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Saturday, February 05, 2011

Russell's teapot

Some time ago, a commenter mentioned Russell's Teapot, and suggested that the idea was pertinent to a post of mine. (See Pete D's first comment on this post.) I had never heard of Russell's Teapot, although I had heard of Bertrand Russell, and I failed to look the matter up right away, which I should have done. I have now done so, and am musing on the topic.

The Wikipedia article on the subject quotes Russell's original statement. Russell's point was that claiming that there is a God, with no scientific proof of His existence, is no more legitimate than claiming that there is a teapot, too small to detect with instruments of any kind, orbiting the sun.

But that's not all. Russell said "since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it. . ." I would claim, and I am not alone, that there is a God, but that I cannot advance any scientific proof of His existence. I claim that I have subjective evidence from personal experience; from observing that sin is in the world, yet most people think that sin and evil is somehow unnatural and wrong; and from the Bible, that God exists. I do not claim that it is not legitimate to doubt God's existence. The validity of my personal experience can be questioned. Sometimes I question it myself. Perhaps our notion that the world is somehow spoiled is mistaken. It is possible that the Bible is a fabrication. In other words, the sentence quoted at the beginning of this paragraph does not apply to my belief, or to that of many other Christians. Just because something cannot be disproved, does not mean that it is not legitimate to doubt its existence.

For example, A could assert that witches can fly. B could respond that she has never seen a witch fly, and even doubt that witches exist. A could counter by asking B to prove that witches do not exist. B could respond that witches have not been found under various circumstances. A could, in that case, respond that there are other circumstances, which B has not experienced, in which witches do exist, and fly. It is not possible for B to examine all possible circumstances, but it is still reasonable for B to doubt that witches can fly.

I don't argue, and I don't think many Christians do, that the fact that Russell cannot disprove God's existence is an important reason for believing in God. I do think that the inability to disprove God's existence is a defense of belief in God. Not a strong one, but a defense. I agree that there is no scientific proof of God's existence. But, as I said, I believe that there are other kinds of proofs of that existence, and that it is not necessary to have scientific proof of His existence for me, and others, to believe in God. There are some things that a significant number of important mainstream scientists believe, that, so far, at least, lack scientific proof. These include the existence of the Higgs boson, and of universes that are parallel to our own, and string theory.

Hebrews 11:3 says: "By faith, we understand that the universe has been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen has not been made out of things which are visible." Verse 6, of the same chapter, says "Without faith it is impossible to be well pleasing to him, for he who comes to God must believe that he exists, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him." (WEB -- I'm using the WEB because it is public domain. I can't link directly to a verse in that Bible, because the web site uses frames.) As I understand it, and I may be wrong on more than one level, God offers humans the choice as to whether or not to believe. There is enough evidence, to an honest seeker, to bring about belief, but the evidence must be accepted by faith. Thomas didn't have to feel Christ's wounds to know that he was looking at the Resurrected Lord.

My understanding is that the things that happen in the world, which are the province of science, such as the doings of cells and ecosystems and galaxies and quarks and chemical reactions and photosynthesis and tectonic plates and water drops, are expressions of God Himself. In Psalm 19:1, David wrote:
"The heavens declare the glory of God.
The expanse shows his handiwork."
and in Romans 1:20, Paul said: "For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse." And it isn't just that God is revealed through the existence of created things. As Colossians 1 puts it: "16 For by him all things were created, in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things are held together." (WEB) God, mostly God the Son, made things as they are, and so that they work the way they do. He intimately binds up the test tube, the spectrophotometer, the computer recording the data, the scientist herself, and the means of communicating the results. It's no wonder that the experimenter will not find evidence for God in an experiment.

I also see that there is a sin problem in the world, and in me, and that God alone offers a satisfactory solution, namely the sacrificial death of the incarnated Son of God, validated by His resurrection.

Unfortunately, one thing that helps to keep some people from finding faith in God is that some of us who claim to be Christians don't always live a life consistent with the unselfish teaching of Christ.

One of Russell's great efforts, in collaboration with Whitehead, was "an attempt to derive all mathematical truths from a well-defined set of axioms and inference rules in symbolic logic." In other words, to prove the legitimacy of mathematics beyond any possible doubt. That attempt, though heroic, failed, with the discovery of Gödel's incompleteness theorems. It is not possible to prove the legitimacy of mathematics beyond any possible doubt. But I use mathematics, and I believe that it is right to do so.

The two, putting math on a completely logical and systematic foundation, and arguing that belief in the existence of God does not make sense, are not the same thing, and not exactly comparable. But, I believe, both efforts were and are futile, even for a man as brilliant as the late Lord Russell.

Thanks for reading. I thank Pete D. for his comment.


FancyHorse said...

Very well said, Martin!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, FancyHorse. I appreciate it.

Pete D said...

Hi Martin -

I think you have ignored the second art of Russell's quote: "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."

Russell is referring to the prevailing attitude towards atheism of his day, which continues to be descriptive of the prevailing attitude toward atheists today. That is, there must be something wrong with a person who does not believe in a god. You yourself have just implied that those who do not accept that a god exists as dishonest "There is enough evidence, to an honest seeker, to bring about belief, but the evidence must be accepted by faith." I am actually quite taken aback that this is your opinion (unless I have misunderstood you). You are saying here that you must already believe in order to see evidence for belief. That is confirmation bias and rejection of such bias is completely honest!

You are also excusing the lack of scientific evidence for a god by simply claiming by assertion (or the assertion of ancient peoples) that god is a hidden variable in those experiments. Fortunately, Bell's Theorem and experiments confirming it have eliminated such variables. You are left with a god of the gaps that cannot be detected (despite the fact that it is claimed to control everything) except through personal experience that is notoriously unreliable as evidence for anything. If god cannot be detected, he may as well not exist anyway.

There is a lot more to comment on in your post, but not the time right now. Anyway, thanks for posting your thoughts on this and I look forward to your response!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Pete.

Like you, I don't have the time to respond fully now.

You have raised several important points, at least some of which are issues because of problems with what I said, or didn't. I'll try to deal with them soon.

Thanks again.

Martin LaBar said...

Here's an attempt at an answer.

1) Yes, I did ignore the second half of Russell's statement. I wasn't trying to defend atheism, which Russell was, I guess. I was attempting to deal with what I read as an argument against the existence of God.

2) We do have a disagreement on an important matter, and I doubt that it is resolvable. I didn't say, or mean to say, that atheists are dishonest, nor do I believe that they are dishonest (no doubt there are some that are). I said that, as I understand the Bible, and my own life, God does reveal Himself to those who realize that they need to look for Him. I also think that He sends hints of Himself to people in various ways, even to people who aren't looking. But, as I understand it, God doesn't overwhelm anyone. Belief in God requires some belief. Or, maybe, better, put, it requires a willingness to believe. There's evidence for it, but not scientific evidence. But God's existence can be honestly doubted. I stand by "There is enough evidence, to an honest seeker, to bring about belief, but the evidence must be accepted by faith." Perhaps I'm wrong. I probably shouldn't have included the word "honest."

3) That's why I brought up Russell and Whitehead's attempt to put math on a logical basis. There are important truths (I think) that cannot be proved on a fundamental level, as a scientist wants proof, even though they are (I think) true. They must be taken as given. But they can be doubted. I don't know enough about math to know if important parts of it are doubted by mathematicians or philosophers.

4) I don't look on God as a variable, but as a constant.

Thanks again for your comment. I pray that I haven't muddied the waters, or mis-represented God unduly, in this comment, or in the original post. Perhaps I need a psychiatrist.

Martin LaBar said...

P. S. I believe that we use "honest" and "honestly" differently. I believe, for instance, that you refused to accept that Todd Wood is honest, and, as I understood you, that was because he is a young-earth creationist.

I think that a person can be wrong, or disagree with me, and be honest. You can be an honest atheist, Wood can be an honest young-earth creationist. I think both of you are mistaken, but that doesn't mean that you are dishonest, in my view. Wood understands that the evidence is against him, and he knows the evidence better than I do, judging from his writing, and the conferences he attends. He has a presupposition that the Bible is reliable, and that it clearly teaches that the earth is not very old. The presupposition determines the way he sees the evidence. Wood doesn't reject the scientific evidence, as some young-earth creationists do. He is quite critical of many of them for doing so.

My presupposition is that the Bible is reliable. I do not share Wood's presupposition that it teaches that the earth is not very old. (I used to share it.) I hope I see the problems and potential hazards with my position, both with believing in the Bible as reliable and believing that it does not teach that the earth is not very old.

Similarly, an atheist may have a presupposition that there is no God, that there is no purpose in the the way things are, and/or that miracles are impossible. That wouldn't make her dishonest, to me. She would be dishonest if she told others something that she didn't believe herself, or if she didn't understand, or even listen to, potential weaknesses in her position, or if she started claiming that science had proved that there is no God.

Thanks again.

Peter said...

Hi Martin. Hope you're having a great Valentine's Day.

1) I previously just wanted to point out in my that Russell is defending doubt about something that cannot be detected (god) against the certainties of preconceived notions based on claimed revelation (the bible). He was also pointing the absurdity of holding beliefs with certainty about things that are not detectable besides using the fact that something cannot be disproven as an argument for god. Russell was far too aware than to claim that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence!

2) I understand that you hold your personal experiences and perceptions about those experiences to be evidence for yourself. I also understand that it requires data to be looked at with preconceived notions in order to find a god. This is fraught with problems as you are well aware. As far as honesty and willingness to believe, that cuts both ways. True honesty would require a willingness to not believe as well. I have been on both sides of this coin and I know how hard it is one way or the other.

3) Bringing up the lack of a consistent set of fundamental axioms in mathematics distracts from the fact that science and math work. That is the only reason we use either. It has nothing to do with belief. Sure the fundamentals must be taken as axiomatic, but if they did not we would abandon them for something better. Contrast this with the fundamentals of many religions based on supposed revelation. Those don't work so well, even in the realms (morality, emotion, community) that they claim relevance!

4) By hidden variable I mean a quantity that is not detectable, but determines the outcome of a phenomenon. I'll not quibble about god as a constant or variable, only that the outcome of Bell's tests show that at a fundamental level, things are probabilistic and not deterministic.

Peter said...

As for Wood and honesty, there is no way he can be a YEC and scientist and maintain a shred of honesty. You say that he does not reject the scientific evidence for an old earth and deep time in evolution, but there is no way to accept that evidence and be a YEC. All Wood does is say, "Yeah all that science is right (except cladistics and phylogeny)" and substitute his own model while ignoring things that contradict it. That's not very honest. So even though he gains some credibility by criticizing the obviously wrong claims of other YECs, he couches his own wrong claims in technical language that confuse laypeople. He has zero credibility among people he fancies his colleagues in real science. Why do you think he doesn't publish in any real journals?

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Peter.

I believe that I mostly accept points 1 and 2, and won't comment on them further. If I may say so, I appreciate your honesty about these matters.

I said that math and Russell's teapot weren't the same thing. Maybe I shouldn't even have brought it up, but I did want to point out something that I knew, namely that Russell's philosophy didn't go as far as he wanted it to, and that such an important area as mathematics does not have an absolutely solid logical foundation. As to your point about the fundamentals of religions, I think that the Golden Rule works pretty well, although we don't use it nearly as much as we should.

Although I have read some about Bell's theorem, I don't know enough about it, at least not yet, to comment intelligently.

Martin LaBar said...

Well, perhaps Wood has no credibility. (I have seen him referred to at least a little positively on The Panda's Thumb.) I have never corresponded with him, and don't know him. I was surprised to find that I can't find a vita for him on the web, so I don't know about his publications in refereed mainstream scientific journals. I would suppose that at least his dissertation, whatever it was on, would have been so published. (He has a doctorate from Virginia.)

To me, though, Wood is not dishonest unless he puts forward, as the truth, ideas that he doesn't believe in himself. I don't think he has done that. Wood may be wrong and/or deluded but to me, he isn't dishonest.