Flying Spaghetti Monster and Russell's teapot

Teapots & Spaghetti Monsters: Why the atheist isn’t off the (proof) hook.

In Commentary by Steve WilkinsonLeave a Comment

A common challenge Christian apologists face concerns the atheist’s claim that God doesn’t exist. A more specific variety of this challenge was recently posed by a reader concerning an atheist’s use of Russell’s teapot analogy for the non-existence of God.

Here is an extract of Bertrand Russell giving the analogy:

“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.” -Bertrand Russell (1)

One point to keep in mind is how similar this analogy is to the now infamous Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) used by the “new atheists.” They essentially push Russell’s teapot to the absurd and apply it in a very irreverent way, which seems to be one of the chief hallmarks making the new atheists, new. (Note: It originally served as a kind of mocking rebuttal to the intelligent design movement when the trials were underway in Kansas. The idea was to give an example considered analogous to what ID proponents were proposing. As William Lane Craig points out, this is interesting because William Dembski shot down such a concept over a year before the FSM was proposed by Henderson. He notes that Dembski might have used something like the FSM to support the non-religious nature of ID, had he thought of it first. (2) By the way, the FSM is pretty easy to defeat, should anyone push it staying in character as a follower, if for no other reason than its originator says he made it up. (3)

First, consider the way in which the question is being posed. Russell’s argument really isn’t FOR the non-existence of God, but AGAINST having to prove God doesn’t exist (on the part of the atheist). In other words, when a claim for something is made (the existence of the teapot or God), the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. So, when a Christian makes the claim that there is a God, they have the burden of proof, not the atheist. Russell uses the teapot analogy in an attempt to show the absurdity of putting the burden on the atheist.

Since one can not prove a universal negative (as this would require universal knowledge; a.k.a. omniscience), Russell is saying that if there is something for which there is no evidence, the person denying it can’t possibly prove it. Richard Dawkins makes a similar point:

“Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.” (4)

I suppose I would have to agree with Russell (and Dawkins). The problem is not with his example, but with the conclusion he draws from the analogy and the accuracy of the analogy.

For example, let’s say that when we sent a satellite up with some instruments, we found traces of tea in an elliptical orbit. Even if we could not, then, directly observe such a teapot, it would be at least a reasonable hypothesis to consider the existence of such a teapot as the source of this tea (among other possible explanations). Also, in this case, I would say that the a-teapot-ists might carry some burden of proof for a plausible explanation of the tea, aside from “it just is.” (Especially if we had good reason to believe that tea came into existence at some point, not existing eternally.)

Another problem with the analogy is the comparison of something fairly trivial and non-sensical to something like deity (theism vs atheism). This is a huge, foundational category. It is in the logical category of A or not-A upon which entire worldviews hang. It can also be argued that many things rest on the distinction between the two categories, such as logic itself or objective morality. The existence of an orbital teapot has no such significance.

In other words, when we speak of God, we’re not talking about proposal with no evidence! (As is presumed with the teapot and FSM analogies.)

I also like what one of my local colleagues, Dr. Paul Chamberlain, said in the Wikipedia article:

“Philosopher Paul Chamberlain says it is logically erroneous to assert that positive truth claims bear a burden of proof while negative truth claims do not. He says that all truth claims bear a burden of proof, and that like Mother Goose and the tooth fairy, the teapot bears the greater burden not because of its negativity but because of its triviality, arguing that ‘When we substitute normal, serious characters such as Plato, Nero, Winston Churchill, or George Washington in place of these fictional characters, it becomes clear that anyone denying the existence of these figures has a burden of proof equal to, or in some cases greater than, the person claiming they do exist.'” (5)

Dr. Chamberlain’s point above includes a couple of categories. First, historical study is a bit different from empirical observation. Let’s say, for example, that a number of space exploration missions did come in contact with a teapot, but had no way of recording it or bring back some kind of sample. What we have instead is witness testimony on the part of the astronauts and scientists of the existence of such a teapot. If these were credible people and we had no reason to doubt them, the greater burden of proof would be on people denying their claims. (This point  could be debated, but I think most reasonable people would agree.)

The second point is that when we consider something with a long history of evidence, even though non-empirically testable, one can’t simply just dismiss it and hide behind a concept of ‘no burden of proof’ for a negative claim. For example, if someone makes a claim for the existence of George Washington (supported with evidence), I can’t simply say that until someone brings me something I can put in my test-tube which proves his existence, I refuse to believe, and further, have no burden of proof of my denial of his existence. I would have to deal with the evidence provided.

Paul Chamberlain presents a counter-example to illustrate the burden on some acts of denial. Consider an event like 9/11 or the Holocaust. There are deniers of these events. Do they bear no burden of proof for their positions? Such a notion, it seems to me, would be ridiculous. (6)

The existence of God (at least the Judeo-Christian God), is the kind of claim that is backed by centuries of historical events and evidences provided by thousands of scholars across many disciplines, as well as credible witness testimony. One might examine it and remain unconvinced, but it simply cannot be dismissed in a manner such as Russell attempts with his teapot analogy. It is not a valid analogy.

I have not even begun to present the positive evidence for theism (generally) or the Christian God. One need only look up the Kalam Cosmological argument, ontological argument, argument from design, or moral arguments for a start. Or, consider (without undue presuppositional bias) historical reasons and witness testimony found in Scripture (and external sources, some even hostile, secular sources). Such evidence can’t so easily be waived off, especially not by analogies such as Russell’s teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

What is sad, is that many atheists and opponents of Christianity actually think it is a good argument. We apologists have our work cut out for us! As William Lane Craig stated, “That people could think that belief in God is anything like the groundless belief in a fantasy monster shows how utterly ignorant they are of the works of Anselm, Aquinas, Leibniz, Paley, Sorley, and a host of others, past and present.” (7)

So, how would an atheist present a positive case for atheism, given that you can’t prove a universal negative? This is where we must consider overall worldviews and preponderance of evidence. This is also called abductive reasoning or inference to the best explanation. We will talk about this in more detail in another article, but the basic idea is that for many things, proof is too high a bar epistemologically or categorically. Things like the beginning of the universe (historical), dark matter (beyond our current capabilities to directly observe), or that my wife loves me (can’t put that in a test tube) have to be decided on other criteria. Yet, we can’t simply afford to hold-out on our decision making for anything for which we are beyond certainty (with empirical proof). Likewise, the atheist CAN (and must) make such a case for atheism if they are being honest and thinking correctly. They are not ‘off the hook’ by simply saying the burden of proof falls elsewhere.

Image credit: FSM 5206 by dougnaka (cc, some rights reserved)

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