Teapotology for Beginners

The Celestial Teapot is a very fertile meme, and masterpiece of misdirection originating from the mind of the philosopher Bertrand Russell. (Is there a God 1952)

So effective is it that Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion 2006) understands Russell to be claiming that the burden of proof lies with the person proposing the theory. This is a mistake.

Russell introduced the celestial teapot illustration with the following two sentences.

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.

Bertrand Russell  Is there a God? Commissioned – but not published – by illustrated magazine in 1952

Making the claim that something is a mistake is not the same as saying that the opposite is true.

Russell knew just how hard it was to prove anything to the level of rational certainty.  He was for instance aware that Rene Descartes of, “I think therefore I am,” fame, had failed to prove, beyond the ability of a rational sceptic to doubt, that he existed. (Problems of Philosophy 1912)

A parsimonious interpretation of the above quote is that Russell was attempting to send his religious critics chasing metaphorical rainbow ends.

Russell’s teapot argument is a humorous, flippant piece of writing, which is made even more entertaining when you realize that it is impossible to prove, beyond the ability of a sceptic to doubt, that teapots exist anywhere in the universe.

As a young man Bertrand Russell was an idealist, in the philosophical sense, and at that time, cracking him over the head with a china teapot (not the wisest thing to do to the brother of an earl) would not have provided sufficient evidence to convince him of the teapot’s real material existence. (The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell 1969)

As I understand it the point of the teapot illustration is not to say that the burden of proof lies with the proposer, that is just an entertaining side distraction, the main point is that just because a  belief is widespread, that doesn’t mean that it is reasonable.

Note that a teapot is not a religious symbol, and that Bertrand Russell does not restrict himself to linking religion with irrationality.  He also tars political belief systems with the same brush.

Bertrand Russell’s conclusion to “Is there a God?” provides evidence that he himself was not immune to human irrationality. The final claim of, “Is there a God,” is not the overturnable by evidence and rational, there is no reason to believe in God, and that is sufficient reason not to believe.  It is the following:

Man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny.  The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

Bertrand Russell is there a God 1952

If this had been written by Jonathan Swift, I would have regarded this as a satirical statement written in a voice not his own. (e.g. A Modest Proposal 1729). Could this be true of the writing of Bertrand Russell as well?

How could so great a philosopher, given that he is writing about irrational belief, not notice the irrationality in his own stated belief in – the existence of man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces?

  • What did he think was left of man after the removal of natural forces?
  • How could this severely handicapped creature be free to work anything?

If Russell was not being ironical in his conclusion, and there is no reason to believe that he was, then the conclusion to his article provides furthur, and unintentional evidence for the point he made about the irrationality of human beliefs.

Could the irrational belief of Bertrand Russell in the metaphysical entity – Man, be evidence not of a powerful meme, (Richard Dawkins Viruses of the Mind 1991) but of a gene for self-deception of the kind suggested by Robert Trivers in his introduction to The Selfish Gene? (Richard Dawkins 1976) I say this because the idea of Man as a metaphysical entity has not transferred as well as would be expected for the kind of virulent meme required to infect someone as bright as Bertrand Russell. And also because a genetic cause of a widespread human trait  – a tendency to hold strongly to irrational beliefs – is a more parsimonious explanation and hence more in line with Occam’s razor.

One of the claims that Bertrand Russell makes in, “Is there a God,” is that happiness is dependent on the good opinion of ones social milieu and the affection of ones intimates.  This it strikes me is also a condition that is likely to increase the reproductive fitness of an individual.

Those with strong social bonds are also those most likely to reproduce, and rear children successfully.

Humans socially bond by sharing memes, i.e. ideas in a broad sense.  In this circumstance it is not unlikely that genes for ensuring that we believe whatever is acceptable in our social group will be extensive in our gene pool. That is we exist as the electric monks of Douglas Adams imagination – able to believe anything that is socially useful.  Obviously without any requirement for celibacy. (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency 1987)