Monday, June 9, 2008

2 cool ways of saying the same thing

I recall from trawling the RDF forums that quite a number of comrades who were formally fundies were turned by Russell's Teapot. No, no, not the webcomic, I mean Russell's Teapot proper, stated as follows:

“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 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.”

Short, sharp and classy. I first encountered it in Dawkins' God Delusion. Been a big fan of Russell ever since. However, this has the disadvantage of using words that are a wee bit longer than most fundies where I come from are willing to read. On top of that, rounds these parts, nobody pays attention to philosophers*.

So I was pleased as Punch to find Carl Sagan, astronomer extraordinaire, had written a wee essay saying pretty much the same thing, The Dragon in my Garage. It's a bit long, so here's a link to it. Moderate friends, don't let the URL put you off - in my experience, the best kind of geek is godless.

Both Russell's Teapot and Sagan's Dragon come down to asking the same thing: How do you know what you believe is true? There are those who would say "Because I know it, and that's that". It's like asking a man guarding a treasure chest what's in the chest. He says, "Treasure!" and you ask how he knows. He replies "It's a treasure chest, innit? I don't have to look inside to know..." And so you peep. And you find nothing. And the man's world collapses.

"Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day."

Thus spake Bertrand Russell. An atheist (or at least a rationalist) lives constantly with uncertainty, but rather than allow himself to be crippled by self-doubt, such uncertainty demands relentless intellectual vigilance. Belief must be constantly challenged. Questions must be asked. Is it still relevant? Is the basis sound?

This is the kind of thinking that forms the foundation of true knowledge. But of late, many have fallen into the trap of rationalising, of defending meaningless and empty beliefs with walls of words. We've become very good at it, hence the rise of such dubious individuals, weaklings, cowards and liars like Kent Hovind, Ben Stein, Ken Ham, Ted Haggard... The list goes on and on.

There is a difference between being the swine gnawing at the roots of the tree of Knowledge and being the hand that prunes it. My only complaint on Russell's Teapot is that it's a little long to put on a T-shirt.

*A truly hideous tragedy that will be spoken of in a later post, if I remember.

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