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Russell's Celestial Teapot

Updated on December 19, 2013

Theories of Unfalsifiability

Bertrand Russell's Celestial Teapot is an argument by analogy, a parody of sorts, concerning the weakness of unfalsifiable arguments. Within the scientific community there are certain criteria that a theory should possess in order to lend itself to further evaluation and refinement. One of these criterion is at least an epistemological path to falsifiability. Evidence of a type that can at least be conceived of should be identifiable as potential knowledge that would render the theory incomplete or incoherent. Meeting this criterion is historically the hallmark of a testable scientific theory that is capable of making predictions. Falsifiability also sets the stage for the possibility of further discussion and the continued incorporation of new evidence in the continued honing of the theory.

The god hypothesis lacks this element of falsifiability, as well as other qualities that keep it from attaining the level of a, "god theory," in any scientific sense. Because of it's shortcomings it cannot be examined seriously by scientific discourse. Often the Theistically oriented make the logical mistake of considering this lack of falsifiability to be a credit to their argument. This is evidenced by the assertion they sometimes make that, "Atheists cannot produce any absolute proof that god doesn't exist." We also cannot provide absolute proof that unicorns and dragons do not exist. This logically fallacious stratagem always hints at the weakness of an argument rather than it's strength.

The Argument

In Russell's 1952 article, "Is There a God?" he explains this shifting of the burden of proof as the casuistry it is through the use of his, "Celestial Teapot," riposte;

"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."

This succinct distillation of the essay shows the two errors common in Theistic thinking. Firstly, they demand a type of evidence that is logically unfeasible to produce and secondly they often make a prestadigitational effort at changing where the burden of proof should lie with respect to extraordinary claims.

In a strict sense his argument commits us all who value the scientific method to Agnosticism instead of Atheism. Because we cannot positively disprove the existence of god we must to a degree withhold a minutia of judgment on such metaphysical possibilities. But as Russell pointed out 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."

Contemporary Analysis

Occam's Razor simply states that we should discard superfluous assertions and start with the simple rather than the complex hypothesis as the basis for intellectual discourse.

Because, "religious evidence," is always personal and subjective the Theistic tend to equate the application of scientific falsifiability and theoretical parsimony to the realm of Theology as a conflation between two types of incompatible knowledge. The reductio ad absurdum of this position is made apparent by Russell's argument. Namely, if a strict Agnosticism actually demands an equal weighing of both belief and disbelief in god, as if they were equally valid arguments, yet merely intrinsically different modes of argumentation, then undetectable teapots must be given the commensurate level of agnostic belief, the evidence for god and celestial teapots being on par.

Russell's point should have settled this matter about the impossibility of providing positive proof against god or any other unfalsibiable proposition when he wrote it in the fifties. But the objections to his argument all fall in the vein of a kind of Theological contempt regarding the comparison between god and his presumed ubiquity in the Universe and a fictional physical teapot in orbit around the sun. To make this objection is to profoundly miss the point of Russell's argument. Unpleasant as it might be to the Theistic we have just as much evidence for the existence of objects that are whole cloth fabrications dripping with parody, such as Celestial Teapots, as we do for supposing the validity of any particular Theistic dogma concerning the nature of god or his intervention in human affairs.


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      3 years ago

      A simple and innleligett point, well made. Thanks!


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