The Parable of Screwtape’s Dog
When I, Screwtape, was but a lad, I was an incorrigible fiend, naturally. I did not like to do homework and on one particular occasion I was asked to account for myself.
“Why did you not turn in your homework, Screwtape,” Mrs. Slubgob asked.
“My dog ate it,” I confidently lied. I had no dog and she knew it well. But I had a plan. I had a devious and cunning plan that would thwart Mrs. Slubgob. I could not resist using such a good cliché and blatant lie as my defense because in the end, if I was clever enough and skillful enough, it would be a thumb in her eye that I would savor.
“I have been to your house and I happened to know that you do not have a dog. Your mother never mentioned anything about it,” my teacher retorted.
“Oh, well, Dear Mother thinks that because I have kept him a secret from her for nearly a year,” I said sheepishly. “He was a stray and Dear Mother forbade me from keeping him. He was such a darling beast I could not bear to part with him and I kept him anyway. I have trained him well in order to keep him secret.”
“Impossible,” she sniffed. “What do you take me for, some kind of idiot?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” I paused for effect. “Have a dog, I mean. I have a dog. And you cannot prove otherwise,” I dared her.
“I did not see a dog,” she said, picking up the gauntlet I threw down. The oblivious, old witch! The fool of a hag! Thinking she was building her case against me, walked right into my trap. From here it would be child’s play. I would devour her before the entire class.
“That is because he was in a different room,” I answered casually, concealing my glee. “Or perhaps you were not wearing your glasses?”
“I was wearing my glasses,” she said through clenched teeth. “Your mother gave me a tour of every room of the house and there was no dog to be found.”
“Well, maybe you were wearing you glasses, and maybe not. In any case, he is a shy pup and I have trained him to hide from everyone but me. He was certainly there, I assure you,” I explained innocently. “Just because you missed him does not mean he was not there.”
“There were no food or water dishes for a dog,” she said, with a hint of rage.
“Of course not,” said I, “I feed him by hand and he drinks out of the toilets. It is all part of keeping the secret.”
“There was no leash!” she shrieked, becoming more unhinged. Her hair began to smoke.
“Well, he is so well trained, so well behaved, he does not need a leash,” I said, reclining at my desk, my hands now behind my head. I was thoroughly enjoying watching the steam pour out her ears.
“There was no trace of fur on the carpets or the furniture,” she observed.
“He’s one of those breeds that do not shed,” I answered. “Plus, you must have noticed that my Dear Mother is obsessive about her house cleaning. She would never tolerate a stray hair on her sofa. I have been meticulous about his grooming so as to not leave a clue indicating his presence.”
Her eyes bulged in their sockets and her mouth quivered for a moment. Finally, she exploded, “You have no dog and there is no evidence to show that you do!” Her hair burst into flames so high, they scorched the ceiling.
“But Mrs. Slubgob, you must admit,” I argued, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because you did not find evidence of it does not mean my dog is not as real as you…”
She had had enough. She roared and sent me to the principal for discipline. I expected I would receive 100 years in detention for my insolence. I would gladly have suffered that punishment. It was worth it. Sure, I was a liar and provocateur. Sure, I abused logic to get myself out of trouble. But this was Hell. And in Hell, those things are valued… The moral of this story...
This little fable is a take-off of Russell’s Teapot. Famous atheist and philosopher Bertrand Russell said that:
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.
He used the teapot to illustrate where the burden of proof lies, particularly with regards to topics that are unverifiable and unfalsifiable. If you assert something that is not able to be disproved in any way – like a teapot in orbit, or a god who exists “outside the universe” – it is up to you to prove it. Not only that, but it is preposterous to offer your claim without evidence and expect people to accept it as reasonable or to prove it to be wrong. It is a good point he made and a good example to illustrate it.
I also call it “Can’t Prove It Doesn’t”. It goes something like this: “I believe it and you can’t prove it doesn’t!” It is a simple and frankly juvenile way to shift the burden of proof onto the skeptic. I say juvenile because I notice kids learn this tactic at an early age and use it often out of laziness or because they know they haven’t got a leg to stand on.
It is a door theists may find convenient to open at the moment – after all, they haven’t really got a leg to stand on - but do so without understanding what it really means. Once you adopt CPID as your policy of credulity, you are open to any crazy belief – other gods, psychics, new agers, chiropractic, homeopathy, Sasquatch, kung-fu, the Great Pumpkin, alien abductions, and Elvis clones. It is the doorway to Intellectual Black Holes and there is no known way out.
Screwtape’s Dog tackles that same point, though that was incidental. It was originally written to address the idea of proving nonexistence, which goes hand in hand with burden of proof. The point I am attempting to make is that if a nonexistent thing as mundane as a dog leaves no evidence, what in the world would be evidence for the nonexistence of a god? It also shows the frustration of discussing anything with people who can and do make up any fantasy as they need.
Many theists, xians in particular, are willing to admit there is no evidence for god. It still surprises me, though, whenever they do it. In this modern age, reason is so ingrained in us, that almost everyone accepts as part of the wallpaper that you need a good reason to believe anything. This is why they have the Discovery Institute – to try to show that creationism is a rational idea with lots of facts and sound reasoning behind, despite the fact that it isn’t and doesn’t.
Despite them living as atheistically as me (having no evidence for gods, expecting nothing from them, behaving as if they do not exist), they are still willing to think a god is there for them. Their basic defense for believing is often to employ the Carl Sagan quote
famously abused by Donald Rumsfeld:
Absence of evidence, is not evidence of absence
My reply to that is, of course it is. The only evidence of a nonexistent thing is an absence of the evidence you should expect if the thing in question existed. What other evidence can a nonexistent thing produce? Mrs. Slubgob expected that a person with a dog would have certain things – a leash, food and water bowls, etc – some evidence of a dog. None of that was found. The theists would argue that is not “positive” or “concrete” evidence for the dog’s nonexistence. But what would constitute positive evidence for a nonexistent dog? I’ve spent nights awake trying to work that out and the answer I have come to is nothing. There is no “positive evidence” that nonexistence leaves. Absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence, and nothing else is.
Of course, there are some caveats attached to accepting the premise that AoEIEoA. For one, you must look for evidence where you would expect evidence. You cannot sit on your duff in front of the TV with a bong in your hand and say, “nope, no evidence here” and make a valid point.
If you were trying to find WMDs and you looked in all the places where you thought they were hidden or made, and you found nothing, then chances are they do not exist. It is possible you looked in the wrong place, but that begs for an explanation that is less complicated than simply not existing. It just is not reasonable to then claim, “well, they hid them in Syria or Russia,” especially when you have no evidence of that either. That just doubles down on the fallacy. In Screwtape’s Dog, Mrs. Slubgob did look in all the places where you would expect evidence of a dog. And none was to be had. That brings us to the second caveat…
Absence of evidence does not falsify a claim. It deals with probability and not certitude. Is it reasonable for Mrs. Slubgob to doubt Screwtape? Of course. She looked in all the places where a reasonable person would expect evidence and found none. That does not prove he had no dog. But it does make it reasonable to think he did not. Or, it makes it unreasonable to believe Screwtape. And in the end, the question could have been easily answered had Screwtape actually produced a dog. Instead he engaged in typical religious sleight of hand maneuvers, where he kept finding ways to put falsification of his claim out of reach.
And that is just what he would have done had it been demanded that he show his dog. “Well, he’s invisible to adults,” would have been a likely excuse. A more religious answer would have put the observers’ faith into question as a requirement for seeing the dog.
This is why the modern Deity is completely inaccessible. Every time he was defined in specific, concrete terms, some smarty pants came along and showed how they were wrong. They had to put the cookie jar out of reach, so to speak. Making their god unfalsifiable is critical to belief and allows them to use this type of logical fallacy.
So, there you have it. One little fable that knocks the teeth out of about three different fallacies – Shifting the Burden of Proof, Can’t Prove It Doesn’t, and Absent Evidence.