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When I was a kid, I liked to read puzzle books and try to figure out the answers without looking in the back. I do remember one puzzle, though, that I couldn’t understand even after I read the answer.

Here’s a variant of that puzzle. See if you do any better.

The puzzle of the hidden dots

The abbot at the Logical Monastery was retiring. He had submitted logical tests and puzzles to the monks to find the most worthy successor. With three candidates remaining, he presented his final problem.

He arranged them in a circle facing each other. “Close your eyes,” the abbot said. “I will put on your forehead a dot of paint, either red or blue.”

The abbot put a red dot on each monk’s forehead. “Now open your eyes, and raise your hand if you see at least one red dot.”

Each monk raised his hand.

“The first one to identify the color of his dot, with the correct reasoning, will take my place as head of this monastery.”

Finally, one monk said, “My dot is red, and I know why.”

What was his reasoning?

If this puzzle is new to you, you may want to work on it before reading the answer below.

God belief as a logic puzzle

Some Christians have little use for evidence and arguments and are content to accept a remarkable claim from an authority such as a parent or a priest. But for those who need reasons to support their beliefs, however, this logic puzzle is analogous to what some apologists say God has set before us. You must read books. You must study philosophy. You must listen to lectures and watch debates. You must wrestle with and overcome your doubts. You must learn obtuse arguments like the Transcendental Argument or the Ontological Argument, and you must defeat challenges like the Problem of Evil or the Problem of Divine Hiddenness.

Apologists imagine God belief as this kind of obtuse puzzle, not because the evidence points that way but because they’re forced to. They have no choice, since the simpler and more desirable option—that God’s existence is as obvious as the existence of the next person you walk past on the sidewalk—is clearly not available to them. Unwilling to give up their beliefs or to admit that they’ve been wrong, they assume God, double down on faith, and invent these bizarre rationalizations.

Find the simpler explanation. A loving creator god who desired a relationship with his creation would just make himself known. We have insufficient evidence to overcome the default hypothesis, that God is yet another made-up supernatural being.

If you’re just going to go with “well, his ideas lived on,”
I’ll put Jesus behind Archimedes, Socrates, Euclid, Galileo, Newton,
Darwin, Pasteur, Einstein, Fleming, and Bohr in that regard.
All of their ideas are current today
and of great value in modern society,
whereas Jesus espoused monarchy, slavery,
and 2nd-class status for women.
— commenter Richard S. Russell


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 10/22/14.)

Image via David Singleton, CC license

Appendix: The reasoning of the logical monk

I suppose the test should be equally hard for each participant. I see two red dots, and for us to have the same puzzle, symmetry would demand that we all see two red dots. But I can’t be sure that we were each given the same puzzle, so that assumption may be a trap.

Let me start with the facts: I see two red dots, and the options are (1) I have a blue dot and (2) I have a red dot.

Consider option 1 first. How would the other monks reason if I had blue? Since they each have red, they would see Red Guy and Blue Guy. They would think, “Suppose I had blue. Red Guy would see two blues—me and Blue Guy. He wouldn’t have raised his hand to say that he saw at least one red. But he did! So therefore the hypothesis ‘I have blue’ is false. So therefore I must have red!”

This is simple reasoning, and they would have given the answer within seconds. But that didn’t happen. Therefore option 1—that I have a blue dot—must be false.

Therefore, option 2 is true, and I have a red dot.

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...