- And the way it continues to be misused
Bertrand Russell’s teapot made its first appearance in ‘Is there a God’, an article which was commissioned but never published by Illustrated magazine. Of course, coming from a man as important as Russell, it was not long before people were talking about it anyway. Of course, Russell also made it a point to repeat it later. It remains one of the favourite arrows in the quiver of the atheist community ever since.
The essay can now be found in Russell’s collected papers. Its principal shortcoming, as is usual in articles of this nature, is that it chooses to attack particularly attackable definitions of god (which are frankly not very intelligent). It therefore suffers from the same drawback as his famous essay ‘Why I am not a Christian’. To be fair to Russell, in the case of the latter the title claims no more; but the title of the former advertises more than what Russell delivers in the text.
So, what is Russell’s teapot? In Russell’s own words: ‘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.’ While Russell’s teapot is fine if it is used to place the burden of proof where it belongs, it doesn’t quite do the job it is employed most often for; that is, ‘solving’ the God problem. Let me explain.
Russell, who is otherwise painstakingly meticulous, was guilty of a similar readiness to settle for a less-than-satisfactory argument that he recounts in his autobiography. Granted, he was only eighteen then, but he tells the story as an old man and seems satisfied with the argument.
No intelligent theological system proposes to ‘prove’ the existence of God. God is not just another physical object (like a teapot). The God I am talking about is a Transcendent God that is outside the scheme of things – that is, One Who is the Creator of laws of the universe and is not subject to them. He is ‘present’ everywhere, and at all times in the sense that his Will (or the laws of the universe) and His knowledge pervade everything. But being Independent of time and space, He cannot be said to be confined to a certain time or locality. This God cannot be proven any more than it can be disproven. That is, that there is One – and only One – God is the most basic axiom in this system, not a theorem to be proved. Like all axioms, you cannot prove this axiom, but your whole metaphysical framework collapses without it. Russell was no stranger to axioms. He is on record regarding his disappointment when he learned from his brother (who was an early tutor of his) that Euclid’s axioms were to be accepted without proof, because they could not be proved. He says he almost quit studying geometry – What was the point of studying if everything could not be proved? He reluctantly admitted them, as anybody interested in making progress must, for that is the way the human mind words. I am not sure many of those who habitually employ Russell’s teapot understand this.
According to the Quran, God is a necessary item without which there is no completing one’s metaphysical picture, try as one might. Starting from some more basic axioms and then seeking to ‘prove’ God is a foolish exercise to start with; for that God would then depend on those axioms. The Quran says that God is Absolute (depends on nothing), while everything else depends on Him.
Russell, who is otherwise painstakingly meticulous, was guilty of a similar readiness to settle for a less-than-satisfactory argument that he recounts in his autobiography. Granted, he was only eighteen then, but he tells the story as an old man and seems satisfied with the argument. Before going to Cambridge, he had rejected life after death and accompanying religious beliefs but having no answer to the ‘First Cause’ argument, he still believed in God. He became an atheist when he read Mill’s Autobiography where the latter narrated that his father had taught him that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered because it immediately begs the further question ‘Who made God?’ The problem with this argument is that it presupposes that somebody must have created God, something not held by many theists; according to whom you, me, our China teapot and the universe are all contingent entities whereas God, being a necessary being, is Eternal. We know that the same cannot be said about the universe. The most hardened atheist, if he knows his science, will tell you that the universe had a start.
Tailpiece: To criticise one’s hero is not at all easy, but it is something I am sure Russell would have approved of. That said, considering his immense body of work spanning so many subjects, Russell gives surprisingly few hostages to his critics. Most of his work has spectacularly stood the test of time, and he remains one of the most influential thinkers of all time. Moreover, when it comes to expressing difficult and nuanced concepts in clear and elegant prose there is nobody who even comes close.