Friday, February 03, 2012

Russell's Teapot

Russell's  teapot, along with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is supposed to be very improbable in the absence of strong evidence that it does exist, and since we should consider the existence of a floating teapot to be highly improbable initially, we should reason in the same way for God. 

We do know that matter doesn't ordinarily arrange itself into the shape of a teapot unless there are persons around who want to heat and pour tea. How this is supposed to bear on the probability of something existing which , ex hypothesi, is not derived from natural processes, is something I don't understand. 

22 comments:

Crude said...

Actually, if you subscribe to the right multiverse theory, both orbital teapots and flying spaghetti monsters exist with certainty, somewhere. So I suppose various multiverse believers would have to be committed to some form of theism.

As for the teapot and the FSM, I think this is a case of taking seriously that which doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. You basically have to come up with your own argument for what the FSM is supposed to illustrate, and the teapot's busted.

Tony Hoffman said...

The teapot is both about the burden of proof and about the meaningfulness of claims.

Believers in the teapot are free to believe in the teapot. But if they want to convince others, they need to be able to persuasively demonstrate that the teapot does actually exist, and, more importantly, why the existence of said teapot even matters.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is more about ridicule, as it mocks the idea of assigning additional attributes to a thing not shown to exist, and it seems to make the thing (the monster) more probable by assigning it additional properties, both real and fantastic (thus employing the conjunction fallacy).

I have to say for someone who immerses himself in these issues you seem to have a surprisingly tin ear.

Crude said...

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is more about ridicule,

Pretty much on target. The rest, not so much. The FSM begins and ends at ridicule - after the fact "but think about it, man" justifications are lipstick on the pig.

unkleE said...

I agree with you. Russell was a smart and good man in many ways, so I can't understand how he thought this teapot nonsense was useful. It only "works" against someone who believes with absolutely no reason, and while sceptics like to accuse christians of that, it is in truth extremely rare. After all, most chrstians believe that Jesus was a man in history, with historical evidence in support, so at least to that degree they have reason to believe, if not many others. So the sceptics' disagreement comes down to the type or amount of evidence, which is a different matter entirely, and one which I don't think even the best philosophers have resolved.

Matt said...

"It only "works" against someone who believes with absolutely no reason," In fairness to Russell I believe this was the context in which he brought up the argument. He did not like the fact that people assumed theism was true and expected him to prove atheism.

Papalinton said...

unkleE
"After all, most chrstians believe that Jesus was a man in history, with historical evidence in support, so at least to that degree they have reason to believe, if not many others."

You know, the logic in this statement is identical to that of a Scientologist's reason to believe.

unkleE said...

"You know, the logic in this statement is identical to that of a Scientologist's reason to believe."

1. Identical? I'd like to see that!

2. Perhaps, but historians side with the christian but not with the scientiologist.

3. I thought we didn't accept arguments by (suspect) analogy?

unkleE said...

"In fairness to Russell I believe this was the context in which he brought up the argument. He did not like the fact that people assumed theism was true and expected him to prove atheism."

Thanks for this clarification. If that is the case then fair enough. Pity it isn't only used in that context today.

mattghg said...

Historical evidence in favour of Scientology? What would that even look like?

Papalinton, do have any idea at all what you are talking about?

BeingItself said...

The teapot analogy is simply to clarify where the burden of proof lies.

You ought to accept the null hypothesis until you have good reason to discard it.

Your original post is just confused.

Victor Reppert said...

I should accept the null hypothesis in the absence of proof? Does this go for the external world?

Rules like this sound good until you start applying them.

BeingItself said...

Victor,

Who said anything about "proof"?

I said "reason to discard it".

I suspect you have ample reasons to discard the null hypothesis concerning the external world.

I understand that for someone unused to being a critical thinker, such rules would put a cramp in your style. But if you care whether your beliefs are true, perhaps you should become a student of rationality. The blog "Less Wrong" is a good starting place.

Crude said...

But if you care whether your beliefs are true, perhaps you should become a student of rationality. The blog "Less Wrong" is a good starting place.

As a teacher of rationality myself - aren't we all? - the suggestion "You should be a student of reason. Might I recommend a blog?" is D- work. But shooting from the hip and assuming someone who disagrees with you 'is unused to being a critical thinker'? That drops you down to an F.

See me after class, Beingitself. Bring chalk, as you'll be writing on the blackboard - over and over again.

BenYachov said...

Russell Teapot is a valid argument to doubt Zeus or some other "god" that is nothing more than a being alongside other beings.

But should I doubt the Universe came from a Hartle/Hawking State because of Russell's Tea Pot?

Can I see a Hartle-Hawking State with a powerful telescope like I could a Tea Pot orbiting near Mars?

Bill Vallicella has already dealt with this idiot argument

http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2008/11/russells-teapot-does-it-hold-water.html

BeingItself said...

Ben,

Thanks for the link.

"He is clearly suggesting that belief in God (i.e., belief that God exists) is epistemically on a par with believing in a celestial teapot."

I don't think Russell suggests that. But if he did, he was wrong.

As I read it, the point of the teapot analogy is merely to clarify who has the burden of proof.

BenYachov said...

>I don't think Russell suggests that. But if he did, he was wrong.

He clearly is IMHO but we can agree to disagree on that. But as you say if he is then he is wrong.

>As I read it, the point of the teapot analogy is merely to clarify who has the burden of proof.

That is only meaningful if we as Bill says conceived of God as an isolani. Clearly Russell is doing that.

Taken literally a microscopic tea pot might be detected by a theoretical hyper-powerful telescope that can see microscopic objects from great distances.

But no matter how powerful your telescope you will never see God.

Conception-ally Sybok from Star Trek V got it so wrong.

Victor Reppert said...

I think, for the most part, burdens of proof don't exist simpliciter, but only relative to an existing belief system.

BeingItself said...

Crude, Victor, Ben,

I would like to unpack my objection to the original post, because I think Victor commits an error of reasoning that I encounter all the time in many different settings.

The error is called 'the perverted analogy fallacy'. This occurs when you pervert your opponent’s analogy to mean something broader than intended.

The intent of BR's analogy was to show who has the burden of proof. Victor makes the mistake of broadening BR's analogy. BR was not saying that God should be discoverable in the same way a physical object like a teapot is discoverable.

Very smart folks are susceptible to making this mistake. Peter Singer does so in this exchange with Sam Harris.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryQCoWXCnCQ

Probably the most frequent perversion of analogy occurs whenever something favorable is said about Nazism.

Suppose my opponent said "Government involvement in public transportation always results in inefficiency", and I responded with "Well, the Nazis made the trains run on time". I would then be accused of wanting to murder Jews.

Crude said...

The intent of BR's analogy was to show who has the burden of proof.

What you contend is that BR's analogy was to show who has the burden of proof in a given situation. Others contend that BR's analogy was made to suggest - soften the blow and say it's partly intended to suggest - that the existence of God is on par with the existence of that teapot. That seems like a reasonable implication of the passage, and it's entirely reasonable to focus on that.

So no, I see no 'perversion' here, certainly nothing at all like the example you give.

What's more, BR also lets another problem slide: whether or not the skeptic has a burden depends on his claim. "God does not exist" is a claim itself, and the burden comes to any skeptic who says so. Yes, so skeptics avoid this burden by saying "well, I'm not saying God does not exist - why, I have nothing to say about God's non-existence, I merely criticize claims for God's existence". Not all skeptics try to make that move.

BeingItself said...

Crude,

I acknowledge that a reasonable person could interpret the analogy differently.

My larger point was to be on alert for the perverted analogy fallacy. This situation is not the perfect example of such.

Shep said...

@Crude
>"God does not exist" is a claim itself, and the burden comes to any skeptic who says so.

(*facepalm)

"If there were no theists, there'd be no atheists." -- Unknown

Shep said...

Wow. Just, wow. & you're a PhD?

"Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true." -- C. Sagan