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What is the Celestial Teapot?

Posted: June 14th 2007

RTambree

The example of the teapot comes from the Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell, but it can be any object.

The idea is to demonstrate that just because you can’t disprove something, doesn’t mean you have to take it seriously. There are an infinite amount of things you can’t disprove. But you need reasons and evidence to believe in them – a positive reason to accept a proposition. Believing in a god or gods or spirits just because they can’t be disproved is a poor reason. How do you know, for example, that belief in the god that you believe isn’t an offense to an even higher god that you also can’t disprove, and therefore you’ll go to hell after all?

Carl Sagan spoke about invisible dragons in the room that couldn’t be detected, as a way of debunking ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. The point here was that if it can’t be detected in any physical way whatsoever, then it might as well not exist, as it doesn’t make a difference to our universe whether it does or does not.

Posted: June 15th 2007

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bitbutter www

The image in the site header is a rendering of Bertrand Russell’s “Celestial Teapot”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell’s_teapot. Russell used the teapot to demonstrate that we don’t have to be able to categorically establish that something doesn’t exist before we can legitimately assume its non-existence (see this page for a related question).

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 an 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.

Whether we’re considering a claim about the existence of the teapot or a god we face the same lack of evidence for both. Even so, neither the god nor the teapot can be ruled out with absolute certainty. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins sums up the teapot lesson in the following way:

Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn’t mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.

We are all agnostic a-teapotists. I’m an agnostic atheist in exactly the same way.

Posted: June 14th 2007

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