The Celestial Teapot and Christian Theism


One of the more celebrated arguments for atheism is based on the concept known as Russell's Teapot. According to this analogy (also known as the Celestial Teapot), originally proposed by Bertrand Russell and recently reconsidered by Richard Dawkins, we can imagine that somewhere in our solar system is a small china teapot orbiting the sun. While there may indeed exist such a teapot, and we may have simply failed to detect it (so far), all the evidence at our disposal gives us no reason whatsoever to accept the orbiting teapot hypothesis. By analogy the existence of God is said to be a similarly failed hypothesis, not because anyone can definitively prove that God does not exist, but because we have no evidence to support the contention that God does exist. The idea is that in certain cases absence of evidence may as well be evidence of absence.
But behind that idea is another idea, a confusion about just what "evidence" is. Per the teapot argument, evidence is no more and no less than empirical detection of physical objects. Therefore the fact that no one has empirically detected the celestial teapot means there is no evidence for it. Whereas an eyewitness report, or a photograph, or an old grainy film clip, of an alleged Bigfoot at least potentially constitutes evidence for Bigfoot, a failure to provide any documentation of the Celestial Teapot means there is precisely zero evidence for the Celestial Teapot. This reductionism of evidence to "the thing itself" is what inspires skeptics to say things like "I'll believe just as soon as you show me your god," or "So where is your little god-thingy?", and the like.
Whereas admittedly such a restricted understanding of evidence would mean that there is no evidence for God, it would also mean that there is no evidence for scientific theories – nor even many of the phenomena those theories purport to explain. After all, no one can detect a theory with scientific instruments. "No one has seen God at any time," it's true. But neither has anyone seen a "general relativity" or a "quantum mechanics." These theories, largely mental constructs superimposed upon the observable world, are derived from, but certainly not reducible to, empirical observations of physical phenomena. In cases of scientific inference evidence is not a sighting or other empirical verification of an object, but data which makes a theory more probable than it would be otherwise (or more probable than alternative theories). By this account science is not naïve empiricism – mere collections of data – but more importantly, interpretations of the data and inferences drawn from them. In a sense the theories transcend the data.
I would also argue that in similar ways belief in God also transcends the data. This is not to say that Christian theism is a scientific theory. After all, God is not just another natural or physical or contingent entity, but rather the being upon which all other things are themselves contingent. Yet in principle, at least, God explains quite a bit. As Garvey states it: 
If there is any evidence for God, it is by means of what God is supposed to have done – which means that that evidence can only be accounted for by God if we impute causal powers to God far above and beyond the ‘power’ to just sit there. And there is nothing that allows us to say what God looks like – if indeed God looks like anything at all. So, when we say that there is no evidence for the teapot, and when we say that there is no evidence for God, we are saying two very different things. In the first case, we are saying that there haven’t been any sightings; in the second we are saying that there is nothing for which God is the best explanation.[1]  
Of course it is this second sense in which Christians appeal to evidence. In religious experience, the arguments of natural theology, historical evidence for the miracle ministry and resurrection of Jesus, etc., there is sufficient reason to impute causal powers to God far beyond "the power to just sit there." Thus there are many things for which God is the best explanation. Thus there is abundant evidence for Christian theism.

[1] Brian Garvey, "Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot," Ars Disputandi, Vol. 10, No. 1, p. 9-22.


Joe Hinman said…
good post man. Kill the hard strong sense verification principle and make fun of the weak sense great strategy That's how they killed positivism.
Don McIntosh said…
Thanks for those comments. Yeah, what seems to drive much atheistic epistemology is not an appeal to outright positivism per se (since it died in the last century), but a purported "empiricism" that amounts to selective positivism. I.e., "My scientific theories are rational inferences from the data, but your beliefs are strictly unverifiable so they must be irrational."
Joe Hinman said…
exactly and what that really amounts to is privileging doubt, use doubt as proof.
JBsptfn said…
Looks like Skeppy just did a post on this entry. I won't link to it, but here's an excerpt:

Let's start with the straw man. Don uses Russell's Teapot argument as an example what atheists would demand as evidence for belief in God. The narrative is that we don't believe in the celestial teapot because we have never seen it. And the same is true for God belief. We don't believe it because we haven't seen God.

Quote Don Mcintosh"the fact that no one has empirically detected the celestial teapot means there is no evidence for it. ... a failure to provide any documentation of the Celestial Teapot means there is precisely zero evidence for the Celestial Teapot. This reductionism of evidence to "the thing itself" is what inspires skeptics to say things like "I'll believe just as soon as you show me your god"Quote

And Don proceeds to contrast this with a more scientific view of evidence, where the existence of something is inferred from the body of data available to the observer. For example, the existence of the Oort Cloud was not observed by astronomers, but inferred by the observation of long-period comets. So scientists can infer the existence of things based on the evidence, but when it comes to God, atheists demand to see God in the flesh, so to speak, before they can believe in him.

The problem with this narrative is that it's absolutely false. I've never heard even a single atheist say that only direct observation of God would constitute sufficient evidence to believe. Even most fellow Christians recognize that what atheists want to see is evidence that would allow us to infer God's existence. Most of them just think the evidence we want to see in order to infer God's existence is unreasonable, as discussed in this article. But Don has a narrative, and he's sticking to it.
Don McIntosh said…
Okay, here's at least one atheist asserting rather straightforwardly that because God cannot be detected, there is no evidence for God:

"While we cannot prove that every conceivable god does not exist, we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a god that plays such an important role in the universe such as the Abrahamic God would have been detected by now. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence when the evidence that should be there is not." – Victor Stenger, "Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence," Huffington Post, May 25, 2011.
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