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.


  1. "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."

    Yes... actually... that is exactly what this means.

    If you are unwilling to change your mind about something then you literally cannot accept the "strength of the objective evidence"

    For example, if you say, "The Catholic church is the true church and the only church which came in an unbroken line from Christ" and then I show you evidence that that is not the case. Then the "strength of my objective evidence" gets ignored because it contradicts your beliefs.

    It is literally impossible to accept that the line of authority is not broken and broken at the same time. Therefore, you must choose between beliefs.

    Since you reach a conclusion first and then look for any evidence to confirm that conclusion, you will only find evidence that your church is true.

    Being unwilling to change your mind about something based on evidence is exactly why there are still people who believe that Warren Jeffs is a prophet.

    1. I do appreciate your comment, but it is rather presumptuous as I will explain.

      You said, "If you are unwilling to change your mind about something then you literally cannot accept the 'strength of the objective evidence'"

      You are failing to consider subjective evidence. For example, a person could subjectively be certain they did not commit a crime, but if they are cleverly framed then the objective evidence could be strongly stacked against them. The person might realize this and believe they will be convicted, while simultaneously believing in their own innocence.

      If you disagree, I would be happy to hear your response.

    2. Well said. Ignoring evidence is what every Mormon is taught and trained to do. After years of abuse, the abusers defend the abuser.

    3. Emily, do you really mean "every Mormon?" What evidence do you have to support this claim of yours? In what fashion do you maintain that they are "taught" and "trained" to ignore evidence?

      If you are trying to say that LDS members in general go about living their lives and spending time with family instead of responding to anti-LDS material, then yes that is my assessment as well. But that seems like a practical matter and not something to criticize anyone over.

      Just as some people are interested in debating politics and some people are not, the same is true with religion. Many members don't read my blog for the same reason.

      Perhaps you are thinking of LDS members who don't take free pamphlets from street-preaching anti-Mormons. Well, no one is under obligation to debate random strangers that approach them on the street.

      As for missionaries, they are there to help people learn through asking God and developing a relationship with God. They aren't at the disposal of anyone that wants to debate.

      It seems to me that the real issue here is your evident disagreement with LDS belief regarding answer to prayer. On this particular issue Latter-Day Saints can only Bear their Testimonies and hope you will open yourself to God's voice.

  2. I'm a big fan of "Occam's razor." To summarize its meaning, I quote from someone else. ""The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct."

    I've witnessed many believers in Mormonism do backflips and mental gymnastics beyond all logical reasoning in order to make their belief match the evidence at hand. It is a lot of work to maintain belief in something that doesn't make sense. I know, I've been there.

    Eventually the subconscious part of your brain may start sending psycho-somatic signals to your central nervous system.

    Maybe you get headaches on Sunday or during church meetings, perhaps you dread doing your home teaching, or maybe you are just plain annoyed with having so much to do and so little time. Eventually, your physical well being starts to merge into an unhealthy pattern of critical thoughts that disperse without reason, and physical symptoms that plague you without cause or reason.

    Hopefully, you will find your way out of that mind numbing paradox. For now, keep believing as long as it works for you. Good luck, and happy journey.

    1. Occam's Razor, which we should note is not itself evidence but a handy device for proceeding when the making of a decision is necessary, should ideally be invoked after full analysis of evidence for various options has been completed and weighed. Invoking it does not settle anything. It is always provisional.

      Essentially, Sam Harris was attempting to invoke a form of Occam's Razor, and I responded to him. I would be interested in your response to my analysis.

  3. > I realize you are not arguing that any specific claim is less likely > to be true than any general claim. For instance, 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."

    Point missed. The idea is to take a general claim and build upon the SAME CLAIM.

    Compare "Elvis is alive" with the claim "Elvis is alive underneath the Arctic Polar icecaps".
    Compare the claim "Sam is going to type 'adawawfawwafcascac' on his keyboard today" with "Sam is going to type 'adawawfawwafcascacasdvavdavdsvsv' on his keyboard today".

    1. Like I said, the example is something he is "not arguing." So, I did not miss the point. I was demonstrating a distinction to show that I understood his argument and to clarify for readers.

  4. I really wish people that don't understand science or the scientific method would either stop bringing it up or learn what it actually is before bringing it up.

    Darwin didn't "add" natural selection. Natural selection is the mechanism that explains the observations. To be clear, the actual process is that he noticed something, and attempted to explain his observations. He started by observing fossilized invertebrates and the extant versions that looked almost exactly the same. On the Galapagos he had noticed the same species of birds having slightly different traits despite being otherwise the same. He noticed this for many animals there. To explain these, he suggested natural selection.

    So he didn't add natural selection to an existing CLAIM he suggested it as a mechanism to explain OBSERVATIONS. I understand why you would make this error because your worldview entails making claims first and justifying them afterward.

    Also to address another claim you make, "subjective evidence" is wordplay for "opinion." You conflate opinion with objective evidence as if they are on equal footing and deserving the same amount of respect and consideration.

    "you can't show that LDS claims are improbable if you start with a premise that says they are false."

    Again, putting the cart before the horse. It is definitely not unreasonable to question the validity of teachings of a co-opted religion started by a con-man in a time when creating folk religions was fairly commonplace.

    I wager if Darwin was an accused con-man you would consider it enough to invalidate everything he wrote.

    1. You may be frustrated but there's no need for rudeness. I think you are too quick to criticize my analysis.

      Selection is different than mutation but it requires mutation in order to operate. Therefore, selection is an add-on to mutation. You do nothing to change this simple fact by pointing out that, of course, Darwin used natural selection to explain observations.

      Simply put, mutation with natural selection is a better explanation than just mutation, despite being a more specific claim.

      As for subjective evidence being identical to opinion, you are objectively wrong about that. I suggest you take the time to study and learn about subjective evidence before making such assertions.

      Lastly, you quoted me as saying, "you can't show that LDS claims are improbable if you start with a premise that says they are false." I stand by my statement, and I encourage you to think about the underlying principle - you can't use X to prove X.

  5. Faith and feelings are not a method towards objective

    truths. All delusional people truly believe their

    delusions and this is particularly true of the religiously



    If there was any real evidence that consciousness could exist absent a brain (whatever that means) whether soul, god, Thetan, invisible alien, demon, fairy, etc. real scientists would be testing that evidence to find out more like they do with things that are real ( e.g. x-rays, atoms, electricity, space travel, mental illness, DNA, etc.) Until that time, anyone claiming to KNOW anything about gods or life after death is lying or fooling themselves. So, as far as the scientific evidence is concerned, your your supernatural beliefs are in the same boat as Christianity (minus the 3-in-1 god made of nothing and the virgin birth) with this added Mormon craziness:


    Ergo, Sam Harris is 100% correct.

    Human feelings are probably pretty accurate in telling you whether you committed a crime or not, but they are not very good at telling you which invisible beings are real and which are imaginary. If you can't tell the difference, blame your indoctrinators for your befuddlement.

  6. It's like this--

    You start with a vague premise that Christians start with--
    There's a hypothetical "uncaused cause" (whatever that means) of the universe that you are going to call god (though Mormons have a god that made their god in a turtles all the way down fashion I suppose)--

    and then you start piling more and more things on it making it less and less probable--

    this god has a personality... it's a "he"... it "wants" to be believed in", it's "omnipotent", it inspired a book... or books... it communicates in vague ways... it had a son or sons or lots of sons or daughters... it poofed matter into existence from nothingess. or whatever-- it has sex or doesn't or is made of cells or isn't or has super powers or is distinguishable from myth or isn't or gets angry or doesn't or created suffering or didn't or is omniscient or isn't or is jealous or isn't etc. If you believe the right thing you can live happily for all eternity after death. This god created souls. These souls live after you die. These souls (which are undetectable by science) can suffer forever if you don't believe the right stuff while here on earth, etc. The more stuff you add on the more you add to the hypothetical uncaused cause-- the less likely (less probable and less scientific) your god becomes. And this is true with all those other gods of yore and all those other myths and religions you reject. And Mormons add on much more-- 3 levels of heaven with levels in those heavens-- polygamous marriage after death with the chance to become gods-- baptisms for the dead-- you don't get to see your families unless you are "sealed" to them... your whole lives are spent on this imagined extra Mormony afterlife which is an addendum to the Christian story which is already highly improbably given that the only logical place we can get to is to say an uncaused cause might have "caused" the big bang-- whatever that means.

    All the other supernatural stuff about gods and afterlives and demons and souls is myth or indistinguishable from myth as far as scientific evidence is concerned-- the more of it there is the less probable it is scientifically. Really. Your myth is no more likely than FLDS myth or JW myth from a scientific point of view. I would say it's no more likely than Scientology or Hinduism or Greek myths or any of the Superstitions or supernatural beliefs you reject-- from a scientific point of view. The invisible beings you believe in are no more likely to be real than the ones you reject as myth-- even souls. If there was evidence for such things, science would be on the forefront testing refining and honing that evidence like they do with things that are real.

  7. It's not that Sam Harris or scientists reject your supposed "revealed knowledge" a priori-- it's just that we have no reason to take it more seriously than you take Scientology. (You'll notice that scientists aren't studying Thetans and Xenu either.)

    You can believe you truly know something while being very wrong just like all those billions of other people with conflicting faiths. It's very common for people to believe they are getting messages from gods (or spirits or dead relatives or that someone is possessed by demons-- of course this only happens to people who believe in such things) We would need measurable evidence that consciousness could exist outside a living brain (whatever) and a method for distinguish gods from souls from invisible aliens or ghosts or "whatever" to begin testing these things and distinguishing them from delusions of such. There would need to be some measurable quality to these things and right now it looks pretty much like these things can be explained as figments of peoples indoctrination.

    On top of that-- every time we test prayer or blessings scientifically they work no better than a placebo. Really. Hospitals with lots of Mormons have no better healing rates than regular hospitals... worse than hospitals in more secular countries actually.

    As with Muslims, FLDS, and JWs, I don't expect these facts to change your mind. You are not interested in what is true. You are interested in keeping your faith. If you were interested in what is true, you would use a better method that feelings to find out.

  8. Darwin's theory of evolution is based on evidence. From its inception as an idea, Darwin added to it by referencing his observations in the world. The additions he made to his own theory were substantiated by what he observed.

    >The Church teaches that we were conscious beings who lived with God and chose to come to earth

    Here are the meaningful questions I would ask about this claim in order to substantiate it:

    Can there be a conscious being without a physical body?
    What is a god?
    Can gods exist?
    How did Humans come to exist?
    How did Humans come to inhabit Earth?

    Tack on 'How do we know?' to any of these. In the rest of the sentence, you've left the effective radius of my understanding.

    > with full knowledge of everything we were getting into

    How can you say? I don't think either of us can claim full knowledge of everything happening in the world, and our place in it. I think you're probably talking about Mormon canon here... about the challenge/test that is this life on Earth? I can't relate to that; I am not convinced on almost any of LDS teachings, especially that exclusively Humans comprise a body AND ethereal 'soul' component. Rather it makes the most sense to me if we are wholly organic. TLDR I'm not sure how you can claim we previously had perfect knowledge if we can't even begin to fathom what that might entail.

    >making the choice in light of a far greater perspective than we currently have.

    Same. "Far Greater Perspective." How great? Could we see infrared through time? Could we see that Obamacare would be passed? Could we see every natural disaster to ever occur? What greater perspective, I'm not sure. You might say 'we were up there with God, and he exists outside of time, and if we were purely spirit then we would be unencumbered by our flawed human nature,' and be blessed with divine understanding. I find this really just doesn't cut the mustard.

    Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, it's all very similar. They aren't less likely to be true because they make very specific claims. Insofar as they don't directly conflict with fundamental, known aspects of the reality we share, they could be equally probable with any other hypothesis. However, it's routinely the case that religious claims live in the realm of "too wondrous to comprehend" exempting them from the standard of observation & experimentation that built the wealth of knowledge now available to us both. For that reason, I don't consider these religions in the least bit convincing, or worth considering.

    So I hope you have a great day, buddy!

  9. atheists retort

    1. Thanks for posting this. Is there any particular argument you think needs to be addressed?

  10. Ryan, thank you for making an account and adding to the discussion on Reddit's atheism subreddit as well as exmormon. I implore you to keep discussing and having vigorous debates, even though some of those comments are downright insulting, there are those of us there who really enjoy hearing views that are different than our own. Have you read the CES letter and if so, what are your opinions on it?

    1. Thank you. If you don't mind my asking, what is your Reddit username? I'm sure your comments have been polite, and I respect and appreciate that.

      I have read the CES letter, or at least most of it. Which argument made in it do you think is most deserving of a response?