The Celestial Teapot

James Wood offers a critical perspective on Bertrand Russell’s famous teapot analogy:

Dawkins uses Russell to argue that we cannot prove God’s non-existence, but then we cannot prove anything’s non-existence. ‘What matters,’ writes Dawkins, ‘is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t), but whether his existence is probable… Some undisprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable things.’

I agree with Dawkins’s conclusion, and consider God highly improbable, but I dislike the way he gets there. It seems to occur neither to him nor to Russell that belief in God is not like belief in a teapot. The referent — the content of the belief — matters here. God may be just as undisprovable as the teapot, but belief in God is a good deal more reasonable than belief in the teapot, precisely because God cannot be reified, cannot be turned into a mere thing, and thus entices our approximations. There is a reason, after all, that no one has ever worshiped a teapot: it does not allow enough room to pour the fluid of our incomprehension into it.

Interestingly, Dawkins himself seems to agree with this complaint. In a recent conversation in Time with the geneticist Francis Collins (who is a believing Christian), a conversation in which both men spoke eloquently, Dawkins was pushed by Collins to admit that, in Dawkins’s words, ‘there could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible beyond our understanding.’ That’s God, said Collins. Yes, but it could be any of billions of Gods, replied Dawkins: ‘the chance of its being a particular God, Yahweh, the God of Jesus, is vanishingly small.’ In other words, the God of a particular scripture and tradition is a parochial and inherently improbable notion. But the idea of some kind of creator, said Dawkins, ‘does seem to be a worthy idea. Refutable — but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect.’ To which one should add: by definition, then, this ‘grand and big’ idea is not analogically disproved by referring to celestial teapots or vacuum cleaners, which lack the necessary bigness and grandeur.

“In the remainder of his life, however, Nietzsche seems to have caught an early dose of syphilis, very probably during his first-ever sexual encounter, which gave him crushing migraine headaches and attacks of blindness and metastasized into dementia and paralysis. This, while it did not kill him right away, certainly contributed to his death and cannot possibly, in the meanwhile, be said to have made him stronger. In the course of his mental decline, he became convinced that the most important possible cultural feat would be to prove that the plays of Shakespeare had been written by Bacon. This is an unfailing sign of advanced intellectual and mental prostration.”
Christopher Hitchens on Nietzsche

Daher gehört est dann auch zu den selsten Fällen, daß ein wirklicher Philosoph zugleich ein Docent der Philosophie gewesen wäre.

It has, therefore, been one of the rarest events for a genuine philosopher to be at the same time a lecturer in philosophy.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga und Paralipomena (1841)
“Skepticism is a good policy for any editor because it’s generally a good idea for any scholar. For the last quarter century, however, it is poststructuralism that has promoted ‘a deep and corrosive suspicion’ which it routinely applies to almost anything you care to name: truth, knowledge, science, morality, the notion of genius, the family, Western civilization, philosophy, the idea of great literature, high art or music, literary meaning, tradition, objectivity, capitalism, love, historical understanding, and on and on. Sometimes the suspicion has produced worthwhile reassessments of values and ideas too much taken for granted; these days the mantras of suspicion are wearing a bit thin. But the one conspicuous omission from the list has always been poststructuralist doctrine itself — it is the one grand narrative never to be questioned.”
Denis Dutton, ‘Truth Matters: 20th Anniversary Editorial’, Philosophy and Literature (1996)
“No sensible man, however agnostic, has ‘faith in reason alone’. Reason is concerned with matters of fact, some observed, some inferred. The question whether there is a future life and the question whether there is a God concern matters of fact, and the agnostic will hold that they should be investigated in the same way as the question, ‘Will there be an eclipse of the moon tomorrow?’ But matters of fact alone are not sufficient to determine action, since they do not tell us what ends we ought to pursue. In the realm of ends, we need something other than reason. The agnostic will find his ends in his own heart and not in an external command. Let us take an illustration: Suppose you wish to travel by train from New York to Chicago; you will use reason to discover when the trains run, and a person who though that there was some faculty of insight or intuition enabling him to dispense with the timetable would be thought rather silly. But no timetable will tell him that it is wise, he will have to take account of further matters of fact; but behind all the matters of fact, there will be the ends that he thinks fitting to pursue, and these, for an agnostic as for other men, belong to a realm which is not that of reason, though it should be in no degree contrary to it. The realm I mean is that of emotion and feeling and desire.”
Bertrand Russell, What is an agnostic? (1953)
“[T]he fact that ideas have consequences does not mean that we philosophers, we specialists in ideas, are in a key position. We are not here to provide principles or foundations or deep theoretical diagnoses, or a synoptic vision. When I am asked (as, alas, I often am) what I take contemporary philosophy’s ‘mission’ or ‘task’ to be, I get tongue-tied. The best I can do is to stammer that we philosophy professors are people who have a certain familiarity with a certain intellectual tradition, as chemists have a certain familiarity with what happens when you mix various substances together. We can offer some advice about what will happen when you try to combine or to separate certain ideas, on the basis of our knowledge of the results of past experiments. By doing so, we may be able to help you hold your time in thought. But we are not the people to come to if you want confirmation that the things you love with all your heart are central to the structure of the universe, or that your sense of moral responsibility is ‘rational and objective’ rather than ‘just’ a result of how you were brought up.”
Richard Rorty, 'Trotsky and the Wild Orchids'Philosophy and Social Hope (1999)
“It is difficult to be fair to ‘Orthodoxy’, or to know whether its glibness or its whimsy was the more offensive… . Chesterton had little talent for philosophical, theological or theoretical statement. All he had — though he had this to the point of genius — was a talent for compressing long arguments into short paradoxes which left the reader to suggest the application for himself. This talent was remarkable, and was obvious throughout his writing. It was at its best in ‘The Thing’. Its limitations were most obvious in ‘The Everlasting Man’ where the attempt at a philosophy failed because it was beyond his capability. … [T] structure of th[at] book crack[ed] under the strain of its own weightlessness.”
Maurice Cowling, quoted by Austin Bramwell.
“Also accusations upon torture are not to be reputed as testimonies. For torture is to be used but as means of conjecture, and light, in the further examination and search of truth: and what is in that case confessed tendeth to the ease of him that is tortured, not to the informing of the torturers, and therefore ought not to have the credit of a sufficient testimony: for whether he deliver himself by true or false accusation, he does it by the right of preserving his own life.”
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
“Two atheists - John Gray and Alain de Botton - and two agnostics - Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I - meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do maths and people are afraid of maths.”

Alan Watts on music and life.

“As for Nietzsche himself, the one firm faith of his life was his belief in his Polish origin. He cultivated a disorderly, truculent, and what he conceived to be Polish façade, wearing an enormous and bristling mustache. He wrote a book, which was privately printed, to prove that the true form of his name was Nietzschy, and that it was Polish and noble. It delighted him when the people at some obscure watering-place, deceived by his looks, nicknamed him ‘The Polack.’ The one unforgivable insult was to call him a German.”
H. L. Mencken, ‘The Mailed Fist and the Prophet’, The Atlantic (1914)
“For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.”
Jürgen Habermas; Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity (via brownmonkeytheory)
“It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (1997)
“This insinuation of the interests of the self into even the most ideal enterprises and most universal objectives, envisaged in moments of highest rationality, makes hypocrisy an inevitable by product of all virtuous endeavour.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)
“Zu unserer Besserung bedürfen wir eines Spiegels.
For our improvement we need a mirror.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)