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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)

Antony Flew dies at 87

The Telegraph has reported that Antony Flew passed away last week on April 8th. Flew was a leading British philosopher of the twentieth century, authoring many important philosophical works in the areas of education, political philosophy, linguistic analysis and philosophical theology. He held teaching positions at Aberdeen University, the University of Keele, Reading University, and York University in Toronto. Flew recently provoked controversy when he publicly abandoned his conviction in atheism in favour of belief in a deistic, Aristotelian God (you can read his interview with debating partner and friend, Gary Habermas, here or check out his book There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind to find out more about his journey):

Flew always described himself as a “negative atheist”, asserting that “theological propositions can neither be verified nor falsified by experience”, a position he expounded in his classic paper Theology and Falsification (1950), reputedly the most frequently-quoted philosophical publication of the second half of the 20th century.

He argued that any philosophical debate about the Almighty must begin by presuming atheism, placing the burden of proof on those who believe that God exists. “We reject all transcendent supernatural systems, not because we’ve examined or could have examined each in turn, but because it does not seem to us that there is any good evidence in reason to postulate anything behind or beyond this natural universe,” he proclaimed. A key principle of his philosophy was the Socratean concept of “follow the evidence, wherever it leads”.

When Flew revealed that he had come to the conclusion that there might be a God after all, it came as a shock to his fellow atheists, who had long regarded him as one of their foremost champions. Worse, he seemed to have deserted Plato for Aristotle, since it was two of Aquinas’s famous five proofs for the existence of God – the arguments from design and for a prime mover – that had apparently clinched the matter.

After months of soul-searching, Flew concluded that research into DNA had “shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce life, that intelligence must have been involved”. Moreover, though he accepted Darwinian evolution, he felt that it could not explain the beginnings of life. “I have been persuaded that it is simply out of the question that the first living matter evolved out of dead matter and then developed into an extraordinarily complicated creature,” he said.

Flew went on to make a video of his conversion entitled Has Science Discovered God? and seemed to want to atone for past errors: “As people have certainly been influenced by me, I want to try and correct the enormous damage I may have done,” he said.

Read the rest of the Telegraph article here (H/T: Glenn Hendrickson).

Our thoughts are with his family at this time.