Monday, December 03, 2007

Russell's Teapot

Most participants in the Dawkins vs. Theists debate have yet to grasp Dawkins' central point (however primitive), which he adapts from Sagan (with help from Bertrand Russell): a monotheistic "God" cannot be established via empirical proof, the "normal", inductive method of the sciences. He provides numerous rebuttals of inductive proofs of God, such as the Design argument: obviously the Design argument, even if one granted its plausibility, does not establish any judeo-Christian theology. (Design remains something to be reckoned with, however, instead of swept away with a wave of some fur-covered hands; Chas.Darwin himself, gazing at a human eye, speculated on how such a marvelous device could arise ex nihilo. )

Dawkins makes use of a celebrated passage from Bertrand Russell's "Is There a God?" in his "The God Delusion". The analogy has irritated more than a few fundamentalists, and not without reason: it is not only witty, but based on a rather sound argument: Bertie demonstrated that Christians who believe in God merely because he cannot be conclusively disproven to exist are guilty of committing the Appeal to Ignorance fallacy:

"Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. 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."

A few Christians claim the analogy is irrelevant, and typical of the Russellian or Dawkinsesque scoffer. That objection is not entirely without merit (this is only one of many anti-theological arguments made by Lord Russell, of course); religious people who object to the analogy may have a point--yet that point holds only in regards to the somewhat whimsical quality of the language, not to the argument itself.

Here's one grumble about the Teapot analogy from a theist and fairly well-known conservative blogger,
The Maverick Philosopher

""""But the real appeal to atheists and agnostics of the Teapot passage rests on a third move Russell makes. He is clearly suggesting that belief in God (i.e., belief that God exists) is epistemically on a par with believing in a celestial teapot. Just as we have no reason to believe in celestial teapots, irate lunar unicorns (lunicorns?), flying spaghetti monsters, and the like, we have no reason to believe in God. But perhaps we should distinguish between a strong and a weak reading of Russell's suggestion:

S. Just as we cannot have any reason to believe that an empirically undetectable celestial teapot exists, we cannot have any reason to believe that God exists.

W. Just as we do not have any reason to believe that a celestial teapot exists, we do not have any reason to believe that God exists.

Now it seems to me that both (S) and (W) are plainly false: we have all sorts of reasons for believing that God exists. Here Alvin Plantinga sketches about two dozen theistic arguments. Atheists will not find them compelling, of course, but that is irrelevant. The issue is whether a reasoned case can be made for theism, and the answer is in the affirmative. Belief in God and in Russell's teapot are therefore not on a par since there are no empirical or theoretical reasons for believing in his teapot."""""

Billy the Maverick Philosopher seems to miss the mark here (tho' he has a good heart). The (S) formulation of the analogy offers a rather powerful objection to any inductive arguments for God, however whimsically stated (and instead of Teapot, one could instantiate Zeus, or flying spaghetti monster, or perhaps an incredibly powerful alien who resides in the Teapot millions of lightyears away). And Dawkins in a sense bases a great deal of TGD on that exact argument: that lacking any empirical, observable proof of God, it's far more likely than not that He does not exist (or perhaps, to claim that a monotheistic God exists, is about like saying "Zeus exists").

Moreover, Billy the MP, while correctly pointing out the Ad Ignorantium fallacy that Russell attacks as a typical sort of pseudo-argument, doesn't quite understand all the implications of the analogy, especially the implications of the following passage:

"""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."""

That is the real issue, however mundane: shouldn't humans be allowed to doubt--strongly doubt-- the existence of some X which cannot be observed, inferred, nor empirically proven to exist? (nor, quite arguably, proven deductively or mathematically: neither Design or the Ontological argument are really necessary). That is the crux of Russell's analogy: not only that "God" cannot be proven to exist, but that we are not, according to Christian tradition, even to doubt His existence given that lack of proof. The noun "teapot" is not the point. Make it "JHVH in a spaceship" (perhaps teapot-sized), and the argument still holds.

Even if we agreed that Russell's analogy was, in terms of language and imagery, incredibly rude, blasphemous, obscene (the reduction of the Almighty to a Teapot??!! Preposterous!To the stake), that does not negate the force of the argument.

At the same time, the Russell's Teapot example provides some ammunition for theists, at least by implication: for one, some theists argue, quite correctly, there are limits to human reason, and to empirical science (those who say otherwise should say offer a valid prediction for next month's weather-- or the Super Bowl winners). Even if Design does not establish JHVH, there are no proofs showing that God can not exist, nor showing that a Design argument could not hold. So it becomes, as Dawkins grants, a matter of weighing evidence, even probability. There could very well be some Being (or beings?) who controls, like time, space, all physical laws. To say that unicorns exist one does not contradict one's self; similarly, "God exists" is not a contradiction (as it is with "G. exists and he doesn't exist"). So it would seem it is sort of a matter of proof of some sort: either a monotheistic G. exists or.... He don't (and if not monotheistic, then not G., at least in traditional sense). The conceptual games often obscure that basic tautology. Either that, or one sees a burning bush or perhaps some Golden Plates carried by celestial creatures, ala Joseph Smith, and changes one epistemic outlook .


Max said...

Where's the rude and insulting comment to soil this otherwise fine post, or are you still drafting it?

J said...

Ah McMax. I'm still working on one, but inspiration-level a bit low. Perhaps a visit to New Patriotic Worlds might re-invigor my invective.....

Why yes, it's already rising, with some assistance from Sam Johnson:

“Patriotism, the last refuge of scoundrels.”

Dr. Johnson

Cont. update:

“Patriotism, the first refuge of scumbags.”

Have a holly jolly Xmasss

J said...

Note the NW comment on Heinlein. Anytime some troubling political or moral issue arises, a NWer reaches not for say the Founding Fathers, or even scientists ala Einstein or Bohr (or mathematician-logician such as Bertrand Russell), but a crackpot writer such as rightist-libertarian Heinlein, who supported Nam and Nixon, and Reagan's "star wars" defense program, and was L-Ron Hubbard's pal for years.

A reincarnated Heinlein'd probably support a Ron Paul, if not McCain or other GOPers. Tim Leary himself denounced the bird. That said, we respect RAH's vision (at least pre-SIASL), but liberal or PC it wasn't in the least, and any modern demo would probably not want his Heinlein-fetish known on KOS or TPM.

J. L. Speranza said...

J's post I connected with two fragments. One relating to Russell, the other to Grice.

-- In discussion with Witters, Russell would refer to "there not being an elephant in the room". This may connect with the celestial teapot. It amuses me that Russell's jocular point is taken SO seriously by Popperians as they meditate on how to falsify the existence of Satan.

--- The comment related to Grice is from Feyerabend's memoirs when he recollects an examination he had to bear with Grice and Davidson where the whole point the student was asked to ramble on was on what charitable sense to make of "There is not a rhinoceros in the refrigerator".

So, there is a celestial teapot, trust me -- involves the most central points of philosophy. Or not!

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