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Russell's Teapot

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Russell's Teapot, also known as the Celestial Teapot or Cosmic Teapot, is an analogy devised by the philosopher Bertrand Russell intended to refute the idea that the burden of proof lies upon the skeptic to disprove a claim, whether in general or of any religion. By using an intentionally absurd analogy, Russell's Teapot draws attention to the formal logic behind the burden of proof and how it works. (Not to be confused with Russell Hobbs' Tea Kettle.)

Russell's original proposition[edit]

In an unpublished article entitled "Is There a God?", commissioned in 1952 by Illustrated magazine,[1] Russell suggested the following thought experiment to illustrate the burden of proof and falsifiability:

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.

The existence of this teapot cannot be disproven. We can look and scan the skies almost for eternity, and it may always just be the case that it wasn't in the place we looked — there may be another spot we've overlooked, or it may have moved while we were looking. However, given the absurd nature of the specific example, the teapot, we would rightly infer that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Russell's audacity in the thought experiment was to question why people don't like to apply the same, sound, logic (remembering that formal logic is independent of the actual content of an argument) to the existence of any particular deity; there is no difference in the evidence base provided, therefore there is no reason to assume a God and not a celestial teapot.

Extension and use by Dawkins[edit]

The Richard Dawkins Foundation professes its belief in the Almighty Celestial Teapot (objects not to scale).

Richard Dawkins also used Russell's teapot argument extensively in The God Delusion and A Devil's Chaplain. He developed the argument further, to include many attitudes associated with the bad side of religion, including fear, oppression, and persecution.

The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell's teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don't exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don't stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don't warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don't kneecap those who put the tea in first.

Dawkins' extended argument is that the trouble different believers cause for those who don't believe exactly what they do would be a Tempest in a teapot if there weren't so much harm through it.

Large numbers of people believe absurdities[edit]

The persuasive aspects of Russell's teapot argument lie in reducing non-falsifiable beliefs to something that is more clearly absurd. Some may object to this methodology, citing that religions are somehow "different", but in general the claims made by Russell regarding the celestial teapot are similar to those proposed by all religions, major and minor alike. Indeed, given a broad enough definition, the existence of the teapot is just as much a religious matter as any other deity. A small but growing number of people believe in the Olympian gods of the Greco-Roman religions, a few people believe in Asatru, Neopagans believe at least parts of the Celtic religion, but very many people buy into Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. Yet there is no consistent reason to take these currently popular ideologies any more seriously than other Bronze Age, Iron Age, or older, mythologies. Indeed, in another 2000 years, Christianity may have been displaced by Scientology, atheism, or something else as a major religion/belief system — so special privilege should not be given to a conjecture, even an openly religious one, just due to the number of adherents. This is the key behind highlighting the argument with the assertion as a teapot in orbit. We only think that the teapot is an obviously bullshit example because no one seriously believes it. If people did believe in it, we might think otherwise, but that's the point. This fact alone would not change the underlying logic, and evidence provided, to back up the assertion.

It can be argued that the case for most religions is actually weaker than the case for an alleged teapot orbiting the sun. At least the teapot, if it existed, would not violate any known physical laws — it might cause its hypothetical discoverers to scratch their heads about how the hell a teapot actually got there (see the "refutation" below), but nothing really stops a teapot existing or being in orbit. Many organized religions, if they were true, would require repeated violations of known physical laws. True miracles being the obvious example, but the mere existence of gods and the various creation myths are also included in this.

No reliable document has any reasonable information suggesting that any religion is true, either. The Old Testament is riddled with contradictions and implausible stories, as is the New Testament. Other religions revere their different mythologies in a similar way. When it's pointed out that they can't possibly all be true, the different believers insist passionately that their particular mythology has to be right, and all the others must be wrong. Russell's teapot points out how absurd this attitude is, by stating that no one would insist in believing something that is patent nonsense if it is phrased in a less familiar way, i.e., as the teapot rather than an established and popular god, goddess, or pantheon.

Additional interpretations[edit]

PRAISE THE TEAPOT and the tea within it!

When presented with the full narrative, the stage where Russell declares that the teapot is actually too small to be seen (after it has been searched for by all the telescopes in the world) can be considered an example of moving the goalposts.

In addition, the point where the teapot becomes "undetectable" is analogous to numerous ideas used in the construction of scientific theories regarding how the universe works. Namely, if something is entirely undetectable and as such has no effect that can be measured or observed, directly or indirectly, then its existence or otherwise essentially makes no difference to the world. Thus, it can happily be discarded if convenient to a better theory. This was the case with the aether, for example, which was a theorised "substance" that light would propagate through. As experiments failed to detect it or its effect (the Michelson–Morley experiment being the most prominent and famous example), the idea was discarded to allow the development of spacetime as used in relativity. The notions of absolute position, rest, and motion — associated with the existence of the aether — were also discarded, as they really can't be detected, in favor of more relativistic physics which turned out to predict the nature of the universe much better anyway.

Creationist response[edit]

Philip J. Rayment, a former Conservapedia editor, argues:

The fallacy in the argument is that there is in fact nothing absurd about believing the teapot to be there, if those "ancient books" were written by an ancient astronaut or other being who placed the teapot there.

The argument presumes that such is not the case, so presumes what it sets out to prove, and is thus a circular argument.

That is, the argument is based on the presumption that there is no valid reason, beyond widespread belief, to believe that the teapot exists.

But if the validity of those ancient books could be established, there is indeed reason to believe that the teapot exists, and thus the presumption in the argument is false[2]

While Rayment’s argument is logical, it is irrelevant as it ignores or misinterprets almost the entire point of the original argument. This refutation of the "Teapot Argument" requires there to be a reliable and preferably primary source for evidence of the teapot; i.e., the astronaut who placed it there. As stated above, no reliable ancient books prove the existence of a celestial teapot. Likewise, no reliable ancient books prove supernatural claims of any religion. While it does raise the question slightly to assume that these hypothetical ancient books that espouse a celestial teapot are not reliable (to much the same extent that we need to assume we exist in order to have any discussion at all), it is much more improbable that they are accurate, and so requires a much greater leap of faith and circular reasoning.

The conclusion of the Russell's Teapot, therefore, is that there is no valid reason, beyond widespread belief, for belief in celestial teapots — or, by extension, for belief in religion.

Occam's razor suggests that the simplest answer with the fewest unproven assumptions is most likely to be true. There is scientific evidence for the physical universe and for what metaphysical naturalism presupposes exists. Celestial teapots and other religious claims introduce unnecessary complications and assumptions.

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