Debate:Can atheists call themselves true skeptics?
I know a lot of us here are atheists. I don’t mean that as an insult—I’d be one myself if not for some of the arguments metaphysics and epistemology have in store. I know this site is somewhat lacking in articles about metaphysics (something I mean to correct in the near future) but I’m sure we’re all smart enough to have a reasonable discussion about them.
Now, my question is this: can atheists call themselves “true” skeptics? (That is, true pyrrhonists, who make no assumptions whatsoever and believe only what has absolute certainty.)
I say no. In order to have absolute certainty of a belief, it must be proven without any assumptions of any kind, even on the metaphysical level. Atheism, makes many assumptions because it does not take into account the extreme “skeptical hypothesis,” such as solipsism, brain in a vat, etc. (In other words, the fossil record can’t count for proof for atheism because it assumes that reality exists in the form we perceive it.)
So, since (as far as I know) the skeptical hypotheses can neither be proven nor disproven, to believe that they are true (necessary to be an atheist) is to make an assumption, and therefore you cannot be an atheist. Try another example: if you say, “well, I am and atheist, and I think it’s common sense that realism and materialism exist,” then (obviously) you are an atheist—but you aren’t a true skeptic because you have made an assumption. (Except for George E. Moore, I think most of us would agree that common sense is subjective, and does not count as actual proof for an idea.)
Now, let me say this in something close to mathematical proof format:
- Skepticism means assuming nothing.
- S is a skeptical hypothesis.
- S can neither be proven nor disproven.
- Atheism implies that S is true.
- Therefore, atheism makes the assumption that S is true.
- Therefore, an atheist is not a true skeptic.
That’s my argument. I welcome any opposition, support, or questions. Seldon 20:08, 2 January 2008 (EST)
I agree. Atheism is by definition the belief that no divine force exists; alternately phrased, the assumption that there is no divine force in existence. Pure skepticism is, as you stated, is the absence of all assumptions beyond those that can be made with absolute certainty. Thus, atheism is not skepticism.
What I would consider a form of true skepticism is mild agnosticism, or the belief that we don't know whether a divine force exists, but it's not necessarily impossible to know. I'm a bit more strongly agnostic than that myself, though that mainly stems from my questioning any and all knowledge that isn't absolutely proven.assume 20:25, 2 January 2008 (EST)
- My friend, even you take a certain amount on faith, I think. ;) The simple statement "there is not a God" provides no context or proof to back it up, but "I do not believe in God" is plausible even if there is strong empirical evidence for the existence of such a supernatural being. Personally, I've come to consider the existence of a God in the Judeo-Christian sense somewhat irrelevant, and turned to a form of nature worship to compromise between my theistic and atheistic beliefs...I find myself agreeing with deists, agnostics, atheists, Unitarians, and ... uh ... polytheism, is it? ... all alike. Somewhat confusing. 188.8.131.52 19:27, 6 January 2008 (EST)
I'd agree with mild agnosticism being true skepticism--as long as it includes the metaphyisical skeptical hypotheses. Seldon 20:49, 2 January 2008 (EST)
I mostly agree with your conclusion, Seldon, but not entirely with your analysis. Skepticism, at least in the classical Pyrrhonic sense, seems to me to be not so much as question of not making assumptions, as it is one of not making truth statements, i.e. never claiming that any statement is absolutely true or false. In that sense, a strong atheist is probably not a skepticist since he at least implicitly considers the statement that "God does not exist" as true, which a skeptic would not do. By extension, I'll also agree with Assume a=a that agnosticism is much closer to skepticism, but still not necessarily the same, assuming the agnosticist claims that "we cannot know if there is a God" - that too is a truth statement of sorts.
What you (Seldon) describe here is much closer to positivism, especially the logical positivism of the Vienna and Berlin circles, which states that a given statement is only "cognitively meaningful" if it can be positively determined to be either true or false on the basis of observational evidence. Your counterargument is also very close to the classical objection to logical positivism: That it makes the statement that a statement must be empirically verifiable, but this not itself verifiable and therefore without meaning, which makes the entire concept internally inconsistent. --AKjeldsenGodspeed! 20:56, 2 January 2008 (EST)
- You have no idea how tempting it is to turn this into an epistemological argument. But that would be immature :) -- Radioactive afikomen Please ignore all my awful pre-2014 comments. 21:09, 2 January 2008 (EST)
- Well, of course atheists can call themselves true skeptics. They can call themselves whatever they want. The real question is whether it would be truthful to say so. :) -- Radioactive afikomen Please ignore all my awful pre-2014 comments. 21:18, 2 January 2008 (EST)
Rhetorically, I guess this may well be true. I think, however, a more pertinent question is "Is it sensible to be this sceptical?"
I have no proof that I'm debating a human, as opposed to intelligent software, but on the face of of it I reckon I'm willing to make that assumption. I may not be being a true sceptic, but it's sensible to assume you are human on the balance of the evidence. I'm also willing to assume you aren't British, based on the circumstantial evidence of your spelling of "sceptic" ;)
A population of "true" sceptics would, in my opinion, be more detrimental to the progress of science than a population of true believers in a magic sky god. Without willingness to conjecture, and the risk of possible later ridicule when your conjecture is proved totally wrong, progress on pushing the boundaries of human knowledge would slow to a crawl. --Jeēv☭sYour signature uses all my CPU time... 22:11, 2 January 2008 (EST)
- We're not debating whether or not pure s(k/c)epticism is a good thing or not, just whether atheists are skeptics. assume 22:26, 2 January 2008 (EST)
- Yes, well, I may be dragging the debate significantly off topic, but I just reckon it's a silly debate akin to arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, for all the impact it has on the real world. In reality, I don't suppose you'll find a single person who fulfils the criteria laid down here for "true" scepticism. It's a fantasy argument without any real referent, and my lack of interest in ridiculous fantasy arguments may be why I got fairly pathetic scores in the first year philosophy courses I made the mistake of taking at University ;) --Jeēv☭sYour signature uses all my CPU time... 22:50, 2 January 2008 (EST)
- But is it? It casts atheism a little in doubt, I think. And yes, we have dragged the debate a little off course...Seldon 08:08, 3 January 2008 (EST)
I'm afraid that I don't understand the question. All that I know is that I see no reason to believe in any supernatural power, be it God, witchcraft, black magic, Vampires or even UFOs. If that makes me a sceptic (sic) or not, I neither know nor care. Susanmiaow ... 08:36, 3 January 2008 (EST) (additional) Assume that the world was newly minted now - no history of gods or other supernatural things - Would there be any reason to produce a God ? Would any observation or experiment show there to be God? Contrarywise, observation & experiment could produce the whole of modern materialist science. My scepticism is towards uncorroborated hearsay & innuendo as evidence for anything. Susanmiaow ... 09:16, 3 January 2008 (EST)
- Susan, this follows the lines of CP's strawman attacks on atheism. Atheism literally means "without (a) god", belief or disbelief is not part of the definition. Dawkins in The God Delusion posits seven degrees of atheism/agnosticism and puts himself at a 6, where as a skeptic I would also position myself. I cannot know or scientifically prove that there isn't a god/creator but as I have not seen any evidence to the contrary I see no point in believing that one exists and therefore following the arbitrary rules of an organised religion. I am perfectly willing to change my mind if concrete evidence is presented (and it better be good) but until then I will dismiss the concept as absurd and carry on calling myself an atheist and a sceptic. Genghis Marauding 09:26, 3 January 2008 (EST)
I tend to agree that a "strong" atheism claim makes nearly as bold a statement as any statement of supernatural belief. However, I come down on the side of extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I'm quite open to any supernatural being existing. I simply ask: "Do something that would forever end THE debate!" That doesn't seem to be an unreasonable request of an all-powerful being. --Edgerunner76 09:13, 3 January 2008 (EST)
- I rather think it depends on what god is not being believed in. If we are talking about a god who regularly intervenes in human affairs, who reads minds and answers prayers - then specific claims are being made which can be tested. As there is absolutely no evidence that any being is doing these things then we are justified in explicitly saying that it does not exist. If we gradually strip our professed god of his powers until we simply reduce him to a "first cause" or whatever, he becomes increasingly difficult to disprove. I would argue that as we strip him of these powers he becomes increasingly irrelevant as well. Consequentially I regard myself as an atheist in respect of the first god described, and an extreme agnostic as far as the power-stripped god is concerned. A position I would say is perfectly in accord with a skeptical point of view.--Bobbing up 12:31, 3 January 2008 (EST)
Yes. --184.108.40.206 10:20, 3 January 2008 (EST)
Agreed, the burden of proof is on the unbeliever, and that there is no deity is a sensible belief until there is proof of one (Though I would say that 'there is no proof of a deity, thus it is a sensible assumption at the moment that none exists' would be a more specific statement.) - All Hail Tuna 03:52, 6 January 2008 (EST)
I have to say, there's as much empirical evidence of a deity as you could wish. Look about you. How miraculous is existence - it makes me struggle to accept agnosticism! That said, I still think I'm putting my vote in the right place. Depending on where this is. Ah dear. Assume a!=a 19:35, 6 January 2008 (EST)
It doesn't (or shouldn't) matter, at least not to the skeptic. Any claim should have a seemingly infinte amount of evidence, not matter how extreme, And by the way, what happened to the origional topic? Seldon 09:53, 3 January 2008 (EST)
- Well, what happened to your debate was that it was over in about five minutes. The consensus, which is pretty self-evident really, is that as you define a sceptic an atheist is not one. As an addendum the consensus is that the question is silly because there is no such sceptic to be had. Even basic processes of conciousness like theory of mind involve leaps of faith not permissible for the "true" sceptic. Since nobody can be found who disagrees with the initial assertion, the debate has moved on to more fertile ground of actual ambiguity. --Jeēv☭sYour signature uses all my CPU time... 10:32, 3 January 2008 (EST)
- Hm...I'm not quite sure such a skeptic doesn't exist. After all, can't conciousness be proved with "I think, therefore I am?"Seldon 12:22, 3 January 2008 (EST)
- That sort of argument only speaks to whether you yourself are concious or not. Go ahead and formulate a test to determine if the other human and animal actors around you are individuals in their own right, or simply extensions of your own conciousness. You'll be at it a very long time. It's an article of faith that they are individuals, and and article that pretty much everyone shares. A true sceptic would be ambivalent as to whether the other actors were or were not individuals, which could lead to some, er, interesting moral choices. --Jeēv☭sYour signature uses all my CPU time... 12:35, 3 January 2008 (EST)
- To be honest, I do question that on a daily basis :-) Seldon 13:32, 3 January 2008 (EST)
Something a bit different
What seems like a strong claim "There is no god" is, in my admittedly untutored opinion, actually a corollary of what seems to me a much weaker claim "There is nothing that cannot be studied using the tools of methodical naturalism." I simply don't believe in the word 'supernatural', I think it's an empty sound that refers to nothing. After all, think about so-called supernatural phenomena such as mind reading. It is claimed that some people can tap in to the thoughts of others using an unexplained power. If it's true, is it really supernatural? The brain is a physical, measurable thing. Therefore anything that acts on the brain is a physical measurable thing. Indeed, with modern scanning technology we can read people's minds, as yet in a crude way and not without their cooperation but you'd be a fool to think that isn't going to improve.
I can't see how there can be a god in the sense of having supernatural powers who at the same time interacts with us in the natural world. As soon as the god interacts, his powers become natural and measurable. We need to distinguish between the supernatural god, and an advanced natural being who has powers we can not yet explain, and are extremely impressive to us, but are never the less based in the natural world. I do not believe the former can sensibly exist, and I do not believe the latter is worthy of being named "god." After all, I find controlled nuclear fission impressive, but I don't mistake it for the supernatural or the work of gods. --Jeēv☭sYour signature uses all my CPU time... 10:53, 3 January 2008 (EST)
I'm gonna go with no, but I'm only speaking for myself here
As far as I know, I am not a skeptic. If someone were to ask me about it, I would openly admit that we can't know if it's all real. But I'm pretty sure that there is no God. I was so sure of it that back a few months ago, when I was still a borderline theist, I was forcing myself to say "Come on man! Think about this rationally!". It seems to me that reality being just a simulation of a hyper-advanced civilization (with us being either programs or just unaware players) is more likely than something supernatural. I'm a big fan of Occam's razor, and although the simulation hypothesis seems incredible, it still is based on physics as we know it, while supernatural entities are not. (See also: Simulation Argument)
Well, back to the point. I'll try to be more concise.
I am an atheist. I am not a skeptic though. I believe basically any explanation could be possible, but that it's probably not supernatural. Science is not about absolute certainty; it is about degrees of certainty. Basically, I operate like that. Sort of like, if the pattern continues like it does, assume it will continue to do so. (Basically, assuming things will fall, even though gravity isn't technically "proven.")
And now, an interesting side note concerning hyperbole. Sometimes, people say that they would bet their life on things. I would never do this. If someone asked me to be my life against a million dollars if the sky is blue, I wouldn't take it, because they could be a visitor from the hyper-advanced civilization running the thing, and guess what, they've been fooling me my whole life just to get me to bet my life and lose. That amusing anecdote summarizes my feelings on skepticism, Occam's razor, and the true inability to be absolutely certain about anything. YB indeed! 23:45, 22 February 2008 (EST)
Not sure about the question.
In the introduction the questioner asks:
'"Now, my question is this: can atheists call themselves “true” skeptics? (That is, true pyrrhonists, who make no assumptions whatsoever and believe only what has absolute certainty.)"
My answer to that would be, "Probably not", at least in the way this question is phrased. If only because absolute certainty is a rather difficult thing to achieve.
I also note that some answers above equate atheism with "Strong Atheism" - the idea that one can make an explicit statement about the non-existence of God. While there certainly are some atheists who hold this view I rather suspect they are in the minority. Most atheists of my acquaintance would take the position that there as there is no evidence for god's existence it is not necessary to believe in him. Which looks like an eminently skeptical position to me.--Bobbing up 12:09, 23 February 2008 (EST)
Short answer: I should hope not.
A Pyrrhonian skeptic of the sort that make absolutely no assumptions vis-à-vis has no epistemology. That is, they claim to know nothing. All reasoning is based on axioms, which are basically carefully constructed assumptions proven in practice. Thus, if an assumption is false then it should be impractical and if it is true it should not conflict with its basis. A more useful form of skepticism is knowing nothing for certain, and addressing only that which we seem to misunderstand.
As an atheist of the non-cognitive sort (completely stated by a friend of mine here: http://www.rationalresponders.com/god_is_an_incoherent_term) I say that the language used to describe most gods is insufficient in establishing their identity. We therefore cannot say what it is that is supposed to be existing, and what should be the final question in the line, "does god X exist," is meaningless. Moreover, any sufficiently described god (such as Zeus) is either scientifically in-credible or simply not godly enough for my tastes (aliens don't qualify). It seems odd, then, to consider that there might be a conflict between Pyrrhonian skepticism and non-cognitive atheism since there is nothing given to "know" anyway.
--Inspectormustard 04:58, 26 May 2008 (EDT)
== Make a difference between science and philosophy In philosophy the most absolute statements are frequently valid. "I think, therefore I exist" (and nothing else is absolutely certain) is a valid philosophical argument, but it is not the way a scientist thinks, at all.
Most scientists, like me, do not dwell in the absolute truth of an argument. Rather, we will go for the preponderance of evidence or lack thereof. A scientist will not generally argue for or against the existence of deities, since both positions require evidence. That would make us weak, or negative atheists. And a scientist will clearly state that everything lies somewhere between the almost total certainty and the almost total impossibility.As a scientist, I think the question should be changed to "Can strong atheists call themselves Pyrrhonian skeptics?" Because I consider myself an atheist and a true skeptic. avillarrealpouw