Saturday, May 30, 2015

To Sam Harris - an open letter

Dear Dr. Harris,

I am LDS. I appreciate your ability to think through complex subject matters, although I think you have some blind spots. As we all do. Two of these, I would like to address. 

You have argued, a number of times, that Mormonism is objectively less likely to be true than what you call "Christianity," which you do not define but by which you presumably mean a set of beliefs which is a subset of Mormon beliefs and also a subset of beliefs held by other denominations. You reason that LDS doctrine adds claims on top of those in the "Christianity" set, sometimes getting very specific. 

You reason, for instance, that if we take whatever probability there is that Jesus will return (a "Christian" belief), which you consider improbable, the event becomes even less probable if we specify that Jesus will come to Jackson County, Missouri (a "Mormon" belief). 

I believe I understand your argument. You are essentially saying that a general claim is more likely to be true than a specific claim that includes and adds to the more general claim. 

I realize you are not arguing that specific claims are always less likely to be true than general claims. As an example, I could say that Sam Harris is alive and is going to type the letter "i" on August 13, 2017, and that is a pretty specific claim but is more likely to be true than certain more general claims, such as for instance the claim that "Elvis is alive."

I acknowledge some good logic behind your argument. It's the reason casinos make money on roulette. If one could get the same payout guessing the color (more general) as the number (more specific) of the space on which the ball will land, the casinos would go out of business. 

Your first blind spot I see is you making your argument in the context of comparing LDS doctrine with an implied "other" religion, rather than acknowledging that your argument is limited to comparing LDS doctrine with a subset of LDS doctrine. Don't get me wrong, it's fine if you want to compare LDS doctrine with other religions, but that would beg objective analysis of not just the quantity of claims but the quality of claims as factors affecting likelihood. You are arbitrarily assuming that doctrinal differences between Mormonism and another religion that shares "Christianity" necessarily create a problem for Mormonism rather than serving to streamline beliefs and make them more logical.

For illustrative purposes, suppose Mormonism claims that Sam Harris is a mammal and also that Sam Harris is a person. The statement, "Sam Harris is a mammal" is objectively more likely to be true than the statement, "Sam Harris is a person," no matter how certain we are that Sam Harris is a person, but pointing this out would not be a very meaningful argument against Mormonism, just as your argument does not show Mormonism to be any more or less likely than any other religion. In this illustration, another religion might also claim that "Sam Harris is a mammal," but might go on to say, "Sam Harris is a moose." Here we could say that Mormonism and the other religion are making one claim that is the same and adding to that claim two claims - one claim each - that are different from each other. Now suppose Mormonism adds yet another claim, namely that Sam Harris is male. The other religion adds no further claims to the ones already discussed. This means Mormonism is making more claims about Sam Harris than the other religion is. But does that make Mormonism less likely to be true than the other religion? No, because the issue of quantity is only relevant when comparing a set of Mormon beliefs with a subset of those beliefs, and even then it is only relevant insofar as we can objectively discern likelihood. 

Let us further illustrate what I mean, using evolution. Let's start with the basic, objective claim that variation exists between the finches on the Gal├ípagos Islands. This is a scientific observation but is also a claim. Now let's imagine that an ancient record is found which states that variation among birds is the result of random mutations building up over many generations (with the word "mutation" being general in nature, with no mention of DNA). So, some believers in the ancient record then claim that the reason the finches are varied is because of that mechanism. They have thus added one claim to another and now have two claims. You could say the first claim is more likely to be true because, in addition to being more observable, it is included as one part of the second claim. Now, if we add a third claim, a claim of natural selection to help explain the finch variation, it would be less likely to be true than the second claim. This is because the second claim leaves room for the possibility of natural selection, but also leaves room for other possibilities. Once we specify that natural selection is how it happened as a matter of history, we eliminate other options. However, without people having an understanding of natural selection, the randomness aspect of the second claim seems inconsistent with the specialized nature of the differences between the finches. Attempting to reconcile this, different schools of thought might emerge regarding how to interpret the ancient record. The second claim as a result could end up being distorted. For instance, some might claim that mutations affected entire generations of birds collectively rather than one bird at a time, as this might help account for the uniformity among groups of birds. With such claims as this, natural selection is not an add-on but a competing idea. Natural selection would first need to restore the second claim to a more basic form, and then add to it.

Even though "evolution through random mutation" is more likely than "evolution through natural selection," it is the latter which is considered the great breakthrough which makes evolution more probable. Despite being less likely, it is stronger. It has greater parsimony. In fact, creationists are accused of arguing a straw man if they say "random mutation" instead of "natural selection."

When it comes to LDS teachings, you need to consider them in the context of restoration. You can't show that LDS claims are improbable if you rely on a premise that says they are false. We can of course argue over many specific issues and questions, but they are different arguments than and ought not be conflated with the current argument. 

Let's look at an actual example in LDS doctrine. The Church teaches that we were conscious beings who lived with God and chose to come to earth with full knowledge of everything we were getting into, making the choice in light of a far greater perspective than we currently have. You could say this is an addition, but it streamlines other claims and resolves a lot of issues that others have pointed to in order to criticize Christianity and make it appear unlikely to be true. For instance, the question of the fairness of a loving God creating us as imperfect and then judging us (I would be happy to discuss the "problem of evil" at greater length if you wish and I have a post on the subject here). So, what is the net effect of the doctrine of pre-existence on the likelihood of Mormonism being true? It gets complicated if you try to assess it objectively.  

Take the question of us being judged for Adam's transgression, which the LDS Church rejects. Is it really consistent for atheists to use the idea of God judging us for Adam's transgression as an argument against Christianity and then also say that if we don't believe it, that makes our belief less likely to be true? 

The issue of "adding" doctrines or claims is not as straightforward as one might think. The entire body of doctrine needs to be considered and all the arguments on all sides weighed. It gets a lot deeper than people realize if they haven't looked at the details.

The second blind spot that I see you as having is a corollary you aren't accounting for. Although a general claim can at times be made less likely  by adding specific details, it is also true that specific details can make a claim far more significant if those details bear out. Inductive evidence, the basis for science, is based on this. Instead of dismissing a claim because it has specific details, those details are reason to give the claim a chance to bear itself out. 
For instance, let's say four people claim they can call coin flips in advance. One person says he can call one coin flip. Another person says they can call two coin flips in a row. Another person says he can call four coin flips. The other person says she can call 10 coin flips. What would you say? Is the person that claims to call 10 merely adding to the others and is less likely to have the ability, since as a claim it is so much more specific? If you could only choose one claim to investigate, which would you choose? I personally would choose the one that claims to call 10 tosses, because that claim provides a greater opportunity for testing. It's true that the claim made is less likely to happen by chance, but that is the very reason I would pay more attention to the claim, not less.

You might feel that LDS claims are dismissible because you have looked into a few of them. But how extensively did you look? Did you look critically at your own conclusions? Did you diligently search out the best counter information and look for perspectives you hadn't thought of? Or did you have your mind made up before you looked? 

You might point out that I have my mind made up already. And you would have a good point. However, the fact that I will not ever change my mind on the ultimate truthfulness of LDS Gospel teachings does not mean I have an unchangeable opinion on the strength of the objective evidence. I am open to being convinced that the objective evidence is not as strong as I believe it to be. In that sense, I am very open to your arguments. 

Accordingly, I would like to challenge you to present a different test than the one you offered and to afford me an opportunity to respond to it. 

I thank you very much for your time and hopefully your consideration.

Thanks :)

Ryan Larsen 

As knowledge shines forth in the Last Days, the Lord lights my path of faith with His Spirit.