19 March 2014
Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot is an object orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. It is too small to be detectable so any insistence that the teapot exists cannot be refuted. Russell made the point to show that such unfalsifiable claims demand proof from the believer rather than disproof from the sceptic. In other words, the belief is itself carries no special authority.
The teapot – rather than, say, an oddly shaped asteroid – is chosen to make the assertion seem as absurd as possible. Russell concludes by implying it is no more absurd than the dogma preached in churches every Sunday, a dogma which has, down the centuries, carried special authority.
The teapot argument was tweeted in my direction by Adrian Perry (@Tregeare) who is amazed that I could believe in God (I am an agnostic but I won’t, for the moment, quibble). That, in turn, arose from my tweet expressing my dislike of the Richard Dawkins-Lawrence Krauss anti-religion ‘tour’, specifically my horror that an artist as great as Werner Herzog should support such nonsense. These neo-atheist preaching to the converted love-ins must be dismal, smug affairs. They also shock me in the same way Dawkins shocked me when he told me, years ago, he was writing a book on God. Why? Arguments against the existence of God are obvious, numerous and, in their own terms, irrefutable; they hardly need repetition.
Of course, 9/11 and American fundamentalism were the real targets – in other words, certain forms of very extreme behaviour and belief. Fair enough, I suppose, but the argument did not stop there, it expanded to become an assault on religion in general, the abolition of which, it was claimed, would make a better world. This is nonsense, of course – as, to my astonishment, Christopher Hitchens admitted on a US radio show. Religion is just an occasion for human evil, as were communism and fascism. The argument then further expanded to assert science as the one true way.
This last assertion is based on the belief – and it is a belief, a total teapot in fact – that science is capable of a final and full account of the the world. This leads to scientism in which every problem is approached with the presupposition that there is a scientific solution – read Roger Scruton on this particular abuse of reason.
All of which has tended to polarise people’s responses to religion. Neo-atheism has made non-believers and believers more strident. On one side, some people now seem scared of even referring to religion; a recent interviewee stammered an apology to me when he happened to use a religious reference. On the other side, faith in its most destructive forms is ever more entrenched.
But about that teapot. The first point to make is that Russell’s thought experiment is rigged. Nobody, as far as I know, believes in that teapot, billions believe in God. In other words, God is not a teapot because there is, indeed, evidence for his existence – primarily his persistence in the human mind. Here’s a teapot-centric account of this type of argument. That God is in the human mind and imagination is irrefutable on the grounds of history and, in my case at least, introspection. This may be a mass delusion or an expression of some psychological disorder in me, but I don’t think so, not least because, by other names and with other attributes, something like God appears in so much human discourse – the omni-competence of science being one obvious example.
The real issue in all this is the intensity of belief. Wisdom should teach us that we are wrong about almost everything almost all the time and that we pass through the world in a cloud of unsubstantiated beliefs. We can’t abandon them – we would cease to function – but we should all cling to them weakly. (This is, in fact, what scientists used to claim to do.) We shouldn’t go on ‘tour’ to prove ourselves right and we shouldn’t kill unbelievers. I don’t expect anybody to be impressed by or even to react to my own teapottish tendencies, but I will say that, in return, you shouldn’t deny the existence of yours.