Reading an earnest and thought provoking editorial1 from one James Wood, reviewing 'Letter To a Christian Nation' by Sam Harris. Though atheist himself, he admits a flagging patience with certain attitudes of atheists. I can concede that an atheist's superior and glib demeanor may be due to frustration and no small amount of pessimistic inference about the human condition, though I had to comment about a rebuttal he gives regarding Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot2.

He claims that God, so much grander and more complex than a teapot, cannot be banished with such a simplistic comparison, when I would insist that God is actually much less believable than the teapot for that exact reason. I think Russell's teapot is due for an update which is more approachable and grounded. Here goes:

I claim that there is a discarded Coke can somewhere in the vastness of the Sahara, but I will brook absolutely no discussion about doubting my claim or investigating it for veracity. "Okay," you think, "I suppose I can assume that much to be true. Whatever this man's sources, the odds of a Coke can being somewhere in the desert must be considerable." But I then elaborate with claims that it's actually many, many cans, folded into glorious and artistically pleasing forms, and my obdurate refusal to discuss how it can be proved continues. At this point even the most generous theists would likely start getting annoyed with my odd behavior, yet at the very least what I'm asking you to believe isn't outside the realm of possibility. For all you know (though I refuse to allow you to check) there could be a folk art bazaar currently set up in the Sahara, so really it costs you very little to entertain my view.

And then I say that the cans have taken on beautiful, shimmering consciousness and are forming a society which hides from humanity, burying their chrome castles beneath the sand and moving their aluminum cities whenever we get too close to discovering them. "But..." you try to cut in. Before you can even begin to tell me what you find odd about my fantasy, I'm on the next detail. I claim that all of our major technological achievements of the last several hundred years are all thanks to the secret influence of the Shiny Can People.

Now you have countless legitimate doubts, but every time you try to tell me that, for starters, soda didn't even come in aluminum cans several hundred years ago, I insist that you weren't there so you can't be sure, and how could a mere burden of proof destroy the mighty empire of the Shiny Cans?

I like the utility of the can people because it doesn't start with an outlandish proposition, but if you stick around it gets absolutely ridiculous. Not only does that remind me more of how religion is actually sold, but it also serves to strengthen the original analogy of the teapot by reminding the curious mind that Russell's teapot is infinitely smaller and less complex than God, making it much less embarrassing to genuinely believe in since it would have so much more room to hide.

Odinn Celusta



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The New Republic article appears to be authored by one James Wood; the "Letter to a Christian Nation" section in its header gives the publishing info for a book it spends some time talking about later.

Why there's a note for Letter and not for, say, The End of Faith or any of the other books on popular atheism the article name-drops, I couldn't say.


I'm pretty sure it's because nominally the article is a review of Harris's Letter to a Christian nation -- though, like many book reviews of the more intellectual sort, the book ostensibly being reviewed serves more as an excuse for the author to write about things he wants to write about than as an actual object of review.

Admittedly accurate. I was reading the letter and re-imagined Russell's teapot thought experiment and thought I would share my source.

I feel I should also point out that I was, and am, well aware that Sam Harris is an anti-theist in philosophy, and my indicated source was supposed to be Harris's "Letter To a Christian Nation," indicated by my use of his name and Letter. The source I provided might cause confusion, but the Letter is provided in full and was the source I meant to indicate. There's no mistake that it's meant to be an atheist perspective, but if I somehow implied otherwise instead of leaving the point unaddressed as I thought than that's my fault as an inexperienced writer. If there are any more structure, grammar, spelling, or syntax errors, I can only hope it doesn't hopelessly obscure the actual point I was trying to make.

I think you might still be confused about your source, actually, because nowhere in there is Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation provided in full. The "Letter" is actually a 150 page book, and the link you've provided is a review of that book by the literary critic James Wood. The views on Russell's teapot that you attribute to Harris are actually the views of Wood. Harris's book doesn't even mention the teapot, as far as I can tell.

That said, I think the substantive point you're making is a good one, and I can see why the Shiny Can metaphor works better than the teapot if the intent is to highlight the specific ridiculousness of the God hypothesis.

Fixed. All being the same, it's true my real focus was the teapot metaphor, but I should have been more careful with vetting my source. Thanks for pointing it out again, and for reading my metaphor.

He claims that God, so much grander and more complex than a teapot, cannot be banished with such a simplistic comparison,

I think Sam has changed his mind on how "grand" the Almighty is, and has largely become an antitheist in Hitchens' sense.

See his comments from his debate with Craig. Terms like "evil" and "psychopathy" get thrown about, justifiably, IMO.

As Nornagest mentioned, Sam Harris didn't write that article at all. Odinn is mistaken about the author. So this doesn't represent a change of opinion.

Ok. That's actually more consistent with my impression of Sam, as I never got the impression he thought the Almighty terribly "grand".

Yes, I didn't mean to imply that Harris was purposefully writing as a theist, but rather that he seemed to be trying to defend the position of a theist due to some cached thoughts and possibly a jealous desire to believe despite not actually believing... It seems like a headache inducing way to think, and I just wanted to remark on the apparent cognitive dissonance in his article.

The trouble is, the soda can people are clearly physical. God is somehow simultaneously spiritual and capable of bending the physical to his will. The Soda can people seems like a more philosophically sound (and less trollish) version of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. No theologian with any credentials is going to argue that we could find God with a telescope, other than a few who are only taken seriously when they show a church mailing list a pretty picture of the Hubble Deep Field and write some religious poetry on it.

Theism nowadays is mostly like the philosophical zombies concept, except the claim is that God actually does things and hides them to test everyone's faith. (Based on my extremely loose reading of the obscure elements of theology, this implies that there was a backstory where God went through a lot of suffering to become wise, which probably drove him insane. So basically, God is MoR Dumbledore, but also nonphysical somehow.)

"Spiritual" in this case is, of course, a semantic stopsign. I suppose if one wrote a very contrived map of the universe, it could include God without contradicting reality, but I'd only be impressed if it offered more predictive power than Traditional Chinese Medicine. (I think of TCM as where spiritualism and science meet without one annihilating the other; the qi concept has gone through variations that are sorta-kinda loose approximations of some concepts like thermodynamics and conservation of energy, vaguely like alchemy, which makes it subject to refinement through experimentation, until we get to today and the people who use the concept predictively admit that there's no magic and it's a way of modeling reality that just uses pretty semantic shortcuts. God appears to be a purely psychosocial concept; maybe a scientific study of tulpas can dissolve it?)

ETA: This does not go against the core of your argument, though--the God concept proposes something complex that hasn't been observed ever, and treats it as not only as valid as things that have been observed, but many times more so.

Consider whether your belief is making things clearer for you, or if you're stuck on point Z in an "A->B" discussion. Start by asking yourself, since God in your proposed philosophy is nonphysical, comprised of no readable patterns or energies and exerts no predictable, tangible effect on reality; What is the ontological difference between a universe WITH this strictly conceptual god and a universe with no god at all. Think about it for at least a minute... Okay, you're back? Now, if your answer is anything like "Well, there wouldn't be any difference we could see" then you might have to wonder who you're really arguing against, why you're arguing it and whether you're willing to give your perspective a real new start. Eliezer Yudkowsky's resources cover all of that much more eloquently, including an editorial that essentially gets across that sometimes agreeing to disagree is just a way to avoid having to reexamine one's beliefs, so just a pat reminder to review the sequences if needs be. I'll do my part by entertaining the idea of a non-physical form for a god: We should still be able to observe some kind of pattern that could indicate an outside influence, like binary flashes from the stars that contain all of god's blueberry tart recipes, or predictable and repeatable inspirations in at least one person claiming to be a prophet, or some statistically or psychologically significant distinction between the health, sanity or safety of practitioners of different faiths and similar living conditions. Lacking this, I can still see how my aluminum can people are argumentum ad absurdium, but that was sort of the whole original point of the thought experiment by my interpretation.

since God in your proposed philosophy is nonphysical, comprised of no readable patterns or energies and exerts no predictable, tangible effect on reality

In traditional Judeo-Christian-Muslim theology God is nonphysical but can take physical forms at will, and while He is not predictable (generally speaking, there are nuances there), He certainly can exert tangible effects on reality.

We should still be able to observe some kind of pattern

Not necessarily. Imagine that God lives in high-dimensional space and His blueberry tart recipes happen to be stored in the fifth and sixth dimensions...

Responding to this after so long is strange. Anyways: There is a solid, evidence based reason that we suspect higher dimensions are real rather than strictly theoretical. Particles quantum tunnel, occasionally interacting with the observable dimensions. If and when we develop the capacity to more fully explore these inconceivable aspects of reality we can sweep the corners of the eleventh dimension for the traces of deities (or their tart-crafting secrets) that have yet to provide any evidence for themselves. And in that untold time, when we've devised ways to knit the universe back together on one end while it unravels like a cheap knit sweater on the other from entropy, when we've conquered death and consciously seized the future of our living form, when we have faster than light travel and can wrangle a star like cowboys breaking a new calf, when the difference between the perceived and the real can be eradicated through the combined talents and ever growing powers of ten trillion eternal human minds... Maybe then we can stop wasting hot breath allowing for the theoretical existence of something that we have no factual reason to believe in.