Monday, October 01, 2007

God Is Not a Celestial Teapot

In a short essay entitled "Is There a God?" Betrand Russell famously compared religious belief, including belief in God, to believing in the existence of 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.
The last sentence quoted is obviously satirical. Russell's point is that, absent a cogent argument for theism, the existence of a monotheistic God (of the sort affirmed by the Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) can be summarily dismissed in the same way that the utterly unsupported hypothesis that there exists a celestial teapot hanging in space should be dismissed. The burden of proof, says Russell, is squarely on the theist (or the believer in celestial teapots), not on the atheist.

Now, I agree that Russell's got a point. Any claim, once made, may be fairly challenged by asking "Why should I, or anyone, believe that?" For some claims (e.g., "1+1=2", "water is wet", etc.) the availability of reasonable answers to that challenge is obvious. For other claims (e.g., "string theory is correct"), it is not nearly as obvious that reasonable answers are available or forthcoming. The claim that God exists is, I think, plausibly thought to be more like the latter than the former.

In addition, I think Russell's right that there is often an asymmetric burden of proof in favor of skeptical denials (negative existence claims) over against the corresponding positive claims. But I would reject the idea that this is always the case or the claim that when such asymmetry obtains it does so simply because one claim is negative and the other positive. Rather, I return to my point above that all claims, simply because they are claims, face a burden of proof. In some cases this burden is relatively easy to satisfy. In others it is very difficult, or even impossible. So it all comes down to the issue of how easy or hard it is to give a cogent reply to the "Why believe it?" challenge (as posed by a neutral third party). In some cases, the positive claim is much easier to justify (e.g., "Some people exist" versus "No one exists"). In others, both positive and negative claims are more-or-less equally hard to justify (e.g., "For every even number greater than four, there exists a pair of primes that add up to that number"). In such cases, agnosticism would seem to be the appropriate default.

How does "God exists" compare to "God does not exist" on this measure? The answer is: It depends on who you ask, for it is hard to secure agreement on how an allegedly neutral third party would adjudicate the matter. Atheists tend to think that it is much more obvious (and so easier to justify) that God does not exist. Many theists, particularly those who believe themselves to have had profound religious experiences, think that the existence of God is much more obvious (and so easier to justify) than its denial. In the end, I think that debates over who really has the burden of proof on this issue are mostly unproductive. Better to start by reflecting on the nature of the 'God' whose existence is under question and then by diving in to examine the arguments, pro and con, that bear on that conception of God. After the dust has settled we can judge for ourselves whether either side has met its own burden of proof.

Returning to Russell's teapot, I believe that as an analogy for belief in God the analogy is seriously misleading in two respects:
  1. First, there are no reasons whatsoever for believing that the teapot exists, whereas there are lots of positive arguments for believing that a being like God exists - arguments that many of the brightest minds in history have found compelling. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga lists a couple dozen such arguments here. His list is not exhaustive.
  2. Second, the teapot hypothesis is trivial - even if there were cogent teapot arguments, nothing of importance would hang on them. So what if there's a celestial teapot? The question of God's existence, in contrast, is anything but trivial. The reason is that the concept of God is that of a being who is not only the ground of being of everything, but also the supreme exemplar of all pure perfections - knowledge, wisdom, power, goodness, love, and so forth. Consequently, if God exists, then all of philosophy - metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics - has a common, unifying focus. If God does not exist, however, then either there is no fundamental unity to reality, or it is a unity-by-reduction, a reduction that ultimately either purges reality of things like knowledge, wisdom, power, goodness, love, etc., or reduces them to thinner substitutes. In the limit, all that remains is matter floating in the void, which is, more-or-less, Russell's view.
To be fair, prior to the passage I quoted above, Russell does examine a few theistic arguments. But he does so in a sloppy manner. For example, here is his discussion of the First Cause (cosmological) argument:
This argument maintains that, since everything that happens has a cause, there must be a First Cause from which the whole series starts. The argument suffers, however, from the same defect as that of the elephant and the tortoise. It is said (I do not know with what truth) that a certain Hindu thinker believed the earth to rest upon an elephant. When asked what the elephant rested upon, he replied that it rested upon a tortoise. When asked what the tortoise rested upon, he said, "I am tired of this. Suppose we change the subject." This illustrates the unsatisfactory character of the First-Cause argument.
Now, anyone who has any expertise in the philosophy of religion knows that this is a straw man of grotesque proportions. Russell's critique rests on the assumption that the causal principle appealed to in the argument (in his formulation, the principle that "everything that happens has a cause") would have to apply to God in the very same way in which it applies to anything else. Accordingly, Russell must either take "everything that happens has a cause" to mean "everything has a cause (of the same general sort)" or he must be supposing that God, if there is such a being, is something that "happens". Since the latter is incompatible with how theists conceive of God, I presume that Russell means the former. But now the problem is that that no carefully developed version of the cosmological argument either assumes or entails that the causal principle (however formulated) applies to God in the same sense as it does to everything else. Indeed, it is of the very nature of a cosmological argument to argue to God's existence from the need to stop an otherwise infinite explanatory regress. Accordingly, whatever sort of God such arguments encourage us to posit cannot be a being to whom the causal principle applies in the same sense. Thus, Aquinas' First Way postulates that things that are in motion (motus) need to have a cause and concludes that there must be a First Cause that is not in motion. Similarly, the Kalam cosmological argument postulates that things that began to exist need a cause and concludes that there must a First Cause that did not begin to exist. Finally, the Leibnizian cosmological argument postulates that all things have a sufficient reason and concludes that there must be a First Cause that, unlike everything else, has an intrinsic sufficient reason. In short, Russell's critique completely misconstrues the nature of a cosmological argument. What he knocks down here is nought but a superficial straw man.

I believe that one reason for such sloppiness on the part of an otherwise accomplished philosopher like Russell is that he has overlooked my second point above, the non-triviality of the theistic hypothesis. If it is a trivial matter whether or not God exists, then there's not much point to examining the arguments pro-and-con very closely. But if, as I contend, the existence or non-existence of God has momentous implications, then that kind of intellectual nonchalance is simply inexcusable.


At 10/01/2007 9:48 PM, Blogger Jeff G said...

I'm not sure that you are really engaging Russell as well as you could. Russell seems to be claiming by way of an analogy that when it comes to existential claims, all other things being equal, presumption always lies with the claim that something does not exist and the burden of proof lies with those who would claim otherwise.

A response to such a claim would be to show that all other things are not equal in this case. In other words, some reason must be given for us to believe that the theist has earned presumption in the debate.

Now with these two different points of contention in mind, it is unclear to me whether you are attacking the idea that non-existence usually carries presumption or attacking the idea that the existence of God is somehow an exception to this rule.

If it is the first, then I think you have a tall task in front of you. If it is the second, you could be a lot clearer as to why the atheist should agree with you.

At 10/02/2007 9:50 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Jeff,

Your points are well-taken. Thanks for the constructive criticism.

I've modified my original (already lengthy) post to engage more with the burden-of-proof issue and to give a more careful critique of Russell's handling of the cosmological argument.


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