‘Russell’s Teapot’ is the name given to the example of faulty reasoning – in particular, a sub-branch of the false dilemma known as the argument from ignorance. The example was conceived by Bertrand Russell, with the aim of illustrating that the burden of proof for an unfalsifiable claim lies with the person making the claim, not the person who denies it.
Here is Russell’s original quotation, from his essay Is There a God?:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of skeptics 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.
I was reminded of this example while reading a quite interesting piece in the Weekend AFR of May 30-31, titled ‘Desire’s Dirty Little Secret’. The piece is about research into the neurological basis of human desire and pleasure, and particularly the role of dopamine in stimulating desire.
When first beginning preparations for my course on thinking and decision- making, I quickly realised that I would have to do some research into the physical structure, workings and functions of the human brain, since this is where all of our thinking, and almost all of our decision-making, takes place. I read many books about the brain and about how people make decisions, including an interesting book by Jonah Lehrer called The Decisive Moment, which spoke at length about the importance of dopamine in what we might call the brain’s error-correction model for learning. In short (and from memory), Lehrer’s argument was that the brain’s correct ‘guesses’ were rewarded with a shot of dopamine to receptors in the brain’s pleasure centres, encouraging us to make these correct guesses – about anything – and causing learning to happen by restructuring the neural circuitry so that correct guesses are embedded as knowledge in our brains.
Fascinating stuff. But this article turns all of that on its head, by discussing the work of US scientist Kent Berridge, whose studies have produced evidence that dopamine does not produce pleasure but desire. Dopamine makes us want stuff. The pleasure comes from opioids and endocannabinoids within our brains:
His most telling discovery was that, whereas the dopamine/wanting system is vast and powerful, the pleasure circuit is anatomically tiny, has a far more fragile structure and is harder to trigger.
Interesting! I’ll have to read the article again, more closely, and then consider what it means for the first few chapters of my course.
However, this is all incidental to what got me thinking about Russell’s Teapot – a quotation about Berridge in the piece:
He doesn’t even discount the existence of God, for good scientific reasons: we cannot disprove it.
Good scientific reasons??
Neither Berridge, for all the tremendous insights produced by his research, nor his interviewer, is a student of Russell. Nor, I might add, of Karl ‘a good hypothesis is a falsifiable hypothesis’ Popper.