Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Parable of the Celestial Teapot

"Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatics 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."

-Bertrand Russell


dubcouverite said...

Hey LJ!

Even as a Christian, I struggle with the general ideas that Bertrand is putting out. ie. if God exists why doesn't he just appear to everyone right now and then the question would be solved. Obviously that hasn't happened (yet, see below). That being said, it seems to me that Bertrand Russel has a couple problems with his argument.

1) I believe that Bertrand Russel wasn't just a skeptic but was actually an atheist. That's no longer a neutral position. ie. agnoticism ="I'm not sure if there is a God and I can't prove one way or the other" vs. Atheism = "No way Yahweh ;)"

A neutral position would be, we aren't observing a teacup at the moment and we won't positively assert that there is one but we can't deny the possibility either. It would require some sort of proof to say there is no such teacup and there never was! (atheism) Maybe it was there once and now it can't be seen by our current methods/equipment. 500 years ago no one would believe that disease is caused by tiny microscopic organisms like viruses because they wouldn't have the methods to see them. Though they could certainly feel the effects and came up with other theories to explain it.

Problem B) with his reference to sundays he's obviously taking a jab at Christianity. The big problem with his metaphor is that Christianity isn't just based on the fleeting hope that God exists and let's build a system around it. It's based on the teachings of 1) a historical person ie. Jesus; 2) the history of a family of people, the Jews (which if the Jewish scripture are true, started when God did in fact appear to a person, Abraham) ; and the continuing (2000 years+)personal histories of those involved in it. Those are actually concrete things!

Now we can say, I don't believe those people actually experienced that or they were all tricked or delusional and God never actually did the things that is recorded in Jewish & Christian scripture but what do we base that claim on?

This of course could take us logically into the question then of how do you know which God to believe in or which holy book to follow but that's another conversation

One of the hopes of Christianity is that we will eventually see God eye to eye and everyone will be able to see for themselves. But there's plenty of people around to ask and plenty of books written dealing with why 1.5-2 billion people (according to wikipedia) believe that history revolves around some carpenter that lived 2000 years ago! If I could recommend one it would be "Simply Christian" by NT Wright.

Miss ya!


L.J. said...

Hey Chris!
Thanks for the comment on Bertrand Russell’s parable. I agree with you that for a strong atheist to flat out deny the existence of the “teapot” makes them just as invalid as the strong theist, as there is not 100% certainty either way. However, I think Russell would be categorized as a de facto atheist, that is, he could not say for certain God did not exist but lived his life under the assumption that he didn’t. Even Dawkins is hesitant to place himself fully in the strong atheist category, as this puts him in a position just as flawed as the individuals he so potently opposes.

I think that religious agnosticism is a temporary condition since one way or another we will be presented with concrete proof either nullifying or confirming the existence of a God (whether that is a Christian God or any other God). At this time though, I cannot say that I personally find the evidence of the existence of a religious figure as equally likely as the non-existence of such. But, I am open to giving a fair consideration to the other side of the argument, thanks for the reading recommendation!

Miss you too and hope everything is going well over there across the pond!