Russell’s Teapot

Russell's Teapot

Last night my mother sent me one of those horrible “email forwards”. She’s the only person with my email address who actually passes these hideous things on to me, knock on wood.

This one was one of those tedious things that abuse casuistry to snark at people who put reason above faith–you know the type, the ones that mistake use of the scientific paradigm for “belief” in something. This particular example uses iron logic to go from the fact that cold is just the absence of heat to the undeniable existence of God.

I have tried on many occasions to explain the concept of falsifiability and the notion that science doesn’t tell us how the universe works–that it is actually is a system for finding continuously more useful models, which is something entirely different–to my mother, and I don’t think it has penetrated at all.

So this time I’m trying something different.

I’m going to reply with a note about Russell‘s teapot.

Back in 1952 our man Bertrand was commissioned to write a piece for Illustrated magazine. What he wrote was something entitled “Is There a God?“. It was never published by the magazine, but that didn’t stop it from being circulated. You can read the piece online now. You should, just for his concise summary of some of the standard arguments.

The piece of this essay that has made it into common parlance among certain philosophers (hell, it has a wikipedia entry of its own) however is the bit where Russell illustrates the essential ludicrousness of the unfalsifiable claims of religion with the celestial teapot:

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.

Of course I’ll use slightly less formal language, but maybe the orbiting teapot will be enough to drive home the point. I kind of doubt it, though.

(I note for the record that there is actually an amusing webcomic entitled Russell’s Teapot. My favourite is probably the fear of death one.)

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One Response to “Russell’s Teapot”

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