Militant agnostic: “I don’t know, and you don’t either.”

Bertrand Russell, in his 1947 “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic?”, wrote:

“Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality. (…)

Militant agnosticism in action

“When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also admit that some things are much more nearly certain than others. (…) Complete skepticism would, of course, be totally barren and completely useless. (…)

“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 to 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 that 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.”

And hence to his flying or cosmic Teapot, of course.

Russell’s contemporary, the British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, did not believe he understood the structure of the universe, or that such understanding was even with human power. As he wrote in “Possible Worlds and other papers” (1927): “the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

That admission of ignorance would qualify him as an agnostic. But, as he also wrote, “My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.”

The farther we gaze and the closer we focus, the more we find that the Universe just keeps on going. From stars to galaxies to hypothetical multiverses in the one direction, from atoms to quarks to hypothetical strings in the other, there is no final limit to either vastness or foundational substance. More importantly, there is nothing to explain the existence of the Universe.

How can there possibly be anything? How can the Universe come from nothing? To say “God made it” just leads to asking where God came from. To say “It was born from the collapse of a previous Universe” or “It is automatically generated from the multiverse” just leads to questions of their origin, too.

A “First Cause” is as nonsensical a concept as “Before Time Began”. There are (fortunately) concepts that simply do not compute, questions that are fundamental to the nature of existence and yet are not capable of clear framing, let alone an answer. This is not new to us. They have stimulated and challenged human thought since reason began.

So it is perfectly in keeping with both today and the Greco-Roman time of Jesus to give “The Gospel According to the Romans” a skeptical protagonist with the personal creed of “Nescio et tu quoque” – “I don’t know, and you don’t either.”

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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?)