Bertrand Russell famously said that if he stated that there was a teapot circling the Sun, nobody could prove him wrong, and that this was exactly the same as saying, without proof, that a god existed:
“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”
Or as Carl Sagan put it more succinctly “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
Note that Russell was writing exactly 60 years ago, and so could happily include in his argument that the teapot was “too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes”. Sixty years on and we have massively stronger telescopes. Well, ok, he could certainly still say that the telescopes wouldn’t see a small teapot wandering through space between Earth and Mars, but a medium-sized teapot?
Telescopes can see almost back to the Big Bang, see the earliest stars and galaxies that formed. Can see the tiniest perturbations in the rings of Saturn, tiny colour differences on Mercury, changing seasons on Titan. Billions of galaxies can be seen, black holes in abundance, nebulae, distant planets circling different stars, every phenomenon of the universe. Can see every small rock and sandstorm on the surface of Mars, can see where the ice melts in Summer. Can look at details of the surface of asteroids, of comets, of lumps of rock that whizz past Earth. Can do experiments on our own Moon and see the results. Can analyse in detail the surface of the Sun, describe the history of other stars.
Telescopes can view the universe not just in the visible light spectrum, but in infrared, UV, XRay, radio waves. Can see where the “dark matter” is, can “weigh” galaxies, estimate the size of black holes. Can see the echoes of the big bang in the cosmic background radiation. Can see the arrangement of the universe in local groups of galaxies and in the super groupings.
The detail in our description of the universe is now quite astonishing. And nowhere in all that is there a sign of a teapot. Not a big one or a little one. Oh, and no sign of a fellow with a white beard and flowing robes either. Nor tall skinny gods or short stout ones. Nor any of the other imaginary elephants or buddhas or rainbow serpents. No imaginary figures, unless of course they are hiding in a sunken cave on Mars, or under the frozen surface of Titan, or shyly peeping from behind the dust clouds in a nebula, or popping in and out of a black hole in the middle of a galaxy, or, well, you get the idea. No one out there.
For the religious, like homeopaths, the less you can see the greater the proof, until the point where absolute zero evidence equals absolute certainty. So I guess they have it now – whatever the size of the telescope, or all the other devices with which we see the universe, the evidence for teapots, sorry, gods, is zero, zip, zilch, nada, nothing. Them gods ain’t nowhere man.
Nor is the teapot.