Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why Russell's Teapot Still Serves

Bertrand Russell's "celestial teapot" is an icon of Atheist argumentation. The image of an undetectable china teapot orbiting our Sun is at once humorous and grand. It is also part of a subtle argument about the nature of religious beliefs. The power of such beliefs often comes from repeated affirmation, from social pressure, and from ongoing and increasingly-sophisticated developments in the relevant theologies. And this power is manifested in very remarkable and implausible claims that nonetheless appear normal (and normative). Thus, in a predominantly Christian culture, Jesus is obvious; in a predominantly Mormon environment, Joseph Smith is obvious (not that I'm saying Mormons are not Christians).

To many atheists, the celestial teapot has perhaps become obvious as well--if so, this is not a good thing. It is very worthwhile, therefore, to review Russell's teapot while also remembering that the entire essay leading up to the famous passage deserves a careful reading. That passage, from Is There a God?, often appears quoted as follows:
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. 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.
Not everyone is impressed by the teapot. Dr. Bill Vallicella, formerly a philosopher and professor, has a blog called Maverick Philosopher. Dr. Vallicella finds Russell's teapot lacking (leaking, he says) in its most important arguments.

I will eventually challenge Vallicella, but I want to start with where he and I agree. Point number one:
One thing Russell is doing in this passage is making an unexceptionable point about burden of proof and/or the ad ignorantiam fallacy. If the existence of X has not been disproven, it does not follow that X exists, or even that it is reasonable to believe that X exists. So if anyone were to affirm the existence of something like Russell's celestial teapot or Edward Abbey's angry unicorn on the dark side of the moon, then the onus probandi would be on him to support his outlandish claims. The burden of proof would not rest on those who deny or dismiss such claims.
And here's the second point of agreement:
So far, so good. Russell is of course doing more than underscoring a couple of obvious points in the theory of argumentation. He is applying his points of logic to the God question. Here too I have no complaint. If the existence of God has not been disproven, it does not follow that God exists or even that it is reasonable to believe that God exists.
But, to me, Vallicella starts to go off the tracks here:
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.
In my opinion, Vallicella overrates the empirical and theoretical reasons for believing in God, but I'm quibbling. Where Vallicella errs critically is identifying the main point of Russell's teapot. The main issue is not "whether a reasoned case can be made for theism" because Russell surely knows that reasoned cases can be made. In fact, earlier in his essay Russell disposes of several reasoned cases, including the argument from first cause, the argument from evolution, and the moralistic argument. According to Russell, these arguments all suffer from being too vague and from appealing "to the heart as opposed to the intellect." These arguments, therefore, are indeed made but not made successfully.

And 60 years after Russell's essay, the situation seems to be very much the same today. The arguments made for theism all ultimately fail to deliver. See, for example, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which I'll simply list here:
1. The Cosmological Argument
2. The Ontological Argument
3. The Argument from Design
4. The Argument from The Big Bang
5. The Arguments from the Fine-Tuning of Physical Constants
6. The Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws
7. The Argument from Cosmic Coincidences
8. The Argument from Personal Coincidences
9. The Argument from Answered Prayers
10. The Argument from A Wonderful Life
11. The Argument from Miracles
12. The Argument from The Hard Problem of Consciousness
13. The Argument from The Improbable Self
14. The Argument from Survival after Death
15. The Argument from the Inconceivability of Personal Annihilation
16. The Argument from Moral Truth
17. The Argument from Altruism
18. The Argument from Free Will
19. The Argument from Personal Purpose
20. The Argument from the Intolerability of Insignificance
21. The Argument from the Consensus of Humanity
22. The Argument from the Consensus of Mystics
23. The Argument from Holy Books
24. The Argument from Perfect Justice
25. The Argument from Suffering
26. The Argument from the Survival of The Jews
27. The Argument from The Upward Curve of History
28. The Argument from Prodigious Genius
29. The Argument from Human Knowledge of Infinity
30. The Argument from Mathematical Reality
31. The Argument from Decision Theory (Pascal's Wager)
32. The Argument from Pragmatism
33. The Argument from the Unreasonableness of Reason
34. The Argument from Sublimity
35. The Argument from the Intelligibility of the World
36. The Argument from The Abundance of Arguments
But the serious oversight that Vallicella makes is in ignoring the evolution of the teapot assertion. In Russell's passage, the china teapot is first introduced, suggesting that it exists. Then, an addition is made whereby we learn that the teapot is too small to be detected by human inventions. Then, the existence of the teapot is captured in text and in ritual, and bolstered by social pressure. As we see here, teapot belief evolves. It changes in the face of challenges in order to survive. It matures from individual affirmation into cultural axiom. By the teapot analogy, Russell seems to suggest that the development of widespread belief in God is also evolutionary and accretionary.

See, for example, Russell's arguments at the beginning of his essay:
In the earliest times of which we have definite history everybody believed in many gods. It was the Jews who first believed in only one. The first commandment, when it was new, was very difficult to obey because the Jews had believed that Baal and Ashtaroth and Dagon and Moloch and the rest were real gods but were wicked because they helped the enemies of the Jews. The step from a belief that these gods were wicked to the belief that they did not exist was a difficult one. There was a time, namely that of Antiochus IV, when a vigorous attempt was made to Hellenize the Jews. Antiochus decreed that they should eat pork, abandon circumcision, and take baths. Most of the Jews in Jerusalem submitted, but in country places resistance was more stubborn and under the leadership of the Maccabees the Jews at last established their right to their peculiar tenets and customs. Monotheism, which at the beginning of the Antiochan persecution had been the creed of only part of one very small nation, was adopted by Christianity and later by Islam, and so became dominant throughout the whole of the world west of India. From India eastward, it had no success: Hinduism had many gods; Buddhism in its primitive form had none; and Confucianism had none from the eleventh century onward.
Russell here highlights the gradual development of true monotheism, in the case of Jewish belief, and indicates the evolutionary character of other religions. Russell's implicit suggestion is that given enough time and a suitable combination of cultural attention and theorizing, the celestial teapot would also evolve into a sophisticated and reasoned  belief. That the teapot seems baldly and obviously ridiculous to Vallicella actually works in Russell's favor because this is precisely the skeptic's view of belief in God. To the skeptic, belief in God and in Russell's teapot are certainly on a par.

Therefore, I see Vallicella falling into a common trap of religious argumentation and apologetics: asserting an unwarranted uniqueness or exceptionalism for the arguer's belief. It's special pleading. Those of us who appreciate and see a still-cogent connection between God and Russell's teapot need to remember that the teapot analogy is not primarily a vehicle for making belief in God seem ridiculous but rather a tool for showing how reason and time can make absurd claims appear ever more plausible and plain.

Want a remedy for special pleading in religious arguments? Try the Outsider Test for Faith developed by John Loftus.


  1. Shalmo6:03 PM

    "From India eastward, it had no success: Hinduism had many gods; Buddhism in its primitive form had none; and Confucianism had none from the eleventh century onward"

    Ok now I am pissed. Russell just highlighted the eurocentric ignorance that defined his time

    The Jews were NOT the first monotheists. The Vedas are milleniums olders and they preach monotheism. There are too many monotheisms all over the world that predate Judaism.

    As for hinduism, there is monotheism there as well. Russell does not realize the rich and diverse worldviews that hindu thought used to accomodate monotheism. There are absolute monotheists who like muslims, believe in one supreme God without partners. There are those who uses idols and gods to worship the Divine. This is better known as soft polytheism, acknoledging one God, but accepting that it manifests in variant forms. Different hindu villages will have different gods, but they will all accept that each worships the same God, just different aspects of it. Hinduism fundamentally begins with the concept of "Om", which is monotheism. As for buddhism having no God, this is a common misconception. Buddhism has a non-active monotheism, where God is the universe itself. There is much debate on this in buddhist schools

  2. Shalmo,

    Your point on who the first monotheists were is well-taken, although I do not know whether what you say is true.

    I don't see Russell's overall points being affected.

  3. I love the teapot logo. Can anyone explain to me what the red atom-looking thing in the middle is? Please post an explaination. Thanks.


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