Tea with Bertrand Russell (guest post)

Many or most atheists believe that atheism is rational, i.e., that the rational thing to do is not simply to refuse to believe in an intelligent Creator, but positively to believe that an intelligent Creator does not exist. Many atheists like to bolster their case by referring to what is called Russell’s Teapot, or, alternatively, the Celestial Teapot. In “Is There a God?”, written in 1952, Bertrand Russell said:

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.

Russell (writing in the pre-Sputnik era, before October 1957), was making the point that it was irrational to believe that there was a teapot orbiting the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. The fact that the existence of the teapot could not be disproved was no justification for believing in it. But more than that, I think Russell was pretty clearly indicating that the rational position was to disbelieve in the teapot (i.e., to believe positively that the teapot did not exist) – to be an “ateapotist”. And this, I think you will agree, seems sensible enough. I shall return to the teapot in a moment.

Suppose now that I’m in my office at the university, sometime after teaching a class, and I notice that my pen is missing. I think, “Perhaps I left it in the classroom.” So I head toward the classroom in the A wing of the Humanities building. Let’s say it’s now about 4 o’clock. As I start down the A-wing corridor, I see that the first door on the left is open, and that there’s a class in session. The door to the room on the right is also open, and there’s no one in there. This is not surprising; at this time in the afternoon, it seems normal that some, but not all, of the classrooms are in use. As I approach A309, however, I see that the door is closed; and what’s more, I can’t hear any sound coming from within.

What should I infer? That since I have no evidence that the room is occupied, it must be unoccupied? Should I throw the door open boldly and march into the room, perhaps whistling, or perhaps muttering something about my pen – confident in the expectation that I won’t be disturbing anyone? I don’t think so. There are several reasons why I might not hear any sounds. There may be a class in session and at this moment the instructor is writing something on the blackboard. Or perhaps there’s an exam in progress. Or perhaps there’s no class, but a small group of students have commandeered the room to study in. Or perhaps there’s just one person in there, asleep in a chair. It would be foolish of me to take the absence of evidence of occupation as evidence of absence. The rational position for me to take here is the agnostic one: I simply don’t know.

And yet Russell, as I read him, and pretty clearly Richard Dawkins and others, are not suggesting that we should be agnostic about the teapot’s existence. They are saying that absence of evidence for the teapot’s existence is good reason to believe in the absence of the teapot. The burden of proof is on anyone who claims there is a teapot in orbit around the sun. So what’s the difference between Russell’s teapot and the mystery of the closed classroom?

In 1952, pre-Sputnik, a belief in the orbiting teapot would have contradicted everything known about the laws of physics, the way teapots are formed, the capabilities of rockets, etc. In other words, there were good reasons, based on empirical evidence, for disbelieving in the teapot. Because of this, the burden of proof lay with anyone who claimed such an object existed. Similarly, we have reasons to believe that people cannot fly around on broomsticks; we have reasons to believe that it was Mummy who painted the Easter eggs and Daddy who hid them in the garden – not the Easter Bunny. The existence of invisible dragons in the garage or fairies at the bottom of the garden would violate the laws of nature as we understand them, and there are no natural phenomena whose existence requires dragons or fairies as an explanation. The burden of proof, then, rests with those who claim such things exist.

Even today, post-Sputnik, there are reasons to disbelieve in the orbiting teapot, though not as many as there used to be. But if we were to read on the TASS website that a Russian astronaut had taken the ashes of his beloved grandmother, sealed in her favourite teapot, into space and then, while on a spacewalk, launched the teapot into solar orbit, and if this story were corroborated by other normally reliable sources, the burden of proof would be dramatically shifted. It would now be irrational to disbelieve in the orbiting teapot.

However, the ultimate nature and origin of the universe is both a scientific and philosophical mystery. In the absence of some understanding of why a universe exists (i.e., the conditions that precede or are external to the Big Bang, space, time, matter, and the laws of nature), we have no grounds for saying that one sort of ultimate explanation is any more likely to be true than another. There is no way we can get outside the universe to examine the conditions of its existence. (Even scientific evidence that our universe is eternal would not rule out an Intelligent Designer, since a hypothesized Designer would have created all the parameters of our eternal universe, including time itself.) Dawkins and company assume that the hypothesis of a Designer is less probable than the hypothesis of no Designer – that is, they assume that we have some reason to believe that a Designer does not exist. But surely there are no grounds for this assumption that atheism is the default rational position.

There may be evidence – e.g., the undeserved suffering of animals and small children – that the benevolent Christian god does not exist, but that's another matter. Indeed, I would say there’s good reason to be an atheist on that score. In other words, we have weighty evidence that conflicts with that hypothesis. But remember, we’re after bigger things here. When it comes to the question of whether there is some kind of Intelligence at the ultimate root of existence, I must conclude with T. H. Huxley – Darwin’s original bulldog – that agnosticism is the only rational position. Atheism in this matter, it seems, is just another leap of faith.

Let’s look specifically at Richard Dawkins’ position. Dawkins does not confine his atheism to the Abrahamic god of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In The God Delusion he wants to demonstrate that any kind of deism or belief in an ultimate Creator is to be rationally rejected. The heart of Dawkins’ argument is not the so-called problem of evil, which lends weight to arguments against benevolent deities; Dawkins is out to exterminate not just benevolent Creators but malevolent and indifferent Creators as well.

Dawkins will not tolerate agnosticism in this matter; he argues that the rational person will believe in the non-existence of any ultimate Creator, or Intelligent Designer (whether good, bad, or ugly), on the grounds that the existence of such a being is extremely improbable. Note again that Dawkins is not simply claiming that we have no good reason to believe in a Creator; that’s the namby-pamby claim of an agnostic. Rather, he is claiming we have good reason to believe in the extreme improbability of there being an intelligence at the root of existence.

The ancient teleological argument for the existence of God, famously articulated at the beginning of the nineteenth century by William Paley, who likened God to a watchmaker, is an argument from improbability. It points out that the natural world exhibits many complex systems with specifiable functions or goals, and maintains that it is highly improbable that such systems could exist without having been intelligently designed. From this it draws the conclusion that the universe must have an Intelligent Designer. In a well-known modern form the argument is that at least some natural systems are “irreducibly complex” and so require an Intelligent Designer. It also appears as the fine-tuning argument, which points to the extreme improbability of various fundamental physical constants’ all having the correct values to enable the existence of life. (In other words, how credible is it that our universe has won the jackpot in a lottery with odds of one in a bizillion?)

Dawkins turns the teleological argument back against itself. He says that an intelligence capable of designing a universe would itself have to be supremely complex. Hence the existence of a Creator must on the face of things be highly improbable, meaning that such a Creator stands in need of further explanation. The alternatives are (1) another intelligent designer, in which case we are potentially into an infinite regress, or (2) a non-intelligent natural mechanism that builds increasingly complex systems from simpler ones. Darwinian natural selection is an example of such a non-intelligent mechanism at work in the evolution of organisms. That an analogous mechanism (what Dawkins labels a “crane”) might apply to the origin and development of entire universes is of course speculative.

If a complex physical system is created by an intelligence, why must that intelligence be equally complex? What does “equally complex” mean in this case? Couldn’t a Designer just create matter and the laws of nature and then stand back and watch things evolve? Perhaps the problem has to do with the Creator’s assumed omniscience: this god must know everything about the universe’s complexity. But does knowing everything about the complexity of the universe require being as complex as the universe? (Dawkins says “the biologist Julian Huxley, in 1912, defined complexity in terms of ‘heterogeneity of parts’, by which he meant a particular kind of functional indivisibility.”)

As for Occam's razor, the claim that positing a Designer unnecessarily complicates the explanation begs the question: the claim assumes that we know something about the probabilities of how and why universes exist. But we don't, and so we have no way of knowing whether positing an Intelligent Designer complicates or simplifies the explanation.

In any case – and this seems to me to be the nub of the problem – in applying his improbability argument to the question of a Creator’s existence, Dawkins seems to assume that the existence or non-existence of this Creator must be determined by the same laws and logic that obtain within our universe. But why should the laws and logic of this universe apply “outside” the universe, to a transcendent being who, ex hypothesi, created the universe, including its laws and logic? Positing a Creator is not akin to positing fairies at the bottom of the garden. In assuming that a Creator must be bound by the laws and logic of this universe, isn’t Dawkins begging the question? Isn’t he assuming the very thing that needs to be demonstrated: namely, that there cannot exist a being whose nature is not fully explicable in terms of the characteristics of the natural world?

Jean Kazez, the creative goddess of this blog, thinks that the idea of an Intelligent Designer is “utterly outlandish”. Perhaps it is, but if so, there ought to be a reason, and I can’t think of a reason that isn’t ultimately question-begging. So come on, atheists, help me out. What’s a good reason to believe in the non-existence of any Intelligent Designer?

By the way, I define myself as a radical, militant agnostic. A radical agnostic denies even the possibility of humans ever rationally knowing whether there is an intelligence at the root of existence. A militant agnostic says we should darn well do something about this state of affairs. In particular, we should relax about the whole deity issue, break open a cool beer, value our family, friends, and other living creatures, and enjoy this life as much as we can.


s. wallerstein said...

I agree with you, as long as I can change my beer for wine. It's cold in the southern hemisphere. However, since the word "agnostic" covers a wide range of beliefs, from someone who basically believes in God but has some doubts to one who basically doesn't believe in God, but isn't 100% certain (in another essay, Russell admits that in technical philosophical terms, he is an agnostic), I prefer to describe myself as a weak and not militant atheist.

s. wallerstein said...


the Russell essay I refer to above.

Luke R said...

"why should the laws and logic of this universe apply “outside” the universe, to a transcendent being who, ex hypothesi, created the universe, including its laws and logic?"

Parsimony? Or perhaps conversely -

If the logic of this universe applies to the creative force, it does seem that, according to all our knowledge of this universe, intelligence does require complexity.

If the logic of this universe applies to the creative force, then the hypothesis of 'God' becomes meaningless, since terms like 'intelligent' or 'personal' or anything else that distinguishes God from what atheists countenance are drawn from within the logic of this universe.

Unless we're extrapolating from our own world, the idea of 'God' becomes meaningless.

Luke R said...

Crap, that fourth paragraph should say 'if the logic of this universe DOESN'T apply'.

Aeolus said...

Hello amos. I was hesitating between beer and wine, and went for beer probably in the hope of warmer weather to come.

Thanks for the Russell link. Dawkins also says he, Dawkins, can't prove the non-existence of God with certainty, but he believes the existence of God is extremely improbable, and that qualifies him as an atheist. I don't question Dawkins' credentials as an atheist. What I question is his claim to have demonstrated the extreme improbability of God's (i.e., any Intelligent Designer's) existence.

s. wallerstein said...

Agnosticism is about knowing: that's the etymology of the word.
In a certain sense, no one, except an extreme fundamentalist, claims to know whether God exists or not. I'm not even sure that the Pope would claim to know that God exists. So, for most of us, it's a question of belief: an atheist does not believe in God, a theist does. Hence, I'm an atheist. I would not claim to be able to demonstrate the extreme improbability of God's existence, but I believe that God's existence is extremely improbable. Mr. Dawkins can speak for himself.

Ed said...

Agnosticism refers to the lack of knowledge whether god exists, but wouldn't it also refer to the lack of any reference for the word "god"? What does the word point to? If I say that I don't know whether there is a god or not, what am I talking about? Wouldn't saying "I don't know if there is a splug or not" be just as meaningful?

Of course, humans invent references for "god", and they are always references to some aspect of existence as we know it. This is the "god" about which I am an atheist.

I believe in the non-existence of any deity that is a projection of human concepts. What there may "be" outside the cosmos absolutely transcends our cognitive capacities, and any claim that such a "being" shares attributes with ephemeral carbon-based lifeforms on one tiny planet strikes me as nonsense.

For that reason I believe in the non-existence of any deity with a long white beard and genitalia. And for the same reason I reject any deity with other properties that we can conceive, such as intelligence.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I think it's a shame that weak atheism (aka teapot agnosticism) has become the most popular (or most commonly championed in popular culture) variety of atheism. I've spoken out against it on my own blog. My argument is that we have no way of understanding the notion of a creator of the universe--that the notion is defined out of comprehensibility--and so we cannot compare it to a teapot, or anything else. I thus take atheism to be the default rational position, not as a weak atheist, but as a theological noncognitivist.

For example, expressions like "the ultimate nature and origin of the universe" do not seem to denote scientific or philosophical mysteries to me. Rather, they don't seem to denote anything at all. I don't know what it means for the universe to have an ultimate nature or origin. So how could I have beliefs about it one way or the other?

In any case, as I understand Dawkins and Dennett (probably the most outspoken teapot agnostics in the popular domain today), they only claim that God is highly improbable. They don't claim this as an a priori position, so I don't think they would say it is the default rational position. It is, they say, the position most supported by the evidence. Again, I don't agree with this sort of atheism. But I do think there is a difference between the probability that a university classroom is occupied is far less than the probability that a celestial teapot is orbiting Mars. That empirical difference is key.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Sorry, I botched the second to last sentence of my previous post. It should read: But I do think the probability that a university classroom is occupied is far greater than the probability that a celestial teapot is orbiting Mars.

The point is this: You have reason to believe that somebody may be in the classroom. You have no reason to believe that there is a teapot orbiting Mars. This is the empirical difference that Dawkins and Dennett are relying on.

Aeolus said...

Thanks for your comments, Jason. If the concept of a transcendent Creator is incomprehensible, is it even meaningful to say one believes that a transcendent Creator does not exist? Isn't there a difference between saying "I believe that X does not exist" and "I believe that the idea of X is incomprehensible"? Further, might there not be many things that are necessarily incomprehensible or meaningless to me, and about which I can say nothing that makes any sense -- and yet whose existence is not ruled out merely by my necessary incomprehension?

Are you familiar with the "science fiction" novel Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon? I wonder what you would make of its largely incomprehensible god.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I haven't heard of Stapledon or that novel. I'll check it out, thanks.

I wouldn't say I believe that a transcendent Creator does not exist. Rather, I'd say that I do not believe in a transcendent Creator, and that I do not think belief in a transcendent Creator is possible, given the way that notion is defined.

(Interestingly, Dennett seems close to this view, even though he calls himself a teapot agnostic. In Breaking The Spell, he says that "belief in God" isn't really belief at all. I wonder how he reconciles his teapot agnosticism with this seemingly noncognitivist position.)

As for the possibility of necessarily incomprehensible beings, I don't even see how that could be rationally discussed. I don't see the sense in saying "necessarily incomprehensible beings cannot exist," nor do I see the sense in saying, "necessarily incomprehensible beings are possible." In both cases, we aren't talking about anything.