Monday, January 26, 2009

Vulcans and Teapots

The rhetorical hook of Russell's Teapot analogy is that we are indifferent to the suggestion that there exists a microscopic teapot orbiting the sun. At most, it's an amusingly perverse claim, but we do not feel an urge to declare ourselves "agnostic" on its truth or falseness. We take absence of evidence as evidence of absence and move serenely on.

We are not similarly indifferent to the suggestion that there may be a god watching. Nor at the suggestion that our dead loved ones may be, in some ghostly form, watching over us.

As truth claims strictly considered -- considered utterly dispassionately, as a Vulcan might consider them -- these suggestions are equally valid: while there is no convincing evidence for an orbiting teacup, ghosts, or god, it is not possible to be 100% certain that they do not exist. The absence of evidence may indicate nothing more than a failure to look in the right place or in the right manner.

Yet our response to them is not equal. Russell's explanation of the differing response is that god's existence, unlike the teapot's, is "affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school ... " Ross Douthat restates the same explanation and indeed adds to it:

An intuitive belief in some sort of presiding Agent seems to be an extremely common, albeit hardly universal, feature of human nature; this intuition has intersected, historically, with an enormous amount of subjective religious experience; and this intersection (along with, yes, the force of custom and tradition) has produced and sustained the religious traditions ... The story of our civilization, in particular, is a story in which an extremely large circle of non-insane human beings have perceived themselves to be experiencing an interaction with a being who seems recognizable as the Judeo-Christian God ... rather than merely being taught about Him in Sunday School.
God belief, unlike teapot belief, harmonizes with elements of our nature and aspects of our nurture. But, Douthat goes on to say, "this is not to say that humanity's religious experiences and intuitions are anything like a dispositive argument for the existence of God." Quite so.

Curiously, Douthat offers this in the course of disagreeing with Russell's analogy, or seeming to want to -- "the atheist who perceives the Christian God and the [orbiting teapot] as equally ridiculous hypotheses really needs to get out more often," he says -- despite having agreed with and expanded on Russell's own reasoning.

In strictly logical terms, these hypotheses are equally ridiculous, but we are not Vulcans. Russell's thought experiment is brilliant for forcing us to peer beneath the occlusions of emotion, nature and culture.


Reuben said...

Hey Dale,

While I do sometimes find the analogy attractive, I am not set at ease. I take it that the reason for positing God's existence is that the concept of God holds explanatory power for various phenomena (say, the contingent nature of the universe, finely-tuned initial conditions, moral facts, religious experience etc.). While we may disagree that these things need explaining (because they are wrong-headed in thinking that anything needs explaining) or that there are superior natural explanations ("Positing God solves nothing"), some people clearly do think that some features of the universe do need quite a lot of explaining, and that God best fits the bill. Our teapot, however, seems to explain nothing, to not respond to any real or apparent difficulty.

So I strongly agree that we do not view the existence of God and said pot with equal psychological clarity. But still I wonder if our even-tempered Vulcan would view these truth claims as very different, where the one answers to apparent questions and the other does not even aim to explain anything.

On a side note, I am reminded of an essay by atheist Thomas Nagel ("Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament"), where he writes,

"Well, there is the hypothesis that this universe is not unique, but that all possible universes exist, and we find ourselves, not surprisingly, in one that contains life. But that is a cop-out, which dispenses with the attempt to explain anything. And without the
hypothesis of multiple universes, the observation that if life hadn’t come into existence we wouldn’t be here has no significance. One doesn’t show that something doesn’t
require explanation by pointing out that it is not surprising. If I ask what explains the fact
that the air pressure in the transcontinental jet is close to that at sea level, it is no answer
to point out that if it weren’t, I’d be dead."

That is a very interesting essay, by the way, and can be found here if you're...well...interested:

Dale said...

Reuben, fair points all, and thanks for commenting.

In principle, perhaps, the possibility of god, unlike the possibility of the teacup, stands to explain quite a bit.

But it turns out not to explain anything because what we actually get by supposing god is a name (Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, so on) to plug in the [insert explanation for universe here] space. We get nothing more than that.

What we don't have is any understanding of the mechanism, tools, techniques, reasons. We have no bank of experience to call on that tells us something like, when there is an intricate, complex universe such as ours, we can be reliably sure that it came from a being like god. All we have the one universe. We don't have the blueprints for it, the tools that made it, or the like.

Whereas when we see a house, we infer a builder. This works as a causal explanation because we know about houses, builders, and the ways and whys that connect them.

I'm just repeating Hume here. Or bastardizing Hume. But I think he had it right.

One final crude and imperfect analogy: imagine it is the year 1798. Thomas Jefferson walks out of Monticello to get the daily paper and sees a shiny new iPhone sitting on his lawn. There are many ways that Jefferson might approach this curious arrival and many accounts he might be inclined to accept as valid, reasonable, convincing explanations. But merely to tell him that President Adams made it would not explain it. Nor would it be satisfying, I think, to add that Adams' nature is revealed in the elegant design of the object. Maybe so, Jefferson would say, but that would barely begin to answer the questions the offered explanation would beg.

George Junior said...

As truth claims strictly considered -- considered utterly dispassionately, as a Vulcan might consider them -- these suggestions are equally valid.

I don't claim to know the mind of Spock but I'm not sure they are equally valid, logically speaking.

Questions such as "What is a teapot?" and "Where is the teapot?" are sensible questions that have sensible answers.

Dale said...

Good point, George Jr. God talk often turns into blather, hand-waving, and equivocation.