Russell's Teapot

The following is taken from a friendly email discussing the evidence for the existence of God. The atheist here writes:

Christian belief has been marked by a series of retreats over supposed “truth”. The Earth is the centre of the universe? The world was created in seven days? What starts out as “fact” retreats in the face of overwhelming evidence . . . Modern Christian dogma has retreated to a position where it can’t easily be disproven. This is where the “magic invisible teapot” argument from Bertrand Russell comes in:

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”1

My slightly revised response is as as follows.

Finally I come to Russell’s teapot. By the quotation I take it the point is to show the difficulty in refuting avowals of belief in phenomena outside human perception. But my case for the existence of God and the existence of the teapot is not synonymous. 

Firstly, I build a case from deductive arguments. For instance, if the cosmological argument I gave bears out,2 then that gives good ground for believing in the existence of a beginningless, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, enormously powerful, personal creator of the universe. This has always been the conception of the God of Christianity. Unlike the teapot this argument does not rely upon the authority of a religious book or indoctrination. In the case of the teapot there was and could be no corroborative evidence for its existence, but in the case of God we have the evidence of the beginning of the universea religiously-neutral premise, and reinforced with both philosophy and scienceand the principle that nothing comes from nothing. Here in this particular argument, unlike the teapot many of God’s traditional attributes are recovered, including the ability to create the universe from nothing, which only a personal creator God can achieve.

Secondly, we come back to the presumption of atheism—that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God we should presume that God does not exist. Atheism thus becomes a default position. Not being able to falsify the existence of Russell’s teapot was expected when came the clarification that the most powerful telescopes were unable to detect it in orbit. Take the statement; “there is an elephant in the quad.” The failure to observe it there would constitute good evidence that there is not an elephant there. If someone were to assert however, there is a flea on the quad, the failure to observe it there would not constitute good evidence that it was not there. The difference is the expectation of the evidence, were such-and-such the case. I’ll let Moreland and Craig explain.

Thus the absence of evidence is evidence of absence only in cases in which, were the postulated entity to exist, we should expect to have some evidence of its existence. Moreover, the justification conferred in such cases will be proportional to the ratio between the amount of evidence that we do have and the amount of evidence that we should expect to have if the entity existed. If the ratio is small, then little justification is conferred on the belief that the entity does not exist.

Again the advocates of the presumption of atheism recognized this. Michael Scriven, for example, maintained that in the absence of evidence rendering the existence of some entity probable, we are justified in believing that it does not exist, provided that (1) it is not something that might leave no traces and (2) we have comprehensively surveyed the area where the evidence would be found if the entity existed. But if this is correct, then our justification for atheism depends on (1) the probability that God would leave more evidence of his existence than what we have and (2) the probability that we have comprehensively surveyed the field for evidence of his existence. That puts a different face on the matter! Suddenly the presumer of atheism, who sought to shirk his share of the burden of proof, finds himself saddled with the very considerable burden of proving (1) and (2) to be the case.3

The implications are clear for Russell’s teapot. We have little justification for believing in the existence of the teapot given (1) and (2). In the case of God however the ratio will depend on your view of natural theology (the evidence of God’s existence in nature), and the expectation that he would leave more evidence of His existence than He already has. Scriven therefore advocated agnosticism rather than to be disbelieving in such entities as God, as the burden of (1) and (2) are far too heavy load to bear. But I think that God has left good evidence of his existence in nature and that is the enterprise we are engaged in as apologists. 

 

Footnotes

1. Bertrand Russell, Magic Invisible Teapot 

2. The Kalam Cosmological Argument; See also The Cosmological Argument from Sufficient Reason and The Cosmological Argument from Existential Causality

3. J P Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Intervarsity Press, 2003), p. 157.

15 replies
  1. Simon
    Simon says:

    If all of our knowledge was as significant as the knowledge for a God, it would be next to useless. Though the same might be said for morality etc.

  2. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    An additional point;

    Thirdly—if the point of using Russell’s teapot was to show the difficulty in refuting avowals of belief in phenomena outside human perception—then it is further not synonymous with belief in God as one can directly perceive the Spirit of God in ones own life.

  3. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Simon,

    I’m not against you commenting here, but comments such as 1 are worthy of deletion. I don’t know what point your trying to make, let alone what exactly would be ‘next to useless.’ Please carefully consider—and word—further comments before posting them.

  4. Philip
    Philip says:

    The reasons why I do not believe in Russell’s teapot is that firstly I make the assumption that teapots are human artifacts, I admit that I have a prejudice about that and don’t seriously consider the possibility that a china teapot could have naturally developed through random interaction of matter (even if it were claimed that the inevitable onward march of science would eventually find the mechanism and that I was using a doomed human of the gaps argument) and secondly the claim of the existence of the teapot (if taken seriously) does not come with any corroborating evidence of either its presence or how it came to be there.

    If an astronomer told me that there was a small rock in orbit between the Earth and Mars, I would be inclined to believe them, even without demanding to see the evidence for its existence or explanation of how it came to be there as I don’t make assumptions about the non-existence about rocks in orbit between the earth and Mars even though I have never seen one (nor personally know anyone who has). Likewise I could be persuaded that the teapot did exist if there was some reasonable corroborating evidence, take for instance if the memoirs of an engineer on the Apollo program told the story that on the Apollo 8 mission around the moon, ballast was added to the third stage of the rocket to replace the weight of the Lunar lander which was not carried and that following the separation of the command module the ballast would have gone past the moon and into solar orbit and that included for novelty value in the ballast was a china teapot, now orbiting between the earth and mars. Despite being too small to be detected by telescopes, the first hand testimony of some of the engineers would be regarded as good evidence of the existence of the teapot (even if some involved claimed ignorance for fear of looking unprofessional).

    In view of this, to draw a comparison with the belief in God and imply that one should not believe in God in the same for the same reason people do not believe in the teapot would entail there be valid assumptions about the nature of God which are not fulfilled, and that there is no additional evidence (including reliable personal testimony) for his existence. While many atheists do try to reject belief in God on this basis (e.g. assuming that if God exists he would not allow suffering in the world), the assumptions involved hardly make atheism a default position and in many cases the arguement is just thinly disguised circular logic (assuming the improbability of God as the basis for rejecting evidence of his existence and concluding he probably doesn’t exist).

    A more recent variation of Russell’s teapot argument is the ‘flying spagetti monster’ (a biologically improbable creature for which there is no evidence other than the smug claims of some atheists) but this fails to be a reasonable comparison with belief in God on similar grounds.

  5. Simon
    Simon says:

    Stuart,

    Oh, my point was that Russell’s teapot leaves no traces just like “perceiving the spirit of god in one’s own life”. There is simply no way to test or verify this. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, just that it is on a par with Russell’s teapot!

    But even atheists assert moralities and values which are hopelessly unverifiable, too!

  6. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Simon,

    I now understand your point. But the case for Christianity is not comparable with Russell’s teapot as there is more evidence for God’s existence than just my own personal experience. The Christian holds two warrants for belief, the subjective experiential aspect – the witness of the Spirit of God in ones own life, and the objective evidential proofs – such as contained in natural theology and philosophy of religion, prophesy in the Bible with the study of history.

    As a challenge to the atheist that holds to the ‘hopelessly unverifiable’ morality, why not adopt a theistic system that can justify ethical beliefs?

  7. Simon
    Simon says:

    I agree that there is more evidence for christianity than Russell’s teapot, but not for the reasons you state. Both of your ‘evidences’ in 6 are as vaccuous as the teapot; they are completely unverifiable. And every religion makes equally useless claims – both personal and ‘objective’.

    I do think that the fact that so many people in the world do believe in a god is evidence for one, though, while nobody seriously believes in the teapot.

    An atheist does not posess the suspension of disbelief that is required to hold to theism. Certainly, the luxurious [moral] absolutisms that one is afforded by postulating a super-duper supernatural entity are significant. But such a postulate is merely an act of sweeping convictions under a carpet labelled “do not question”
    Ultimately I think that atheists do the same – if you ask them how they justify an absolute morality they will umm and ahh and eventually explicate their own metaphysical but non-theistic “do not question” carpet.
    But I think the wiser ones from both sides can see this and will simply say “I don’t know”.

  8. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Simon,

    But such a postulate is merely an act of sweeping convictions under a carpet labelled “do not question”

    That’s nonsense. There is nothing contradictory in God’s existence and the existence of objective moral values – while there is on atheism. Thus a proof of God’s existence can be formulated from the existence of objective moral values. I pretty sure we’ve had this debate before.

    Both of your ‘evidences’ in 6 are as vaccuous as the teapot;

    My personal experience isn’t vacuous, and I’m surprised you’d say that. How could you possible know. Being unverifiable to you doesn’t mean for me it isn’t good evidence! – I don’t take offence.

    I’m obviously not convinced by your quick disposal of the arguments from natural theology and philosophy of religion (none of which are presented here), and things like fulfilled prophesy of the Bible, the historicity of the Christ and His resurrection, the testimony of miracles today, etc. But I’m more interested in your claim that the popularity of belief in God is evidence for his existence.

    I personally don’t see how that is a good argument, but if you’re convinced by it I’m curious to know what are you doing about it? For if God exists this is the most significant piece of knowledge that anyone could ever obtain, and it should effect and influence every area of your life. If you’ve established that God exists, then the next thing you need to know is if God has specially revealed himself – so how do answer his question, “Who do you say I am?”

  9. Simon
    Simon says:

    Matthew,

    No, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that it is wiser to say “I do not know why I believe that the holocaust was wrong”.

  10. Simon
    Simon says:

    Stuart,

    I agree that there is “nothing contradictory in God’s existence….”. I didn’t say that. But both theists and atheists construct arguments for moral values. Arguments which are – so far – unverifiable.

    I’m obviously not convinced by your quick disposal of the arguments from natural theology and philosophy of religion (none of which are presented here), and things like fulfilled prophesy of the Bible, the historicity of the Christ and His resurrection, the testimony of miracles today, etc.

    Hehehe! The testimony of miracles today! And I suppose there is never any proof because god is purposefully hiding it? Besides, what about all of these evidences claimed by other religions?

    But I’m more interested in your claim that the popularity of belief in God is evidence for his existence

    I personally don’t see how that is a good argument, but if you’re convinced by it I’m curious to know what are you doing about it? For if God exists this is the most significant piece of knowledge that anyone could ever obtain, and it should effect and influence every area of your life. If you’ve established that God exists, then the next thing you need to know is if God has specially revealed himself – so how do answer his question, “Who do you say I am?”

    If you have a dozen people with a dozen conflicting stories about ghosts, you conclude that something has caused their experience, but you don’t take just one story for gospel. That most people on earth believe in the supernatural also points to something.

    It is a good argument becasue I do NOT think that your experience is completely vacuous (and I’d suggest that this might be the difference between you and I). It is a scientifically verifiable fact :)- that personal experience is not a good guide to the truth. Empathy is required, and so I don’t discard the experiences of most of the planet.

    So, for want of less baggaged language, I think there is good evidence that humans are ‘spiritual’, but the word spiritual certainly does not mean that an entity exists with the attributes you would claim and assign to ‘God’.

  11. Big hound
    Big hound says:

    Hi, this is a quite interesting discussion !
    My impression is that Russel’s analogy is deeply flawed from the start.
    He want to prove the following philosophical principle:
    if we have no evidence for something, it is hugely unlikely that it exists, or other formulated, we can know beyond reasonable doubt that it does not exist.
    He give then the example of this celestial teapot rotating right now around Mars: each sensible person would agree this example is completely absurd, even if we could not disprove its existence since it is too small to get detected. There exists no argument against the teapot, but everybody would agree it is completely silly to believe it could exist, and this the case because of the lack of evidence.
    However, I think most people would believe it does not exist not because of the lack of evidence ( which by itself would only justify agnosticism: I don’t know if there is a teapot or not) but because we have many overwhelming argument against its existence:
    teapot are typically designed by human mind, they could not appear through natural process, whether on the earth or outside the earth. Moreover, we have also solid evidences that no men was on the moon, and the arrival of alien from an other planet who turned out to have developed exactly the same technology at the surface of Mars just to let that is highly unlikely.

    So, if there was only no evidence about the CT of Russel, I would be only agnostic about its existence, I know with almost certainty it does not exist because of the existence of strong arguments against its existence.

    The same thing is true by the way of the flying spaghetti monster: I am quite certain it does not exist not because of the absence of evidence (we have never seen it) but because of tremendous arguments speaking for its utter impossibility: a monster is a living thing, and we know living thing need a very good organized brain to exist, or at least a system able to handle information and to direct the body.
    Of course, no such entity could be made up of spaghettis, it is physically impossible.

    However, I completely ignore what kind of animals could have evolved on remote planets far away from our earth, and if I am quite certain there is no unicorn on the earth (with its description, it is impossible that such species would not have been detected although we have found fossils of a lot horses), I am agnostic about the existence of unicorns everywhere in the universe, I have no evidence for it, but I see also no reason why such an entity could not have evolved on an other planet (there are no known limits to the cleverness of mutations and natural selection) , so I simply don’t know.

    So, my BASIC EPISTEMOLOGY could be summed up in the following manner:

    – I believe with almost certainty the existence of things for which I have many evidences (that the earth rotate around the sun, that the human species has more intellectual capacities than the other primates, that each species share a common ancestor and so on…)

    – I don’t know if something exists if there are neither positive nor negative evidences (a plastic teapot floating right now 50 km away from New York, the existence of an intelligent species somewhere in the space which look like bears, a parallel universe with fundamentally different laws of physics and so on and so forth)

    – I believe with almost certainty that something does not exist if I have not only no evidences, BUT ALSO if there exists strong arguments against its existence ( a stinking invisible cheese monster hiding his odor and situated just between the keyboard and the screen of my computer, that my supervisor is in fact a disguised alien planing to invade the earth etc…).
    In each case, my “a-monsterism” or “a-alienism” does not stem only from the absence of evidences, but also from the overwhelming arguments against them.

    So, I think that atheism can not been assumed as a default position, before affirming “I know there is no personal God”, atheists have to provide positive evidences, the mere absence of evidences only lead to agnosticism.

    Now, many insightful atheists accepts that, and have in fact provided strong arguments against the existence of a personal God, like the obvious imperfections in the nature, the facts that human minds completely depend on the brain and that parts of the personality is destroyed if parts of the brain are damaged, the religious confusion and so on and so forth.

  12. Dan Sutton
    Dan Sutton says:

    “More idiots have written about it over a longer period of time” is not equivalent to “There is more evidence for it” – it only highlights the fact that idiots have always been with us. The only relevant entry on the subject of a god is the first of its kind: all others were based around the ideas it introduced. And it was entirely equivalent to the teapot.

  13. Matthew Flannagan
    Matthew Flannagan says:

    “More idiots have written about it over a longer period of time” is not equivalent to “There is more evidence for it” – it only highlights the fact that idiots have always been with us. The only relevant entry on the subject of a god is the first of its kind: all others were based around the ideas it introduced. And it was entirely equivalent to the teapot.”

    That requires you to hold that Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Kant, Locke, Al Ghazali, Duns Scotus, Samuel Clark, Liebnez, Newton, and so on were all “idiots’, I suspect thats unlikely.

    I agree that the fact some random morons say something doesn’t count as evidence, however if a large and significant number of really intelligent people like the names above believe something and purport to have reasons for doing so and offer these reasons then you don’t refute them by saying “your an idiot” and spouting off about tea pots.

    So to take Russell’s tea pot, lets suppose a large number of the greatest minds in history had examined whether there was a teapot, many have concluded there is one and have offered very subtle and philosophically rigorous arguments for this conclusion, similarly others have argued the toss, your aware that on both sides you have people of real intellectual and philosophical competence, and you yourself haven’t seen a tea pot, can you just assume there isn’t one? I doubt it.

    I’ll give an example, take something like String theory, if I a non physicist who has limited understanding of the debate and who hasn’t read it in any depth don’t know of any reason for affirming String theory can I just assume its false. No, because I am aware that brilliant scientists who are informed on the issue have offered reasons on both sides of this, seeing I am aware I don’t necessarily grasp the issues with my non scientific background I at best should be agnostic and tentative.

    Of course I could just claim all physicists are idiots and demand they provide proof in a combox, and if they dont I can claim they believe in fairies, but if I did that I would be just being a jerk not really offering anything of substance.

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