Science and religion are two concepts that have often been seen as opposites, being two ways of trying to explain the reality around us and existence itself. Each of them has its own characteristics, which although not contrary per se, make their perspectives and ways of functioning may differ in basic elements.
One of them is the position regarding the existence of God, something that various authors have debated at length throughout history. And within this debate, the discussion about whether its existence is probable or not has been highlighted, and in any case whether what should be provided is evidence of its existence or non-existence. One of the concepts that have been used in this regard is that of Russell’s teapot , this being the concept about which we will talk throughout this article.
What is Russell’s teapot?
In 1952 the Illustrated Magazine commissioned the famous philosopher, mathematician and writer, and at that time winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Bertrand Russell, to write an article in which he reflected his opinion regarding the existence of God and the arguments used to debate this existence .
It would be in that article, which was finally not published, that the renowned author would use the analogy that is now known as Russell’s teapot. The latter reads as follows:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a Chinese teapot spinning around the sun in an elliptical orbit, no one would be able to reject my claim if I had been careful enough to add that the teapot is too small to be observed by even our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to say that, since my statement cannot be rejected, it is intolerable for human reason to doubt it, one would think I was talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled in the minds of children at school, the hesitation to believe in its existence would be a sign of eccentricity, and anyone who doubted would deserve the attention of a psychiatrist in an enlightened time or an inquisitor in earlier times.
Thus, Russell’s teapot is an analogy or simile that the author uses in order to present a sceptical perspective regarding the discussion and the bias committed when considering as an argument of the existence of God the fact of not being able to prove His non-existence.
What does this argument really stand for?
It should be noted that although it may seem to be an argument against religion or belief in God and in fact is often used in this sense, the truth is that the argument of Russell’s teapot is not deterministic and does not establish that a deity cannot really exist : it only aims to show that the argument of its existence cannot be based on the impossibility of denying it absolutely.
In other words, what Russell’s concept of the teapot indicates to us is not that God exists or does not exist (although Russell himself was skeptical of his existence at the time he wrote the argument we are dealing with in this article), but that it makes no sense to define it by saying that he does because there is no proof to the contrary or to claim that such proof is necessary in order to deny it.
Thus, we would be faced with a sceptical position that would rather be against a dogmatic position that demands the need to prove that something does not exist in order to be able to say that it does not.
This way of thinking cannot have a different result from that offered to dogma: as with the previous teapot, if God did not exist it would not be possible to know for sure if we take into account that perhaps our technology and capacity to search for him would not be enough for the moment.
Thus, it defines the existence or non-existence of the deity as something that is neither verifiable nor falsifiable since it is not possible to perform checks with parameters that can prove either of the two positions.
Not only applicable to religion
The argument or analogy of Russell’s teapot was originally put forward in order to assess the fact that some orthodox religious positions state that the dogma and the very existence of God is demonstrated by the impossibility of providing evidence to deny it .
But beyond the religious sphere itself, the analogy would continue to be applicable in any situation where evidence was demanded that, given the conditions presented in the hypothesis or belief assumed, it was not impossible to verify or falsify the matter. This serves as a basis, for example, for subjective aspects such as the beliefs and prejudices we hold about others, certain moral precepts, or organizational aspects such as leadership or power.
- Russell, B. (1952). Is there a God? Illustrated Magazine (unpublished). [Online]. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20130710005113/http://www.cfpf.org.uk/articles/religion/br/br_god.html