The last thing I wanted to note in the whole discussion about burden of proof in general and the example of the Cosmic Teapot in specific is that the use of a teapot in the example actually plays a role in the assumptions we have about the example and how much leeway in the burden of proof we’re willing to grant someone.
If I tell you that there is a teapot in orbit between Earth and Mars, the fact that I have posited a teapot raises a number of questions. We know teapots are man made objects. We know they do not end up in space without assistance. So, if I say, “There’s a teapot that orbits the Sun between the Earth and Mars,” what I’m really saying is, “A man-made object with no means of propulsion that has never been in space has somehow ended up in space and, rather than collide with anything, is now in orbit.”
You see, I’m not merely asking you to believe in the existence of something I can’t prove; I’m asking you to believe in a very unlikely chain of circumstances surrounding something whose existence we take for granted. At minimum, someone had to make that teapot and someone had to get that teapot into space.
Note what happens if I change the example to this: “There’s a small asteroid that orbits the Sun between Earth and Mars.”
The existence of this asteroid is no more well-founded than the teapot. On the grounds of debating existence, we have just as much warrant (i.e. none) for believing that the hypothetical asteroid exists than the hypothetical teapot exists. The difference is that we know asteroids are commonly found in orbit around things, they are not manufactured objects on earth factories, and they do not propel themselves into space. The use of a teapot actually makes the situation more implausible because of the host of assumptions that statement can’t bear. It raises more questions.
If I say that there’s an asteroid orbiting the Sun between the Earth and Mars, the burden of proof is still on me, but notice how the change in assumptions affect how the burden of proof would function in actual reason and dialogue.
This is why Russell doesn’t say, “What if I said there was a ball of ice and dust that had coagulated in orbit between the Earth and Mars? Would you accept such a thing on faith?” Well, yes, actually most people probably would, or offer only the most minimal of objections. It is the fact that he posits a -teapot- that makes the whole scenario incredible to a listener and almost necessarily draws a challenge.
In Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation, he says:
The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.
In fairness, Harris doesn’t see how the hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous because he isn’t very smart and produces horrible arguments. But the reason the hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous is because a hairdryer carts in a load of assumptions and questions that are absent when the object is “prayer” or “meditation” or “a purely subjective spiritual experience.”
For instance, we build hairdryers and we know that none of the components assist in communicating with anyone, much less a divine being. In the long history of varied human experiences with the divine and spiritual or mystical practices, not a single one engages with hairdryers and finds the experience successful or fulfilling. To say, “My hairdryer allows me to talk with God,” raises all kinds of questions that are intimately bound with the nature of a hairdryer and the assumptions we have about them.
Now, let’s be clear that none of this establishes that prayer is a valid vehicle for talking to God, either, or that anything is. The point is that the use of a hairdryer actually -does- make the situation more absurd because of what we know about hairdryers. It would be absurd to say, “I use my hairdryer to talk to my aunt in Mexico,” too, but that has everything to do with the hairdryer and nothing to do with whether my aunt exists or whether she can be communicated with (she does and can, for those keeping score at home).
So, if I said, “I use my telephone to talk to my aunt in Mexico,” I still have the burden of proof, but you are likely to give me a pass on it because of our common assumptions about telephones. If I said I used a hairdryer to do it, not only do I have the burden of proof, but I also have to account for how a hairdryer could possibly facilitate such a thing in the face of everything we know about hairdryers.
In the atheism and theism discussion, these kinds of absurd analogies are very relevant, because most of their absurdity relies on the fact that we know the object in question and the assumptions associated with it, and this clouds the point. A known object in a situation that is incongruous with everything we know about that object adds tons of layers of objection and complexity into the situation. To compare a “teapot in space” existing to the question of God existing, or to compare talking into your hairdryer to prayer is fundamentally problematic, because teapots and hairdryers actually increase the unlikeliness of those scenarios.
But God, should He exist, would be a being unique to our experience with His own unique properties and assumptions. Prayer has no inherent element of its nature that would keep it from being a communication tool with a divine being, much unlike a hairdryer. That doesn’t mean that God exists or that prayer works; it does mean that Russell’s Teapot and Harris’ Hairdryer are inherently flawed analogies, and just because those situations would require a hell of a lot of explaining and proof does not necessarily demand that another object in their place would demand those same things, because in those examples, you aren’t merely proving something, you are having to overcome everything we know about them.
Obviously, I believe that God exists, and I believe that prayer is a thing that God can listen to. My beliefs are not evidence, and if someone wanted evidence for those beliefs, I would have the obligation to provide that evidence or admit that they are baseless but help me get through the day (or, apparently, are vital to humanity’s evolutionary survival and cannot be functionally discarded). I can offer those things; whether anyone finds them compelling or not is another story.
But my beliefs are not intrinsically absurd. They do not have the credibility problems that an orbiting teapot or oracular hairdryer have such that I have the additional obligation to overcome an established body of knowledge. They do not fly in the face of everything we know about their objects, and a discussion that attempts to be honest and fair on both sides needs to be honest and fair on both sides.