Russell’s Teapot-Argument for atheism or agnosticism?

Before we jump into what Russell’s Teapot is all about, it’s probably better to know a few things about the guy who coined this argument, Bertrand Russell.

He(18 May 1872- 2 February 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic and political activist. Together with A.N. Whitehead , he wrote the Principia Mathematica, which is an attempt to create a logical basis for mathematics. He calls himself agnostic to purely philosophical people, but  as an atheist “speaking popularly”. Also, for most of his adult life, Russell maintained that religion is little more than superstition and, despite any positive effects that religion might have, it is largely harmful to people.

“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.” [1]

Today, there are also some new variants of the teapot argument arising, such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Invisible Pink Unicorn, Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy etc. The implications of this argument is that if you claim that something that is unreasonable, exists, then until you bring upon evidence that it exists then it does not exist. This argument is usually used by agnostics and atheists alike in order to defend their position in their belief(or as they like to claim, disbelief, which I disagree, but that’s for another discussion).

Now let’s see, is that claim wrong? Personally, it’s very rational and reasonable. To believe in something you do need a proof right? Here is where the problem kicks in, Rusell’s Teapot can only work as an argument for agnosticism at most, not atheism. Some atheists say, (using this argument, to argue against God)since there is no proof that such a teapot exists, therefore, it must NOT exist. Putting it in other words, absence of evidence is evidence of absence, or so, they say.

At most, we know, and we can rationally conclude that, probably God does not exist, but there is the possibility that God exists too. But what some atheists are saying, since you(theists) claim that God exists, and there is no “proof” for it, therefore, there is no God. We will look into this further in the next section.

There are a lot of problems with this argument (how some atheists use it, as explained above). Firstly, Russell’s Teapot is actually a circular argument. It is fallacious. It is funny how these atheists claim that most of the time, religious people are irrational, succumb to fallacies in a lot of their arguments when they themselves fail to objectively see what is wrong with their argument. Circular argument(or circular reasoning) is a fallacy when one has premises that starts with the conclusion.

How? Because a china teapot in space is intrinsically improbable, which means it is a ridiculous object to use in this argument to begin with, and if we swap the china teapot for something not so ridiculous say, then we can see the argument ceases to be convincing.

Let’s say we use an oblong rock with 2 craters instead. Is it ridiculous to believe such a thing exists in space? No, and we can reasonably postulate that such rock probably exists just by from our general knowledge of space. There are many rocks(and of course in various sizes and shapes) in space. Not finding an oblong rock with 2 craters should be surprising. The possibility that such a rock exists is presumably non-negligible and is not implausible. If you say you believe in this rock, it is NOT ridiculous, even if you don’t have a direct evidence for said rock, because we know there is no evidence against it either(be it indirectly or directly).Our general knowledge of the materials found in space is enough to make the point.

However, Russell did not use a plain old rock in his argument. Instead he went for a teapot(of all things), and a china teapot at that. A teapot is an object that is inherently unlikely to exist in space, unless for 2 possibilities. Either:

  • 1) Humans put one there, intentionally, or unintentionally(maybe a china teapot was stuck to a rocket going to space) or
  • 2)some freakish natural event threw one into space from Earth.

As far as we know, alternative 1) have not happened, and alternative 2) also has not happened as far as we know and 2) is extremely improbable given the way Earth and its atmosphere work. Now, giving Russell a chance at his own argument, let’s say the teapot definition also includes any rock in space that has the shape of a teapot, a china teapot specifically. But even if we count such
a naturally occurring “teapot” as a teapot, the existence of Russell’s teapot remains unlikely – because it is unlikely that such an object would happen to form naturally. In any case, the object would not be the china teapot that Russell specified. From here we can see that the object used is a ridiculous one.

Now, we can see why this argument is circular. It begins with an object whose existence in outer space is intrinsically unbelievable – and it ends in the conclusion that belief in the object’s probable existence is irrational. The argument started with a ridiculous object, and somehow, if you believe in the said ridiculous object, then you are irrational. Of course we know that already. This argument does not tell us anything new, it just states that we should not believe in a ridiculous object if it is ridiculous and if there is no evidence for it. It is ridiculous because even if we do not have a direct evidence against it, we do have indirect evidence against it(as explained above), which is why, it is ridiculous. Or in other words, it only shows that we shouldn’t believe an object is probable if we already know the object is improbable. We already know that.

This teapot argument is not as strong as the New Atheists would like to think it is! Indeed, actually this teapot argument is shockingly weak. It might be able to tell us that God is improbable, but only if we have independent reasons for thinking that God is improbable– and in that case, it tells us nothing new.(Now instead of us having shoulder the burden of proof, they have bear the burden of disproving it as to why God is improbable before the burden of proof falls to theists.)

Now let us see the variants of the teapot argument. All these arguments too, have the same flaw, which is they ask us to believe in an intrinsically improbable object. Which we know they are improbable from our indirect evidence against them. Of course it is true that we should disbelieve these objects due to lack of evidence. However, like I said before, some atheist’s line of thought goes like this, we should disbelieve their existence because we have no evidence for them. That is a completely different claim, and a false one. The reason why it is rational to disbelieve in these objects((instead of simply reserving judgement about them) is not because these objects are unproven, rather, we know they are improbable because we have indirect evidence against them.

Consider the Invisible Pink Unicorn, how can an object be invisible AND pink at the same time? It’s like saying, “I am a married bachelor”,when we know this statement is self-contradictory. From physics point of view(a field where atheists feel it’s home), if an object is pink, then it reflects pink electromagnetic radiation(light), whereas if it is invisible, then it reflects no electromagnetic radiation. An object cannot reflect both pink and no electromagnetic radiation at the same time! Therefore, we know the term “invisible pink” is self-contradictory and is a logical impossibility-not just a physical and biological impossibility. So we know, such unicorn can not exist because there is good reasons to think it cannot exist, not because there is no evidence for its existence.

Let’s take the next example, Tooth Fairy. In this case, we have very good indirect evidence that the alleged entity does not exist. In the story of Tooth Fairy, when one puts a tooth under the pillow before sleeping, she will change it into money by morning. In reality, we very well know the true reason-parents or other responsible humans are the one who swapped the tooth and the money. We do not just lack the evidence it exists, we have a very good evidence against its existence as well. The same goes to Santa Claus, we know it is not him who gives presents to children, it’s the parents or other responsible humans. With this same line of reasoning, is also we know why leprechauns or in the modern variant, Flying Spaghetti Monster does not exist. One of the reason atheists like to use this variant so much is to say that “God is pretty much the same non-sense as these objects.” We will see why it is not such the case.

Also, they use these improbable objects to convince you to come over to atheism, “We don’t believe in these objects because there is lack of evidence, and since there is lack of evidence of God(or if you feel so) as well, you should probably join us(instead of reserving judgement or search for more proofs)!”

One of the main points we know so far is that we disbelieve these improbable objects not just because there is no evidence for it, but there are tons of reliable indirect or direct evidence against it, which makes it improbable and therefore, it is rational to not believe in them.

To make myself clear as to why we should open the probability of a probable object to exist, let’s look at this example. Say there is a bird of an unknown species. It has never been discovered, probably because it only lived in the interior part of Amazon jungle. Would you bet your life on it to say such bird definitely do not exist? No, right? Because by our general knowledge, we can postulate and deduce that there might be tons of undiscovered species still in the Amazon Jungle. You might not have evidence for this bird, but there is some probability of it existing. See that the belief of this bird might not be supported with reason, but the firm disbelief in it is not supported by reason either. Agnostic nonbelief in regard to the bird is more reasonable than hard-core disbelief in the bird.

These objects are ridiculous because we have indirect evidence against them. These objects(the teapot variant) does not tell us much about God unless we have indirect evidence against God, in which is would be rational to disbelieve in God, and in this case, this argument tells us nothing about we don’t already know.

Is “absence of evidence is evidence of absence”? Let’s look at this example to see why this is not the case. Say A killed B(which is the truth, but no one else knows it but maybe A), A is brought to the court as a suspect, but since there is lack of evidence that he is the killer(think maybe no fingerprints or DNA traces of A is found at the crime scene etc), and the court released him from being prosecuted as the murderer in this case. Does the absence of evidence in this example prove to us that it is the evidence of absence?(i.e. since there is no evidence that A killed B, therefore A must not have killed B.” We can see how illogical is this. A more reasonable conclusion in this case would be, since there is lack of evidence that A killed B, it might not be A who killed B after all, or A killed B, but he got rid of the evidence.

Also in law, there is this concept of alibi.(in which if someone has a strong alibi, he/she would not then be a suspect, or anyone who is likely to be the murderer is a suspect if no strong alibi is present.) Alibi would then be the concept of “evidence against something, be it direct or indirect” in our discussion, which basically means “is is probable for this suspect to commit the murder?”

Just now I have mentioned that the intention of atheists to use the teapot variant is to say that God is pretty much the same non-sense, as ridiculous as these objects. This is another fallacy, namely category error. God and the Invisible Pink Unicorn, Flying Spaghetti Monster, Santa Claus etc are not to be associated with each other. Why? For starters, God exists outside of time and space and there is nothing that is like Him. In the Quran,

“Nor is there to him any equivalent.” [Quran 112:4]

What does this verse mean? To properly understand a verse in the Quran, one must refer to the Tafsirs,(i.e. Quranic Exegesis). In the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir,

This means that there is none similar to Him, none equal to Him and there is nothing at all like Him.” Ibn Abi Hatim also recorded it and At-Tirmidhi mentioned it as a Mursal narration. Then At-Tirmidhi said, “And this is the most correct.” [2]

Now, atheists trying to lump God as “fairy tales” do not work because “fairy tales” such as the examples given above, ( Invisible Pink Unicorn, Flying Spaghetti Monster, Santa Claus etc) are imagined from the natural world. Unicorn is just a horse that has a horn and wings(which comes from birds). Santa Claus is just a man, with a beard, wearing red suit. I can keep go on and on but you can see now that these objects and God do not belong in the same category. “There is nothing at all like Him” just means that God is inconceivable. For example, God listens, but not with a pair of ears or through sound waves. There is no way we humans can figure it out. God is not imagined from the natural world.

Ending this article, I hope it is clear that Russell’s Teapot, at most, is only applicable to agnosticism, not atheism. Even then, we have seen the errors and fallacies in the argument itself. Note that I am not arguing against atheism with this article, but just to show that atheists need to come out with better arguments since it has been proven Russell’s Teapot and it’s variant is not rational. You can be an atheist and reject the use of Russell’s Teapot and its variants as an argument for atheism. Along with this article, I attach a flow diagram as to conclude our discussion.

Wallahu’alam(God knows best)

 

Russell's teapot english 2

References:

[1]Bertrand Russell, “Is There a God?”, pp. 542-548 in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, vol. 11, ed. John G. Slater and Peter Köllner (London and N.Y.: Routledge, 1997). The quote is  from pp. 547-548.

[2]Retrieved from http://www.qtafsir.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1060&Itemid=168#4, 21 Feb 2016