility?

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Response to rug (Reply #11)

Wed May 2, 2012, 09:46 AM

17. What is "the divine"?

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Response to cleanhippie (Reply #17)

Wed May 2, 2012, 01:07 PM

19. God, the Creator, that which is transcendent.

It breaks down after that.

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Response to rug (Reply #6)

Tue May 1, 2012, 09:04 PM

10. There are questions, however, and supposed answers in religion...

...and many people certainly say that they come to religion seeking answers to problems in their lives.

I realize that many people would like the difference between religion and engineering to be that religion is somehow special, numinous, esoteric, emotional, human, ineffable, etc., etc... in some way grander than "mere" engineering.

To me the difference, however, looks a lot more like hand waving and head games, which can certainly produce results of a sort, but often not the purported results, answers which are emotional placation and not real answers, answers which are convenient excuses to stop asking difficult questions.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Tue May 1, 2012, 08:42 PM

7. A theist would approach the problem

by saying that jelly beans taste good.

If you eat all of them they'll make you sick.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Tue May 1, 2012, 11:07 PM

13. I like it!

And just because I can only give a rough approximation of the number of jelly beans at this year's summer picnic doesn't mean that I won't acquire the ability to give a better approximation in the future. The God of the Gaps is always shrinking.

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Response to Silent3 (Original post)

Wed May 2, 2012, 07:53 AM

16. What is the scientific and rational approach to guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar?

I don't believe that either science or religion is particularly concerned with guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar. A question like, "how many jelly beans are there in this jar?", does have a correct and easily verifiable answer. A questions like, "How should I live?", probably does not have a correct answer, certainly not an easily verifiable one. I consider the question, "How should I live?" to be the more important question, the far more important question.

Is the scientific and rational approach to problem solving better than other approaches? It depends on what problem you are trying to solve.

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Response to Jim__ (Reply #16)

Wed May 2, 2012, 12:39 PM

18. So you're saying there isn't a rational approach to the question of "How should I live?"

Or am I misunderstanding your position?

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Response to eqfan592 (Reply #18)

Wed May 2, 2012, 07:40 PM

20. No, I'm not saying that.

First of all, I highlighted the "a" in:

A questions like, "How should I live?", probably does not have a correct answer, certainly not an easily verifiable one.


That was to emphasize that point 1 in the OP:

(1) There is a truth, a single truth that's true for everyone, even before anyone knows what that truth is.


while true for selected simple problems like how many jelly beans in a jar, is not always true for more complex problems.

Second, my answer was a direct response to the point in the OP about a scientific and rational approach to problem solving rather than just a rational approach to problem solving.

And, finally, my answer didn't make any claims about there being problems that had no rational (or no scientific and rational) approach to a solution.

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Response to Jim__ (Reply #20)

Wed May 2, 2012, 07:50 PM

21. Thank you for your clairification. (nt)

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Response to Jim__ (Reply #16)

Thu May 3, 2012, 02:29 PM

22. Only the wishy-washy liberal versions of religion...

...sometimes say (when that's the convenient let's-all-get-along language) that they're merely answers to "how should I live?".

When you dig deeper, often such believers sure speak and act as if there are real facts about the universe that religion has revealed to them that recommend one way of living of living over another. These ways of living aren't arbitrary. If you're just looking for a lifestyle that suits how you feel about things, one that gives you a social group that you like, or myths that appeal to you as myths, you don't need religion for that. Any religion chosen like a style of clothing isn't much of a religion.

As for the analogy being about "a correct and easily verifiable answer", that part of the analogy is only hypothetical, to get across that idea that just because an answer is currently beyond your reach, it isn't necessarily a thing that can be whatever you want or need it to be, even when verification remains out of reach.

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Response to Silent3 (Reply #22)

Fri May 4, 2012, 01:16 PM

23. Religions, even the "wishy-washy" ones, are not primarily interested in jelly bean enumeration ...

... type problems.

As for answers that are not known, they are, indeed, not known.

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Response to Jim__ (Reply #23)

Fri May 4, 2012, 04:57 PM

24. What, other than special pleading, makes those other problems so different?

Last edited Fri May 4, 2012, 09:47 PM - Edit history (1)

When there's wishy-washiness and vagueness and hand-waving to defend, you apparently can be reliably counted upon to ride to its rescue.

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Response to Silent3 (Reply #24)

Sat May 5, 2012, 06:25 AM

25. I'm "riding to the rescue?"



What, other than special pleading, make those other problem so different?


Well, as I stated in post #16:

A question like, "how many jelly beans are there in this jar?", does have a correct and easily verifiable answer.


Many of the questions that religion helps people to address don't have easily verifiable answers. A few examples:

  • Is there a god?
  • Is there a purpose to life?
  • Are there definite moral laws?
    ...

Seeing these as different types of questions from How many jelly beans are in this jar? is not special pleading.

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Response to Jim__ (Reply #25)

Sat May 5, 2012, 08:40 AM

26. Repeating what you already said, then stating a few examples of questions...

...which you think are somehow "different" does nothing to explain how or why they are different. "What is 2 + 2?" is indeed a different question than "What is 3 + 4?", but not in any substantively important way.

"Is there a god?"

That's only different from the OP question in that people keep playing around with what they mean by "god"... often the same people, sometimes in the same conversation.

But once you settle on a clear definition I contend that, just like there's an answer to how many jelly beans are in the jar, even when verification is out of reach, for any clear definition of god, that god either exists or doesn't exist, whether you can verify the answer or not. Difficulty of verification in and of itself certainly doesn't make the answer personal, it doesn't make the answer anything you want or emotionally need it to be.

And as for "riding to the rescue" of religiosity, you think my making that observation is ? You aren't even aware of what you yourself consistently and repeatedly do in this forum? In the past you've claimed to be either an atheist or an agnostic yourself (I forget which, since you act like neither), but you hardly ever voice agreement with most of what many atheists say here, but instead you make a habit of leaping in to defend the poor, persecuted religious majority whenever atheists criticize religion for being irrational or superstitious or whatever the particular case might be.

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