Sunday, 5 July 2009

Science v Spirituality (2)

Of all Richard Dawkins' many and numerous straw-man arguments, his finest surely has to be his "purple teapot circling Uranus" routine. For those unfamiliar with it, it goes something like this ...

"Agnostics are merely closet atheists. Why, you might just as well be agnostic about the existence of a large purple teapot orbiting Uranus. Lots of love. Dicky Dawkins."

Now, I'm agnostic about the existence of "dark matter", I'm agnostic about the existence of free will, I'm agnostic about human-induced global warming and I'm also agnostic about the existence of the Higgs Boson. I'm also (for the record) agnostic about fairies, unicorns, leprechauns, trolls and purple teapots whizzing around Uranus.

So. Fucking. What?

A literal translation of the word "agnostic" might be expressed as "no knowledge" or "without knowledge". This is integral and central to pure agnosticism, or at least to my understanding and application of it. It's merely a recognition of the fact that, at present, there may well be no meaningful and conclusive knowledge or evidences available to us with which to prove or disprove some things. We might obtain such knowledge tomorrow, or the knowledge may even already exist but hasn't been recognised or applied correctly yet. But unless and until you can show me some hard evidences then I'm afraid that all of your so-called "proofs" are in point of fact merely opinions and "beliefs" ... and I'll remain agnostic thank-you very much. So, I'm agnostic about the existence of a higher being and I'm also agnostic about the existence of extra-terrestrial teapots. Big deal!

Another thing about purple teapots. I really don't give a damn if there is one mindlessly circling Uranus. So what? It's of practically no benefit to me to know if there's one there or not. Does it contain loose tea, or teabags? Does it even have any tea in it at all? How big might it be? Do I give a shit? No. I don't. Much the same goes for fairies, trolls, unicorns and Santa Claus. However, I am most profoundly interested in the possible existence of "God", whatever it may (or may not) be. Does it exist? Is it aware of us? Does it have some purpose, some aim? Do I give a shit? Yes, actually I do. So, we can see that it's quite reasonable and possible to be agnostic about stupid things like purple teapots or ghosts and at the same time be agnostic about important things like the nature of free will or the possible existence of some higher being. The difference lies in whether you actually give a shit about getting an answer or not.

And for another thing ... I have absolutely NO reason to believe that there's a flying teapot out there doing it's thing. I can, however, think of quite a few perfectly reasonable things that may lead me to ask if there's a God or not. Whether there fucking is one or not is irrelevant! I think I'll leave that little argument right there as it plainly speaks for itself.

So ... I repeat, I don't care whether it's about the tooth fairy, the Higgs boson or the Almighty himself. If you have no hard evidence to back up a claim then it's deceitful, closed minded and ultimately downright dangerous to claim that science can provide an unequivocal "answer". Here's a quote from a scientist who I consider to be infinitely more worthy of the respect that Dawkins could only dream of demanding:

"When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
Arthur C Clarke.

I hope I've gone some way here to exposing just one of Dicky's straw-man-isms for what it actually is. Questionable. Hollow. Full of piss and wind. Churlishly subjective ...

... and very, very unscientific.


EDIT - 18.06.09 - It has been pointed out to me that the Teapot quote should actually be attributed to Bertrand Russell. Fair enough. However, it's still true to say that Dicky uses and endorses this spurious argument (at least when looked at scientifically) extensively in his "book" so it makes little to no real difference to the point I'm making.

This bits going to sting. It has also been pointed out to me that in my zeal to reveal Dicky's strawman argumentation, I may have committed the very same crime myself. Although I do point out that Dicky rates himself as a 6 (later he said in an interview 6.9) on Dicky Dawkins' Scale of Atheism, I may have not been very fair or specific (I was right, that stings like fuck). My point remains however that the teapot analogy only stands up within the context of belief systems. It is NOT a scientific refutation of the possible existence of a higher being in any way shape or form (stinging a bit less now =P). I consider my moral obligation to fairness and honesty now discharged. *still smarting just a bit*


  1. I've always had a great deal of respect for Dawkins, I thought his introduction of the term "memes" was a great example of thinking "outside the box" of spacetime, and describing genes as a "River Out of Eden" also reflects an approach which acknowledges there are ways of visualizing our reality not as a linear sequence of events, but rather as something that has a shape and a trajectory when viewed from a more-inclusive perspective.

    I had a lot of trouble making it through The God Delusion though, I found the tone brittle and the arguments, quite frankly, to be coming from a less enlightened perspective than his older writing. As I always say, though, people change over time, as a complex interlocking system of memes that rise and fall away, each person becomes a different "soul" than who they were twenty years beofre, so that appears to be reflected in the journey that Dawkins is taking.

    I have a new blog entry published this morning about thinking of ourselves as shapes from "outside" of space-time:

    Nice blog, Captain Frantic!


  2. Hey Rob. =D

    Thanks very much for visiting my little space on the web here. I must admit I feel slightly ashamed of my profanities now ... I'm not sure why though hehe.

    Thanks for your compliment & comment, you are a significantly calmer, more balanced and nicer version of me than I could ever be *wink*. I will surely be giving you and your YouTube channel a shout-out at some point in the near future when I revisit this whole topic of science versus spirituality. I'll also add your blog to my list over there in the side bar.

    Have you seen Neil deGrass Tyson's gentle rebuke of Dicky on YouTube? Well worth a watch.


  3. I do not see why the Bertrand Russell celestial teapot argument should be considered a straw-man. There have been many agnostics and theists who have treated the argument seriously. It doesn’t make a judgment as to whether or not the god question is of greater or lesser importance than the celestial teapot question. It merely points out the similar circumstances surrounding these questions. Only if there actually were strong evidence for the existence of god(s) would the celestial teapot argument be a straw-man. The celestial teapot isn’t claimed as a refutation of the possible existence of a higher being in any way shape or form. Many agnostics even favor using the celestial teapot to support their views. It helps point out the nature of our knowledge. I’m an atheist because I too care about the existence of god(s). The celestial teapot is simply an analogy used to refute the idea that the burden of proof lies upon skeptics to disprove the unfalsifiable claims of religions.

    Note that some religious claims make testable hypotheses that can be refuted by analyzing the evidence. Those claims that aren’t even hypothetically testable should clearly be rejected as absurdities. The “argument from ignorance” is a well-known logical fallacy claiming that a premise is true only because it has not been proven false. Just because we can’t prove with 100% certainty that god(s), celestial teapots, unicorns, etc. do not exist, doesn’t mean that we increase the probability of those things existing.

    It’s important to keep in mind that agnosticism refers to knowledge, while atheism and theism refer to belief. The celestial teapot illustrates that atheism is the default belief-position to take. Agnosticism is the default knowledge-position to take. When neither claims absolute certainty, both atheism and agnosticism taken together are science-based. On the other hand, all forms of theism are faith-based (not requiring supporting scientific evidence for belief). I don’t have to disprove the assertion that there is a teapot circling around the sun. The one making the initial claim is the one who must provide evidence supporting it. Until this proof is presented, it is reasonable not to believe in the celestial teapot. I am an atheist with regard to belief in the existence of the teapot, but I’m also agnostic about it because I am open to the possibility of receiving knowledge of the teapot. The same holds for questions concerning god(s). If you don’t know, then there is no reason to believe while saying open to the possibility.

    I think we should try carefully defining our terms to avoid all this confusion and misunderstanding:

    Atheist- one who lacks belief in god(s) (implicit) or one who believes god(s) do not exist (explicit)
    Pure Atheist-one who knows gods do not exist
    Theist- one who believes god(s) exist
    Pure Theist-one who knows god(s) exist
    Agnostic- one who believes we don’t know or can never know about the existence of god(s)
    Pure Agnostic- one who knows that knowledge of god(s) is impossible (aka explicit agnosticism); one who believes the existence/non-existence of god(s) are equally probable, or one who is impartial/reserving judgment about the existence/non-existence of god(s) (aka implicit agnosticism)
    Agnostic Atheist- one who disbelieves in god(s) without claiming to know for sure that no god(s) can or do exist
    Agnostic Theist- one who believes in god(s) without claiming to know for sure if god(s) exist

  4. I like Richard Dawkins’ spectrum of probabilities concerning belief:

    1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, 'I do not believe, I know.'
    2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. 'I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.'
    3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. 'I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.'
    4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. 'God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.'
    5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. 'I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be skeptical.'
    6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'
    7. Strong atheist. 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung "knows" there is one.'

    A pure agnostic would reside at level four. They couldn’t lean towards even the more liberal theistic beliefs such as pantheism, deism, etc. It seems rare for a person to neither believe nor disbelieve in god(s). An individual that has never heard of atheism or theism would fall under this agnostic category, but such a person would still technically be an implicit atheist. So it is questionable that “agnosticism” in any of its forms should be considered a middle-way between atheism and theism. If you are an agnostic who claims to neither believe nor disbelieve in god(s), then your belief can only really be described as atheistic since you still implicitly “lack belief in gods.” That seems to hold true even if your agnosticism is of the purist 50/50 probability of god’s existence/nonexistence variety or if you are impartial/reserving judgment. So again it seems that agnosticism should only really be used as a qualifier concerning knowledge. It is used to modify atheism and theism. Agnostics will fall into either the theistic or atheistic side of the spectrum.

    Many if not most of us contain some level of agnosticism, but I think it is safe to say that there are probably more pure theists than there are pure atheists. Agnosticism tends to swing towards the side of atheism. Here it’s also interesting to note the apparent conversion asymmetries exiting between atheism and theism. It’s apparently less common for an explicit atheist to become a theist than it is for a theist to become an explicit atheist. In any case, I’d be weary of all the pure theists, agnostics, and atheists claiming to know something with absolute certainty.

    Even Richard Dawkins himself is an epistemological agnostic because he admits the possibility that he could be wrong even though he is extremely sure of himself. I’d classify myself as a 6 along with Richard Dawkins. I’m also an agnostic atheist. My atheism is explicit, while my agnosticism is implicit. I believe that the existence of god(s) is highly improbable, but I don’t claim to know with absolute certainty. Please note that this spectrum doesn’t indicate the degree of militant activity, authoritarianism, mean-spiritedness, hatred, or passionate fiery rhetoric. These traits might be more likely in those claiming to know something with absolute certainty, but this doesn’t automatically necessitate that a pure theist, agnostic, or atheist have such negative characteristics.

    It’s interesting to note that the celestial teapot argument that you are deriding originated with Bertrand Russell, appears to have considered himself an agnostic atheist. I’ve posted some of what he’s said about agnosticism and atheism below. It expresses much of how I feel about the topic as well.

  5. “I never know whether I should say "Agnostic" or whether I should say "Atheist". It is a very difficult question and I daresay that some of you have been troubled by it. As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.”

    “On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.”

    “None of us would seriously consider the possibility that all the gods of homer really exist, and yet if you were to set to work to give a logical demonstration that Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and the rest of them did not exist you would find it an awful job. You could not get such proof.”

    “Therefore, in regard to the Olympic gods, speaking to a purely philosophical audience, I would say that I am an Agnostic. But speaking popularly, I think that all of us would say in regard to those gods that we were Atheists. In regard to the Christian God, I should, I think, take exactly the same line.”


  6. Without wanting to evade your points above, may I just say that they appear to me to be mostly sound. However, the fact remains that any inherent value in such arguments can only apply within the context of systems of *belief* and should not be mistaken for arguments that can be used in true scientific objectivity. Whether it was his intention or not, Dawkins' book strongly promotes this dangerous ideology. Such reasoning can be used to mostly devastate religious ideologies but this says nothing about the possible existence of a higher being. Disproving Christianity, or any other religion (or even ALL other religions) does not prove atheism.

    To a scientifically minded agnostic there's no need for label qualifiers such as "strong" or "positive" atheism. Only three labels are required because the problem is simple. Either there IS a higher being (as theists claim) or there is NOT a higher being (as atheists claim). In the absence of evidence, the agnostic adopts the null position of "actually, we don't know". If you could go back 200 years and substitute "electron" for "higher being" into this same problem it's interesting to see how that would work out.

    As I say, I have many objections to Dawkins and his widely emulated nasty little brand of atheism. For one thing, it's my belief that it does enormous damage by insulting, misrepresenting and alienating the religious people science wants to "reach". But it's this whole "atheism is scientific" fallacy that I'm solely trying to address in this part of the series. At some point I'll be outlining some of my weird ass pantheistic leanings. I'll be presenting quite a bit of science to support this position but I will NOT at any point be claiming that therefore Pantheism is scientific. But hey ... we'll get to that later. =P