Russell’s Teapot

teach the controversy

Russell’s teapot, sometimes called the celestial teapot or cosmic teapot, is an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell to illustrate that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making scientifically unfalsifiable claims rather than shifting the burden of proof to others, specifically in the case of religion.

Russell wrote that if he claims that a teapot orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, it is nonsensical for him to expect others to believe him on the grounds that they cannot prove him wrong. Russell’s teapot is still referred to in discussions concerning the existence of God.

In an article titled ‘Is There a God?’ commissioned, but never published, by ‘Illustrated’ magazine in 1952, Russell wrote: ‘Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of skeptics 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. 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.’

In 1958, Russell elaborated on the analogy as a reason for his own atheism: ‘I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.’

Peter Atkins said that the point of Russell’s teapot is that there is no burden on anyone to disprove assertions. Occam’s razor suggests that the simpler theory with fewer assertions (e.g. a universe with no supernatural beings) should be the starting point in the discussion rather than the more complex theory. Atkins notes that this argument does not appeal to the religious because, unlike scientific evidence, religious evidence is said to be experienced through personal revelation which cannot be conveyed or objectively verified.

In his books, Richard Dawkins used the teapot as an analogy of an argument against what he termed ‘agnostic conciliation,’ a policy of intellectual appeasement that allows for philosophical domains that concern exclusively religious matters. 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.

Carl Sagan discusses Russell’s teapot in the chapter ‘The Dragon In My Garage’ in his book ‘The Demon-Haunted World,’ and says ‘Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.’

Philosopher Brian Garvey argues that the analogy fails because the believer and non-believer with regard to the teapot are simply disagreeing about one item in the universe and may hold in common all other beliefs about the universe, which is not true of the atheist and the theist. Garvey argues that it is not a matter of the theist propounding existence of a thing and the atheist simply denying it – each is asserting an alternative explanation of why the cosmos exists and is the way it is: ‘the atheist is not just denying an existence that the theist affirms – the atheist is in addition committed to the view that the universe is not the way it is because of God. It is either the way it is because of something other than God, or there is no reason it is the way it is.’

James Wood, without believing in God, says that belief in God ‘is a good deal 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’ and ‘because God cannot be reified, cannot be turned into a mere thing.’ Another counter-argument, advanced by philosopher 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.

Philosopher Paul Chamberlain says it is logically erroneous to assert that positive truth claims bear a burden of proof while negative truth claims do not. He says that all truth claims bear a burden of proof, and that like Mother Goose and the tooth fairy, the teapot bears the greater burden not because of its negativity but because of its triviality, arguing that ‘When we substitute normal, serious characters such as Plato, Nero, Winston Churchill, or George Washington in place of these fictional characters, it becomes clear that anyone denying the existence of these figures has a burden of proof equal to, or in some cases greater than, the person claiming they do exist.’

The concept of Russell’s teapot has been extrapolated into more explicitly religion-parodying forms such as the Invisible Pink Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

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