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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)

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.