What if you’re wrong?


Great visualization of the now-famous response from evolutionary biologist, author, and well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, when asked in 2006 about his argument that there is no god, “What if you’re wrong?”

Flying Spaghetti Monster pin“Anybody could be wrong, ” he replies. “We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Teapot.”

All of these refer to various arguments used to illustrate the weakness in faith-based statements and arguments.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster (aka Pastafarianism) was, according to Wikipedia, created as a satire against creationists (a group notoriously shy of a sense of humour…):

The “Flying Spaghetti Monster” was first described in a satirical open letter written by Bobby Henderson in 2005 to protest the Kansas State Board of Education decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. In that letter, Henderson satirized creationist ideas by professing his belief that whenever a scientist carbon dates an object, a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs is there “changing the results with His Noodly Appendage”. Henderson argued that his beliefs and intelligent design were equally valid, and called for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism to be allotted equal time in science classrooms alongside intelligent design and evolution. After Henderson published the letter on his website, the Flying Spaghetti Monster rapidly became an Internet phenomenon and a symbol used against teaching intelligent design in public schools.

The FSM has its own website and a huge following. You can buy FSM pins, T-shirts and other accessories from Evolvefish.com. You could even become an ordained FSM minister for a few dollars.

Similarly, the Invisible Pink Unicorn is another satire on arguments for faith in the supernatural – any sort of faith, not merely religious – without proof. As Wikipedia notes:

The IPU is used to argue that supernatural beliefs are arbitrary by, for example, replacing the word God in any theistic statement with Invisible Pink Unicorn. The mutually exclusive attributes of pinkness and invisibility, coupled with the inability to disprove the IPU’s existence, satirize properties that some theists attribute to a theistic deity.

The IPU argument is actually more subtle than it appears because it confronts the contradictions inherent in many faith-based or supernatural arguments. As Wikipedia explains,

It is common when discussing the Invisible Pink Unicorn to point out that because she is invisible, no one can prove that she does not exist (or indeed that she is not pink). This is a parody of similar theistic claims about God—that God, as creator of the universe, is not subject to its laws and thus not physically detecting him tells us nothing about his existence or lack thereof. The Invisible Pink Unicorn is an illustration which attempts to demonstrate the absurdity of citing attributes and a lack of evidence as proof of a deity’s existence. Her two defining attributes, invisibility and color (pink), are inconsistent and contradictory; this is part of the satire. The paradox of something being invisible yet having visible characteristics (e.g., color) is reflected in some East Asian cultures, wherein an “invisible red string” is said to connect people who have a shared or linked destiny.

In the West, “psychics” claiming to see colourful auras can be asked the same question: if they are invisible, how do they have colour? Colour is a factor of reflected or emitted light. An invisible aura, by definition, can’t emit light. No, this is not the one-hand-clapping koan.

The Flying Teapot was an argument put forth by Bertrand Russell, in a 1952 magazine article:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. 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.

Carl Sagan used Russell’s allegory in his superb book, Demon-Haunted World to point out the flaws in supernatural beliefs that depend on unseen or invisible spirits.

A surprising amount of debate has arisen over Russell’s metaphor, mostly dissecting it as a philosophical argument rather than a satire. Here’s one comment from Wikipedia:

Philosopher Paul Chamberlain says it is logically erroneous to assert that positive truth claims bear a burden of proof while negative truth claims do not. He says that all truth claims bear a burden of proof, and that like Mother Goose and the tooth fairy, the teapot bears the greater burden not because of its negativity, but because of its triviality, arguing that “When we substitute normal, serious characters such as Plato, Nero, Winston Churchill, or George Washington in place of these fictional characters, it becomes clear that anyone denying the existence of these figures has a burden of proof equal to, or in some cases greater than, the person claiming they do exist.”

Personally, I think the objectors miss the point of satire.

A Flying Teapot may seen trivial because no one really expects crockery to fly through space. But dress it up, add some blinking lights, an engine, a crew quarters and a hangar door and it becomes believable. After all, there are millions of people who believe a more sophisticated image of the same airborne crockery: the UFO. Believing in UFOs, in alien abductions – or chemtrails, Bulgarian pyramids, Loch Ness monsters, the New World Order and so on – is no less absurd than believing in a Flying Teapot; it simply seems less ridiculous to the believers because it has been dressed in a similitude of credibility.

Russell was making a point that any sort of belief that depends on faith rather than empirical proof, is a part of the same intellectual topology as religion. They are all philosophically homeomorphic, like a doughnut and a teacup:

Intuitively two spaces are homeomorphic if one can be deformed into the other without cutting or gluing. A traditional joke is that a topologist cannot distinguish a coffee mug from a doughnut, since a sufficiently pliable doughnut could be reshaped to a coffee cup by creating a dimple and progressively enlarging it, while shrinking the hole into a handle.

It doesn’t take any great intellectual effort to reshape a belief in the “spirit world” into a conspiracy theory about chemtrails or UFO cover-ups. Or to morph from one religious faith to another.

Although I doubt Russell had the Kalama Sutta in mind when he wrote his comment, it is certainly appropriate. In this famous Buddhist scripture, the Buddha warns listeners not to accept anything simply because it is traditional, is generally accepted, or is taught by someone with a title, but rather to use your own faculties for critical thinking to determine if a belief is worthwhile:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing,
nor upon tradition,
nor upon rumor,
nor upon what is in a scripture,
nor upon surmise,
nor upon an axiom,
nor upon specious reasoning,
nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over,
nor upon another’s seeming ability,
nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.”
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.’

(In another post I might address the vexing question about whether Buddhism is a religion or an ethical philosophy, and discuss the growing trend in Western Buddhism to slough off the theistic accumulations some schools have gathered over the millennia and get back to the core teachings.)

Dawkins turns the question around and asks the student “What if you’re wrong about the great JuJu under the sea?”

There is no answer. Faith, like politics, is binary: you cannot simultaneously believe in Jehovah and JuJu; Jehovah and Zeus; Ra and Moloch; Liberal and Conservative. It’s either-or. JuJu cannot exist in a universe where Jehovah exists.*

For the faithful, there is only one truth: their own. The faithful cannot accept that another faith has that truth, even a part of it, let alone an alternate, equally valid truth. The student cannot answer without defending her own faith against the other.

And, of course, the question postulates that JuJu and Jehovah have equal reality, equal credibility; that you can compare them as equals, like makes of cars or laptops, and pit them against one another in some theological ring.

Perhaps the better question might be, “What if I’m right?” This asks her to question not just her own faith, but the deistic and theistic notions of all faith. She has to consider Dawkins’ broader atheism in her answer, not just the narrow notion of another belief set or another deity.

Dawkins correctly points out to the student that she is also an unbeliever – in those faiths and cultural implementations outside her own background. “You know what it’s like not to believe in a particular faith because you’re not a Muslim, you’re not a Hindu. Why aren’t you a Hindu? Because you happened to have been brought up in America, not in India…”

Well, of course, people can and do change their religions outside their own cultural milieu, and they do it all the time. All those Caucasian Hare Krishnas weren’t born and raised in Mumbai or Calcutta. They are mostly WASPs who opted to believe in another god. The same sort of thing got into the news recently about suburban white kids from London, Ontario, who became radical Muslims.

We all start with our cultural-imbued preconceptions. In order to change, we have to first deny them. This is one reason the Krishna wear Indian, not Western clothes and eat Indian, not Western food: to help the denial. The whole culture has to be changed, not just the words of a prayer, to make the change in faith effective. Break the ingrained routines and habits, get rid of the familiar to break the will.

It works. Especially if you’re a willing subject.

Like the tea cup and doughnut, these people were all able to reshape their beliefs from one form to another without any cutting or gluing because religious belief of any sort is, topologically speaking, all the same. And although Dawkins assumed her background, the student who raised the question might have been asking him about the Great JuJu rather than Jehovah. Or Allah or Krishna or Moloch. Intellectually and philosophically, is there any real difference between them in this context?

I don’t think so. But you have to be able to step outside faith to see that. His question allowed her to remain inside hers.

In his book, The God Delusion, Dawkins writes, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

I think that’s a more important point. Everyone disbelieves something another believes in. Dawkins is also quoted as expanding on this notion, saying, “Everybody is an atheist in saying that there is a god – from Ra to Shiva – in which he does not believe. All that the serious and objective atheist does is to take the next step and to say that there is just one more god to disbelieve in.”

You can view the original question and answer here:



* If you argue that myth and a historical religion are different, you are missing the point. From the perspective of faith, everyone else’s religion is mythology. The plausibility of any religious claim, text or story rests on whether the reader starts with a belief in it. It’s that binary nature of faith: my faith is true, therefore no other faith can be. My religion is the historical truth, therefore all other religions are mere mythology.

Luke Muelhauser makes some good points in his post, although I think he’s too apologetic. He concludes:

What I am saying is that both God and Zeus share the property of being a poor explanation for the unexplained. What I’m saying is that just because I say “I don’t know” when faced with the unknown and Christians say “Goddidit” does not mean the Christian answer has any plausibility. Having an answer does not win you any points unless you give me reasons why your answer is plausible. A nutjob may proclaim undetected alien surgery as the cause of his mother’s cancer remission, but this explanation does not gain any credibility simply because the doctors can’t explain the remission.

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