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Russell in 1916
Russell's teapot, sometimes called the celestial teapot or cosmic teapot, is an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) to illustrate that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making scientifically unfalsifiable claims rather than shifting the burden of proof to others, specifically in the case of religion. Russell wrote that if he claims that a teapot orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, it is nonsensical for him to expect others to believe him on the grounds that they cannot prove him wrong. Russell's teapot is still referred to in discussions concerning the existence of God.
Origins of the analogy
In an article titled "Is There a God?" commissioned, but never published, by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Russell wrote:
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.
In 1958, Russell elaborated on the analogy as a reason for his own atheism:
I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.
Perhaps Russell developed the analogy from his friend Frank P. Ramsey's Theories (1929):
Take, for instance, the problem "Is there a planet of the size and shape of a tea-pot?" This question has meaning so long as we do not know that an experiment could not decide the matter. Once we know this it loses meaning, unless we restore it by new axioms, e.g. an axiom as to the orbits possible to planets.
The burden of proof argument
Some people speak as if we were not justified in rejecting a theological doctrine unless we can prove it false. But the burden of proof does not lie upon the rejecter.... If you were told that in a certain planet revolving around Sirius there is a race of donkeys who speak the English language and spend their time in discussing eugenics, you could not disprove the statement, but would it, on that account, have any claim to be believed? Some minds would be prepared to accept it, if it were reiterated often enough, through the potent force of suggestion.
Chemist Peter Atkins said that the point of Russell's teapot is that there is no burden on anyone to disprove assertions. Occam's razor suggests that the simpler theory with fewer assertions (e.g. a universe with no supernatural beings) should be the starting point in the discussion rather than the more complex theory. Atkins notes that this argument does not appeal to the religious because, unlike scientific evidence, religious evidence is said to be experienced through personal revelation that cannot be conveyed or objectively verified.
In his books A Devil's Chaplain (2003) and The God Delusion (2006), ethologist Richard Dawkins used the teapot as an analogy of an argument against what he termed "agnostic conciliation", a policy of intellectual appeasement that allows for philosophical domains that concern exclusively religious matters. Science has no way of establishing the existence or non-existence of a god. Therefore, according to the agnostic conciliator, because it is a matter of individual taste, belief and disbelief in a supreme being are deserving of equal respect and attention. Dawkins presents the teapot as a reductio ad absurdum of this position: if agnosticism demands giving equal respect to the belief and disbelief in a supreme being, then it must also give equal respect to belief in an orbiting teapot, since the existence of an orbiting teapot is just as plausible scientifically as the existence of a supreme being.
Astronomer Carl Sagan used Russell's teapot in the chapter "The Dragon in My Garage" in his book The Demon-Haunted World, and stated "Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true."
Philosopher Brian Garvey argues that the analogy fails with regard to religion because, with the teapot, the believer and non-believer are simply disagreeing about one item in the universe and may hold in common all other beliefs about the universe, which is not true of an atheist and a theist. Garvey argues that it is not a matter of the theist propounding existence of a thing and the atheist simply denying it – each is asserting an alternative explanation of why the cosmos exists and is the way it is: "the atheist is not just denying an existence that the theist affirms – the atheist is in addition committed to the view that the universe is not the way it is because of God. It is either the way it is because of something other than God, or there is no reason it is the way it is."
The literary critic James Wood, without believing in God, says that belief in God "is a good deal more reasonable than belief in a teapot" because God is a "grand and big idea" which "is not analogically disproved by reference to celestial teapots or vacuum cleaners, which lack the necessary bigness and grandeur" and "because God cannot be reified, cannot be turned into a mere thing".
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."
The concept of Russell's teapot has been extrapolated into more explicitly religion-parodying forms such as the Invisible Pink Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. 1960s musician and psychedelic poet Daevid Allen created his Planet Gong Universe and the Flying Teapot Trilogy around the idea of a Flying Teapot and refers to Russell's Teapot in his book "Gong Dreaming".
- Russell, Bertrand. "Is There a God? " (PDF). The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 11: Last Philosophical Testament, 1943–68. Routledge. pp. 547–548. Retrieved 1 December 2013.
- Garvey, Brian (2010). "Absence of evidence, evidence of absence, and the atheist's teapot" (PDF). Ars Disputandi 10: 9–22.
- Ramsey, Frank (1960). Theories. The Foundation of Mathematics (Littlefield Adams). p. 235.
- Bury, J. B. (1914). History of Freedom of Thought. London: Williams & Norgate. p. 20.
- Atkins, Peter. Clayton, Philip and Simpson, Zachary R., ed. "The Oxford handbook of religion and science". pp. 129–130.
- Dawkins, Richard (2003). A Devil's Chaplain. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-33540-4.
- Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-68000-4.
- Carl Sagan: The Dragon In My Garage
- Wood, James (18 December 2006). "The Celestial Teapot". The New Republic (27).
- Chamberlain, Paul (2011). Why People Don't Believe: Confronting Six Challenges to Christian Faith. Baker Books. pp. 82–82. ISBN 978-1-4412-3209-0.
- Wolf, Gary (14 November 2006). "The Church of the Non-Believers". Wired News.