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Meditation 812
More on Russell's Teapot

by: Will Petillo

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I was thinking recently on the teapot analogy, which was originally used to take the burden of proof off religious skeptics for disproving religious claims and that I have since heard used by certain atheist friends of mine as a positive argument for atheism.  For those unfamiliar with the analogy, here is the  Wikipedia quotation:

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.

Reading this naturally led me to thinking: “Wait, why exactly don't I believe in a teapot hidden between Earth and Mars?  I don't have any empirical evidence and even if I did that would simply negate the example.  Furthermore, I cannot meaningfully say that it is “unlikely.”  As tempting as this response may be, not only do I not know the exact odds, but I have no basis on which to calculate the probability.  If I had known that a teapot was shot into space from an unknown point on Earth at an unknown angle, then I might be able to say something about the likelihood of it just happening to end up orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, but in the analogy it is just there, without need of further explanation.  So how can I say that something is unlikely if I have no idea what the odds are?

Then another word came to my mind, “absurd.”  Over my life, I have developed a certain understanding of how the world works.  Some of it is based on direct experience, some is based on inference, and some is based on what people I trust have told me verbally or in writing.  All of it forms a reasonably coherent whole—it all fits without any contradictions that I am aware of.  The idea of a teapot floating around in space, however, simply does not fit with my understanding of how the world works.  Objects of the type that humans make don't just float about in space without someone putting them there, that is simply not how it works!  This is something I accept as a kind of subconscious axiom and I am not about to cast it aside lightly.  On the other hand, if I were to find out that there was a teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars, then I would have to rethink everything—perhaps there is a can of Tomato soup on the dark side of Jupiter or a purple mushroom hovering just behind my head....

Dealing with the absurd is a balancing act.  On the one hand, I would not write to NASA urging them to look closely in the space between Earth and Mars for signs of an orbiting teapot because it would be a waste of time and money.  Furthermore, there is an infinite number of absurd theories that could hypothetically be dreamed up and they can't all be tested.  On the other hand, many of the great discoveries humans have made were the result of people willing to question their notions of how the world works on one level or another and thereby challenge ideas about what is absurd.  So how do we decide which absurdities to test and which ones to ignore?  Why should Galileo test the absurd notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun while I dismiss the absurd notion of teapots in space?

I can think of two reasons offhand and perhaps you all can supply more.  First, there were serious flaws in heliocentric theory in Galileo's time that were apparent even to the people who supported it.  This resulted in epicycles upon epicycles upon epicycles that made the whole thing very messy and still didn't resolve all of the equations.  The heliocentric theory provided an elegant solution to this dilemma.  Thus, there was a legitimate reason to take the time and energy necessary to investigate the absurd notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

So while I am not going to disprove the existence of a teapot in space empirically, I have reason to reject the notion logically: if I reason out from my axiomatic beliefs about how the universe works the teapot becomes an impossibility.  I could decide to challenge those underlying beliefs and remain undecided on the issue, but...well, I don't want to...not for some silly teapot, at least!  And the same goes for all absurd notions, invisible pink unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters, and so on. 

Now, I should point out here that if I were more hardcore about applying agnosticism to everything, then I could reasonably remain in a state of doubt about space-teapots and such while still rejecting any calls to act as though they did exist.  For such calls to action require a decision to be made while determining one's beliefs do not.  Still, I find the idea of such universal doubt to be rather unsettling, so I will reserve it for cases where it seems more necessary.

The questions that this entire article has been leading up to are these:

  1. Is the existence of God in agreement with or contradictory to my basic understanding of the universe?
  2. If, based on my understanding, God makes sense or seems ridiculous (analogous to therom out of mathematics, not like the result of a scientific experiment), how seriously am I willing to hold the beliefs that led me to that conclusion in question?

The way I answer the first question is the result of my personal experience and the way I answer the second question depends on my personal values (and thus is also based on experience, but less directly).  Since every person has different experiences and values, one can expect everyone to answer the above two questions in entirely different ways, even if one assumes that everyone is being entirely rational—and if one brings irrationality into the mix, the variation becomes even greater. 

My answer to #1 leans towards “contradictory,” for an entirely materialistic world makes more sense to me than any alternative.  This answer, on its own, would lead me towards atheism, but in its weak form because I would still have my doubts.  After all, I am not entirely satisfied with non-religious answers to questions like “why is there something instead of nothing?”, “why are we here?”, and so on.  My answer to #2 is “very seriously.”  There are people who I very much respect who are/were intelligent, virtuous, and religious and I am not sufficiently confident in my own intellect to dismiss their points of view, along with all other religious worldviews that have and have not existed.  An Atheist would probably disagree with my answer to #1 and would almost certainly disagree with my answer to #2.  Although where exactly one draws the line between Atheism,  Agnosticism, and Theism may be tricky and even a little arbitrary, the basic distinction is more than an argument over semantics.  It is a difference in worldview, a difference in values, and the reason I call myself Agnostic.