Teapots & Spaghetti Monsters: Why atheists aren’t off the (proof) hook.

Russell's teapot and Flying Spaghetti Monster image

A common challenge Christian apologists face concerns the atheist’s claim that God doesn’t exist. A more specific variety of this challenge was recently posed by a TilledSoil.org reader concerning an atheist’s use of Russell’s teapot analogy for the non-existence of God.  Here is an extract of Bertrand Russell giving the analogy:

“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.” -Bertrand Russell

One point to keep in mind is how similar this analogy is to the now infamous Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) used by the “new atheists.” They essentially push Russell’s teapot to the absurd and apply it in a very irreverent way, which seems to be one of the chief hallmarks making the new atheists, new. (Note: It originally served as a kind of mocking rebuttal to the intelligent design movement when the trials were underway in Kansas. The idea was to give an example considered analogous to what ID proponents were proposing. As William Lane Craig points out, this is interesting because William Dembski shot down such a concept over a year before the FSM was proposed by Henderson. He notes that Dembski might have used something like the FSM to support the non-religious nature of ID, had he thought of it first.) By the way, the FSM is pretty easy to defeat, should anyone push it staying in character as a follower, if for no other reason than its originator says he made it up.

First, consider the way in which the question is being posed. Russell’s argument really isn’t FOR the non-existence of God, but AGAINST having to prove God doesn’t exist (on the part of the atheist). In other words, when a claim for something is made (the existence of the teapot or God), the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. So, when a Christian makes the claim that there is a God, they have the burden of proof, not the atheist. Russell uses the teapot analogy in an attempt to show the absurdity of putting the burden on the atheist.

Since one can not prove a universal negative (as this would require universal knowledge; a.k.a. omniscience), Russell is saying that if there is something for which there is no evidence, the person denying it can’t possibly prove it. Richard Dawkins makes a similar point:

“Well, technically, you cannot be any more than an agnostic. But I am as agnostic about God as I am about fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot actually disprove the existence of God. Therefore, to be a positive atheist is not technically possible. But you can be as atheist about God as you can be atheist about Thor or Apollo. Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.”

I suppose I would have to agree with Russell (and Dawkins). The problem is not with his example, but with the conclusion he draws from the analogy and the accuracy of the analogy.

For example, let’s say that when we sent a satellite up with some instruments, we found traces of tea in an elliptical orbit. Even if we could not, then, directly observe such a teapot, it would be at least a reasonable hypothesis to consider the existence of such a teapot as the source of this tea (among other possible explanations). Also, in this case, I would say that the a-teapot-ists might carry some burden of proof for a plausible explanation of the tea, aside from “it just is.” (Especially if we had good reason to believe that tea came into existence at some point, not existing eternally.)

Another problem with the analogy is the comparison of something fairly trivial and non-sensical to something like deity (theism vs atheism). This is a huge, foundational category. It is in the logical category of A or not-A upon which entire worldviews hang. It can also be argued that many things rest on the distinction between the two categories, such as logic itself or objective morality. The existence of an orbital teapot has no such significance.

In other words, when we speak of God, we’re not talking about proposal with no evidence! (As is presumed with the teapot and FSM analogies.)

I also like what one of my local colleagues, Dr. Paul Chamberlain, said in the Wikipedia article:

“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.'”

Dr. Chamberlain’s point above includes a couple of categories. First, historical study is a bit different from empirical observation. Let’s say, for example, that a number of space exploration missions did come in contact with a teapot, but had no way of recording it or bring back some kind of sample. What we have instead is witness testimony on the part of the astronauts and scientists of the existence of such a teapot. If these were credible people and we had no reason to doubt them, the greater burden of proof would be on people denying their claims. (This point could be debated, but I think most reasonable people would agree.)

The second point is that when we consider something with a long history of evidence, even though non-empirically testable, one can’t simply just dismiss it and hide behind a concept of ‘no burden of proof’ for a negative claim. For example, if someone makes a claim for the existence of George Washington (supported with evidence), I can’t simply say that until someone brings me something I can put in my test-tube which proves his existence, I refuse to believe, and further, have no burden of proof of my denial of his existence. I would have to deal with the evidence provided.

Paul Chamberlain presents a counter-example to illustrate the burden on some acts of denial. Consider an event like 9/11 or the Holocaust. There are deniers of these events. Do they bear no burden of proof for their positions? Such a notion, it seems to me, would be ridiculous.

The existence of God (at least the Judeo-Christian God), is the kind of claim that is backed by centuries of historical events and evidences provided by thousands of scholars across many disciplines, as well as credible witness testimony. One might examine it and remain unconvinced, but it simply cannot be dismissed in a manner such as Russell attempts with his teapot analogy. It is not a valid analogy.

I have not even begun to present the positive evidence for theism (generally) or the Christian God. One need only look up the Kalam Cosmological argument, ontological argument, argument from design, or moral arguments for a start. Or, consider (without undue presuppositional bias) historical reasons and witness testimony found in Scripture (and external sources, some even hostile, secular sources). Such evidence can’t so easily be waived off, especially not by analogies such as Russell’s teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

What is sad, is that many atheists and opponents of Christianity actually think it is a good argument. We apologists have our work cut out for us! As William Lane Craig stated, “That people could think that belief in God is anything like the groundless belief in a fantasy monster shows how utterly ignorant they are of the works of Anselm, Aquinas, Leibniz, Paley, Sorley, and a host of others, past and present.”

So, how would an atheist present a positive case for atheism, given that you can’t prove a universal negative? This is where we must consider overall worldviews and preponderance of evidence. This is also called abductive reasoning or inference to the best explanation. We will talk about this in more detail in another article, but the basic idea is that for many things, proof is too high a bar epistemologically or categorically. Things like the beginning of the universe (historical), dark matter (beyond our current capabilities to directly observe), or that my wife loves me (can’t put that in a test tube) have to be decided on other criteria. Yet, we can’t simply afford to hold-out on our decision making for anything for which we are beyond certainty (with empirical proof). Likewise, the atheist CAN (and must) make such a case for atheism if they are being honest and thinking correctly. They are not ‘off the hook’ by simply saying the burden of proof falls elsewhere.

Image credit: FSM 5206 by dougnaka (cc, some rights reserved)

This article was first published at TilledSoil.org. Copyright © 2012 TilledSoil.org. All rights reserved.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Steve Wilkinson

Steve loves getting people excited about Christian apologetics (case-making); seeing the beauty and rationality of Christianity and the Christian worldview. He is a husband, father, and long-time tech geek. Steve is director/educator at TilledSoil.org and also a designer/consultant at cgWerks. He holds a MA in Theology (Interdisciplinary - Christianity, Church & Culture) from Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. Canada. You can follow Steve on Twitter @TilledSoil, connect with him/TilledSoil.org on Facebook, or catch up with him on Google+.

  • http://twitter.com/GlassHouseTheo Glass House Theology

    Thought provoking. I think the atheist answer would be:
    “we have provided a positive scientific model in materialistic biological evolution. Since no one can prove a universal negative, we can only provide a model that is testable and provable.”

    If that be the case, it falls on the Christian to provide an equally compelling positive scientific model that is testable and provable.

    Your thoughts?

    • http://www.cgWerks.com/ Steve Wilkinson

      Thanks!

      First, I would say that when we are talking about ‘models’ we need to think a bit bigger than just particular disciplines within the empirical sciences. EVEN IF we grant the materialistic biological evolution model a good deal of positive evidence weight (which I wouldn’t be so quick to do), there are many aspects to a worldview which need to be tested to see which makes a best fit.

      So, how does the atheistic worldview hold up on the origins of the universe or life, morality, fine tuning/design, conscious mind, etc.? How does Christianity compare on these and other aspects where we can compare the two?

      Second, on the grounds of biological evolution, I think Christians can present a number of plausible counter-models to weigh discoveries against. We can see which model most closely fits the data and THEN see which worldview this particular piece of the puzzle adds weight to. But, it is only one piece.

      The atheist needs to present a multi-faceted case for their worldview, showing how it better explains reality within science and within other disciplines. Saying that they think they have the edge in biological evolution just isn’t enough – even if they did – if the same isn’t true in other areas. Biological evolution isn’t a deal-breaker.

      This kind of sums up the big problem with the FSM or teapot. Christianity, some other religion, or materialistic naturalism are HUGE overall worldviews which need to be tested in all kinds of ways… philosophically, scientifically, historically, experientially, etc. FSM and the teapot aren’t rich enough to put them on the same level. True or not, they are trivial by comparison (in theory, FSM wouldn’t have to be this way, were it a fully developed religion, which the author hadn’t already admitted making up).

  • Kyle Towers

    Your argument is fraught with serious deficiencies:

    “. . . it
    would be at least a reasonable hypothesis to consider the existence of such a
    teapot as the source of this tea (among other possible explanations).”

    There would
    exist other possible explanations so vastly more reasonable as to render the
    cosmic teapot hypothesis utterly unreasonable, such as the jettisoning of tea
    by a flight crew reducing ballast.

    “Also, in
    this case, I would say that the a-teapot-ists might carry some burden of proof
    for a plausible explanation of the tea, aside from “it just is.” (Especially if
    we had good reason to believe that tea came into existence at some point, not
    existing eternally.)”

    Done. My hypothesis for the tea’s origin pales in
    comparison to the well-developed theories stemming from research into the
    actual roots of religion, undertaken in multiple fields.

    “Another
    problem with the analogy is the comparison of something fairly trivial and
    non-sensical to something like deity (theism vs atheism). This is a huge,
    foundational category. It is in the logical category of A or not-A upon which
    entire worldviews hang. It can also be argued that many things rest on the
    distinction between the two categories, such as logic itself or objective
    morality. The existence of an orbital teapot has no such significance.”

    This is totally
    illogical. The importance you place upon
    your conclusion in no way affects its validity.
    This is a transparent invocation of Argument from Consequences. Reality doesn’t care that your world view
    hangs on your desired conclusion. As for
    logic and objective morality depending upon your desired conclusion? The former is absurd as a premise and can
    only be the conclusion of a grossly flawed argument. The latter is just another Argument from
    Consequences. If, in fact, one
    stipulates that objective reality requires a deity, and there is no deity, then
    there is no objective morality no matter how badly you want it. Of course, I’ve heard apologists claim that
    they can prove the existence of objective morality, but those arguments were
    just as flawed as the rest.

    In other
    words, when we speak of God, we’re not talking about proposal with no evidence!
    (As is presumed with the teapot and FSM analogies.)

    Well, you’re
    right. There isn’t no evidence, but only
    if you count incredibly poor evidence.
    The evidences given are mostly not evidence at all but merely
    philosophical constructs bursting with unsupported and mostly unstated
    premises. Those that one could
    rightfully call evidence are of the extraordinarily poor varieties such as the “historical”
    (more evidence for fabrication than for accuracy) and the experiential (virtually
    meaningless for first hand experiences, according to multiple scientific
    fields, as the phenomenon of religion is revealed for what it is).

    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,

    BS. Triviality or importance affect validity not
    one whit.

    “. . . 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.’”

    Problem is
    that deities aren’t normal, serious characters now, are they?

    “Let’s
    say, for example, that a number of space exploration missions did come in
    contact with a teapot, but had no way of recording it or bring back some kind
    of sample. What we have instead is witness testimony on the part of the
    astronauts and scientists of the existence of such a teapot. If these were
    credible people and we had no reason to doubt them, the greater burden of proof
    would be on people denying their claims. (This point could be debated, but I
    think most reasonable people would agree.)”

    Highly
    debatable, actually. See above comments
    regarding neurotheology, evolutionary psychology, etc.

    “Consider
    an event like 9/11 or the Holocaust. There are deniers of these events. Do they
    bear no burden of proof for their positions? Such a notion, it seems to me,
    would be ridiculous.”

    About as
    ridiculous as comparing the evidence for these atrocities with the vaporous
    evidence for any deity – and the massive evidence of the origins of the
    thousands of deities.

    “The
    existence of God (at least the Judeo-Christian God), is the kind of claim that
    is backed by centuries of historical events . . .”

    No, it is
    not. All post-biblical historical events
    have no bearing on the validity of biblical claimed events – and they are no
    more well supported than many other ancient writings.

    “. . . and
    evidences provided by thousands of scholars across many disciplines, . . .”

    Are
    absolutely meaningless. Unless you can
    direct me to the well supported hard evidence, not the circularly referenced,
    dogmatic output of theologians.

    “. . . as
    well as credible witness testimony.”

    There isn’t
    any. Biblical witnesses are just as
    credible as the bible, which is to say, not at all. Recent or current “witnesses”? – See remarks
    regarding experiential evidence.

    “One might
    examine it and remain unconvinced, but it simply cannot be dismissed in a
    manner such as Russell attempts with his teapot analogy. It is not a valid
    analogy.”

    It isn’t perfect,
    but whereas you paint it as 1 on a 1-10 scale, it’s actually a 7 or 8 when all
    the nonsense is revealed.

    the Kalam
    Cosmological argument, ontological argument, argument from design, or moral
    arguments for a start.”

    Are all philosophical
    constructs and categorically NOT evidence.
    See previous remarks.

    “Or,
    consider (without undue presuppositional bias) historical reasons . . .”

    See
    previous remarks about the poverty of “historical” evidence.

    “. . . and
    witness testimony found in Scripture . . .”

    Already
    refuted on both the grounds of witness testimony being crap and of the
    non-existent reasons to think scripture is credible.

    “and
    external sources, some even hostile, secular sources.”

    Vapor. The external sources that haven’t been
    conceded to be crude forgeries don’t in any way support the facts of religious
    claims, only the existence of the claims.

    “Such
    evidence can’t so easily be waived off, . . .”

    No reason
    to when they can be revealed for what they are.

    “That people could think that belief in God is
    anything like the groundless belief in a fantasy monster shows how utterly
    ignorant they are of the works of Anselm, Aquinas, Leibniz, Paley, Sorley, and
    a host of others, past and present.”

    See
    remarks on the difference between philosophical constructs and evidence.

    “So, how
    would an atheist present a positive case for atheism, given that you can’t
    prove a universal negative? This is where we must consider overall worldviews
    and preponderance of evidence.”

    Preponderance
    of evidence – yes. And I win that one
    hands down. Overall world views? Is that another way of referring to the
    philosophy that apologists universally confuse with evidence?

    “This is
    also called abductive reasoning or inference to the best explanation.”

    I
    agree. The best explanation is that you
    believe what you want to believe and have been conditioned to believe, that your
    ancient writings are what they’ve been revealed to be by those not committed to
    their dogma, that science is the best way to understand the distant past, that
    religion is an evolutionary product (and mostly a byproduct) as revealed by
    multiple fields of study, and that your deity shares its roots with the other
    10,000.

    • http://www.TilledSoil.org/ Steve Wilkinson

      Kyle,

      Yes, there could be other explanations, but the point is that if there were tea, a source would need to be considered, of which a teapot and tea-leaves would be reasonable explanations (and a quite good ones!). Your example also illustrates a problem further on down the path though – flight crews aren’t ultimately sources of tea.

      Theories into ‘actual roots of religion’ doesn’t really help you out much in explaining things best explained by a religion or theism (e.g., existence of the universe). Remember, the teapot, for Russell, is an analogy for God (hence my use of ‘tea’ with the teapot). This is kind of the whole point: The evidence needs to be considered on any number of fronts for things with serious implications. The atheist can’t just say something is or tell a ‘just so’ story to get off the hook. For things well explained by theism, atheists would have to argue a more compelling naturalistic explanation. This would need to be done across the spectrum, creating a worldview ‘web’ which best fits ALL the data (better than another worldview).

      re: “The importance you place upon your conclusion in no way affects its validity.”

      This isn’t a matter of the importance I am placing. It is a matter of which set of explanations best fit ALL the data of reality.

      The typical way this game is played is that the atheist lays claim to reason and science (as if these aren’t also in the toolkit of the religious person); points to a place where science gives a reliable result; then declares victory. First, though, they haven’t shown WHY science works in the first place, or how reason could come from molecules. But, second, they haven’t provided a reasonable explanation for the things religion better explains.

      Again, if you can’t see that atheism vs theism is a bigger category than the tooth fairy, you’re really not trying. In that case, we probably have nothing further to discuss.

      Regarding logic and objective morality, I may have gotten a bit ahead of myself in my writing there. While many Christians would certainly argue the necessity of God for logic, I’m just not well enough versed in it to go there. (cf. Van Til or Bahnsen)

      What I instead meant to write is something more along the lines of consciousness and rationality. If you have a good non-theistic explanation for those, bring it on. (One empirical example from our universal experience of consciousness coming from the material would be nice! After all, we’re talking science, right?)

      Objective morality is another tough one. Can I prove it exists? I guess it depends on what we mean by prove. It seems to be somewhat in the same category of whether I can prove I exist. If you deny objective morality, we all intuitively know that’s baloney and even if we didn’t know that, no one would want to live in such a world.

      re: “Well, you’re right. There isn’t no evidence, but only if you count incredibly poor evidence.”

      I guess we’d have to debate over why you consider it poor and hear your counter-explanations in a number of areas to determine this. That’s kind of the point. And, your discounting of historical or experiential data smacks of scientism (while, seemingly not realizing you’re sawing off the branch under it).

      re: “Triviality or importance affect validity not one whit.”

      I think you’re missing the point. Thousands of the world’s best scholars haven’t been putting out centuries of studies on the tooth fairy. If 95% of the world’s population did seriously believe in the tooth fairy and put out serious academic studies into the subject, true or not, we’d have to deal with it adequately.

      re: “Problem is that deities aren’t normal, serious characters now, are they?”

      Well, I don’t know about normal, but Jesus was certainly a serious character. I could also argue that God is a more necessary being than Plato.

      re: “Highly debatable, actually.”

      Huh? So, if we eventually send a manned mission to Mars, and these folks come back and report that they saw Martians, but were unable to get photos of them or bring one back, you’d not believe them? (I might be skeptical, with reasons, but I think the burden would be on me to provide those reasons and make an argument… not just dismiss their testimony because ‘everyone knows Martians are just fanciful.’)

      re: “Are absolutely meaningless.”

      So… can I make Darwinian evolution go away this easily too? ;)

      re: “There isn’t any. Biblical witnesses are just as credible as the bible, which is to say, not at all.”

      How so?

      re: “Are all philosophical constructs and categorically NOT evidence.”

      So, scientism and hyper-skepticism?

      re: “The external sources that haven’t been conceded to be crude forgeries don’t in any way support the facts of religious claims, only the existence of the claims.”

      When you add them all together, they confirm the historical accuracy of the Biblical account and subsequent rapid growth of the early Christian church because said Christians were convinced by the evidence at that time. They may have been fooled or mistaken, but the account is accurate. (So, the burden falls on you to give a reasonable counter-explanation of the data.)

      re: “Preponderance of evidence – yes. And I win that one hands down.”

      Really? Well, actually I win it hands down. So there! (Maybe, instead, we should actually look at the data rather than just dismissing the other viewpoint, huh?)

      re: “The best explanation is that you believe what you want to believe and have been conditioned to believe…”

      Right back at you there.

  • SixForty

    I would simply like to point out that the often used claim “you can’t prove a universal negative” that atheists like to use to dodge any burden of proof is completely ridiculous. Christians should not accept it as true and allow atheists to use this to hide from the obvious. It’s lunacy.

    There are multiple ways to prove a universal negative:

    1) You can prove a logical contradiction. For example, a 9-year old can prove the universal negative that “there are no cornerless triangles”

    2) You can do an exhaustive search of the sample set in question. For example, the same 9-year old can prove the universal negative that “there has never been a pink flamingo elected as the president of the United States.”

    3) You can break the sample set into multiple discrete categories and prove each category. This may take more than a 9-year old, but it’s not hard to prove the universal negative that “there are no squares of an integer less than zero”. You can show that the square of any positive integer is greater than zero, the square of any negative integer is greater than zero, and the square of zero is zero. Put those three statements together, and there is no square of any integer that is less than zero.

    There are more ways, but these are just three quick and easy examples. So next time an atheist tells you that it’s not possible to prove a universal negative, point out how dreadfully wrong they are. It IS possible, they just can’t/won’t do it.

    Then go one step further and point out that, if they accept that it is actually impossible to prove the non-existence of God, then they are accepting as true something that they themselves admit they will never be able to prove. That’s simply the very definition of blind faith.