Sunday, February 23, 2014

Is God Like a Cosmic Teapot?

In 1952, Bertrand Russell, a Nobel prize winner and influential philosopher of the 20th century, wrote a paper entitled “Is there a God?” wherein he outlined why he doesn’t believe. Included in the paper is this famous quote:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of skeptics 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. It is customary to suppose that, if a belief is widespread, there must be something reasonable about it. I do not think this view can be held by anyone who has studied history. … you must concede that nine-tenths of the beliefs of nine-tenths of mankind are totally irrational. … I cannot, therefore, think it presumptuous to doubt something which has long been held to be true, especially when this opinion has only prevailed in certain geographical regions, as is the case with all theological opinions.”

Russell is reminding believers in God that they have a burden of proof. He explicitly reminds them that the widespread acceptance of a belief does not fulfill that burden.  Many atheists believe that Russell was also implicitly reminding theists that the burden of proof for an unfalsifiable claim (remember how careful he was to point out that the teapot is undetectable?) is on the claimant, for - think about it - if the claim is unfalsifiable, how could and why should one try to prove that it is false? I don't completely agree with this adage, but more on that later on.

Fast forward to this month, when Gary Gutting published a NY Times interview entitled “Is Atheism Irrational?” In it, Alvin Plantinga argues that atheists should, at best, consider themselves merely agnostic since he guesses that they merely make a case for not believing in God’s existence rather than a case denying God’s actual existence. Here’s a quote:

In the British newspaper The Independent, the scientist Richard Dawkins was recently asked the following question: “If you died and arrived at the gates of heaven, what would you say to God to justify your lifelong atheism?” His response: “I’d quote Bertrand Russell: ‘Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!’” But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism.
In the same way, the failure of the theistic arguments, if indeed they do fail, might conceivably be good grounds for agnosticism, but not for atheism. Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.

Ok, so both Russell and Plantinga are reminding the other side of their burden to make their case.   The theist has a burden to show that God exists, and the atheist has a burden to show that God doesn’t exist.

Both analogies chosen by these men are like the question of God’s existence in that they can’t be proven either way – the teapot is undetectable, and the precise number of stars is unknowable. So far so good. But how should one approach existential claims that are not provable? Should one just give up, and claim that it is an unanswerable 50/50 proposition and move on? It seems that that is the conclusion that Plantinga is suggesting that atheists should be stopping at, so it’s no surprise that he uses even-star-ism as his analogy. After all, the probability that the number of stars is even or odd is 50/50. But is that true for all un-provable existential claims, and, more importantly, regarding the claim that the classical God exists?

Firstly, let me point out that even if the question of God’s existence was an un-provable 50/50 proposition, the agnostic would still have quite a damning complaint about it, namely, that belief in the existence of God is irrational. In this sense, some atheists say that they lack belief in God, and they think that you should too, for belief in God is unjustified. If theism means belief in the classical God, then a-theism is simply to lack that belief just as asymptomatic means lacking in symptoms. Plantinga, though, takes atheism to mean the denial of God’s existence.

I hope that you’re beginning to see that the problem here has to do with the failure of the term ‘atheism’ to properly identify one’s complaint with theistic belief. It is important to distinguish de jure objections (the complaint that a belief suffers some epistemic defect independently of its truth or falsity) from de facto objections (the complaint that the belief is false). The former is to say that even if it may be true that God exists, theists are irrational or unjustified in doing so. The latter is to claim that God does not exist. If an un-provable existential claim is a 50/50 proposition, as even-star-ism is, then one simply can’t get past agnosticism. But are all unprovable existential claims really 50/50 propositions, and, more importantly for this discussion, is the question of God’s existence a 50/50 proposition as Plantinga seems to want us to believe?

I think that the answer to both questions is clearly ‘no’. Consider the proposition that the number of stars is X where X is a whole number between one sextillion and one septillion. While we aren’t in any sort of position to say with certainty that any X is true or false, the probability that any X is the correct number is surely much, much lower than 50/50. One would be entirely justified in not just proposing that X-star-ism is irrational, but that such a belief is very probably false. So it seems that in addition to making a de jure objection to an un-provable existential claim, one can also make a de facto objection of varying strength by making a case that the claim is, nevertheless, unlikely: the more unlikely, the stronger the de facto objection. A consequence of this is that whenever the probability of an existential claim - even an unfalsifiable or unverifiable one - can be judged, there is a burden to make that case, so it would seem that the burden isn't only on the claimant. If you think a claim is improbable, you have a burden, too. So much for that adage.

Is Russell correct in thinking that the existence of his celestial teapot is rather more like the question of God’s existence than the question of even-star-ism? Plantinga points out that there is plenty of evidence against belief in Russell’s teapot: “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.”

Is there also plenty of evidence against theism? As I outlined in my previous blog post, the two distinguished philosophers involved in this interview seem to have a hard time recognizing that there is. But, as far as we know, minds require complex physical nervous systems, while the God hypothesis tells us that minds can exist without one. And as far as we know, minds evolve from bottom up evolution adding function and complexity over time, but the God hypothesis tells us that a disembodied mind exists necessarily, without such a process contributing to its existence. Furthermore, as far as we know, immaterial minds cannot interact in or with the material world (how could they?), yet again, the God hypothesis tells us that disembodied minds regularly do. The evidential problem of evil is strong evidence against the existence of the classical God of monotheism, etc. So, it seems that the God hypothesis has plenty of evidence against it, too, and that theism is rather like teapotism.

But let’s not forget that Plantinga is a Christian theist. Accordingly, it is noteworthy that the Christian God hypothesis is one of many mutually exclusive God hypotheses among which either none or only one can be true. On this basis alone, one would be justified in claiming that Christian theism is at best unlikely; it’s certainly more like X-star-ism than even-star-ism. (The sophisticated reader might recognize that this inconvenient truth represents an undermining internal rationality defeater for Plantinga's argument that the Christian God's existence can be known without having to resort to any evidence or arguments at all.)

Do atheists (philosophers like Russell and non-philosophers like Dawkins) make de facto objections to theism? Of course they do. In fact, in the near future, I’m going to discuss a very strong one – stronger perhaps than even the evidential problem of evil. I actually think that Russell was implicitly making just this sort of argument in the very quote that Plantinga and Russell chose to deride. In the meantime, I submit that the Russell/Dawkins sound bite is too short to express their full thoughts on the matter, which probably are more like “Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence for your existence to counter the evidence against it!” Plantinga has made an illustrious strawman here, and it would seem that Gutting has facilitated.

1 comment:

  1. Seems that Jeffrey Jay Jay Lowder has done a much better job of articulating my concerns about this interview and others: