There’s a teapot orbiting the sun. Don’t believe it? Prove it.

There’s a teapot orbiting the sun. Don’t believe it? Prove it. April 12, 2021

This cartoon below derives from English philosopher and Nobel literature laureate Bertrand Russell’s (1872-1970) “teapot analogy,” which holds that the philosophical burden of proof appropriately falls on whomever makes arbitrary, unfalsifiable claims — that invisible deities exist, for instance — rather than on skeptics to disprove such unverifiable propositions.

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Here’s Russell’s famous analogy, written for a commissioned 1952 article that was never published:

“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.”

Religious believers in the United States, mainly Christians still, resent being held accountable for obvious factual errors in the faith doctrines they espouse, sniffing that naysayers have never been able to irrefutably disprove that the God they worship, which has never been actualized in reality, actually exists.

That’s exactly Russell’s point: that the onus is on hypothesizers to prove what is manifestly unbelievable, not on skeptics to disprove.

The website russellsteapot.net asserts:

“Russell clearly refers to religion [in his analogy]. He compares the passing on of the belief in the teapot to the passing on of religious beliefs, which, just like the teapot, aren’t justified. The deity isn’t proven to exist, just like the teapot isn’t. … Religion must claim absolute certainty; it has no choice. You can’t fully believe if there are doubts about the proposition in the first place. That means religion doesn’t meet the requirements to be called science, i.e. be falsifiable. Ever. And this is where science and religion part. Religion has no place in science; science is built on factual evidence, not what a person believes to be true. Likewise religion is never scientific; you can never get the required amount of evidence to reach the ‘absolutes’ level of confidence.”

Despite a long career of massively influential academic and popular writing in philosophy and mathematics, and more broadly accessible topics, including atheism, Russell is probably best known to most who have heard of him for his terse “teapot analogy” and an also brief public lecture in 1927 titled “Why I Am Not A Christian,” which the Encyclopaedia Britannica asserts “became a popular locus classicus of atheistic rationalism.”

Apparently, Russell’s vaunted rationalism serially failed him in his personal life, however. He was married four times. (Not that love is rational, of course.)


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