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van Inwagen's Critique of Russell's Teapot Argument



Steve Maitzen said…
Van Inwagen's critique turns on the claim that the prior probability of Russell's Teapot is "essentially zero" whereas the prior probability of God isn't essentially zero. Disputes about prior probability are notoriously hard to resolve, so any argument depending on a claim about prior probabilities inherits that problem. For instance, I don't think van Inwagen assigns enough weight to the fact that philosophers have long challenged the internal coherence of the concept of God, whereas no one has challenged the internal coherence of the concept of Russell's Teapot. Likewise, philosophers have spent centuries devising (bad) arguments for God's existence but no time at all devising (bad) arguments for the Teapot's existence. If they had, the waters might now be muddy enough that the prior probability of the Teapot's existence wouldn't seem to us to be essentially zero.
Matt McCormick said…
There is some research now that casts an interesting shadow on the issue here. Philosophers tend to think of the major issues surrounding prior probability being related to internal coherence or real plausibility, etc. But if you expose someone to an idea repeatedly, even if it's patently false, her estimation of its plausibility, even its probability, will rise. The Source Amnesia problem is related. We often retain an idea even when we have heard it disproven, but we forget the source. That's why such a large percentage of Americans still have their doubts about whether Obama is a Christian, or whether he is a US citizen. Repeat the controversy enough times, like they do on Fox News, and the false claim gets treated as fact. With the huge influx of zombie movies, books, and culture, people now place a higher plausibility on a zombie apocalypse, even though all of those portrayals are fictional. Repeat any outrageous claim enough, and it becomes normal, even common sense. THAT'S why van Inwagen and his like are prone to place such a high prior probability on the God concept. But when you wrench the idea out of its typical, familiar context, it becomes jarring and foreign. Sometimes I'll ask Christians: "So you think there is a giant, invisible sky being with a zombie son who reads minds and grants wishes? And once a week you gather with other followers to eat his skin and blood?" The prior probability of that, I submit, is very low, van Inwagen's protests notwithstanding. As you point out, Ex, arguments against God have lowered the prior probability for sensible people, but people's spending so much time playing make believe in church has artificially elevated the prior probability of nonsense.
I'm disappointed. In those few lines that van Inwagen quotes, Russell clearly does not make the argument van Inwagen accuses him of making. Nobody, it seems, has ever made the argument van Inwagen is critiquing.

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