Word of the Day: Russell’s Teapot

does god exist?A couple posts ago, we talked about unicorns.  There are other things that we pretty much know don’t exist.  Some of these were deliberately invented—for example, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, sacred to Pastafarians worldwide, or the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or the new church of Kopimism.

But before those was Bertrand Russell’s teapot.

Bertrand Russell proposed the idea of a teapot orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars in 1952.  The teapot is too small to detect with any instrument, so it’s impossible to prove this claim wrong.

Russell pushes the teapot contention to the limit:

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. 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.

How valid is the comparison of God with an orbiting teapot?  We know that there are teapots, and we know how to put things into solar orbits.  It’s just technology, and an orbiting teapot violates no scientific laws.  But the God hypothesis is far bolder because it demands a new category, that of supernatural beings.  They may exist, but science acknowledges no examples.

Is there such a teapot?  Maybe, but why live as if there is?  We can’t invalidate the teapot hypothesis, but that’s not the same as proving it true or even showing that it’s worthy of consideration.

We don’t give equal time to the orbiting teapot hypothesis, so why give equal time to similar claims that are equally poorly evidenced, like God?

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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God is as Believable as Unicorns

atheist christian discussionA chapter in Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (1995) is titled “The Dragon in My Garage.”  In the spirit of Sagan’s story, here is an imagined exchange between you and me about my unicorn.

Me: I have a unicorn in my garage!

You: Wow—let’s see!

Me: You don’t want to just take my word for it?

You: Of course not—I want to see.

(I open the garage door.)

Me: Okay, here you go.

You: Uh … this garage is empty.

Me: No … uh, he’s invisible.

You: Okay … can you make him make a sound?

Me: No—he’s silent, too.

You: Can we see food vanish as he eats it?

Me: Of course not—he’s magic.  He doesn’t need food.

(You wander through the garage with your hands out in front.)

Me: What are you doing?

You: Trying to feel for it.

Me: Uh … no—he’s really small and he scampers away.

You: Can you hear him running?  Like the sound of hooves on concrete?

Me: No—I told you he’s silent.

You: Well, how about spreading flour on the floor so we can see the footprints.

Me: Nope.  He can float.  And I’m sure he would, because he doesn’t like to be detected.

You: Can we can catch him with a net and weigh him?  Can we put a sheet over him so I can see him moving underneath?  Could we spray paint and see it on his body?

Me: No—he’s … he’s noncorporeal.  Yeah, that’s it.  Noncorporeal.

Of course, by now you’ve lost interest in this “unicorn.”  Still, you haven’t been able to falsify my claim.  I win!

But no one would accept this conclusion.  By slithering away from every possible test, this supernatural claim has no evidence in support of it.  Any unicorn that has this little impact in the world is pretty much the same as no unicorn at all.  We can’t prove it’s nonexistent, but it’s functionally nonexistent.

“You haven’t been able to falsify my claim” is true, but this is backwards reasoning.  The proper conclusion is: There is no evidence to support this claim, so there’s no reason to accept this claim.

Isn’t this how Christians evaluate the miracle claims of other religions?  Why not handle those of Christianity the same way?

Jesus is Santa Claus for adults
(seen on a bumper sticker)

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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