Nonsensical, but irrefutable: Bertrand Russell’s Flying Teapot

Bertrand Russell introduced the idea of claiming that there is a teapot in orbit around the sun somewhere between the Earth and Mars, as an example of an idea that cannot be refuted but which is not necessarily true. As he was writing before Sputnik and Gagarin, let alone before human debris in space, the idea was nonsensical but beyond the power of technology to disprove.

Russell's Teapot in orbit

(In time, we will develop the technology to map the solar system down to the level of orbiting teapots… and my guess is that by that time mischievous humans will indeed have launched one.)

The fact that Russell’s Teapot could not be disproved did not mean that it was a fact. A few years later he elaborated: “I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.”

Why a teapot? Russell was born in 1872. He was known to have been fascinated by the works of that other mathematician and logician, Lewis Carroll. In Alice In Wonderland, the Mad Hatter sings a parody:

“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat/ How I wonder what you’re at./ Up above the world you fly/ Like a teatray in the sky.”

I propose that this is the origin of the celestial teapot. In fact, I believe that it is. The idea is irrefutable. (Can I therefore require that you believe it too?)



4 comments on “Nonsensical, but irrefutable: Bertrand Russell’s Flying Teapot

  1. Hmm, can you make me believe it? Depends on how willing you are to enforce that belief upon others.

    Then again, the blind man can say that there is no sky, because he cannot see it, touch it, taste it, smell it, etc. an it would be very difficult to refute him on his terms, as you cannot prove something that must be seen, to one who cannot see. How do you explain color to the blind, sound to the deaf? To them, these things do not exist, and are as mythical as a tea pot orbiting the sun. At best, the are terms and ideas that cannot be experienced.

    The question for me at this point is not “can we prove the Gods exist” but rather “Are we gifted with all the senses, or are we blinded in some sense needed to “See” the divine.” I can’t prove my gods exist, not in terms that satisfy the scientific community, though I can in some other communities. The problem I see is that people are assuming that we can “see” everything already, rather than possibly being a world of “blind” men.

    This is a question we need to consider seriously, before we start making claims one way or the other.

    • You raise an interesting question. What is the sky?

      A solid bowl or lid over us, as the ancients thought, perhaps made of Ymir’s skull and supported in the four corners of the earth by four dwarfs – a bowl across which celestial objects move?

      Just because we can “see” it, i.e. we can interpret perception to give solid form and a name to something, doesn’t mean that it is actually there, has the tangible reality we credit it with, can be found when we travel to it.

      So we get the redefinition of the sky from a solid object to “everything that lies a certain distance above the surface of Earth, including the atmosphere and the rest of outer space” (Wikipedia). The concept of “the sky” still has perceptual and emotional value; but it’s not really useful scientifically because the concept is too… nebulous.

      • Anonymous says:

        Funny thing about science–it requires evidence that is testable and falsifiable and it doesn’t give a s**t what you believe at all. Just the facts, just the facts. Don’t like facts? Get religion, and kill all those who disagree. (There is considerable historical precedent.)

    • Anonymous says:

      What a blind man sees or doesn’t see is irrelevant. How about a certified lunatic’s view of reality? GET A CLUE! Exceptionalism is not, and never was, the basis of science, logic, and reason.

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