God, Absence of Evidence, and the Atheist’s Teapot

Brian Garvey, a lecturer in the philosophy of mind and psychology at Lancaster University, has written an article exploring Russell’s famous celestial teapot. The article, Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot, appears in in the latest volume of Ars Disputandi, a philosophy of religion journal hosted by Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Here’s the abstract:

Atheists often admit that there is no positive evidence for atheism. Many argue that there is nonetheless a prima facie argument, which I will refer to as the ‘teapot argument’. They liken agnosticism to remaining neutral on the existence of a teapot in outer space. The present paper argues that this analogy fails, for the person who denies such a teapot can agree with the person who affirms it regarding every other feature of the world, which is not the case with the atheist vis-a-vis the theist. The atheist is committed to there being an alternative explanation of why the universe exists and is the way it is. Moreover, the analogy relies on assumptions about the prior plausibility of atheism. Hence, the teapot argument fails.

And a quote:

“There is, I want to argue, a significant di fference between denying the existence of a teapot orbiting the sun, and denying the existence of God. When two people disagree over whether or not there is a teapot orbiting the sun, they are disagreeing over whether the world includes that particular item or not. For all that that particular disagreement implies, the two people agree about every other feature of the world: the tea-ist believes in a world that is exactly the same as the one the a-tea-ist believes in, with the single difference that it contains one item that the a-tea-ist’s world doesn’t contain. Since, as I have argued in the previous section, the only thing that could count as evidence for the teapot orbiting the sun is that someone has seen it, it is in one way analogous to a situation where one person says: ‘there’s a postbox at the end of the high street’ and the other person says ‘no there isn’t, go and have a look’, and the first person goes and looks and doesn’t see one. If that person is reasonable, that will be the end of the argument. The two situations are not quite analogous, however, in that no-one has gone and looked to see whether there is a teapot in outer space. But the situations are disanalogous in a second way too, and a way which helps to illuminate why, in the absence of evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that there is no such teapot. That is, that there is nothing manifestly far-fetched in the idea of there being a postbox at the end of the high street. In the absence of seeing one (leaving aside the possibility of more indirect evidence, such as seeing a map of where all the postboxes are at the GPO) one is hardly being unreasonable if one doesn’t come down on one side or the other. And this difference between the postbox and the teapot tells us something about why it is unreasonable to suspend judgement regarding the teapot, even though we have not only failed to see one, but failed to carry out anything remotely approaching an exhaustive search. Because of its manifest far-fetchedness, or what amounts to the same thing, because it’s reasonable in the absence of prior evidence on the specific hypothesis to estimate that it’s highly unlikely, we can say that, when it comes to teapots orbiting the sun, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. The atheist’s argument attempts to gain persuasiveness by ignoring this issue of prior plausibility. It is true that we cannot (at present) conclusively prove that there’s no teapot in outer space in the way that we could conclusively prove that there’s no postbox on the end of the street by going there and looking. But part of the reason why, despite not being able to do this, it is still reasonable to conclude that there isn’t, is that prior to any investigation the hypothesis is manifestly far-fetched. In the postbox case it is not, and thus we can see that absence of evidence, as far as rendering it reasonable to deny something’s existence goes, has different force depending on the case in hand. Unless the existence of God is taken to be also manifestly far-fetched, the argument to the effect that if we don’t suspend judgement regarding the teapot then we shouldn’t suspend it regarding God, doesn’t get off the ground.”

Read the whole thing on the Ars Disputandi website.

(Source: Z)

20 replies
  1. Godless Atheist
    Godless Atheist says:

    This is an interesting post.I disagree with almost all of it. It states that "The atheist is committed to there being an alternative explanation of why the universe exists and is the way it is."Now science does not yet have all the answers. That is why science doesn't stop. In the last 100 years the advancement in the science of the universe have been amazing. In the last 3000 years Christianity has not made any advancement on how or why a god would create the universe or any evidence to show that it is a gods creation.I would also argue that the likelihood of a teapot is in fact greater than that of a god as there have been documented cases of a teapot existing. It is also worth noting it is not just atheists that do not believe the god of the bible created the Universe but all other religions and many social Christians as well.Keep up the posts though I find them very interesting.

  2. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Godless Atheist,Strange that you would disagree with, “the atheist is committed to an alternative explaination of the why the universe exists and it is the way it is.” The Christian is committed to the idea that God created the universe and made it for his creatures. Are you saying as a Godless Atheist that you do not embrace an alternative?Strange also how you wax eloquent on how great science is, as if to pit science against Christianity. Conflict theses were abandoned as untenable in the late 50s and 60s.Strange also how you would say there is no evidence for God. Cosmological and Teleological evidence provides a background to the above quotation, and sufficient ground to severely blunt the attack of “NO EVIDENCE!”Strange also that you would say “all other religions” think that it was not the God of the Bible who created the universe. Islaam, Judaism, are just two off the top of my head. I know there’s more. Is that ignorance or empty rhetoric?

  3. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    I think the point of the Teapot Argument is to bring the standard of evidence for god in line with the evidence for…….well, things like teapots! :)Of course, the argument is stupid if evidence for god is allowed to be different from that of teapots.

  4. Iamjennyturner
    Iamjennyturner says:

    What a bizarre argument. Since the existence of teapots is not disputed, and the possibility of an object orbiting the sun is not disputed, why deny the possibility of a teapot orbiting the sun? It's merely a combination of two non-controversial concepts.

  5. Matthew Holloway
    Matthew Holloway says:

    "“the atheist is committed to an alternative explaination of the why the universe exists and it is the way it is.” The Christian is committed to the idea that God created the universe and made it for his creatures. Are you saying as a Godless Atheist that you do not embrace an alternative?"Well — not speaking for Godless Atheist here — but for me the key word was "committed" which says that an atheist is in advance looking for a particular view. This is an assertion that's not backed by evidence.As to whether religion is in conflict with science. When religious claims are supernatural then they exist in different realms to that of science, but when religious claims are natural they exist within the same domain of science and they may infact be in conflict. It's easy to think of dozens of examples of religious claims by some religious people that are in conflict with science (evolution, homosexuality being natural, etc.).Science is in conflict with many claims of religion.

  6. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    While I agree that in principle there can be conflict between religion and science as you describe, you're pretty vague on the specifics for Christianity. The few examples you do highlight are pretty inconsequential claims altogether considered. Theres is no fundamental disharmony between the two. In fact, I think a good case can be made to show the relationship between them is more favorable (for both sides) than not.

  7. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Are you saying that anyone calling themselves a godless atheist is not committed to a view of why the universe exists and it is the way it is that is alternative to the Christian view? If so, as this would be consistent with theism, how does this not empty "godless atheist" of all meaning?

  8. Matthew Holloway
    Matthew Holloway says:

    Clearly I said that I'm not speaking for 'godless atheist' for any other people. I specifically said that I am speaking for myself.For myself, "committed" to a view isn't how I would describe it. Atheism is the view I currently have but I'm willing to change whereas the word "committed" implies too much of an 'answer then evidence' approach.

  9. Matthew Holloway
    Matthew Holloway says:

    Those "inconsequential claims" have stilted medical research, and caused suicides/broken up parent-child relationships, respectively. I don't mean to be harsh here but it's probably not a credible idea to play down Christianity's historically negative relationship with homosexuality because the interpretations of the bible that led to those negative actions are well known. Calling that conflict "inconsequential" is a bit rich, really :)So, in principle that two claims about the natural world must be reconciled. That's sensible and it's good that we agree on the fact that science and religion can be in conflict. Again, it's easy to think of historical examples where this has happened and it's more credible to admit this.If the religious claim is in conflict with science then eventually what happens is that the religious claim is modified to being a metaphor, or said to be a 'teaching of that time that's no longer relevant', etc. Alternatively, the science could be wrong and this is revealed through better science (rather than "better religion"… for lack of a better term!). Religious scientists may be motivated by religion, but their science must stack up by it's own non-religious evidence. So science isn't moved by religion, but religion is moved by science.By the way what do you think of homosexuality, or evolution? (cliché topics I know, but a good initial test of a Christian on how they reconcile their religion with the natural world)

  10. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    I know you were answering for youself, which us why the question was directed to you. Whatever explanation the atheist holds, be it ever so tentitively, as to why the universe exists and it is the way it is, must be, at the very least, an alternative to the Christian view. It is this that Godless Atheist seems to take exception to, as do you in quoting and answering that portion of our dialogue. It is this which, if not true, would empty the title "atheist" (including the name he gives himself – "Godless Atheist") of any significance. You see, otherwise it would be the Christian view.

  11. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Matthew,On the issue of homosexuality I think you are sliding away from the focus of the conversation. You are assessing a Christian teaching with its moral consequences, and not with how well it coheres with modern scientific thought, which is specifically on the nature versus nurture question. And as this is hardly a settled scientific question, I don't think Christianity has a case to answer for in that regard. But if it was a settled scientific question (and it wasn't a false dichotomy), it would only be peripherally consequential to Christian doctrine – no fundamental conflict arising. Admitting that science and religion can in principle be in conflict is not admitting that there is any clear-cut historical case where science and Christianity were in conflict. Your conclusion that "science isn't moved by religion" doesn't follow from anything you have written in the preceding paragraph. In fact, by admitting science may be motivated by religion seems to contradict that conclusion. In saying "but religion is moved by science" you make out that religion always accommodates itself to scientific thought. Thats not really true. Specifically for Christianity, its not true either. But if it was true, its not a big deal, that is, if fundamental Christian doctrine remains untouched. If science confirms a particular passage of scripture should be interpreted non-literally, that may be seen as a retreat by those who choose to remain unengaged in or ignorant of historical theology, but not by those who realize that there exists a long history of that passage being interpreted non-literally.

  12. Matthew Holloway
    Matthew Holloway says:

    "I know you were answering for youself, which us why the question was directed to you. "Nonsense, you wrote: "Are you saying that anyone calling themselves a godless atheist is not committed to a view of why the universe exists and it is the way it is that is alternative to the Christian view?"

  13. Matthew Holloway
    Matthew Holloway says:

    "Admitting that science and religion can in principle be in conflict is not admitting that there is any clear-cut historical case where science and Christianity were in conflict."Again, nonsense. The only way you can ignore the historical conflict is through a No True Scotsman-style argument… 'well, certainly the Christians who believed the bible said X were wrong but they weren't espousing the true Christianity!' (repeat ad infinitum)Infact, you do go veer towards the No True Scotsman fallacy with your "fundamental Christian doctrine" argument. Historically there have been fundamental beliefs overturned but then you can always say they weren't fundamental.In other words, your argument isn't sound because you always leave yourself an escape path as what you're saying isn't falsifiable.You do the same, of course, with homosexuality. There is a genetic component to homosexuality (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biology_and_sexual…..). There is a nurture component to homosexuality (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environment_and_se…..)."Your conclusion that "science isn't moved by religion" doesn't follow from anything you have written in the preceding paragraph. In fact, by admitting science may be motivated by religion seems to contradict that conclusion."Again, wrong. The clearest you've got is to say that it "seems to" be wrong but I clearly anticipated your answer of religious motivation by saying that "Religious scientists may be motivated by religion, but their science must stack up by it's own non-religious evidence".The scientific evidence itself is not religious, and religious motivation is incidental to science, or are you claiming that religiously motivated scientists are more able to progress science?Either way, you eventually accept my point by saying "If science confirms a particular passage of scripture should be interpreted non-literally" which shows that science moves religion.

  14. C. Combe
    C. Combe says:

    So science isn't moved by religion, but religion is moved by science.

    If you don't mind, can you expound on what you mean by "moved?" I have reread the paragraph a few times, and I'm still confused. Thanks.

  15. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    Matthew,In the future, please try to write more thoughtfully, with precise language, and with carefully structured arguments. It's taken me too long to untangle your comment above.

    The only way you can ignore the historical conflict is through a No True Scotsman-style argument…

    Actually, there is another way. (Not that theres anything wrong with the way you mention.) As I said, Conflict theses were abandoned when scientific historiography matured in the 50s and 60s when it was (1) shown that history shouldn't be painted with simplistic, black and white strokes, and (2) it was confirmed that nineteenth century scholarship on this issue was – basically – fiction.

    Historically there have been fundamental beliefs overturned but then you can always say they weren't fundamental.

    That's a really cheap style of argument. Its easy to get away with brash statements like this and remain vague on specifics. Perhaps you would want to clarify this statement with a couple of examples?

    In other words, your argument isn't sound because you always leave yourself an escape path as what you're saying isn't falsifiable.

    Falsifiability is not a criteria for an argument to be sound. Christianity's (or the proponent of the abandonment of the conflict thesis between Christianity and science) inability to be falsified is a problem for you (I say you because you are advancing some form of conflict thesis), not for me.

    You do the same, of course, with homosexuality [that is, make it unfalsifiable]. There is a genetic component to homosexuality. There is a nurture component to homosexuality [brackets mine, from context of preceding paragraph]

    Well, I previously alluded to the nature versus nurture argument being a false dichotomy, so thanks for agreeing. The consequence of that is Christian teaching on this issue is not falsified.

    are you claiming that religiously motivated scientists are more able to progress science?

    That would be an interesting line of thought to pursue, especially in light of Polanyi, who says in order for any scientific advance there is first required a "fiduciary framework" i.e. faith. This is – very roughly – along the lines of John Pickering's comment a while back on http://thinkingmatters.org.nz/2010/06/questions…..

    Stuart:</b"Your conclusion that "science isn't moved by religion" doesn't follow from anything you have written in the preceding paragraph. In fact, by admitting science may be motivated by religion seems to contradict that conclusion."Matthew: Again, wrong. The clearest you've got is to say that it "seems to" be wrong but I clearly anticipated your answer of religious motivation by saying that "Religious scientists may be motivated by religion, but their science must stack up by it's own non-religious evidence".

    Here is this portion of the conversation laid out linearly.Matthew: science isn't moved by religionStuart: But wait, you say "Science may be motivated be religion." This is science being 'moved' by religion.Matthew: No, because religious people's science must stack up by it's own non-religious evidence. That last response is clearly not the issue here. The issue is not how science is done – method. The issue here is on motivation, and whether the deliverances of the sciences have ever disconfirmed Christian doctrine in such a way that Christianity has had to either retreat into obscurantism or die from the consequences of being shown to be untrue.My point therefore stands – that science is moved by religion – in particular, by those who have religious motivation for doing science. You say, "Religious motivation is incidental to science." This is false. With respect to this, see me mention Polanyi above. Also look to the history of scientific discovery and catalogue those who have said the very impetus for them doing science, discovering the natural world and how it works, comes from religious inspiration.

    …you eventually accept my point by saying "If science confirms a particular passage of scripture should be interpreted non-literally" which shows that science moves religion.

    (I'm going to take your repeatedly imprecise use of "religion" to mean Christianity here, and interpret "moves" to mean Christianity makes a retreat in the conflict between science and Christianity) No, actually that conditional statement of mine only shows that there is a healthy interaction between science and religion.

  16. Matt
    Matt says:

    Matthew perhaps you can provide an example?Can you show me when science has proven false any doctrine fundamental to Christianity as defined by the Apostles Creed? Note, this is not redefining Christianity, the Apostles Creed goes back to the early centuries of the church.

  17. Rob
    Rob says:

    Hi Matthew,Yay, we won the rugby!!!Ok…Since you recently asked the same questions re homosexuality and evolution on:http://manawatu.christian-apologetics.org/good-…..…I’ll kill two birds with one stone and give you my brief answer here.Evolution?: It depends upon what you mean by evolution. As Dembski has pointed out, and Johnson before him, promoters of evolution are often guilty of the fallacy of equivocation when it comes to evolution-speak. That is, they talk out of both sides of their mouth (Dembski’s words). The problem is, “evolution” has more than one definition, and definitions can be swapped in and out during a conversation, thus creating confusion.So: what do you mean by evolution?Homosexuality?: Christians always have, and still do, consider homosexuality to be a sin. Only loopy liberals would have a different take on this I think, and they are basically closet atheists who for some bizarre reason attend church (e.g. Bishop Spong). Christian belief about this has never changed to my knowledge. Does it have a genetic component? Well, the great source of all truth, Wikipedia, may have an opinion but it hardly matters for a Christian when making an argument against homosexual behavior. Here’s why…I’m sure you would agree that most of us experience lust, yet Jesus says that even looking upon a woman lustfully is equivalent to committing adultery with her. Similarly with homosexuality: lusting after another of the same gender is a sin. Does that mean a person suffering homosexual (or heterosexual) temptation is sinning. Not at all. Even Jesus suffered temptation. It is acting upon the lust this is sinful. I have good friends on both sides of the fence, and they all do their best to overcome their temptations.There was a book called “The gay gene” that I understand was subsequently debunked. Did that same author write “The God gene”? Interestingly, if gays were to be afforded accommodation due to a genetic component, would the same be afforded to religious people for a much more likely genetic component (given that 1-2% of people are homosexual but much larger percentage of the world is religious)? Do you try to straighten gays? If not, then why are you attempting to straighten Christians and other religious people by having billboard campaigns? <grin!>

  18. Philip Maguire
    Philip Maguire says:

    "In the last 3000 years Christianity has not made any advancement on how or why a god would create the universe or any evidence to show that it is a gods creation.

    Christians haven't gone looking for answers as to why a god would create the universe. They have, however, gone looking for answers to what we could call scientific questions and they've been very successful.

    Newton and gravity, Mendel (a Catholic monk) and genetics, Big Bang Theory by Georges Lemaitre ( a Catholic priest) and so on and so on.

  19. Sultan
    Sultan says:

    Thanks Jane,this clarifies a lot for me.I have skepon to my son and he has now decided to continue with classes in religion and to opt out of homework and any study.As a sixteen year old boy he is very sure of what he believes and does not believe but hates any focus on him and feels that because everyone else in his school has to do religion he has to too.For me that is the sorriest part of all this is that he wasn’t asked, as a person with rights he should have been asked if he would like to do religious studies or not.I would love to send a letter to the Headmaster as I feel we are really getting somewhere on lots of issues pertaining to catholicism and the more parents who opt out the more normal it will become and before we know it everyone will understand their rights and more importantly the rights of others.My two boys 16 and 18 have just finished reading Dawkins the god delusion’,they are streets ahead of my husband and I and therein lies our future , with tongue firmly in cheek ‘Praise the Lord’,great to be having this discussion,THANKS.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot: Philosopher Brian Garvey argues that Russell’s teapot analogy fails because “the analogy relies on assumptions about the prior plausibility of atheism. (HT: Thinking Matters) […]

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