You are presented with a jar full of gumballs. There are no broken gumballs inside the jar, they are all whole gumballs. Most sceptics and atheists will have heard the Gumball Analogy already. It’s a pretty common analogy used by sceptics and atheists who have discussions on places like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Fans of The Atheist Experience will certainly recognise it, as it’s an argument created, used, and popularised by Matt Dillahunty. Though I have also had people mention that it was Tracie Harris that first created it. The analogy then went on to be used by many other sceptics and atheists in the community.
As you can probably guess from the title of the article, and that opening paragraph, that will be the focus of the article. For those looking for a complete rebuttal to the Gumball Analogy, I’m afraid you’ll probably be disappointed. I will be taking a critical look at the analogy, and pointing out where I think some people go wrong using it. But I will also be commenting on what I think it gets right, as I think there are some valid points to be made using the analogy. While I know that most people are probably familiar with the analogy, I’ll still begin with a description of the analogy. Then follow that with a look at what the analogy is claimed to show.
The Gumball Analogy
As stated at the very beginning of the article, you are presented with a jar full of gumballs. Inside the jar there are only whole gumballs. The jar is packed to the top with these gumballs. The only thing we know about the jar of gumballs is what we can see. We have no way of knowing how many gumballs there are in the jar, at least not without opening it up and counting them. There is one thing that we can tell though. There will be an odd or an even number of gumballs. With all of the gumballs being whole there can be no fractions involved, only whole numbers. This means that it must be odd or even, because whole numbers are odd and even. So, the question asked to us is, are there an odd number of gumballs in the jar or an even number?
What the Analogy Intends
The analogy is intended to show a couple of ideas. One of the first things it is intended to show is the idea of the burden of proof. We cannot know how many gumballs are in the jar, nor can we know whether the number of gumballs is odd or even. As stated previously, we must open up the jar and count them to get this information. Showing that proof is needed in order to support any claim about the state of the number of gumballs. Both how many are in there, and whether there is an odd or even number in there.
Another focus of the analogy is belief states. There are several things about belief states that the analogy is used to argue for. One thing that is intended to be shown is that we should proportion our beliefs according to the evidence. If we consider what we can know about the jar just by looking at it, then the only thing that we seem to be justified believing is that there is an odd or even number of gumballs. This is something we can reason about the jar based simply on how numbers work, and does not necessarily need empirical evidence to support. It is analytical in nature, and true based on definitions alone. Any other beliefs about the state of affairs concerning the number of gumballs appear need empirical support in order to be reasonable.
The analogy also intends to show that belief states are binary. Meaning that someone either believes something or does not believe that something. You either believe the gumballs are an odd number, or you do not believe it is an odd number. The same when it comes to belief about whether it is an even number. The statement ‘there is an odd number of gumballs in the jar’ is a proposition, and can only be true or false.
The statement ‘I believe the number of gumballs is odd’ is a proposition about your belief state, and just as with ‘the number of gumballs is odd’, this proposition too can only be true or false. In both examples of the proposition there is no middle ground, it can only be true or false. Just as the number of gumballs can only be odd or even. To argue for a middle ground would be to break the law of excluded middle. The same can be said for the statement ‘there is an even number of gumballs in the jar’ and ‘I believe there is an even number of gumballs in the jar’.
It also intends to show that not believing one proposition does not mean that you believe the opposite proposition. Not believing that there is an even number of gumballs in the jar does not automatically mean that you believe there is an odd number of gumballs in the jar. Which certainly does seem to be case, it is possible to not believe both propositions describing the odd-ness or even-ness of the gumballs in the jar. So, while there may be no middle ground when it comes to believing they are odd or believing they are even, there is a middle ground of not believing either.
Burden of Proof
There may be other things that the analogy intends to show, but these are the things I most commonly heard attributed to it. From atheists and sceptics, as well as when I’ve heard Matt Dillahunty speak about. So, these are the main things I will focus on. Let’s begin first with the analogy’s representation of the burden of proof. I am currently working a script doing a deep dive in ideas about the burden of proof, so I will save a more detailed explanation for that. For this video I’ll just focus on what the analogy represents.
As stated earlier, when it comes to what we can know about the number of gumballs there is very little. We cannot know the number of gumballs in the Gumball Jar, nor can we whether that number is odd or even. At best we could make a guess. This means that any claim we make about the number of gumballs is at best a guess. It would also be a guess that is not based on any evidence. Therefore, if we want to be good sceptics, we should withhold belief in any claim made about the number of gumballs in the jar. Why would wanting to be a sceptic imply that?
This can best be summed up by a statement popularised by Matt Dillahunty, ‘I want to believe as many true things as possible, and as few things as possible’. The statement represents, at least in part, the motivations of many sceptics. The desire to avoid believing false things, the desire to avoid falling for scams, and that kind of thing, also plays a part. Of course, there can be, and will be, other motivations when it comes to individuals, this statement describes the motivation of scepticism as well. At least, a certain kind of scepticism. Radical Scepticism is a different matter, but the average sceptic and atheist is not working from Radical Scepticism, but a more general scepticism.
So, in my opinion, the gumball analogy can work pretty well as an analogy for showing the burden of proof and scepticism. There is one thing that should be avoided when arguing this though. The analogy does not show that only empirical evidence can suffice as evidence, only that empirical evidence is necessary before we should accept or believe certain claims. The idea that we can discover that there is either an odd or even number of gumballs in the jar through reason alone shows that there are things we can deduce without empirical evidence. Plus, if the analogy is intended to be used as evidence for scepticism, or for beliefs being binary, or for atheism meaning a particular thing, then the gumball analogy is also evidence that arguments and analogies can considered as evidence for certain things.
Next up is its use in arguing that beliefs are binary, or that belief states are binary at least. To recap the argument, it’s the idea that you either believe the gumballs are odd or you don’t, and as a separate matter you either believe that gumballs are even, or you don’t. As stated previously, this is based on expressing those beliefs as propositions, and adhering to the Law of Excluded Middle. Which argues that a proposition is either true or false, and there is no middle ground.
This argument is true of course. If your belief state is expressed propositionally, then you either believe or you don’t. There is only the true or false option, and as stated it would break the Law of Excluded Middle to offer a middle ground. So, it seems reasonable to accept this argument. However, this ignores certain things when it comes to beliefs. Things that the analogy actually goes on to argue, while ignoring them for this particular part.
The reason that the analogy ignores these ideas is because it being used to support a very specific claim. That specific claim being that you are either a theist, or you are an atheist. You either believe God exists, and are therefore a theist. Or you do not believe, and are therefore an atheist. Which this argument seems to support. Job done, right?
Well, no, unfortunately not. This argument might support how an individual is using the terms, or give some explanation of why they are using terms that way. However, it does not support that there is a fact of the matter regarding the term atheism. It does not support that there is a fact of the matter that atheism must be used this way, any more than citing a dictionary supports that there is a fact of the matter that atheism must be used a certain way. We will look at this in more detail later, but for now let’s return to the idea that beliefs are binary and there is no middle ground. So, are beliefs only binary?
Are Beliefs Binary?
When we look at purely in the sense of a proposition then beliefs do appear to be binary. The proposition describes the existence of a psychological state in the agent. That psychological state either exists or it doesn’t exist. However, when we speak about beliefs we don’t always speak of them in the context of the existence of the psychological state. We generally speak about them in terms of our attitude towards the proposition. These attitudes are not based on Classical Logic.
Consider a question like ‘Do aliens exist?’. How would you answer that question? Some might answer ‘I think so’, some might answer ‘I don’t think so’, and others might answer ‘I’m not sure’. There may be variations in the wording, but they are the general attitudes that one might have when answering the question. This sort of idea also applies to the question ‘Does God exist?’, as well as many other similar questions. If we were to honestly reflect on how we actually think about our beliefs, we would see that we rarely speak about them in terms of whether a particular psychological state exists.
They are usually thought about in terms of certainty, credence, confidence, and as admitted by the gumball analogy without admitting to it, there are neutral positions on certain topics. As the gumball analogy states, it is possible to have a neutral position. Not believing one proposition does not mean you believe the opposing proposition. Admitting that when it comes to beliefs, they are not the binary idea that many arguing using the gumball analogy are putting forward. It is possible to be uncertain about certain claims, and this includes the claim of God’s existence. If the gumball analogy is applied to belief in God, it becomes obvious that it is possible to be neutral on the position of God’s existence.
Which brings us to the problem with this part of the argument. It is driven by a specific purpose. That purpose is to argue that atheism and theism are binaries. And that atheism is based solely on not believing God exists. It is driven by the idea that atheism is a lack of belief in god or gods and that’s it. The analogy tries to show this using poor logic driven arguments. Its purpose is to show that atheism is, or can be, a neutral position. While also arguing that there are no neutral positions when it comes to belief in god. The argument, in essence, contradicts itself due to its desire to argue for what could be considered ideological purposes.
The sceptic and atheist using this portion of the analogy is more than happy to throw reason, scepticism, and logic, out the window in order to protect the claim that atheism is a lack of belief in god or gods and that’s it. They are also willing to ignore counter evidence, counter claims, and counter arguments, in order to defend that belief. Which undoes the good work that the burden of proof analogy does with the analogy.
The Failure of the Analogy
It is here that the analogy breaks down and fails, and there really is no need for it. Using the analogy to argue for anything about what atheism must mean will always fail. As will any other argument for why atheism must mean a certain thing. Regardless of what meaning is being put forward. Which causes what is, or at least could be, a good and helpful analogy to break down, and weakens it. Using this analogy to argue for what atheism must mean also promotes bad scepticism. Which is in opposition to its use for promoting good scepticism. Undoing the good work that its promotion of scepticism does.
One thing it does highlight is that some sceptics and atheists are no less susceptible to starting with a conclusion and forming evidence to support it. The position that atheism is a lack of belief in god or gods and that’s it is assumed. And then the analogy is used to support it. As well as the idea that there are no neutral positions when it comes to belief. Both of these things are assumed before the argument, and the argument tailored to those conclusions. Something that not only sceptics and atheists criticise in those outside of those circles, but promote avoiding within those circles. Again, undoing the good work the analogy does when promoting the idea of the burden of proof.
No Need For It
There really is no need for it either. Words work in such a way that different groups can use words and terms differently. If someone wants to identify as atheist, and make that identity ‘someone that lacks a belief in god or gods’, then they really are free to do so. Will there be others that argue again that usage? Of course, there will, that is simply par for the course. Will there be people that argue that there are other ways of using the term atheist? Of course, there will. The gumball analogy can also be used to argue for those other ways of using the term atheist. Just as it is used for the idea that lack of belief is the definition of atheism.
However, none of those arguments have any kind of authority over how the term must be used. There simply is no authority on how the word must be used, except in a contextual sense. My video ‘Atheism: A Tale of Two Usages’ goes into detail about why there is no such thing as a one true definition of atheism. As well as why there cannot be such a thing as one true definition of atheism. Unless one wants to promote the idea as a form of dogma. Which is not something that atheists and sceptics should be doing. Something that I would imagine that most sceptics and atheists would agree with, and I often see them arguing against.
So, to conclude, I would argue that the gumball analogy is useful, and makes some good arguments. The problem comes when people try to extend that beyond what the gumball analogy can be argued for. It comes when people use it to argue for what atheism must mean, or how the word must be used. Or when used to argue against the idea that beliefs are binary and there is no middle ground. Doing so ignores how beliefs actually work when it comes to claims and propositions. And does so in the face of evidence on how they work when it comes to claims and propositions. It puts dogma before good reasoning, something that goes against good scepticism.
It should be important for a sceptic to remember something mentioned by David Hume. That we ought to proportion our beliefs to the evidence. By clinging on to certain arguments the gumball analogy is used to promote, the sceptic and atheist is not proportioning their belief to the evidence. Instead, they are proportioning the evidence to the belief. They are also willing to throw their scepticism out the window in favour of that belief. If the idea of the gumball analogy is to promote good scepticism, then these arguments should be dropped. As they most certainly are not supported by the gumball analogy.
There is obviously much more that I could say about the ideas here, but I am doing my best to try to keep the length of my articles down. This article does, hopefully, give some idea of where and why the analogy breaks down. At least in how it’s used by many atheists and sceptics. Which is a shame in my opinion. As there are some strong ideas and arguments that can be made from it. The problem comes from overreach by the wielder of the analogy.
Thanks for reading, hopefully there has been some food for thought here. Don’t forget to check out my video on ‘Atheism: A Tale of Two Usages’ for why arguments about what atheism and atheist must mean are non-starter arguments. It also discusses why I think these arguments are not only pointless, but harmful to good scepticism and the atheist community in general. See you soon, take care all!
Hi, I’m Dave. As you can already tell, I’m one of the authors at AiR, as well as a member of the podcast. I’m also the Dave you see on our live streams on Twitch and YouTube. I am an atheist. I don’t use the ‘lack of belief’ definition though, and use the ‘belief God does not exist’ definition for me. I have always been an atheist, and have never been part of a religion.
While I do enjoy discussions around the existence of God, I try to post a wider range of content here. My focus is mainly on philosophy, as that is the topic I enjoy. I have a BA in Philosophy and Psychology, and am waiting on the results for my MA in Philosophy. Will find out in December whether I have been awarded the degree!
This is why my posts tend to focus more on the philosophy side of things. I try to post a wider range of topics than just those surrounding theism and atheism. You will also find articles discussing arguments from atheists that I find to be lacking, or poorly argued. This is mostly because I want to see the atheist community improve its arguments, and to see atheists give stronger and better arguments.
Hopefully you will enjoy some of my content, and I hope even more that it makes you look at certain arguments and ideas in a different way. Plus, hopefully some atheists that dismiss philosophy out of hand might actually see it’s more interesting than they first though. Philosophy is an awesome subject!