Russell’s Teapot, God and Proof

Posted by on August 22, 2011 in Thoughts | 11 comments

“If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”Bertrand Russell

In an unpublished article for Illustrated Magazine in 1952, eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell suggested that if he were to assert that there were a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between the orbits of Earth and Mars, that people being unable to disprove his hypothesis did not mean that people should take his assertions to be true. He went on to explain that if, however, this teapot was taught as fact to every child every Sunday, that no doubt people would just accept this as “true”, and that “teapot disbelievers” would be seen as heretics and hauled off to an asylum, a jail or even killed. This hypothetical teapot came to be known as Russell’s teapot, and I have a diagram of it on a tee-shirt just like the figure below.

EDIT: I do realise the irony in the “Teach The Controversy” message, I know it’s used by the misguided in the USA, but there is no controversy to teach! Besides the teeshirts are just so damned cool!

What Russell hoped to point out with this statement is that, rather than the doubter having to disprove a dubious claim such as the existence of a celestial teapot, it is actually the role of the person claiming its existence to then prove that existence. This makes perfect sense, and it is a standpoint that the religious people of the world do not take very kindly to, or they balk at it, block their ears and continue on with life. If a religious person says to you, “There is a God”, and you ask them for proof, the answers are always vagaries based around “just knowing”, “having a feeling”, or to point out all the beauty of the world around us and say that “someone must have made this all.” They cannot prove, not in any sense of the word, that God exists, and yet they presume it only natural to assume that anyone who does not believe there is a God is either evil, insane or both.

The problem with asking for proof of God is that the person who claims that “God is real” has already convinced themselves of this, as if it were a fact that could not be challenged. Either that or they have been indoctrinated into a faith that disallows for the possibility of questioning such a notion. These are very tough nuts to crack, and for the most part, conversations about proving the existence of God usually reach a stalemate where the claimant “just knows”. This kind of evidence would be thrown out of any courtroom or any science lab worth its salt, and yet we are expected to allow it in everyday discourse?

It’s very easy to think you know something, simply because that’s all you’ve ever been told, but when your “knowledge” is challenged, you can do one of two things; take it on-board and evaluate it based on its merits, or ignore the new information and continue along your merry way. The believer seems to tend to do the latter if the information goes against their understanding of their belief, and those who do question their faith and conclude that their original standpoint was correct obviously aren’t asking the right questions, asking enough questions, or pursuing the question to its logical conclusion. So often it seems that, in the mind of a believer, proof is something that is offered up by “gut feelings”, not by observation of the world around them. They take comfort in their willful ignorance surrounding the lack of evidence for a God, because it feels good to think that there is someone watching over you, and taking care of your every move.

So the burden of proof is on the claimant, not on the unconvinced. You cannot disprove something’s lack of existence, but you should by definition be able to prove its existence. But of course, the vagaries continue as if in lieu of real proof, like “you have to believe to know he exists”, “God exists because I know he exists”, or “God is beyond human understanding.” These are irrelevant conclusions, based on circular reasoning, called “special pleading” (count the fallacies!), and again, would never be allowed in a court of law or a science lab. Religion is not immune to the same level of scrutiny with which we analyse the rest of the world, and there is no reason it should be. “Special circumstances” surrounding the existence of God hold no water beyond a “gut feeling” and therefore I do not accept them.

I think the problem lies in either an inability or an unwillingness to really think about these claims. I make no claims that I can’t back up here, using logic, rational thought and facts. If you claim God, you too should be able to go beyond your gut feelings, and present some real tangible information that proves the existence of God, and not try to side-step the issue by offering up half-thought-out assertions and vague claims that require a God’s existence for them to be true.

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11 Comments

  1. Excellent post.

    To pick up on your last paragraph, I think (oh dear here comes trouble) that analysing any argument logically is actually a lot harder than people realise. For an individual to internalise any argument that’s counter-intuitive is evidently an uphill battle against human psychology. What with confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, identity preservation, cultural and social pressures, etc.

    As for arguments about religious concepts like a God, well they are of course very, VERY, VERY difficult. The Abrahamic religions have no agreed way to reconcile conflicting claims about YHWH so their religions tend to schism. At this point any genuine convergence would seem nothing short of miraculous.

    Rightly, religious questions end up being as much about “what there is” as they are about “how you know”. What philosophers call metaphysics and epistamology.

    The less the stuff we’re talking about is physically and fully present in the material world, then then less useful “methodological naturalism” is in confidently separating out the information from the misinformation. And without objectivity or systematic rigor to match that of (natural) philosophy, the conjecture of contemporary theologians is more and more immaterial.

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  2. You think that Russell’s Teapot would be taught in elementary schools as against to being a topic reserved for some undergraduate philosophy classes and skeptical blogs — such is life.

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    • I just realised I totally misunderstood what you were saying… ignore me please

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  3. I want that shirt; and I want to wear it to Melbourne in April :)

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  4. Couple of general things to keep in mind.

    One person’s inability to prove something does not make the converse true.

    Inability to conceive an experimental proof does not render insight invalid. The average man in the street is unlikely to be able to prove the actual form of the law of refraction but knows from experience that light can be refracted, even if he doesn’t know what ‘refracted’ means.

    Convincing someone of an argument requires that the unconvinced is both open to being convinced and capable of understanding the argument / proof.

    Atheism is also a belief system as no one can definitively prove that there is no God. Agnosticism is different but my observation has been that agnostics are generally disinterested rather than unconvinced by either side of the debate.

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  5. Noah, atheism is not a belief, but a response to the question of “do you believe in God?” I do not believe in a god, but I am open to proof of the existence of a god. I am also open to the Lochness Monster, Bigfoot and many other things, as long as there’s proof.

    I am a skeptic first and foremost.

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  6. Isn’t the immense size of the universe evidence that humans are really insignificant, contradicting the idea that a God concerned with humanity created the universe? It turns out that the universe could not have been much smaller than it is in order for nuclear fusion to have occurred during the first 3 minutes after the Big Bang. Without this brief period of nucleosynthesis, the early universe would have consisted entirely of hydrogen. Likewise, the universe could not have been much larger than it is, or life would not have been possible. If the universe were just one part in 1059 larger, the universe would have collapsed before life was possible. Since there are only 1080 baryons in the universe, this means that an addition of just 1021 baryons (about the mass of a grain of sand) would have made life impossible. The universe is exactly the size it must be for life to exist at all.
    Early evolution of the universe

    Cosmologists assume that the universe could have evolved in any of a number of ways, and that the process is entirely random. Based upon this assumption, nearly all possible universes would consist solely of thermal radiation (no matter). Of the tiny subset of universes that would contain matter, a small subset would be similar to ours. A very small subset of those would have originated through inflationary conditions. Therefore, universes that are conducive to life “are almost always created by fluctuations into the ‘miraculous’ states,” according to atheist cosmologist Dr. L. Dyson.

    The laws of physics must have values very close to those observed or the universe does not work “well enough” to support life. What happens when we vary the constants? The strong nuclear force (which holds atoms together) has a value such that when the two hydrogen atoms fuse, 0.7% of the mass is converted into energy. If the value were 0.6% then a proton could not bond to a neutron, and the universe would consist only of hydrogen. If the value were 0.8%, then fusion would happen so readily that no hydrogen would have survived from the Big Bang. Other constants must be fine-tuned to an even more stringent degree. The cosmic microwave background varies by one part in 100,000. If this factor were slightly smaller, the universe would exist only as a collection of diffuse gas, since no stars or galaxies could ever form. If this factor were slightly larger, the universe would consist solely of large black holes. Likewise, the ratio of electrons to protons cannot vary by more than 1 part in 1037 or else electromagnetic interactions would prevent chemical reactions. In addition, if the ratio of the electromagnetic force constant to the gravitational constant were greater by more than 1 part in 1040, then electromagnetism would dominate gravity, preventing the formation of stars and galaxies. If the expansion rate of universe were 1 part in 1055 less than what it is, then the universe would have already collapsed. The most recently discovered physical law, the cosmological constant or dark energy, is the closest to zero of all the physical constants. In fact, a change of only 1 part in 10120 would completely negate the effect.

    “Unlikely things happen all the time.” This is the mantra of the anti-design movement. However, there is an absolute physical limit for improbable events to happen in our universe. The universe contains only 1080 baryons and has only been around for 13.7 billion years (1018 sec). Since the smallest unit of time is Planck time (10-45 sec),5 the lowest probability event that can ever happen in the history of the universe is:

    1/10^80 x 1/10^18 x 1/10^45 = 1/10^143

    So, although it would be possible that one or two constants might require unusual fine-tuning by chance, it would be virtually impossible that all of them would require such fine-tuning. Some physicists have indicated that any of a number of different physical laws would be compatible with our present universe. However, it is not just the current state of the universe that must be compatible with the physical laws. Even more stringent are the initial conditions of the universe, since even minor deviations would have completely disrupted the process. For example, adding a grain of sand to the weight of the universe now would have no effect. However, adding even this small amount of weight at the beginning of the universe would have resulted in its collapse early in its history.

    The naturalistic explanation requires the presence of a complicated, unproved super universe that has the capacity to randomly spew out an infinite number of universes with different laws of physics. How does this hypothetical super universe know how to do this? Why would it even want to do this? Ultimately, why should there be any universe at all? None of these questions are logically explained by naturalism. Only an intelligent Being would be motivated and expected to produce any kind of universe such as what we see. If we use Occam’s razor, which states that one should use the simplest logical explanation for any phenomenon, we would eliminate the super universe/multi-universe explanation in favor of the simpler God-designed universe model. The evidence for design in the universe and biology is so strong that Antony Flew, a long-time proponent of atheism, renounced his atheism in 2004 and now believes that the existence of a Creator is required to explain the universe and life in it. Likewise, Frank Tipler, Professor of the Department of Mathematics at Tulane University, and a former atheist, not only became a theist, but is now a born-again Christian because of the laws of physics.

    A common objection to the “God hypothesis” is the problem of how God came to be. If everything has a cause, why does God get an exception? The problem with such reasoning is that it assumes that time has always existed. In reality, time is a construct of this universe and began at the initiation of the Big Bang. A God who exists outside the time constraints of the universe is not subject to cause and effect. So, the idea that God has always existed and is not caused follows logically from the fact that the universe and time itself was created at the Big Bang. The Bible makes these exact claims – that God has always existed and that God created time, along with the entire universe, being described as an expanding universe. Why can’t the universe be uncaused? Of course, it is possible that the universe is uncaused. However, there is a tremendous amount of evidence that contradicts that idea. So, an atheist who claims to live by logic and evidence cannot arbitrarily assign eternity to a universe that is clearly temporal.

    No, God has not left His name etched onto the surface of planets. However, there is abundant evidence that the universe was designed by super intelligent Agent, who purposed that the universe should exist and be capable of supporting advanced life. The design of the universe is just one line of evidence that tells us that God is real and created the universe. The design of the earth and solar system is also quite impressive. Likewise, chemistry and physics preclude the possibility that life evolved on earth. In addition, human beings are remarkably different from every other animal on earth, suggesting a departure from naturalistic processes.

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  7. Isn’t the immense size of the universe evidence that humans are really insignificant, contradicting the idea that a God concerned with humanity created the universe?

    No, it is evidence that the universe is large and has no relevance on the significance of humans.

    Since there are only 1080 baryons in the universe, this means that an addition of just 1021 baryons (about the mass of a grain of sand) would have made life impossible. The universe is exactly the size it must be for life to exist at all.

    You refer to the remaining baryons. This is due to matter/antimatter asymmetry in the early universe. Far all we know the proper amount of baryonic matter could simply arise due to some other naturally balancing system. Furthermore, as you later address, we currently only know of this universe but there could be many other lifeless ones.

    Cosmologists assume that the universe could have evolved in any of a number of ways, and that the process is entirely random.

    They do no such thing. Check your sources again, and read carefully.

    The laws of physics must have values very close to those observed or the universe does not work …

    You do go on a bit here don’t you? Here you are attempting to bury or impress your audience rather than actually make a good argument. You use the word “fine-tuned” which implies that these values are tweaked about till just right. This is not the observed case. Our universe has certain values, and perhaps there are ~10^500 others with different values. This is not fine-tuning.

    there is an absolute physical limit for improbable events to happen in our universe.

    This is recursively wrong. Earlier you calimed there were 1080 baryons and I overlooked it as a typo, but you did it again. Are you missing a key? Regardless, your argument here is so flawed as to belay your utter lack of comprehension of probability. I am beginning to see that you likely are just parroting information that you have gleaned from another source and do not yourself understand. Let me help you out with this one.
    Any event that has occurred has a probability of 1. If you are talking about the hypothetical choice of our constants and conditions, I’m afraid you once again have it all wrong. You are using the baryonic content of the universe because it’s a cool number and sounds ‘sciency’. However, it bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to the matter you are addressing.

    The naturalistic explanation requires the presence of a complicated, unproved super universe that has the capacity to randomly spew out an infinite number of universes with different laws of physics.

    Not sure what the hell you’re talking about here, I’d suggest checking your sources for sanity. What complicated, unproved super universe does this god exist in?

    How does this hypothetical super universe know how to do this? Why would it even want to do this?

    Now you are suggesting that it is required to be an intelligent agent? I could see this being original, but once again I’ll suggest you check your sources, as their meds appear to be wearing off at this point.

    Ultimately, why should there be any universe at all? None of these questions are logically explained by naturalism.

    This is an argument from ignorance. There are ideas that do tackle exactly this problem. Read up.

    Only an intelligent Being would be motivated and expected to produce any kind of universe such as what we see.

    This is a baseless and unsupported assertion. Another logical fallacy.

    If we use Occam’s razor, which states that one should use the simplest logical explanation for any phenomenon, we would eliminate the super universe/multi-universe explanation in favor of the simpler God-designed universe model.

    Superb! You have just tried to make the case for deists everywhere. That same razor kills off every single religion on the planet. Welcome to effectively being an atheist.
    You then make an appeal to authority, yet another logical fallacy. I’m seeing a trend here. Let me help you out again and show you how it’s done.
    Anthony Flew: Philosopher turned theist.
    Frank Tipler: Mathematician turned theist.
    Overwhelming majority (90%+) of the National Academy of Sciences: Still atheist, with more giving up their imaginary friends every day.

    However, there is a tremendous amount of evidence that contradicts that idea. So, an atheist who claims to live by logic and evidence cannot arbitrarily assign eternity to a universe that is clearly temporal.

    This is another unsupported assertion. A reality that is self-producing of spacetime is simpler than one that requires a supernatural entity contained within some superuniverse idly creating universes and populating them with comparatively simple beings purely for the purpose of singing his praises. Occam’s razor destroys your proposition so thoroughly it is laughable.

    The design of the universe is just one line of evidence that tells us that God is real and created the universe. The design of the earth and solar system is also quite impressive. Likewise, chemistry and physics preclude the possibility that life evolved on earth. In addition, human beings are remarkably different from every other animal on earth, suggesting a departure from naturalistic processes.

    The ungrounded assertions are coming thick and heavy here, let me take a breath. Ok, nah, no need to respond.

    Cheers Martin,
    -Rob

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  8. To look for proof of something is basically part of human search for truth. Closed mindedness is a hindrance to that which is aimed to be understood. The existence of God had been proved to human race; that there’s a God who lived with humanity. This is a fact of our History.
    It is more valuable to believe in the existence of God than having in mind a pot orbiting a planet.

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    • You know the teapot is just a metaphor, don’t you?

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  9. You cannot use the Bible as proof for Jesus’ existence. There are SEVEN books about Harry Potter, does that mean Harry Potter existed?

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