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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Why Worry About a God That Isn’t There?

You don’t call yourself an a-unicornist.  Or an a-Santaist.  Why call yourself an a-theist?

I get this a lot.  “Why do you worry about something you don’t even think exists?  Why call yourself an atheist?”

That’s a reasonable question.  People with no God belief may not call themselves atheists for lots of reasons.  Maybe they prefer another name like freethinker or agnostic.  Maybe they want to focus on what they do believe in and so think of themselves as humanists or naturalists.  Maybe, as the cartoon suggests, not believing in God is as irrelevant to their lives as not believing in unicorns or Santa Claus.

But I do call myself an atheist.  God belief impacts society in ways that unicorn belief or Santa belief could never do.  In the list of Christian excesses below, see if you agree that only religion—and not mere belief in mythical creatures—could provoke these actions.

  • The Pope says that condoms shouldn’t be used in Africa to stop the spread of HIV
  • U.S. preachers provoke anti-gay legislation in Uganda
  • Some churches forbid birth control
  • Stem cell research is held up
  • Young women are urged not to get the HPV vaccine that protects against cervical cancer
  • In-vitro fertilization, which has brought four million children to parents unable to conceive, is attacked by the Catholic church
  • Some Christians push for Creationism to be taught in science class, for Christian prayers to be said in public schools, and for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in courthouses
  • Christian belief seems to increasingly be a requirement for public office, despite the fact that the Constitution makes clear that no religious test shall ever be required
  • … and other excesses that come to mind for you.

If Christianity could work and play well with others, that would be great, and I’d find other activities to occupy my time.  But it doesn’t.

If you’re a Christian reading this, you may respond that your church doesn’t do this.  In that case, agree with me!  Agree that Christianity—in some versions, anyway—crosses the line and must be kept in check.

Artwork credit: Mike Stanfill

Burden of Proof

Do you believe in unicorns?  I’m guessing not.  But how do you know that unicorns are fiction?  Or leprechauns?  How do you know that aliens from distant planets aren’t on earth, dissecting cows and probing humans?

Of course, we don’t know with certainty.  But that is where the evidence points, which is our best alternative.

Suppose someone makes a claim.  You don’t believe it, but you’re willing to listen to the argument.  There are three possible outcomes at the end of this discussion:

  1. Right.  The other person is right, and you change your mind.
  2. Wrong.  Nope—you’re still right.  You’ve heard nothing new, and this conversation might as well not even have happened for the effect it had on you.
  3. Middle Ground.  You’re not convinced, but you’ve now heard evidence that you can’t simply dismiss.

Let’s consider another area of argumentation, the courtroom.  Legal cases don’t end in ties.  There are only two options—guilty or not guilty.  The law handles option 3, the domain of some evidence but not enough to be compelling, by giving it to the defendant.

Suppose the prosecuting attorney and defense attorney did nothing more constructive than use their time to talk about favorite movies.  The arguments are equally bad.  Does the judge declare a tie?  No—the prosecution didn’t uphold its burden of proof, so the defense wins.

When someone shows you evidence for unicorns (perhaps references to unicorns in historical documents), you might agree that it is evidence but not sufficient evidence to convince you.  The other person didn’t uphold the burden of proof.

On a related issue, if you say, “unicorns exist” and I respond, “No, unicorns don’t exist,” then I have now made a claim that I need to defend.  If I make no such claim, the burden of proof remains yours.

Greg Kokul and his Stand to Reason blog say that it’s a “ploy” for the atheist to put the burden of proof on the Christian who claims that God exists.  The atheist isn’t playing fair.

Nope, “God exists” is a claim.  In fact, the claim that a supernatural being exists and created the universe is about the boldest claim possible.  If you make that claim, you shoulder the burden of proof.  If the evidence you provide isn’t compelling, I’m logically obliged to reject your claim.

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