I posted about Bertrand Russell’s teapot argument a while back, but it’s been resurrected to my attention recently by some random blog post I read that voiced support of his argument in passing. In reading the post (it was more of a quasi-academic article than something linkable, and I have no idea where I came across it anymore) and the documented comments brought up even more thoughts.
Russell’s teapot is really a criticism of the burden of proof for an empirical claim. Even if a supernaturalist makes the teapot claim, and even if it’s based on his religious beliefs, the criticism says nothing about the truth of those religious beliefs necessarily.
The evidence of the cosmic teapot would have to exist somewhere in some manner and be apprehended by someone: someone had to make the teapot, send it into space (or let it float out the airlock). Someone knows it’s up there. This is a burden of proof scenario that it (literally) worlds apart from supernatural knowledge.
This brings up another issue. Russell is implicitly proposing a level of technology in which a small teapot can be sent into orbit but can’t be detected. I generally despise useless hypotheticals when they don’t conform to statistical likelihoods. People navigate the physical world based on what’s most likely to happen. That’s why I really don’t care for the question whether it’s more ethical to divert a runaway train so that it kills 20 babies instead of 20 nuns. There’s no falling piano insurance.
This constant dragging of every claim into the realm of empiricism is getting annoying.
CARL SAGAN’S DRAGON IN MY GARAGE ARGUMENT (I)
(1) God is like an invisible, incoporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire in my garage.
(2) You can’t disprove that such a creature exists.
(3) However, claims that cannot be tested and are immune to disproof are “veridically worthless.”
(4) That’s just a convoluted way of me trying to tell you not believe in God for absolutely no reason because we can’t come up with any reasons to justify our position in any way.
(5) Therefore, God does not exist.
The fatality is hidden in first premise. Dragons and fire are things sensually perceived. That is, someone must have had perception of the dragon and fire yet is ascribing physical properties to an incorporeal thing. This is something that the Bible does with God only by way of analogy or by actual physical manifestations (pillars of fire and smoke, Jesus, the burning bush, etc). There’s no possible way to receive sensual data unless the thing is corporeal; there’s a reason why someone claimed a fire-breathing dragon is in the garage*. What is it?
One good reason is if the dragon were perceived, say, at one point in time, but before the dragon disappeared it claimed to actually always be there yet not perceptible**. Well, then you have sensual evidence via memory of the dragon—though the evidence is not “transferrable.” The other person would have to take his word for it.
* Unless the person is crazy, lying, mistaken, or being kind of dick about things. But those are different arguments to make. This proof is one questioning empirical evidence, not the mental state of the person making the claim.
** The point could be raised that the dragon is lying or mistaken about actually being there without being perceived. Again, that is another argument to make and depends on whether the person is already open to the supernatural or not. Although the fantastic notion of a dragon appearing in your garage and communicating meaningfully to one person is good grounds for questioning a non-spiritual worldview in itself.
It’s been a while since I did one of these, but the post I did earlier on Russell’s teapot lit a match and ignited the shreds of inspiration tobacco in my bloodstream.
George Edward Moore:
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 intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.
Eh. I just don’t understand why he would even bother addressing that kind of “argument” seriously. No philosopher or theologian in academia would get a paper past its initial publishing stages if they ever included an “x is true until it’s proven false”. So I don’t think he’s responding to a peer.
Maybe he was responding to some lay sentiment floating around, but why would he do that? That’s like a topographer correcting a child who thinks his school is “like a hundred” miles away. Just stick it with the argument from ignorance inoculation and call it a day (note that Russell’s photo and teapot reference are at the top of that wikipedia page).
Regardless, the criticism from Eric Reitan mentioned on that wikipedia page comes close to what I’ve mentioned before about the overreach of skeptics who want material data for propositions that cannot be addressed by the scientific method.
Photo by aldoaldoz.
I’m due for another one of these, and I kind of miss blatantly stealing images of beauty without attribution, from bloggers and websites that did the same (I did steal some of them from The Gentleman). Of note are the reprisals of Chesterton, looking as crabby as ever, and Alan Moore with his life-long imitation of a backwoods serial killer.
There are also two of Faulkner as he and his mustache enjoy a sound piping.
Not pictured below is the knock-down internal debate I had over Hugh Heffner’s status as an actual writer or merely a potboiling smut peddler that got a lucky break.
W. Somerset Maughm:
Uwe Johnson. I feel like buying an analog watch just so I can set time to his haircut:
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:
Steve Martin (he counts):
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:
Hunter S. Thompson:
Not so much a book as it is a compilation of essays and lectures, Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian encompasses, presumably, his reasoning for Christianity as a religious truth. I say “presumably” because I know Russell to have been a noted and influential philosopher, and that Why would follow in the tradition of philosophical publications, but this was not the case — perhaps because of the nature of it being a compilation where many topics are covered and not a predetermined proposition and the trail of reasoning behind the proposition. Whether the former constitutes an adequate statement of (dis)belief is up to the reader. To me it doesn’t, but that doesn’t necessarily make for bad reading.
It starts off in the initial, namesake chapter with brief criticisms of common arguments for the existence of God, like the argument from natural law and the law from design. This is what I had expected from the book and I thought that Russell would go into more depth with these in the later chapters. Instead, much of what Russell asserts as arguments against Christianity — or why he found Christianity unacceptable — might be appealing to those already convinced of the the untruthfulness and a selection of undecided thinkers, but it does nothing for believers nor most theists in general. This is because he presupposes the untruthfulness of Christianity in to bolster Christianity’s untruthfulness (circular reasoning…please note the example used on the site). Now, this is in a sense allowable in certain situations, such as when presenting propositions to those who share your own views already, like other skeptics, or if he’s working out his internal epistemic justification for his beliefs. But to Christians his arguments are logically unacceptable, just as using scriptures to convince skeptics of Biblical truths are logically unacceptable to skeptics.
To set this up this idea briefly, I wanted to look at a very barebones set of presuppositions of the Christian and atheist belief systems. They aren’t by any means comprehensive and someone has undoubtedly covered this before in better detail, but I think they are workable for now.
An atheist like Russell, on the other hand, would have something like this, depending on his type of atheism:
Russell posits that his rejection of Christianity stems from the belief that humans to do not need experience fear. He defines fear as “an irrational passion, not of the rational prevision of possible misfortune” (pg. 79), and that “all fear is bad” (pg. 54). To a Christian, fear of hell or God’s wrath are completely rational responses given the set of presuppositions outlined above (I would set “hell exists” as a very strong implication and not a presupposition, but that is irrelevant). In fact, to not have a fear of hell would be highly irrational with the premises of the Christian belief system. To deny the rationality of the fear of hell is to already presuppose Christianity’s presuppositions are false, a logical state of affairs which is cognitively assonant if you already don’t believe. The circular reasoning is complete, but I am hesitant to be really final about that. I’m nowhere near the logician Russell was so it’s possible there’s something I’m not inferring properly. I’m sure smarter people have already determined that; I’m not interested in being “that guy” to say that a genius is missing the mark in his own expertise.
There are other fallacies that Russell commits, like some odd overgeneralizations and biased sampling, and the false dilemma of religious belief versus scientific inquiry, a worn artifice of a conflict that may have been more novel in his time — but I wanted to focus on some positives. In the chapter “Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?”, he laments the idea that some offer proof of Christianity’s veracity in that “if people think this, they will act better than if they do not.” (pg. 196). Whether or not one might believe propositions like “belief system x causes behavior y“, categorically, it can be hard to verify or negate. Utilizing it as a measure of a belief system’s truthfulness is poor reasoning. The essay, “A Free Man’s Worship” was beautifully written and is a wonderful standalone piece of prose, no matter what the reader’s presumptions. The rather lengthy recounting of how Russell was prevented from teaching at the City College of New York was interesting as it was tragic.
Russell’s philosophical legacy is an important one for skeptics, though his bullets will only fit the gun held by the already-convinced. There is still a good deal of value in it for thinking believers as well as confirmed skeptics, who would do well to read his Why I Am Not and challenge themselves.