Razors and teapots

I’ll admit it up front – I’m not very good at philosophy. It is something I’ve taken a periodic interest in, but generally what I find is that I start a chapter of some book on some great thinker or other, and within a short time one of various distressing things will occur:-

  1. Said thinker will start discussing what we can know and how we can know it.
  2. They’ll declare that something must exist (or not) because of the logic of an argument that anywhere outside a book on philosophy would have you accused of “just playing with words.”
  3. A German expression for which it is apparently difficult to find a precise English translation will be used.
  4. Either maths, or computing, will happen.

And that is the point at which I will become terminally confused and probably give up. It probably isn’t a coincidence that many of the philosophers I’ve always found easiest to read about  – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre – are also those least likely to do three of the four (untranslatable German, alas, seems unavoidable). It’s not an iron law, of course, since Descartes falls into the same category, and he’s most remembered for his views on what we can know and how we can know it, as well as his contributions to maths (and notable lack of use of German).

What does unify all four of these men, however, are that their views on the existence or otherwise of God, or His meaning, are central to their work, and a Christian that’s also something I am interested in. If you expected a closely-argued defence of religious belief from me, though, I’m afraid you’re out of luck – I told you I was bad at philosophy. The best I’ve ever been able to come up with is that I believe because I choose to, on the basis that we all have to choose our path in life one way or another and that logical reasoning is of limited use in doing that. In the end, it all comes down to one act of faith or another.

Obviously, my own choice sets me at odds with atheists, particularly the more militant kind. A lot of the arguments of people like Richard Dawkins really seem to come down to Occam’s razor, the very old philosophical rule that “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” and so that where there are competing hypotheses, the one that assumes the fewest things is best. That the universe is as it is because of the operation of the laws of physics and of evolution, without a Creator, assumes fewer things (no God) and is therefore the better hypothesis.

The problem with that is that just because a hypothesis is simpler does not make it true, just more likely to be true. It is more likely that I operate the light-switch in my bedroom by getting up and pressing it with my finger, since that requires only two entities – me and the switch. However, that still does not exclude the possibility that I actually add a third entity by lying on my bed and pressing it from a distance with a long stick. The way in which you get around this problem in science is by going out and testing the hypothesis that I use a stick, to prove it wrong. Unfortunately, it seems to be agreed that there is no experiment that could be performed that would falsify the hypothesis of God.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell’s answer to this was the argument that has become known as “Russell’s teapot.” It cannot be disproved that, somewhere between the Earth and Mars, there is a teapot orbiting the Sun that is so small that no telescope can detect it. However, it is wrong to say that this means that the existence of the teapot is proved, given that (Occam’s razor again) there is far more likely not to be any such teapot.

Given the ever-increasing amount of space debris now in orbit and the approaching  possibility of manned missions to Mars, it may be that Russell’s teapot is already in orbit and detectable, or will be soon. However, an increasingly dated analogy does not invalidate the argument. The real problem with it is that it is limited to situations where a believer is seeking to justify their faith to the rest of the world. Perhaps Bertrand Russell can safely ignore my God hypothesis in reliance on it. Actually, since he died several years before I was born, he’s pretty much got no choice but to now, but whatever. Perhaps his teapot is a good argument against proselytising or, even more, against a society where unbelief has negative consequences.

But what about me? If no-one’s trying to prove Christianity (or atheism) to me; which should I accept? That is a question that, as I pointed out earlier, cannot really be answered by logic or by anyone else. Only I can answer it and in the end, it must come down to your faith in God or lack of it.





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