On Russell’s Teapot


“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.

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. Practically all the beliefs of savages are absurd. In early civilizations there may be as much as one percent for which there is something to be said. In our own day…. But at this point I must be careful.

We all know that there are absurd beliefs in Soviet Russia. If we are Protestants, we know that there are absurd beliefs among Catholics. If we are Catholics, we know that there are absurd beliefs among Protestants. If we are Conservatives, we are amazed by the superstitions to be found in the Labour Party. If we are Socialists, we are aghast at the credulity of Conservatives.

I do not know, dear reader, what your beliefs may be, but whatever they may be, you must concede that nine-tenths of the beliefs of nine-tenths of mankind are totally irrational. The beliefs in question are, of course, those which you do not hold. 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.”

– Bertrand Russel

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9 thoughts on “On Russell’s Teapot

  1. Quite so. A great thinker.

    Russell: “I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.”

  2. I like the ways in which Russell used as few words as needed and those he chose all seem to play an active part in the sentence, each changing the meaning or tone actively. It is never a tedious task to read his words.

  3. Generally speaking, when a group of people “A” holds a belief “X” and a group of people “B” does not hold such belief, and group “A” wants to convince group “B” that “X” is true, it is reasonable for the group “B” to require evidence or proof from group “A” compelling enough to change its “status quo” or “null hypothesis” belief “not X”. Group “B” should care enough to preserve the belief “not X”. Only then group “A” has the burden of proof.

    E.g. I say that there is an orbiting teapot. You don’t believe me. But I don’t care if you believe or not. It’s your business. I don’t have to prove anything.

    E.g. I say that there is an orbiting teapot. But you don’t care whether there is one and you do not require any proof because you don’t need any.

    E.g. I say that there is an orbiting teapot, and I want you to believe it too. You do not hold such belief. In this case, it is my job to convince you with evidence or any other means of persuasion.

    In summary, the group of people interested to convince the other group has to do the convincing. When a believer comes to an atheist forum and claims that god exists, he is reasonably asked for a proof. But when an atheist comes to a religious forum and tries to convince people that god does not exist, he has to do the convincing.

    I know plenty of atheists who do not wish to convince anyone that god does not exist and plenty of believers who are not interested in proselytizing. There is no conflict, and everyone lives happily ever after. The problems arise with the aggressive types on each side.

  4. ‘In summary, the group of people interested to convince the other group has to do the convincing. When a believer comes to an atheist forum and claims that god exists, he is reasonably asked for a proof. But when an atheist comes to a religious forum and tries to convince people that god does not exist, he has to do the convincing.’

    Let’s do a few small thought experiments in the interest of clarification:

    A. I have invited you to come along with me to the annual Geocentric Convention as a guest speaker. You are not of the opinion that the Earth is at the centre of the solar system and you are going to be very critical in your speech.
    Is the burden on you to prove that the Earth is situated in a heliocentric universe?

    B. I have invited you to come along with me to the home of one of the founding members of the Geocentric Society. You are not of the opinion that the Earth is at the centre of the solar system. When asked for your opinion on the subject you are honest and critical about the beliefs of your host.
    Is the burden on you to prove that the Earth is situated in a heliocentric universe?

    C. I have invited you to come along with me to a country in which 92% of the people are – to the best of their abilities – certain that the beliefs of the Geocentric Society are false; their core beliefs are disproven, other beliefs (often related or based upon the disproven beliefs) are plainly metaphysical and cannot be adequately disproven. On the street we meet two members of the Geocentric Society; they strike up a conversation with us about their beliefs. You are not of the opinion that the Earth is at the centre of the solar system. When asked for your opinion on the subject you are honest and critical about their beliefs.
    Is the burden on you to prove that the Earth is situated in a heliocentric universe?

    Finally, I am interested to learn your thoughts on this epistemological question: With regard to the heliocentric versus geocentric universe issue, regardless of who should convince whom, is there a statement – whether it be pro heliocentrism or the opposite – that holds more truth than the opposite?

  5. A – yes. If I come to a convention of people who believe that the Earth is in the center of the universe and want to convince them otherwise, the burden of proof is on me.

    B. Depends. If I want to convince the founder that the Earth is NOT the center of the universe, I have to provide the evidence. If I don’t care what he believes and he doesn’t care what I believe, there is no burden of proof on anyone. If he wants to convince me that the Earth is in the center of the universe, he has to provide the evidence.

    C. Again, it depends on whether I care enough to convince these 2 people or if they care enough to convince me. Burden of proof depends on who wants to convince whom and what is the status quo belief the side to be convinced.

    It’s a straightforward position. There is no contradiction. I can’t think of an example where it may contradict itself.

    Epistemological question. Neither heliocentric nor geocentric position is “true”. The Sun is not in the center of the universe as you may know. At the same time, as you may also know, any point can be considered the center of the universe — no matter where you are, the galaxies accelerate away from you as if you are at the epicenter of the big bang.

    But we can discuss, which model provides an easier explanation of things like planet movement. Ptolemaic system provided a fairly accurate way to calculate the paths of the planets in the sky. It’s just fairly awkward and feels artificial compared to Copernicus’s explanation.

  6. Let me say, first of all, agrudzinsky, that I recently discovered your site and I enjoyed reading it.
    Secondly, even though we do not quite agree on everything, I like the way you argue.

    Now, with regard to the burden of proof issue, what do you think of the following:

    ‘Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle.

    Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87 percent of the population) claiming to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence—and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day.’

    As for the epistemological question we have been discussing, regardless of the geocentrism/heliocentrism imbroglio, do you think it is possible for a statement, say statement X to be “more truthful” than statement Y?

  7. Thanks. I like the topics you discuss. If you read my About page, it is not my goal to convince anyone in anything. But I do like to consider various topics and when I see inconsistent opinions, I would comment.

    On Harris (I take it, the quote is from him). I am not a fan of Harris. He has an agenda. He makes money writing books on atheism. He deliberately says things that contradict centuries of philosophical thought to stir up arguments. In Internet forums it’s called “trolling”. With people like Harris or Lawrence Krauss it’s called “provoking thought”. It’s just a marketing technique.

    I had a few posts regarding Harris. Here is one of them. It has a few links at the end to Harris’s opponents, most of them atheists. People who disagree with Harris include the physicist Sean Carroll (here is his argument on Harris’s thesis that science can solve moral issues), philosophers Massimo Puglicci (Puglicci on Harris’s scientism), Dan Dennett (disagreeing with Harris on free will), etc. There is a blog on WordPress Shadow to light dedicated to logical fallacies of the “New Atheists” — Dawkins, Harris, Coyne. Here is, by the way a good post on evidence that I can agree with. The guy is obsessed with New Atheism, though. I don’t want to go as far as to dedicate a whole blog contradicting them. Enough about Harris.

    Back to his quote about atheism. Again, Harris plays on the ambiguity of definitions. You may know that atheists may range in their views from “I don’t believe there is god” to “I believe there is no god”. It’s not a philosophy, of course, but it’s a fundamental belief on which people build philosophies and world views.

    The 260 million Americans are obliged to present evidence to Harris only if they want Harris to believe what they believe. Apparently, many of them do, and he is right with that. But those who don’t care what Harris believes, don’t owe Harris anything. “Given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings” is an attempt to hold those 260 million Americans accountable for the atrocities of ISIS and draw them into a fight so that Harris can sell more of his books.

  8. do you think it is possible for a statement, say statement X to be “more truthful” than statement Y?

    This question is too general for a meaningful answer. I answered this question applied to geocentric vs. heliocentric theories. I cannot answer this question in general. Are we talking about correspondence, coherence, or pragmatism? Some statements give more accurate description of reality than others. Some statements have fewer internal contradictions than others. Some statements are more useful than others in terms of predicting desirable outcomes. Which criterion to apply depends on the specific example. General discussions out of context are rarely meaningful.

    To generalize is to be an idiot.

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