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Tempest in a teapot

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This article follows As if, as if in a series on The ethics of belief. After a brief Introduction the series begins in earnest with Clifford’s razor.

One possible claim is that ethics and morality are necessarily linked to a belief that a particular entity (god) exists. Another possible claim – different but related – is that ethics and morality are what they are because that entity (god) does in fact exist. We should not assume that to counter either of these claims we have to ‘prove’ this entity (god) does not exist or cannot exist. It is hard to see what such a ‘proof’ would be like.

Bertrand Russell, 1907

Bertrand Russell, 1907

This is why Bertrand Russell’s teapot is so hot. We introduced it in a previous section (Better believe it). But here it is in full:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. [From Is There a God?, commissioned (but never published) by Illustrated magazine, 1952.]

Its power is not its ‘proof that god doesn’t exist’ – how could it prove this? – but its demonstration that belief in a god’s existence is no more (and no less) tenable than belief in the existence of a whole host of possible entities, divine or otherwise, whose attributes are systematically defined so as to elude empirical verification. It does not help if one of these entities is declared the one and only true god (thereby rendering all the other possible entities – or at least the divine ones – non-existent), because that would still leave an indefinite series of possible ‘gods’ with generally different attributes but sharing those of uniqueness and empirical elusiveness. If one of them exists then none of the others do – but which one does?

Richard Dawkins, 2008

Richard Dawkins, 2008

Richard Dawkins borrowed Russell’s teapot in both A devil’s chaplain and The God delusion. In the latter he used it to show why you cannot

leap from the premise that the question of God’s existence is in principle unanswerable to the conclusion that his existence and his non-existence are equiprobable. … Russell’s point is that the burden of proof rests with the believers, not the non-believers. [Richard Dawkins, The God delusion, 2006.]

A point which escaped Alister McGrath:

The core, incontrovertible, foundational assumption of atheism is that there is no God. So why would anyone believe in God? For Dawkins, this is an utterly irrational belief – like believing in a teapot orbiting the sun. Sure this is a flawed analogy. Nobody that I know believes such nonsense. But that’s what Dawkins wants his readers to think – that believing in God is on the same level as cosmic teapots. [Alister McGrath (with Joanna Collicutt McGrath), The Dawkins delusion?, 2007.]

It is a flawed analogy because although there are people who believe in god there are none who believe in orbiting teapots? But the argument is not about what people happen to believe, but about whether their beliefs are justified. To be generous, there may be atheists who make the core, incontrovertible, foundational assumption … that there is no God. But most avoid this unnecessary trap. Their foundational assumption is merely that any belief should be justified – which is why the burden of proof is on the believer. They reject the god hypothesis as unjustified and unnecessary, but their rejection is not ‘incontrovertible’: it would be questioned and perhaps even overturned if believers produced real evidence to support their belief.

Which brings us back to our main thread, the ethics of unjustified belief. We do not have to prove that god does not exist. We only need to show what belief in god is like – which Russell’s teapot illustrates. If there really was sufficient evidence for (ie ‘proof’ of) the existence of a god – for example in the sense of an entity which was the source of ethics and morality – we would not be questioning whether it was right or wrong to believe in the existence of that entity. The belief would be justified by the evidence – end of story.

I now want to spell out a number of claims which could be made, and have been made, about how ethics and morality relate to belief in god and/or the existence of god. I shall use ‘god’ as shorthand for the ‘religious hypothesis’ – in the sense that if the religious hypothesis is true then god exists, and vice versa. I shall also from now on truncate ‘ethics and morality’ down to ‘ethics’.

One claim is (i) that because ethics does exist, therefore there must be or have been a god or gods which gave rise to ethics. Another (ii) is the nihilistic converse of this – that if there is no god, then there is no such thing as ethics. Claim (i) does not doubt that ethics exists, and because of the necessary dependence, does not doubt that god exists either. Claim (ii) just asserts the necessary dependence.

Another claim (iii) is closer to James’s claim introduced at the end of the previous section – that there is a particular kind of desirable or even ideal behaviour which can only accrue from sincere belief in the religious hypothesis (or, in our shorthand, belief in god).

There are links between these three claims, and with Pascal’s (or James’s) wager. A specific individual (A) who sincerely believes in the religious hypothesis (ie ‘believes in god’) cannot at the same time be non-committal or agnostic as to whether god exists. But someone else (B) could be personally non-committal or agnostic as to the existence of god at the same time as asserting claim (iii), and perhaps pointing to person A as living proof of claim (iii). Claim (iii) itself does not include the claim that god exists – ie that the ‘religious hypothesis’ is true.

Also person A could sincerely believe in god because he or she is convinced by the ‘wager’ argument and/or by claim (i); or by one or more other arguments; or perhaps person A needed no argument at all. Person A might assert claim (ii) when arguing with a sceptic, and/or might personally go along with claim (iii) – without necessarily assuming that his or her own behaviour is ideal or even desirable.

Another discussion related to this is worth touching on. This is to do with god being the source of morality in the sense that something is good because god commands it (and conversely something is bad because god forbids it). Does this mean (iv) that ‘x is good’ literally means ‘god commands x’. Or (v) that god’s commanding x is what constitutes the goodness of x? Or the other way round: (vi) that god commands x because x is good – ie the fact that god commands x indicates that x is good, but the goodness of x is independent of god’s command?

All three interpretations need examination. Claim (iv) can be discounted as a false or at least highly idiosyncratic use of language. Claim (v) dissolves away god’s ‘goodness’ and makes god an arbitrary lawgiver. There is nothing about the commandment, precept or principle that makes it good other than the fact that god commands it. Some fundamentalists might go along with this, but not every believer would. Claim (vi) is not problematic in itself, but it does remove at least some of the special status god might have with respect to ethics. The only thing special about god in respect of ethics under claim (vi) is that god happens to get it ethically right all the time. This may be closest to what a majority of thinking believers might be happy with, but it is hard to see what it leaves of the idea of god as the source of ethics – except perhaps in the not unimportant sense that god (and/or belief in god) could be what makes people ethical.

We now need to get some order into all these claims, and to get ourselves back to the Clifford/James debate. It will help if we decide which claims to take forward and which to leave by the wayside. I am not trying to prove that god does not exist but I am saying that belief in god is unjustified empirically – and that the burden of proof is on the believer. Therefore any of these claims which assume god’s existence we can now ignore. These are:

(iv) God is the source of ethics, in that ‘x is good’ literally means ‘god commands x’.

(v) God is the source of ethics, in that god’s commanding x is what constitutes the goodness of x.

We can also discount this one:

(vi) The fact that god commands x indicates that x is good, but the goodness of x is independent of god’s command. God is not the source of ethics itself, but god (and/or belief in god) is what makes people ethical.

Most of this – apart from the bit in brackets – presupposes the existence of god. But the bit in brackets is included in James’s claim (iii):

(iii) There is a particular kind of desirable or even ideal ethical behaviour which can only accrue from sincere belief in the religious hypothesis – ie in god.

So claim (iii) we will take forward, as well as these two:

(i) Because ethics does exist, there must be or have been a god or gods which gave rise to it.

(ii) If there is no god, then there is no such thing as ethics.

James attempts to rubbish Clifford’s principle by arguing that it commits us to throwing a crucial baby out with the bathwater – claim (iii). What I now want to argue is that there could be a coherent foundation for ethics which needs no relationship to a god (in the sense of a divine and/or supernatural entity posited to exist in some way). If successful, this will do away with claims (i) and (ii). But I do not want to dismiss out of hand every feature of religious belief. I think there might be something in claim (iii) – or at least in a version of claim (iii) – which is worth preserving. If my argument is in any way sound, then I think James might have over-egged his ‘religious hypothesis’ by being less analytic than he could have been. It is as if he had inherited his religious hypothesis as a package which for some reason he felt reluctant to open.

If, furthermore, we can salvage some insight from a reworded claim (iii) such that it does not rely on or entail any belief insufficiently justified by evidence, then Clifford’s principle could emerge all the stronger – with interesting implications for the ethics of belief in the supernatural.

So we must see what we can do to bring ethics down to earth, even if we have to start with a bit of a climb.

© Chris Lawrence 2008


Written by Chris Lawrence

10 October 2008 at 8:57 pm

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