Russell's teapot

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An unverifiable teapot in space.

Russell's teapot is a thought experiment designed by Bertrand Russell which examines the philosophical burden of proof especially as it applies to extraordinary or untestable claims. The thought experiment could be described thusly:

There might be a small china teapot out in space past the orbit of Mars, but, because it's so far away and so small, we have no means of demonstrating it's existence. Suppose a group of people built up a religion around the teapot and tried to convince you the teapot is really there. Which is more rational, to demand evidence of the teapot before you believe in it, or to believe in it until someone can demonstrate that it's not there? If you would require evidence, would live your life as though the teapot might exist, or as though the teapot doesn't exist?

Russell devised this thought experiment in 1952 to explain why skeptics don't have to prove that things like miracles and gods don't exist, instead, believers must prove that they do. Russell employed the thought experiment again in 1958 to explain why, even though he's technically an agnostic, he lives his life as though he's an atheist.

I see the thought experiment illustrating a few different points all at once, specifically:

  1. Sagan standard - Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
  2. Alder's razor - If it has no consequences, it's not worth debating.
  3. Hitchens's razor - What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Sources

Bertrand Russell first mentioned the teapot analogy in an article titled, "Is There a God?" which was supposed to be included in Illustrated magazine in 1952, but wasn't published at the time.

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. (The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell: Volume II: Last Philosophical Testament: 1943-68 (1997), p.547-548)

Russell later expanded on this analogy to describe why he considered himself an atheist rather than an agnostic in a letter in 1958:

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. (Dear Bertrand Russell: A Selection of his Correspondence with the General Public, 1950-1968 (1969), p.41-42)

Criticism

Many religious apologists take issue with Russell's teapot. Some of their arguments are paraphrased below with my rebuttal.

  • There is evidence against the teapot existing since it would be extremely difficult and expensive to shoot a teapot in orbit. So, we're justified in not believing in it. You're getting hung up on the teapot and missing the big picture. The teapot is just an analogy, you're free to replace it, however, whatever you replace it with must fit Russell's criteria: it must be untestable. The point of the argument is that it's irrational to believe an untestable claim.
  • Unlike belief in a teapot in space, religious beliefs have all sorts of evidence: scripture, history, personal testimony, etc. This thought experiment isn't really about evidence. When asked, "would you continue to believe your god even if every last shred of evidence were removed," many religious people still say yes. This means their belief is not based on evidence, and is truly like a belief in an untestable teapot.
  • God isn't a concrete object like a teapot, he's a complex insubstantial entity that can't be so easily verified. He's not physical, you can't see him, etc. This is actually the perfect definition for this analogy. The reason the teapot is described as being in outer space is so that it can't be verified. The more ambiguous or fuzzy your definition of god is, the more unverifiable it is, and, the more it has in common with a teapot in space.
  • The atheist isn't merely denying the existence of something, they're replacing God with all sorts of other beliefs, so this isn't just a matter of believing or not believing in something like a teapot. Religious believers often assert that everything (the universe, life, morality, etc.) is based on their god's existence, and are unable to divorce reality from their god. Because they can't conceive of a natural explaination for anything, they assume atheists can't either, but this is just an argument from ignorance. Divorcing gods from reality, even if a substitute belief isn't forthcoming, is not a problem for naturalists and perfectly conceivable. Of course, naturalists often do have beliefs that make gods unnecessary, but, even if they don't, a god belief is unnecessary.
  • Was Bertrand Russell there? Since he can't actually check to see if the teapot really is or isn't in space, he can't say for certain. Well, yeah, that's a key part of the argument. The next part is, is it rational to believe everything until someone proves it's not true?
  • The argument isn't a properly formed syllogism. It's not meant to be. Extremely formal logical syllogisms are not accessible to the public at large. This thought experiment is meant to be digestible by the layman.

Similar Arguments

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