Ethical Realism

June 8, 2010

An Argument Against God, a Teapot, and Garvey’s Objection Part 2

Filed under: epistemology,metaphysics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 2:33 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Read part 1 first.

About a week ago I discussed Bertrand Russell’s teapot argument that concludes that we should disbelieve in God. In particular, I posted some objections to an essay by Brian Garvey, “Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot,” which attempted to show that Russell’s argument was not a serious one. Garvey was nice enough to defend his essay and we had a short debate, which can be found here.1 I will now attempt to explain Garvey’s response to my objections and make it clear why I am not satisfied by his response. I don’t know if the teapot argument succeeds as a sufficient reason to disbelieve in God, but I find the argument to be a threat to theism, and in need of further research. I will now explain my current position and attempt to refute Garvey’s responses.

I objected to Garvey’s argument for two reasons. One, there are reasons to reject the existence of strange entities even if they do potentially explain an observation, and Garvey defended the belief in God insofar as it could explain our observations of the material world and natural laws. Two, Occam’s Razor is a good reason to reject the existence of various entities and possibly even the existence of God, and Garvey seems to dismiss this issue without adequate evidence. He suggests that God’s existence is a “starting assumption” that can’t be rejected based on argumentation or philosophy. Garvey gave the following four responses to my objections:

  1. God is not a “strange entity.”
  2. Isn’t atheism strange?
  3. Occam’s Razor doesn’t apply to “starting assumptions.”
  4. “Bigfoot” and “aliens visiting the Earth” are not analogous to God.

I do not find any of these responses to be convincing reasons to reject my objections.

1. God is not a “strange entity.”

Occam’s Razor requires us to reject the existence of “strange entities” unless the existence of the entity is required to explain some observation. Garvey argues that I did not adequately defend the idea that God is a “strange entity,” and he is correct that I didn’t do so.2 However, there is good reason to think God is a “strange entity” or “objectionable” when considering Occam’s Razor.

First, God is strange in the sense that it is not an everyday entity that we all accept as part of the world. The speculation that a person is inside of a house should not be rejected considering that people are often inside of houses. It is a normal everyday entity (a person) and a normal everyday situation (being inside of a house.) God is not a normal everyday entity that we have accepted in this way. Therefore, God is a strange entity in comparison.

Perhaps it could be offensive to some people to say that God is “strange” but I am only saying that it is a strange entity compared to the everyday unobjectionable sorts of entities and situations that Occam’s Razor does not apply to, such as people being inside of houses.

Second, God is strange insofar as it is controversial. Many people don’t believe in God, but everyone believes that some people are inside of houses. Of course, some scientific entities might also be controversial, such as the strings of string theory. Occam’s Razor does apply to strings and we should only believe in string theory insofar as it is necessary to explain our observations.

Third, I might not need to use the word “strange” in the first place. Occam’s Razor requires us to reject the existence of various entities because they are overly ambitious claims about reality that aren’t required to explain our observations. It is possible that God should be rejected for this reason. If we should accept God’s existence, it should be because God’s existence is necessary to explain our observations.

We have at least two reasons to think that God is an ambitious claim about reality: (1) If God is part of the natural world like everything else, then God is just as objectionable as any other natural entity that has not yet been established as existing. (2) If God is not part of the natural world, then it is part of an entirely new realm of existence, and it is clearly more ambitious to believe in two realms of reality than one. Fewer realms of reality are rationally preferable than more, according to Occam’s Razor.

Just about everyone agrees that the natural world exists. There are tables, chairs, bodies, baseballs, atoms, and so forth. Almost all theists believe in the natural world and God, an eternal realm of reality. It is more ambitious to believe in these two realms unless they are both necessary to explain our observations.

2. Isn’t atheism strange?

Garvey argues that materialism (the view that only the natural world exists) is an ambitious claim about reality, just like theism.3 It is correct that many atheists are materialists, but it doesn’t show that materialism is just as strange as theism. I have already explained above why the belief that only the natural world exists seems to be less strange than theism.

Garvey also argues that materialism is ambitious (or perhaps overly ambitious) in the sense that it claims that the natural world can explain everything.4 That is right insofar as any view about the entirety of reality is ambitious, but that doesn’t undermine the idea that God could also be overly ambitious. One, we need to know whether atheism (and materialism in particular) or theism is more ambitious, and I already said one reason to think materialism is less ambitious. Two, the less domains of reality required to explain everything the better. If materialism can succeed, then it is probably the least ambitious of any such hypothesis because it takes what I believe to be the least controversial domain of reality (the natural world) as the only domain of reality. We might have to admit that more domains of reality exist if they are necessary to explain our observations, but that doesn’t mean that God will be one of them.

3. Occam’s Razor doesn’t apply to “starting assumptions.”

I already discussed Garvey’s view of starting assumptions, or what I called “foundational beliefs.” He thinks that we have certain assumptions that are required to make sense out of our observations and arguments. He doesn’t believe that argumentation or philosophy can give us reason to object to starting assumptions, and I already objected to this idea. Occam’s razor gives us reason to reject the existence of a strange entity (or overly ambitious explanation) in just about every situation, and I don’t see any reason to think that we should stop using Occam’s Razor as soon as we are discussing “starting assumptions.” I think we should continue to use Occam’s Razor in all situations until we have a countervailing reason to stop. So far I do not know of any “countervailing reason” to stop using it.

Garvey argues that starting assumptions can’t be subject to argumentation (and therefore Occam’s Razor won’t apply) for three reasons5:

One, they can’t be confirmed or disconfirmed by our observations. (I have already briefly discussed this issue in part 1.) If Garvey is correct that we need starting assumptions, and our starting assumptions can’t be confirmed or disconfirmed from observations, then theism won’t be necessary to explain our observations, and Occam’s Razor would probably give us sufficient reason to reject theism.6

Two, philosophy has not had any progress concerning God’s existence in the past.7 I disagree. Philosophy has had a lot of relevant things to say about a lot of topics including theism. What I am interested in is what the merits and demerits of a belief are, and what it is most rational to believe right now given our current information. Some people personally have more reason to be theists and other people have more reason to be atheists given their ignorance, but it can be possible to decide what we should believe given all the information available to us at this very moment in time. This is no different than how scientists currently believe that Einstein’s theory of physics is the most rational theory to accept at this point of time despite the fact that it may be imperfect and our current information is limited.

Neither scientists nor philosophers are necessarily interested in telling us what we should believe for certain, but they can often tell us what hypotheses are the most rational due to their merits.

Three, if starting assumptions could be settled by argumentation, then we would have already established the true starting assumptions by now.8 I have two objections to this line of reasoning: (1) I see no reason to agree with it. Even scientists have never fully established the truth of various theories. (2) Garvey might be exaggerating the need for certainty and “establishing a fact once and for all.” No one should necessarily claim we can know anything “once and for all” (except perhaps facts of logic and mathematics.) I never said that Occam’s Razor has given us sufficient reason to reject God’s existence. I merely think that Occam’s Razor is one criteria we should use when deciding if a belief is rational including the belief concerning God’s existence.

4. “Bigfoot” and “aliens visiting the Earth” are not analogous to God.

Garvey argued that a celestial teapot was not analogous to God because the teapot can’t explain anything and God can. I think this misses the point of the analogy, but I suggested that bigfoot, ghosts, or aliens visiting the Earth might be a better analogy because they could explain something. Garvey has found the analogies with bigfoot or aliens to be lacking as well because God does not explain specific natural events, but all of the specific natural entities that are used to explain our observations of the natural world are natural explanations (potentially given by science), such as bigfoot and aliens visiting the earth.9 It is true that explaining why natural laws exist might not be explainable by the scientific method, but I would expect philosophy to be the right method to figure out what we should believe regarding to the explanation of natural laws, and Occam’s Razor will then apply to God’s existence, just like it applies to scientific explanations.10 (The whole point of the analogy is to show that Occam’s Razor applies to theism.)

Overall, Garvey’s objection to the analogies with bigfoot or aliens was probably not supposed to be taken too seriously because the main issue at hand is whether or not Occam’s Razor has any relevance to theism. His objection to the analogies does not answer that question.


Garvey has not given us a good reason to think that Occam’s Razor shouldn’t be applied to theism. Our beliefs should be modest rather than ambitious (when possible). If belief in God is illegitimately ambitious, then we shouldn’t believe in God. I admit that theism might be legitimately ambitious – if God’s existence is necessary to explain our observations. Garvey’s response that God might not be strange was a good response, but I have met that challenge. His response that atheism is strange might not even be relevant. Garvey’s response that Occam’s Razor does not apply to God is unconvincing, but if he could justify such a claim, then it would prove the teapot argument to fail. Finally, Garvey argues that the analogies with bigfoot and aliens show only that we are committed to Occam’s Razor while doing science, but I think we have good reason to use Occam’s Razor to decide if any given belief is rational.


1 When I quote Brian Garvey it will be from the debate that we had in the comments section.

2 “Your [characterization] of Occam’s razor is that it calls on us to reject “strange entities” unless they’re the best explanation of some phenomenon. And elsewhere you say that it “gives us reason to reject far-fetched entities”. And you say that God, like the teapot, is a “strange entity”. But this seems to me to be begging the question in a way that I precisely wanted to oppose in my paper. Why is God “strange” or “far-fetched”? Surely that depends on what your general beliefs, prejudices (call them what you will) are” (Garvey, May 31, 2010 @ 1:57 pm).

3 “It occurs to me (and here we may just have to agree to disagree) that *any* explanation of why the universe exists, or has laws – including the ‘explanation’ that says ‘it’s just a brute fact’ – would *have* to be metaphysically ambitious. How could it not be” (Garvey, June 4, 2010 @ 9:44 am)?

4 “One meaning of materialism is that matter exists, but another is that matter provides the explanation for everything. But all your arguments have been to the effect that the first is true – ‘Atheists and materialists alike agree that material/physical reality exists.’ But that doesn’t go any way at all to justifying the materialism in the second sense. And it’s the second sense of materialism that is needed to provide an alternative to belief in God” (Garvey, June 1, 2010 @ 6:29 am).

5 Garvey actually talks about how argumentation can’t “settle” the issue. This is a vague word. I do not think philosophy necessarily settles anything once and for all, but I don’t think science does either.

6 There might be other merits of believing in God other than how well it explains our observations, but I am not sure what those merits might be.

7 “I see you’ve once again quoted me saying: “I agree with the second of these – that the issue cannot be settled by argument” As it happens I do think this, and would merely point to the history of the debate as evidence of this. But this was just obiter dicta, and certainly not what the argument in the paper was meant to prove. Nor was it a premise of the argument in the paper” (Garvey, June 1, 2010 @ 6:29 am).

8 “But for it not to be faith, it would not be enough that philosophy *could* settle the question, it would have to be the case that it [or something else] already *has* settled the question. Even if I was willing to allow, for the sake of argument, that it could, I don’t see why I should think that it has. And moreover, since I think all you are really saying is that it could settle it, you should allow the possibility that philosophy could end up settling the question in favour of theism” (Garvey, June 4, 2010 @ 9:44 am).

9 “I think the examples of Bigfoot, aliens etc. are no better as analogies than the teapot itself is. Firstly, there’s nothing metaphysically loaded about believing in either Bigfoot or aliens – they both, if they exist, are perfectly natural entities. Ghosts are, however, a different matter I admit. But in all these cases the phenomena that they might be invoked to explain – footprints, UFO’s and so forth – are things we can easily think up naturalistic explanations for. But, as I’ve already already argued, I don’t think there can be a naturalistic explanation for why there are laws of nature” (Garvey, June 1, 2010 @ 6:29 am).

10 Some philosophers who call themselves “naturalists” think that philosophy itself uses the scientific method. They endorse an inclusive view as to what counts as “scientific.”



  1. […] Garvey has responded to this post with objections (see comments), and I have posted them ad my reply here. […]

    Pingback by An Argument Against God, a Teapot, and Garvey’s Objection « Ethical Realism — June 8, 2010 @ 11:15 pm | Reply

  2. I agree with point 4 that the reply is missing the point. God is different from aliens, but aliens are also different from bigfoot; what’s important is that God is different in a way that matters.

    Re: point 3, the only sense I can make of the claim that Occam’s Razor can’t be used against “starting assumptions” would be that those starting assumptions are somehow already incorporated into Occam’s Razor and necessary for its exercise. I think this is plausible in principle. But it would then be necessary to argue that God happens to be one of those starting assumptions. It’s not clear to me that this is true.

    Comment by josefjohann — September 29, 2010 @ 11:42 pm | Reply

    • what’s important is that God is different in a way that matters.

      Then it has to be relevant in a way that defeats the Occam’s razor objection. The question is whether or not God really is so different from teapots and aliens — and God is only relevantly different if Occam’s razor isn’t a reason to reject God’s existence. Analogies only fail if we find a relevant difference.

      I think this is plausible in principle. But it would then be necessary to argue that God happens to be one of those starting assumptions.

      This is kind of right, but Garvey wants to defend God’s existence from possible objections by making it a sort of irrefutable starting assumption.

      He thinks that some people use God as a starting assumption and other people don’t. He wants to argue that God is a legitimate starting assumption, but I want to argue that it isn’t. If any starting assumption can be legitimate or illegitimate, then we should be able to reason about whether it is one or the other. That means that Occam’s razor could be a problem for the starting assumption that God exists.

      Comment by James Gray — September 30, 2010 @ 12:14 am | Reply

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