UCTAA churchlight

Site Search via Google

Ask the Patriarch 48
Teapots, Unicorns, & Gods

from Geoff Booker

To open a discussion on this article, please use the contact page to provide your comments.

I am experiencing something of a religious crisis! The following anecdote by Richard Dawkins citing Bertrand Russell summarizes and articulates a number of the concerns I have with my agnosticism. I would be interested to read your thoughts on the matter.

"A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But "agnostic" on its own might suggest that he thought God's existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about god, he considers God's existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy's.

Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn't mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.

The list of things about which we strictly have to be agnostic doesn't stop at tooth fairies and celestial teapots. It is infinite. If you want to believe in a particular one of them -- teapots, unicorns, or tooth fairies, Thor or Yahweh -- the onus is on you to say why you believe in it. The onus is not on the rest of us to say why we do not. We who are atheists are also a-fairyists, a-teapotists, and a-unicornists, but we don't have to bother saying so."

Richard Dawkins

Thank you

Reverend Geoff Booker

The Patriarch replies:

Geoff:

I would have expected better from Richard Dawkins. There is nothing here that undermines genuine agnosticism. But let's look at several of the issues raised.

"He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative."

This is not an argument for not embracing atheism. It may be an argument for denying the possibility of atheism (which incidently, if it were valid, would prove a negative.)[1] Atheism has a 2,500 year history, and for the far greater part of that period, the inability to prove a negative was not considered an issue in logic. Essentially the statement denies the philosophical history of atheism. The impossibility of proving a negative is an argument used by many atheists, not to support or deny their reasons for atheism, but to take the burden of proof of their position off their shoulders.

"But "agnostic" on its own might suggest that he thought God's existence or non-existence equally likely."

This is a complete misstatement of the agnostic position. I know of no agnostics who would say "equally likely" (though I won't deny that such agnostics might exist.) And I doubt many non-agnostics have this misunderstanding of agnosticism. Rather, their tendency is to shift our probability distribution to the extreme and consider us as identical to atheists.

Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn't mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence."

I see no reason to be "agnostic" about a teapot in orbit about Mars. I might consider it within the realm of possibility that an asteroid approximating the size and external shape of a teapot might exist somewhere in the asteroid belt, but an actual teapot in orbit around Mars? You have to have a reasonable back story to explain it, and that story does not exist. I will say flatly the teapot does not exist today (Publication date 15 May 2004). And I will eat my own teapot if anyone can prove otherwise.

But whether we currently know the "truth" or not, teapots around Mars, or unicorns and tooth fairies on this planet are, at least in theory, empirically testable propositions via an exhaustive search. Of course, if Dawkins wants to claim that the unicorns are on a planet 4 billion light years away, then it will be quite some time until an exhaustive search can be made. But without a back story, there is no valid reason to claim knowledge there are unicorns out there.

God is different. One of the characteristics of a supreme deity as defined by believers,[2] is "beyond human understanding." This is just not testable. Nor is the existence of an invisible immaterial omnipresent entity. God is an entirely different class of proposition than the other things mentioned.

So, in the brief passage from Dawkins above, we have a misunderstanding of what atheism entails, a misunderstanding of what agnosticism entails, a switch and bait through bringing in irrelevant tooth fairies, unicorns and teapots and equating their hypothetical existence to a god's existence, and a misunderstanding of the supposed characteristics of a deity. Dawkins should know better.

Footnotes:

  1. That's a nice little paradox isn't it. Using the impossibility of proving a negative to prove a negative.
  2. And we are stuck with their definitions. It gets us nowhere to develop our own definition of a god and claim that god does not exist - the discussion is always around the gods claimed by believers.