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Russell's teapot

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Bertrand Russell series

Russell in 1907

Russell's teapot, sometimes called the Celestial Teapot, is an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), intended to refute the idea that the burden of proof lies upon the sceptic to disprove unfalsifiable claims of religions. Russell's teapot is still referred to in discussions concerning the existence of God.

Contents

Russell's original text

In an article entitled "Is There a God?" commissioned, but never published, by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Russell wrote:

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]

Contemporary usage

Russell's teapot

In his 2003 book A Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins employed the teapot analogy as an argument against what he termed "agnostic conciliation", a policy of intellectual appeasement that allows for philosophical domains that concern exclusively religious matters.[2]Science has no way of establishing the existence or non-existence of a god. Therefore, according to the agnostic conciliator, because it is a matter of individual taste, belief and disbelief in a supreme being are deserving of equal respect and attention. Dawkins presents the teapot as a reductio ad absurdum of this position: if agnosticism demands giving equal respect to the belief and disbelief in a supreme being, then it must also give equal respect to belief in an orbiting teapot, since the existence of an orbiting teapot is just as plausible scientifically as the existence of a supreme being.

Peter Atkins said that the core point of Russell's teapot is that a scientist cannot prove a negative, and therefore Occam's razor demands that the more simple theory (in which there is no supreme being) should trump the more complex theory (with a supreme being).[3] He notes that this argument is not good enough to convince the religious, because religious evidence is experienced through personal revelation and cannot be presented in the same manner as scientific evidence. The scientific view is to treat such claims of personal revelation with suspicion.

Mariano Artigas explicitly challenges Dawkins' axiom that only scientific evidence should be permissible in assessing the existence of God.[4]

James Wood, without believing in a god, says that belief in God is more reasonable than belief in a teapot because God is a "grand and big idea" which "is not analogically disproved by reference to celestial teapots or vacuum cleaners, which lack the necessary bigness and grandeur".[5]

Another counter-argument, advanced by Eric Reitan, is that belief in God is different from belief in a teapot because teapots are physical and therefore in principle verifiable, and that given what we know about the physical world we have no good reason to think that belief in Russell's teapot is justified and at least some reason to think it not.[6]

The concept of Russell's teapot has been extrapolated into more explicitly religion-parodying forms such as the Invisible Pink Unicorn,[7] the Flying Spaghetti Monster,[8] and The Dragon in My Garage.[9]

See also

References

  1. ^ Bertrand Russell: Is There a God?
  2. ^ Richard Dawkins. A Devil's Chaplain. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN ISBN 0-618-33540-4. 
  3. ^ Atkins, Peter, [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Atheism and science"], in Clayton, Philip and Simpson, Zachary R., The Oxford handbook of religion and science, pp. 129–130 
  4. ^ Artigas, Mariano; Giberson, Karl (2006), [Expression error: Missing operand for > Oracles of science: celebrity scientists versus God and religion], Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195310726 
  5. ^ Wood, James (18 December 2006), "The Celestial Teapot", The New Republic (27), http://www.tnr.com/article/the-celestial-teapot 
  6. ^ Eric Reitan. Is God a Delusion?. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 78–79. ISBN 1405183616. 
  7. ^ Richard Dawkins (2006). The God Delusion. Houghton-Mifflin. ISBN 978-0618680009. 
  8. ^ Wolf, Gary (November 14, 2006). "The Church of the Non-Believers". Wired News. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/atheism.html. 
  9. ^ Sagan, Carl (June 21, 2007). "The Dragon in My Garage". http://www.RichardDawkins.Net. http://richarddawkins.net/social/index.php?mode=article&id=35. 

 

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