We want to know, Does God probably exist? Is the belief in god rational? Many people disbelieve in God because there isn’t enough evidence. Some people argue that this is no different than the fact that we think that there probably is no teapot in outer space revolving around the sun.1 We have to admit that a teapot might be revolving around the sun because we haven’t done an extensive search, but we shouldn’t just abstain from judgment. It is most rational to reject the belief of such a teapot and to think such a teapot probably doesn’t exist. In the same way it might be most rational to reject the belief in God and to think that God probably doesn’t exist.2
I will examine an objection to the teapot argument given by Brian Garvey in “Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot,” which was published this year.3 He argues that belief in God is not sufficiently analogous to belief in a teapot, and he ultimately concludes that that argument concerning God’s existence will get us nowhere. Belief in God can be more rational than belief in the teapot because God could have an effect on the world and the teapot can’t, and arguments concerning God will get us nowhere because the effect that God has on the universe is not found in the everyday physical events that are studied by science. Instead, the effect that God might have on the world would involve the creation of the universe itself.
I will then present two challenges to Garvey’s argument. I agree that belief in the teapot might not be perfectly analogous to the belief in God, but I find the teapot argument to be sufficiently analogous to raise an important issue in an imperfect common sense fashion. The belief in aliens or bigfoot might be even more analogous to the belief in God, and the challenge to the belief in God is still a serious one. I also agree that science might not be relevant to legitimizing the belief in God, but Garvey doesn’t seem to consider that philosophy itself can be used to analyze whether or not the belief in God can be rational.
1. The Teapot Argument
My understanding of the teapot argument is the following:
- We should disbelieve in a strange entity unless such a belief is necessary to best explain some phenomenon. (This is pretty much just Occam’s razor.)
- A teapot revolving around the sun is a strange entity that is not necessary to best explain some phenomenon.
- God is a strange entity that is not necessary to best explain some phenomenon.
- Therefore, we should reject the teapot’s existence.
- Therefore, we should reject God’s existence.
This is not a knock down argument against God’s existence because God might best explain some phenomenon. However, philosophers could argue that we don’t yet know of any such phenomenon. There are arguments that God is necessary to best explain some phenomenon, such as the existence of the universe, but all such arguments have been found to be unpersuasive by most philosophers.4
We are often tempted to think that various strange things exist based on our experiences, such as aliens from other planets who visit Earth, ghosts, bigfoot, and so on. There might be some evidence that such things actually exist, but most scientists agree that there is insufficient evidence and the most rational thing to do is to reject their existence. Consider the following:
- My keys aren’t where I left them.
- I didn’t move my keys.
- No other human or animal moved my keys.
- Therefore, a ghost moved my keys.
Although it is possible to believe that ghosts exist and such an entity’s existence could explain why my keys were in an unexpected place, a ghost’s existence doesn’t best explain the situation.
The teapot argument reflects Occam’s razor, the idea that we shouldn’t believe something if there is a more simple explanation available. If we can explain winning the lottery by chance instead of through a miracle, then it is pretty silly to think that winning the lottery proved that miracles exist. Additionally, the teapot argument reflects the idea that arguments need appropriately modest conclusions.5 To conclude that God probably exits is very ambitious and will not be easy to prove. Extraordinary beliefs require extraordinary evidence.
Occam’s razor gives us reason to reject far-fetched entities rather than entities we find to be common. If I speculate that there is a person inside of a house, then all things being equal my speculation would be plausible (probably true or sufficiently reasonable) just because we know there are often people inside of houses. The belief in a person inside of a house should not be rejected right off the bat. We would have a good reason to suspend judgment concerning there being a person inside of a house.
2. Garvey’s Argument
Garvey doesn’t seem to object to Occam’s razor or the idea that extraordinary beliefs require extraordinary evidence. Instead, he argues that the teapot analogy is misleading, and he suggests that believing in God is just as necessary as other possible foundational beliefs, and we currently have no way to know which foundational belief is the most legitimate. (Foundational beliefs are beliefs that can’t be proven, but might be needed to be assumed in an argument.) I understand his argument as the following:
- God and the teapot are not analogous because God could potentially explain a phenomenon right now.6
- We should reject the existence of the teapot because it couldn’t explain any phenomenon right now.”7
- We should only reject the existence of God if it doesn’t explain anything right now.
- But the existence of God could potentially explain something right now.8
- So, we shouldn’t reject the existence of God.
Garvey rejects the teapot argument for one main reason, which (if sound) is sufficient to defeat the teapot argument – He doesn’t think that we should reject a strange entity just because it fails to be the best explanation for a phenomena right now.. We just need the entity to be the potentially best explanation for a phenomenon. We agree that the teapot’s existence should be rejected because it couldn’t possibly explain any phenomenon right now, but that doesn’t follow when it comes to God.
Notice that Garvey doesn’t argue that we should believe in God. He wants to argue that the belief in God is just as reasonable as the rejection of God’s existence and ultimately we will not be able to use reason to find one belief to be better than the other.
- We can’t decide which foundational beliefs to have based on reason and observation alone.9
- The rejection of God’s existence requires a foundational belief.10
- So, we can’t decide to reject God’s existence based on reason and observation alone.11
The argument above was not intended to be a essential part of Garvey’s argument. It is not fully defended and Garvey merely presents this line of reasoning in his conclusion as a suggestion. If his suggestion is correct, he would prove that being a theist is just as rational as being an atheist because arguments concerning God’s existence don’t do anything. We can neither show that God probably exists nor that he probably doesn’t. This position seems to totally reject the use of philosophy with regards to God’s existence (and any other foundational belief). I find this line of reasoning to be flawedand I will discuss it further later.
3. My Challenges to Garvey’s Argument
Objection 1: We rationally reject entities even if they do explain something.
I agree that the teapot argument is insufficient in the sense that it might imply that we should only reject strange entities when “no evidence is given or could be given at the moment.” However, I don’t think that the argument was supposed to imply that. We should reject the existence of strange entities whenever we simply lack sufficient evidence. Aliens, ghosts, and bigfoot can potentially explain something right now, but they are simply too far-fetched and insufficient evidence is given for their existence. We should disbelieve in strange entities unless they offer the best explanation for a phenomena. We can often offer alternative explanations to strange entities that are more plausible. For example, a UFO is more likely man-made than a space craft from another planet.
I am not convinced that God offers the best explanation possible and Garvey agrees that there is insufficient evidence of God. He thinks that atheism and theism are equally rational. However, it isn’t clear that atheism and theism are equally rational. If there could be a non-supernatural explanation rather than a supernatural one, then we should probably prefer the non-supernatural one. The existence of the universe doesn’t seem to require a supernatural explanation. It is only rational to believe in God if it offers a superior explanation for a phenomenon, but it isn’t clear that it does.
Objection 2: Philosophy offers a rational way to provide foundational beliefs.
Garvey suggests that we can’t argue that God’s existence is plausible or implausible just because it can’t be confirmed or disconfirmed by science. I find this line of reasoning to be flawed because I reject his first premise, “We can’t decide which foundational beliefs to have based on reason and observation alone.” Philosophers argue about the plausibility of many things that are currently outside the domain of science, such as the plausibility of an external reality. We can consider the various pros and cons involved with accepting one hypothesis over another, even when observation is insufficient to determine which hypothesis is the most rational. A hypothesis should be coherent, modest, clear, and reflect common sense when possible. For example, the argument of evil suggests that our common sense notions and observations of evil seems to be at odds with the traditional view of God. Additionally, the hypothesis that God exists is an extraordinary hypothesis rather than a modest one, and it tends to be vague rather than clear.
Garvey successfully pointed out a weakness in the teacup argument, but the teacup argument still seems to successfully illustrate the fact that it is most rational to reject the existence of strange entities unless there is sufficient evidence. Moreover, Garvey failed to give us any good reason to think that arguments can’t help us decide if God’s existence is sufficiently reasonable. He seems to think that either science or religion must be able to provide us with knowledge and just seems to reject the possibility that secular philosophy can provide us with knowledge without a second thought. This is nothing more than a common prejudice people have against philosophy.
The fact that Garvey assumes that the teapot argument only discusses scientific evidence seems strange considering that the argument’s creator, Bertrand Russell, was a philosopher, logician, and mathematician with a large interest in nonscientific philosophy. The fact that virtues and vices of reason can involve logic is at least one good reason to think that philosophy can help us figure out which beliefs are the most reasonable.
I have not presented an argument that atheism is more rational than theism. My intention with this discussion was merely to prove that Garvey’s arguments were not persuasive. The teapot argument seems to be a problem for theism even though the teapot argument is not a knock-down argument. Philosophy could be an appropriate way to decide if theism is plausible or not.
Garvey has responded to this post with objections (see comments), and I have posted them and my reply here.
1 This argument was presented by Bertrand Russell in his 1952 essay, “Is there a God?” <http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/russell10.htm>.
2 Compare this argument to the John Mackie’s Argument from Queerness. I discussed the Argument from Queerness in my essay, “Objections to Moral Realism Part 3: Argument from Queerness” found at <http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/11/06/objections-to-moral-realism-part-3-argument-from-queerness/>.
3 The article can be found at <http://www.arsdisputandi.org/publish/articles/000339/article.pdf>.
4 The argument that God exists because he created the world is called “The Cosmological Argument” and you can read about it at <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/>.
5 See my essay, “Four Requirements for Good Arguments” found at <http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/four-requirements-for-good-arguments/>.
6 “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” (15-16).
7 “So the analogy is meant to be: there is no empirical evidence for either” (12-13).
8 “God is invoked as an explanation for (for example) why the universe exists at all, why it is intelligible, why it is governed by laws, why it is governed by the laws it is rather than some other laws, and doubtless many more things” (18).
9 He argues that God in particular can’t be proven through the use of science. “if there is a God, then God belongs to this more fundamental region of reality, the question of God’s existence is similarly beyond science’s scope. It may be thought that this ought to be obvious, but it is possible for people to be wrong-footed on the question of God’s existence by approaching it as if it were a scientific question. I see the atheist’s teapot argument as an instance of just such wrong-footedness.” (20-21)
10“The atheist is thus committed to more than just the denial of something’s existence, he is committed to there being some other explanation for all the things that that thing might be invoked to explain. This does not mean that the atheist is committed to one particular explanation, and neither does it mean that the atheist can’t simply say ‘I don’t know’. But it does mean that the question immediately raises itself, and that the atheist is committed to there being some non-God-involving answer” (18),
11 Some people “might feel that it is not worth debating the issue in this way at all, that the issue between atheism and theism cannot be settled by argument, that the atheist simply starts with assumptions that the theist need not accept, and that consequently the theist should simply refuse to engage with the atheist. I agree with the second of these – that the issue cannot be settled by argument” (21).