Sunday, 8 September 2019

Russell's Teapot

This post provides a short explanation of Russell's teapot and is basically a transcription of a video that I made a couple of months ago (feel free to check it out):

Imagine I make the following claim:

  1.  There is a teapot - which is too small to be seen by telescopes - and it orbits the sun somewhere around mars.

Let's say I don't offer any proof or evidence for my claim. Would you take my claim to be true?

This analogy was put forth by Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), who wanted to demonstrate that even though no one can disprove the existence of such a teapot (since we said that it's too small to be observed anyways), he would expect no one to believe in its existence either.

Let's look at an example of how rational reasoning is supposed to work. Let's assert this claim:
  1. I believe in X.
When I make this claim, I should also provide some rational justification on why I believe the claim to be true. So, a proper way to present the claim would be:
  1. I believe in X, because of Z.
... Z being some argument or evidence that supports my claim. If I present my claim in such a way, I give other people the opportunity to respond to my claim - they can express whether they find Z to be a convincing argument for my claim.

Should Z be the only argument for my position, and should it be rejected, I would have to be left with no reason for taking my claim to be true, hence the rational thing would be to dispose of it.

However, if I present no argument for my position in the first place, but I still take my claim to be true, then we end up in a position where I shifted the burden of proof onto the person who disagrees with me. Meaning, rather than proving my claim, I'm waiting for it to be disproven.

The problem with this is manifold.

  1. There should be reasons why I take a claim to be true. If there's none, my belief is irrational.
  2. A vast array of claims can't be disproven, much like Russell's teapot. If I assert the existence of an invisible and in any other way undetectable Flying spaghetti monster that is flying around the Earth, you are by definition unable to disprove my claim that it exists (this analogy gets often alluded to in debates concerning the existence of God).
  3. The burden of proof is always with the one asserting the claim!! Assuming otherwise leads to an absurd conclusion where anyone could just assert anything they please until they are disproven. And many claims about the world can never be disproven. So, I'll take candy from babies because the Spaghetti monster told me so, you can't stop me.

Russell, B. (1952) "Is there a God?"

Relevant passage: "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."

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