Would you teach your child that Great Grampy got a Royal Flush?

Posted on 05/23/11 40 Comments

Occasionally a line of questioning / dialogue opens up in a thread which deserves to be put in the spotlight. This is one of those cases. It all began yesterday when The Atheist Missionary questioned me on what it is appropriate to teach a child. I’ve reproduced the nuts and bolts of that conversation below. My final starred response is original to this particular post. For ease of reference I’ve rendered TAM’s statements in a delicate powder pink and mine in a robust royal blue.

The Atheist Missionary

Randal, do you think it’s reasonable to teach a child that a human being walked on water, later died, started to rot, came back to life and ascended to heaven (wherever and whatever that is)? Is that reasonable?

Randal

I take it that this is a token of a general type of question. But what is the type? Is it this? “Is it reasonable to teach a child about extraordinary unrepeatable events that one believes occurred in the past?” If that’s the type of which your question is a token then I’d answer: it depends. Sometimes it is reasonable and sometimes not. And that includes the specific instance you note.

The Atheist Missionary

It won’t surprise you to hear that I believe it is improper to “teach a child about extraordinary unrepeatable events that one believes occurred in the past“. This is religious indoctrination and I must admit that I believe it is commensurate to abuse.

[An aside: “commensurate to abuse”? Goodness! Strong words from the Missionary!]

Randal

Here’s one extraordinary unrepeatable event that I believe occurred in the past: the Big Bang. Are you saying I shouldn’t teach my child this occurred? That seems strange to me. I thought you were a man of science.

The Atheist Missionary

If you can look at me with a straight face and suggest that the Big Bang is of commensurate probability to the supposed miraculous events described above, I’ve got some oceanfront property in Okotoks that might interest you.

Randal

I pointed out that by your own criterion you couldn’t teach your own children that the Big Bang occurred. (Yes, I was setting you up. I admit it.) You then make a reference to “probabilities”. As you say, “If you can look at me with a straight face and suggest that the Big Bang is of commensurate probability to the supposed miraculous events described above, I’ve got some oceanfront property in Okotoks that might interest you.”

That’s a whoppingly inadequate response. In fact, it is little more than a rhetorical quip which aims to draw attention away from the fact that faithful adherence to your own principle would preclude you from teaching the Big Bang. So I will assume that you would not in fact follow that principle. So which principle would you follow then? What is the class of reports on unrepeatable, unique past events would you consider verboten for your children and why?

The Atheist Missionary

“The reason why I would be willing to “teach” the Big Bang and not Bible miracles is due to the fact that there is overwhelming consensus among the scientific community that the Big Bang occurred.”

*Randal

Great, so  now we have a new criterion. You now say that an unrepeatable unique past event can be taught as having occurred to our children if a consensus of scientific experts agrees that the event in question occurred. But doesn’t that seem bizarrely narrow to you?

Here’s an example of why. Let’s say that you have a family heirloom — a crystal commode — which was won by your great grandfather after he got three Royal flushes in a row in a game of poker. (Get it? Commode? Royal flush?) We know of the event through the written testimony of your great grandfather, the testimony of two other people who were there, and the acquisition of the commode itself.

Are you telling me you’d have to wait for a consensus of scientific experts to render a judgment on whether your great grandfather got three straight Royal flushes before you would share that story with your children? Forgive me for being informal but Dude, that’s just plain silly!

A Sober  Poetic Conclusion

How quick we are to call “commensurate to abuse”

Teaching that differs from what we assume

In righteous indignation we issue a rant

And then make up our principles … by the seat of our pants

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  • Walter

    Having no children of my own, all I can do is speculate as to what I would teach my kids, but I would probably share with them the claims of several different world religions–at least the ones that I am somewhat familiar with (including the claims of atheists). I would attempt to show them the best arguments for and against each particular worldview, and give them the freedom to decide for themselves what to believe, even if it means that they come to far different conclusions than I did.

    I would want them to think through these issues for themselves in as objective a manner as possible.

    Of course, if I believed in a god that consigns people to an eternity of suffering for not adopting the correct theological beliefs before they die, then you can guarantee that I would indoctrinate the snot out of them in an attempt to save their immortal souls. Since I don’t believe in a deity that treats this life like one big theology exam, I can be a little less uptight about what my children choose to believe.

  • Stoo

    re: teaching of Jesus’ miracles, I think of course parents will want to pass on their faith, traditions and stories. I think to claim that as somehow securely known as the big bang is on dodgy ground, but if you’re reaching for the Angry Retort button (it has “how do you know that you know that you know that you know” written on) let me just say I really don’t like calling that “abuse”. Look, there’s a “dawkins was wrong!”

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    I’m flattered by the attention and I love the pink.

    The probability of getting a royal flush from a randomly shuffled deck of cards (according to that infallible resource Wikipedia) is 0.000154%. I don’t need a consensus of scientific experts to know that there is no way Grandpa was honestly dealt three straight royal flushes although that claim is much more probable than somebody walking on water or rising from the dead because we can calculate the probability of 3 straight royal flushes, extreme though it may be. The witness and testimony of two others who were there sounds suspiciously like the beginnings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Have you chatted with any Mormon missionaries lately Randal? It’s one of my favorite past-times.

    • Brad Haggard

      I can’t resist, TAM:

      If you think it’s obvious that the deck was stacked in grandpa’s favor, then why can there be no agent behind creation when the specific life-permitting parameters of physical constants is many orders of magnitude less likely?

      • randal

        Brad’s right, you walked into another trap! Cosmologists estimate that there are at least 25 cosmological constants that had to be finely tuned for the universe to produce intelligent life. Every one far exceeds a Royal flush in statistical improbability. If you’d infer intelligent design for three Royal flushes, how about 25 or 50?

        • beetle

          The odds of being delt a Royal Flush, after the fact, is 100%. Likewise, you should look up the weak anthropic principle rather than essays about magic cosmic fine tuning.

          • Brad Haggard

            Beetle, I’m not sure how you can assign a different probability value to a tensed fact. I think you’re talking apples and oranges here.

            • beetle

              I am talking about assessing odds after you are looking at the cards! Wikipedia has some great quotes on the fine tuned universe. My favorite so far: “The conditional probability of finding yourself in a universe compatible with your existence is always 1.”

    • randal

      “I love the pink.”

      I thought you might.

      But you do need to address the very serious point at hand: I showed that your appeal to scientific consensus is spurious. So what criterion will you propose now as the necessary condition for teaching a child a unique, unrepeatable event from the past?

      • Walter

        I am curious, Randal, as to whether you teach your children that Jesus’ resurrection happened as a absolute, certain fact, or that you simply believe that there is a high probability that it happened based on the historical evidence?

        My Baptist parents taught me that it was an unassailable fact that the res. really happened.

        • randal

          Walter, I find that question a bit strange. When I teach my daughter various things that I believe to be true about history, the natural world, politics, et cetera, I don’t typically include the probabilities I ascribe to the truth of every proposition.

          But I wouldn’t present claims about the resurrection the way your Baptist parents did.

          • Walter

            Walter, I find that question a bit strange. When I teach my daughter various things that I believe to be true about history, the natural world, politics, et cetera, I don’t typically include the probabilities I ascribe to the truth of every proposition.

            What about when there is some dispute as to whether a past historical event actually happened, do you share with them the arguments of those that disagree with your position? The reason that I ask is because it can be quite shocking when a young person first learns that not everything that Mommy, Daddy, and Pastor Joe teaches turns out to be the bedrock fact that they were led to believe.

            In other words, do you present the fair and balanced view to your children?

            • randal

              Of course I aim to provide a “fair and balanced view” to my child. Of course, everybody would claim this about their parenting: both Harold Camping and Richard Dawkins would be claiming to be fair and balanced. Nobody sets out to indoctrinate.

              I certainly let my daughter know about disagreements where pertinent. When Christian parents (or atheist parents) provide only one perspective and don’t equip a child to wrestle with ambiguity, they are doing that child a real disservice. That’s one reason that Dawkins’ advice is so troubling.

              By the way, don’t think that teaching a child the doctrines of multiple worldviews with no commentary is somehow “neutral”. This is reflective of another worldview perspective.

              • Walter

                By the way, don’t think that teaching a child the doctrines of multiple worldviews with no commentary is somehow “neutral”. This is reflective of another worldview perspective.

                Correct. It reflects a worldview where a fallible human being need not fear eternal punishment for the horrible crime of “getting it wrong.”

                And I agree that there is no such thing as a neutral position.

                • randal

                  “Correct. It reflects a worldview where a fallible human being need not fear eternal punishment for the horrible crime of “getting it wrong.””

                  Uh, maybe. It could also represent a worldview that is inordinately skeptical and naively individualistic.

                  • Walter

                    Uh, maybe. It could also represent a worldview that is inordinately skeptical and naively individualistic.

                    Care to flesh this comment out a little?

                    What is inordinately skeptical about presenting your kids with various religious and naturalistic theories concerning the ultimate nature of reality? Like the Fox News slogan states “We Report, You Decide.”

                    I never stated that I would present these theories without commentary, or that I would not offer my opinion to my kids as to what I consider to be the metaphysical worldview that I feel comes closest to being the truth.

                    I am a card-carrying bachelor, so this is all hypothetical from my pov.

                    • randal

                      Sure I can “flesh it out”. A father could leave literature around the house that argues for and against the thesis that climate change is human-induced. Would that represent a father who is especially open-minded? Maybe, but maybe not. You can make the very same point with respect to worldviews.

          • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

            Whether we are talking about the resurrection of Christ or Granpappy’s three straight royal flushes, we are talking about supposed historical events. History doesn’t tell us what happened, it tells us what probably happened.

            My criteria about believing in past unique and unrepeatable events? That’s easy: examine the available evidence (i.e. historical sources) and determine what is most likely to have happened.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    Brad, I don’t discount the possibility that there could be an agent behind creation. However, what do you rely on to say that it’s your Yahweh and not an alien teenager from another dimension?

    Randal, I’m sorry for being so dense but I don’t see how you have showed that my appeal to scientific consensus is spurious. I rely on science for all kinds of things: the structural integrity of the bridges I crossed today, the efficacy of the medication we gave our cat this morning, the design of the golf balls I’ve been shanking all day and the safety of the propane hook-up we are using to cook our dinner. Scientific consensus isn’t perfect but it’s the most reliable guide I have found to date. Are you aware of a more reliable guide?

    • randal

      “I don’t see how you have showed that my appeal to scientific consensus is spurious.”

      There’s nothing wrong with deferring to a scientific consensus. There is something terribly wrong with suggesting that you cannot believe your great grandfather got a royal flush (or three) until there is a scientific consensus on the matter!

      So rethink your criteria about believing in past unique and unrepeatable events and get back to me.

    • Brad Haggard

      TAM, I don’t think the design argument gets us to trinitarian theology. I’d have to argue for revelation after that, but your admission is usually much more than skeptics typically allow.

  • crrodriguez

    The fallacies here are many:

    The deliberate mixing of manipulation of pre-existent matter with creation. and giving them somewhat the same value for analogy.

    Special pleading and false dichotomies jesus he may had Catalepsy, or his body was picked up by someone else, or as the quran says, the jews really killed someone else.

    There is no evidence to support any of this claims, however there is an increasing amount of data supporting the big-bang.

    • randal

      crrodriguez,

      The topic of this post is as follows: The Atheist Missionary proposed (after some interrogation) that the criterion for believing in and teaching the occurrence of past unrepeatable unique events is that a scientific consensus exist on the matter. I pointed out that this is a spurious criterion with a reducio ad absurdum, i.e. if this were true then TAM could not believe that his great grandfather got three royal flushes. This shows that the proposed criterion is false because there are all sorts of things we can believe about the past while lacking a scientific consensus.

    • Brad Haggard

      Not sure any of those options you presented are live options at all in the actual literature.

  • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

    crrodriquez, please don’t take special pleading away from Randal. It’s his special pet.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    The odds of a Royal Flush are about 1 in 649,740. The odds of three in a row would be around 1 in 2.74×10^17 (274 million billion).

    So, I take it you’re saying the odds of someone being able to perform the miracles ascribed to Jesus are of about that order of magnitude?

    • randal

      “So, I take it you’re saying the odds of someone being able to perform the miracles ascribed to Jesus are of about that order of magnitude?”

      Um, no. The argument has absolutely nothing to do with the statistical improbability of 1 (or three) Royal flushes. The argument remains the same if grampy won the commode based on a single hand of three of a kind.

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        Getting three Royal Flushes in a row is very, very improbable, but still possible via known natural laws.

        Raising someone from the dead after three days is technically possible, too. Staggeringly unlikely, of course – odds where you’d need scientific notation just to describe the number of zeroes – but possible.

        The odds of the two situations are incomparable – a case of a difference in degree becoming a difference in kind. Two or three testimonies and a crystal commode are sufficient to establish the former, not the latter.

        In this case, it seems to me that TAM is using “overwhelming consensus among the scientific community” as a shorthand for ‘a whole heap of evidence sufficient to establish its likelihood’.

        • randal

          “The odds of the two situations are incomparable – a case of a difference in degree becoming a difference in kind.”

          If this is a conclusion of an argument I missed the premises that support it.

          Look, what are the odds that the church’s piano will get moved from the church basement to the sanctuary? It depends, first of all, on the presence of agents in the church. If the church is abandoned and there are no agents around to move it, then it is highly unlikely the piano will go anywhere but the basement. So if you believe there are agents in the church, the probability would skyrocket that the piano could be moved in a way that would be exceedingly improbable without the presence of agents (i.e. up the stairs and into the sanctuary).

          It is exceedingly unlikely that a dead person would do anything but stay dead. Unless there is an agent to raise the person out of the grave just like there are agents to raise the piano up the stairs.

          So there we are: TAM’s skepticism is really wholly dependent on a prior commitment to atheism, a starting point I obviously don’t share. Now I could have stated that at the outset but it is as much about the journey as the destination.

          • Jestbill

            Missed the premises?
            How about determining whether there actually are some “agents” present?

            The stated probability of a hand of cards depends on there being cards and a dealer. The story does not depend on the dealer or the cards being honest, only that they existed and that a certain bet was made and won.

            Your calculation of odds depending on the presence of (possibly) imaginary agents is an entirely different argument that depends on a belief in unseen, unverifiable piano movers. Different.

            That way leads to statements like “I don’t understand it so Zot did it.” which is only occasionally useful.

            • randal

              For any event there are two possible ground-level explanations: an event cause and an agent cause. If a person is going to stipulate that the latter type of cause is inadmissible for explaining a particular class of events (e.g. events in the natural world) the person should have an argument for it.

              Anyways, the focus of this post is on what basis TAM would or would not teach his child that a non-repeatable unique event occurred in the past.

          • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

            It is exceedingly unlikely that a dead person would do anything but stay dead. Unless there is an agent to raise the person out of the grave just like there are agents to raise the piano up the stairs.

            You must have had to duck pretty low for the point to have gone over your head. :)

            If that was your point, then your original analogy is even worse. You are now comparing something unlikely, but still possible by chance to something that could never arise by chance (that, indeed, we don’t see how to make happen at all).

            Which just reinforces my point that the two situations cannot be compared. And that the amount of evidence needed to establish one is much smaller than what’s needed to establish the other…

            • randal

              The analogy works perfectly for the purpose to which I put it: that is, to illustrate the ad hoc absurdity of TAM’s principle which would disallow him from sharing family history with his children until a panel of experts had confirmed the event had in fact occurred.

              • crrodriguez

                As far as I can see, the big difference here is that grandpa does not claim to do miracles, nor the son of god,ressurection or watch and care for you every day neither claims to offer moral guidance nor eternal punishment.

                That’s a big claim you know ;)

                • randal

                  It is a disanalogy. But that disanalogy is not relevant to the point I was making. The illustration has a single purpose: point out that if TAM consistently applied the criterion he had proposed then he couldn’t share family history with his own child apart from a field of experts confirming the testimony. So back to the drawing board for him.

  • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

    Walter said:

    Randal said:

    “By the way, don’t think that teaching a child the doctrines of multiple worldviews with no commentary is somehow ‘neutral’. This is reflective of another worldview perspective.”

    Correct. It reflects a worldview where a fallible human being need not fear eternal punishment for the horrible crime of “getting it wrong.”

    The implication here, of course, is that unless you teach your child contradictory doctrines without commentary, you must believe that human’s eternal destiny depends primarily on getting a few particular facts “right”.

    Such a practice is the result of a perspective that says, “Different worldviews all lead to the same basic conclusions, so it doesn’t matter which one we select for.” The only way you can present a child alternate sides without commentary is if you don’t think ideas have consequences.

    • Walter

      Such a practice is the result of a perspective that says, “Different worldviews all lead to the same basic conclusions, so it doesn’t matter which one we select for.” The only way you can present a child alternate sides without commentary is if you don’t think ideas have consequences.

      That is essentially correct. I don’t think anyone truly KNOWS what happens after death, if anything at all. So yes, I would say that adopting one of many different metaphysical theories will not have any eternal consequences.

      And for the record, I have stated that I would provide my opinion to my kids as to which worldview that I find the most plausible. In other words, when junior asks why I am not a Muslim, Hindu, or trinitarian Christian, I will explain why I do not believe these views are correct.

      • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

        I didn’t say anything about eternal consequences. Ideas have temporal consequences too. In fact, I’d say that the vast majority of touchy issues in the world today represent the temporal consequences of conflicting worldviews.

        • Walter

          they sure do

  • Jestbill

    Mathematics: you calculated the odds and then deny them. Shame. The fact that the result is extremely rare does not mean that it didn’t happen.

    Literature: there are no “odds” on someone rising from the dead. To deny it is to believe (again) in the “odds.”

    (There are, though, “odds” on the likelihood that someone was mistaken or conned… or a con.)