Bertrand Russell’s Teapot – The Argument From Ignorance

If you’re an atheist, or just a person who likes to enter into religious themed discourse, you’re familiar with the ‘god of the gaps argument‘, otherwise known as the argument from ignorance.  To be concise, when science has yet to come up with an explanation for a natural phenomena, that vacuum of knowledge is filled with god.

Science Offers Atheists Intellectual Fulfillment

It has been said that after Charles Darwin it became more intellectually fulfilling to be an atheist.  After all, without an understanding of evolution by natural selection, it was quite a mystery as to how such complex beings came to populate the Earth.  It was once believed that the Sun and all the observable planetary bodies at the time revolved around the Earth, which gave credence to the religious belief that humanity was somehow special in a Universe designed specifically for us.

As time passed we not only discovered the Earth revolved around the Sun, but that our Sun was but one Star among billions in our galaxy, and then of course came the understanding that our galaxy was but one within an observable Universe filled with around 100 billion galaxies.  The inevitable conclusion to this knowledge is to fairly question that perhaps our Universe was not designed for humans alone, and that our myths concerning deities and a monotheistic god are far more likely to be manifest constructs of our minds to offer us explanations and consolation in a world where, for the vast majority of human history, we were not afforded the luxury of scientific explanations.

With each new scientific discovery theologians retreated to the recesses of scientific ignorance.  The basic argument being, “If science can’t explain it, god is the best explanation.”  Time has steadily eroded this argument, and the spirit of intellectual honesty has increasingly made the argument unpalatable to accept as remotely valid.

The Teapot Hypothesis

Russell's Teapot and the Argument From Ignorance
Russell’s Teapot was intended to refute the idea that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon the skeptic to disprove unfalsifiable claims of religions. Original afrt by David Raphael

One of the arguments in the theists iron age arsenal of logic is to put forth that given science cannot disprove a god, that this is in and of itself evidence for one’s existence.  Bertrand Russell had a famous rebuttal to this notion:

“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 an 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.” – Bertrand Russell 

Richard Dawkins, as with all publicly outspoken atheists, has also been challenged with this argument:

There may be fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is no evidence for it, but you can’t prove that there aren’t any, so shouldn’t we be agnostic with respect to fairies? –Richard Dawkins

To allay any confusion surrounding Richard’s usage of the word agnostic, I should explain that often when atheists, or scientists in particular, are conversing on subjects that require such labels, they will admit to being agnostic in the sense that Richard describes in the above quote, or in the fashion that Bertrand argued regarding the teapot.  When, however, entering into a discourse with a theist or deist, it is easier and seemingly more intellectually honest to use the term atheist, as to draw a clearer distinction between the breadth of the disagreement.

Statistical Probability Favors Fairies and Unicorns Over God

Personally I find the likelihood of faeries, or unicorns – often cited in place of Russell’s teapot – to be of a far higher likelihood of existing on some distant world, or even within the historical context of our own, than a creator god as proposed by theists and deists.  Do not mistake me for arguing on behalf of these entities as existing, but evolution has yielded us many a remarkable creature, and it would not be too difficult to envision an environment where natural selection might over time conjure up such creatures.  If this were the case, fairies and unicorns would not be supernatural, they would be natural phenomena arising from natural selection.

Arguing From Ignorance

The argument from ignorance, or inserting god into the current gaps in our knowledge, is neither intellectually honest nor intellectually fulfilling.  It is by far more honest and humble to admit we have yet to uncover the tools, be they engineered through scientific advancement, as is the case with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, or emergent from the genius of an Einstein, than to impose a god as an explanation.

The proposition of god being the answer always begs the question, “Where did god come from, or who made god?”   And then we have an infinite regression.  Unless of course you simply make the argument that god exists outside of time and space, and so that question is irrelevant.  But in answer to such a statement, I once again appeal to the merits of intellectual honesty and the humble and inquisitive nature that has lead us this far – quite a distance – to understanding our world, our Universe, and our place within it.


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