Alvin Plantinga on Russell’s teapot, from a 2014 interview by Gary Gutting:
G.G.: You say atheism requires evidence to support it. Many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism. You compare atheism to the denial that there are an even number of stars, which obviously would need evidence. But atheists say (using an example from Bertrand Russell) that you should rather compare atheism to the denial that there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. Why prefer your comparison to Russell’s?
A.P.: Russell’s idea, I take it, is we don’t really have any evidence against teapotism, but we don’t need any; the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is enough to support a-teapotism. We don’t need any positive evidence against it to be justified in a-teapotism; and perhaps the same is true of theism.
I disagree: Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on. There is plenty of evidence against teapotism. So if, à la Russell, theism is like teapotism, the atheist, to be justified, would (like the a-teapotist) have to have powerful evidence against theism.
Plantinga goes on to discuss whether there is such evidence, whether there are any good arguments for or against atheism, and whether theistic beliefs need to be justified by philosophical arguments. He concludes with a nice summary of his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.
Every so often a scientific study appears purporting to show an inverse correlation between intelligence and religiosity; in other words, the smarter you are, the less likely you are to be religious. The latest offering is a meta-analysis of such studies which confirms the now-familiar story. Not surprisingly, a hearty cheer goes up from the atheist camp every time a report like this one appears. The insinuation is often that such studies provide evidence that religious beliefs are untrue or unreasonable. The more intelligent you are, so the logic runs, the better your chances of figuring out the right answers — and the most intelligent folk are those with non-religious answers!
Should Christians be disturbed by such studies? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these studies are based on reliable data, and that there really is a correlation between intelligence and non-religiosity. Do the studies give evidence that Christian beliefs are epistemically subpar? No, for a number of reasons.
A short article written for The Gospel Coalition.
(The Far Side cartoon mentioned in the introduction can be viewed here.)
A spike in my otherwise flatlined traffic alerts me to the fact that Bill Vallicella has breathed some new life into an old post of mine which connects the same-sex marriage debate with postmodernist anti-realism. Check out Bill’s commentary and then consider the following:
Having been recently promoted to associate professor, I was invited to give a short lecture at our Fall convocation service last week. The audio of the lecture (“The Atheist’s Guide to Intellectual Suicide”) is now available on iTunes U.
On a closely related note, check out these good thoughts by my colleague Mike Kruger on the current state of public debate over moral issues.
Dr. Owen Anderson of Arizona State University has posted some thoughts on my TGC article, “Can We Prove the Existence of God?”
I’m gratified that he thought the article worth commenting on; I only wish he’d read it a little more carefully. I was planning to respond before I discovered that the Pilgrim Philosopher has saved me the trouble.
Update: Owen has posted a reply here and there has been some interaction in the combox.
The Gospel Coalition invited me to answer the titular question in two thousand words or less. Go here to read the result. Unfortunately, due to the word limit, a number of witty asides and clever illustrations from the first draft didn’t make the final cut. (You’ll just have to take my word for that.)
I’m told there has been some discussion of my recent pantheism post on Michael Sudduth’s Facebook page. Since I ditched my Facebook account a couple of years ago, and Michael’s page isn’t publicly accessible, I can’t interact directly with that discussion. However, a mutual friend was thoughtful enough to send me a copy of his own critical comments, which I reproduce here:
I think James’ note is too quick. For what sort of ontological containment is at play here? Clearly many sorts of containment, such that A contains B, don’t support the inference that P(A) if P(B) for just any property P. Consider mereological containment, where A contains B just if B is a part (or perhaps proper part) of A. A very large clock tower — Big Ben, say — has many proper parts less than 1′ tall. But it doesn’t begin to follow that the same goes for Big Ben; it doesn’t follow that Big Ben, too, is less than 1′ tall.
Much the same goes for spatial containment, which James’ himself seems to dismiss as a relevent sort of ontological containment. My carton of non-fat milk and the refrigerator in which it’s contained have, among other things, very different dimensions and construction. Further, the milk can have soured and yet it still be false that the same goes for the refrigerator.
Perhaps, then, the relevant notion of ontological containment is that displayed by sets and their members. But this, too, won’t do, for of course while 7 is prime, then same can’t properly be said of (e.g.) the set of natural numbers of which 7 is a member.
Of course there’s much more to be said here. No doubt there are other notions of ontological containment which will support the general inference above, as well as (otherwise) faithfully capturing what the panentheist means to assert. Or perhaps we need to look more closely into relevant types of property; perhaps there are properties of some type, such that any property of that type does apply to the container if they apply to the contained item.
These are useful comments that raise some important issues. Here are some thoughts in response:
Michael Sudduth, a philosopher of religion at San Francisco State University, has caused quite a stir by announcing his departure from orthodox Christianity and conversion to Gaudiya Vaishnavism (a form of Vaishnava Vedanta Hinduism). Having known Michael for over a decade, and having had many profitable philosophical discussions with him, I was extremely grieved to read this announcement, although it didn’t come completely out of the blue. Some mutual friends had informed me of his increasing interest in Eastern religion and his gradually distancing himself from biblical Christianity. We had an email exchange last year when I raised some concerns (my last email, it turns out, was sent several days before his “profoundly moving religious experience of Krishna”) but it quickly fizzled out because Michael wasn’t ready at that time to set out his views in detail.
I’m not going to comment on his conversion testimony or on the complex personal experiences and circumstances that led to it (only some of which are mentioned in that testimony). However, I do want to remark on one particular statement:
Consequently, I now accept a panentheistic metaphysics in which the universe and human souls are, to put it roughly, in the being of God.