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Russell in 1916
Russell's teapot, sometimes called the celestial teapot or cosmic teapot, is an analogy, 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 disproof to others. Russell specifically applied his analogy in the context of religion. He wrote that if he were to assert, without offering proof, that a teapot orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, he could not expect anyone to believe him solely because his assertion could not be proven wrong. Russell's teapot is still invoked in discussions concerning the existence of God, and in various other contexts.
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.
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."
In 2014, philosopher Alvin Plantinga was quoted in The New York Times as challenging the validity of the Russell's Teapot argument:
- Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on. There is plenty of evidence against teapotism.
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.
- Fritz Allhoff, Scott C. Lowe. The Philosophical Case Against Literal Truth: Russell's Teapot // Christmas - Philosophy for Everyone: Better Than a Lump of Coal. — John Wiley and Sons, 2010. — Т. 5. — P. 65-66. — 256 p. — (Philosophy for Everyone). — ISBN 9781444330908.
- 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. doi:10.1080/15665399.2010.10820011.
- Bury, J. B. (1914). History of Freedom of Thought. London: Williams & Norgate. p. 20.
- Atkins, Peter, "Atheism and science", in Clayton, Philip; Simpson, Zachary R., The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, pp. 129–130, retrieved 2016-03-03
- 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".
- Gutting, Gary (2014). Is Atheism Irrational? The New York Times, Feb 09, 2014; accessed July 27, 2016
- Wolf, Gary (14 November 2006). "The Church of the Non-Believers". Wired News.