The Teapot Agnostic Fallacy
Sep 17, 2010

The Teapot Agnostic Fallacy

The so called teapot analogy introduced by Russell is contemporarily used primarily by atheists to belittle agnostics. The analogy is that one considers the claim that a small teapot is flying around mars and hence undetectable by our telescopes. In this case, while we can't prove or disprove the existence of the teapot definitively, we should believe for all intents and purposes that it doesn't exist. The comparison with deism is then that since we can't prove or disprove definitively the existence of a deity we should believe one doesn't exist.

However, there is an important difference between the teapot and deity cases; namely, that of explanatory power. The teapot case explains no phenomenon in our universe. Deism however explains many phenomena as I will discuss further later. This difference is critical because the basis for believing a theory is that is has explanatory power. We believe, say, the theory of relativity because it does indeed explain our observable universe. A theory that explains nothing - or worse is in violation of an observation - has no validity. This applies to the teapot case, but not to the deity case. For the teapot case the two claims "there isn't a teapot around mars" and "there is such a teapot" are very asymmetrical with one evidently far more reasonable to believe than the other. With deism however the gap between "a deity does not exist" and "a deity does exist" is far smaller because the one offers, to some extent, explanatory power. As such, to the extent that deism has superior explanatory power to a Martian teapot, an agnostic perspective of deism is more powerful and balanced statement than the epistemological consideration of teapot agnosticism.

Now the extent to which deism offers explanatory power for the universe is highly debatable as is the compatibility of its predictions with our observations. Such things include the creation of the universe, the nature of consciousness, existence of morality an whatnot. The point isn't to argue for or against any of these claims but instead to note that this must be the source of the debate. Hence, to argue against deism one must debate the extent of its explanatory power such as how compatible it is with observation but not to apply the teapot analogy and reduce agnosticism to an epistemological consideration about uncertainty.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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Anonymous said...

I believe that an evil pink unicorn is controlling my mind to make me think this fake world exists.

But in reality, I'm the only human in the real universe. The real universe is a little pink room filled with teapots.

This explains everything. Prove me I'm wrong.

bazie said...

Your theory does offer some explanatory power: it explains your existence and perceptions. In this sense it is like deism and is in a (slightly) different class than the teapot around mars. However, several aspects of your theory add extra properties that do NOT offer explanatory power. For instance, the fact that it is a pink unicorn is irrelevant and offers no new power beyond just the pink unicorn being something of deistic power.

The goal is never to prove such claims right or wrong, indeed it is enormously difficult to falsify such claims, but it is worth noting what parts of theories add new explanatory power and which do not.

Michael Prince said...

What if the teapot created the universe?

Gods existing doesn't intrinsically make the claim that they have had a hand in anything like the creation of the universe etc. The same as the teapot existing doesn't preclude the claim being made that the teapot did have a hand in those things.

Since you're taking a definition of a theory to require it to also be an explanation of some phenomenon, you must be looking at the scientific definition, rather than the commonly used definition. If you ARE using the scientific definition, then you can't ignore the part that states a theory requires a basis in the observable or the provable.

There is no scientific theory that a teapot orbits Mars. At best, there is a layman's hypothesis that a teapot orbits Mars, but that requires absolutely no claims towards explaining a phenomenon.

Russell's analogy is very straight forward. It is simply used to show that the requirement to prove your claims lays with the person making those claims, and not with everyone else to prove them wrong.

bazie said...

This is mainly a semantic distinction. Implicit in my use of words like teapot and gods is that a property of these things is that teapots do not create universes and gods do and if this is not actually the case we ought to call them something else. At its core, the point here is that something with the universe creating property, whatever you might call that something, is an explanation for the creation of the universe while something without this property is not. Of course, just because it is an explanation does not make it a good explanation or one we should take seriously, but it is worthwhile to note the distinction nonetheless.

Dennisail said...

This whole argument collapses if you add the claim that the teapot was also the deistic creator of the universe. Seriously, add the assumption that tea pot created the universe then read the argument again. Does this now make the teapot more or less probable?

bazie said...

A universe creating teapot seems like a square circle. As in, this is something inherently contradicting any definition we know of as a teapot. But even if we don't find it contradictory, you are now adding extra assumptions beyond pure deism. It isn't just that something caused the universe, it is that something caused the universe AND that something is a teapot. Heuristically, more assumptions is less reasonable. In terms of explanatory power, we are now left with not just the usual "what causes the universe" and "what caused the cause" you problems, but also the "why a teapot?" question. So I maintain that there is a meaningful difference between the two cases. Not that this makes deism at all a reasonable proposition in my mind,

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