I have been asked to explain what is wrong with Bertrand Russell’s Teapot Analogy. Unfortunately, I can’t respond by reproducing the argument of Peter van Inwagen’s paper given at the Society of Christian Philosophers conference since (a) I daydreamed through part of the talk and (b) I recycled the handout. (Don’t get me wrong. It was definitely worth keeping, but I tend to recycle just about everything in a vain attempt to reduce the clutter in my office.) So I’ll offer my own reasoning (though drawing on van Inwagen as memory permits). But first let’s get the teapot argument from Russell:
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 an 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’s argument is an analogy between belief in a teapot and belief in God. He seems to argues that people who believe in the existence of God hold an absurd belief but that the absurdity is masked because of the broad social, historical support for that belief. But wherein exactly lies the absurdity? Apparently it traces back the idea that theists are drawing on a principle like the one Russell describes: “since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it…” Thus, the Teapot Disciple apparently appeals to the principle that “If p cannot be disproved then p should be believed.” Alas, I have never met a theist who accepted such an absurd principle, let alone who appealed to it as justification for theistic belief.
This may be a ridiculous characterization of theistic belief, but is there still not something wrong with the Teapot Disciple? More to the point, is there not something right with the Teapot skeptic, even though that skeptic cannot demonstrate the non-existence of that teapot?
Sure. And that is because we have defeaters to the likelihood of such a teapot existing, i.e. it is enormously unlikely that a teapot (presumably of human manufacture) could end up somewhere between Earth and Mars. To consider this seriously we’d need some sort of story of how that teapot got there and we’d need some reason to think that story likely to be true. As it stands, there is no plausible story for a contingent teapot ending up in such a location and so there are excellent grounds for teapot skepticism to be the default position. But anybody who would think this kind of argument has any relevance to theism – that is, anybody who thinks that the teapot hypothesis is analogous to the God hypothesis – is, to put it simply, blindingly ignorant about the nature and quality of arguments for God’s existence and nature in philosophical theology.
I do think that Russell is right in one respect: the social support of belief – a well-developed plausibility structure – can indeed add to the plausibility of a belief which is not only lacking in evidence but which may be, apart from that plausibility structure, absurd. Were Russell a bit more objective in his skepticism he might even have perceived how this same observation could provide a qualifier for his own deep convictions. For instance, here’s another scenario:
If, however, the belief that matter is all there is were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Monday through Friday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to doubt materialism 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.