December 03, 2013

Sagan and Russell Destroy Religion and Invisible Gods

Russell's Teapot or the Celestial Teapot is an analogy intended to refute the idea that the burden of proof lies upon the skeptic to disprove the claims of religions. By using an intentionally absurd analogy, Russell's Teapot draws attention to the formal logic behind the burden of proof and how it works. The celestial teapot is similar to the more recent and perhaps equally paradoxical examples of the invisible pink unicorn, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the dragon in astronomer Carl Sagan's garage, the latter of which can be found in his book "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark". Here Carl Sagan used Russell's teapot in the chapter "The Dragon In My Garage" in which he described the discussion as follows:

"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage" Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin. I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity! "Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle--but no dragon.

"Where's the dragon?" you ask. "Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon." You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints. "Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air." Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire. "Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless." You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible. "Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick." And so on.

I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work. Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?

Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so." - Carl Sagan "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" (1996) The original analogy can be found in an article titled "Is There a God?" commissioned, but never published, by Illustrated magazine in 1952.

Here Russell wrote: "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. 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."

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