Why Atheists are Obligated to Hold Positive Speculative Beliefs

by Eric Steinhart

Many atheists come to atheism through skepticism. And sometimes that skepticism is radical. It’s hostile to anything that doesn’t meet the alleged standards of our best science. It’s hostile to any theory that is merely speculative. Of course, to be consistent, these radical skeptics ought to apply their skepticism to themselves. If you’re a skeptic, you ought to be skeptical about your skepticism. And, if you are skeptical about your skepticism, then you’ll be willing to entertain speculative theories.

Suppose somebody (perhaps a theist) tells you that God designed and created the universe. The theist runs the good old Kalam Cosmological Argument: she acknowledges that the big bang was the first event in our universe and asserts that God is the cause of the big bang. You reply that we don’t know how the universe came into existence. We just don’t know the explanation for the big bang, or for the fine tuning of the laws of physics, etcetera. Since any theory that explains the existence and structure of our universe is speculative, you deny it. You just say that we don’t know. We may never know. And, since we don’t know, you say that we shouldn’t speculate.

Well, how will we ever know if we don’t speculate? You’ve got to propose theories before you can test them. The failure to speculate destroys the very root of science. And, when you keep silent, you’re endorsing the position that the topic is mysterious. For instance, by refusing to endorse any speculative explanation for the universe, you’re saying that the existence of the universe is mysterious. But with that, you’ve handed the whole topic over to the religious mystery-mongers. Right! God is the mystery behind all mysteries.

The only way to avoid mystery-mongering is to offer a rationally grounded speculative theory. You can’t know that it’s true. But you can give reasons, you can give arguments, you can provide evidence. Even skeptics are rationally obligated to believe the very best theories available – even if they don’t meet the standards of our best science. If scientific theories are not available, then speculation is necessary. If scientific theories are not available to answer some question, then it’s wrong and it’s harmful to refuse to provide the best possible speculative answer.

The task for the atheist is not to refuse to think; the task is to think better than the theist. The task is to formulate atheistic theories that are superior to theistic theories. Of course, they need to be evaluated, and replaced with better theories as soon as possible.

I don’t know whether some sort of cosmic evolution explains the existence and structure of our universe. But I do know that it’s a better theory than the theistic theory that God said “Let there be light!”. If you’ve got an even better theory, great, let’s hear it. Failure to adopt any theory is to allow the weaker theories to win the hearts and minds of people who would rather have some answer than no answer. And that’s most people.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://atheistreadsbible.blogspot.com/ Jude

    Personally, I will do almost *anything* to avoid an argument. The last thing I would ever want to do is debate any topic with an irrational believer. What’s the point?

  • David E

    ” You just say that we don’t know. We may never know. And, since we don’t know, you say that we shouldn’t speculate.”

    That’s not skepticism in the sense the vast majority of us in the skeptic community use the term. I, as a skeptic, am happy to speculate about what preceded the big bang, about whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and about a myriad other subjects.

    But speculation does not require that one take a position on which speculative possibility is true or even most likely to be true. In some cases, those where there’s a near total void of good data to work with, staking a claim as to what’s even probably true is simply
    not reasonable.

    “For instance, by refusing to endorse any speculative explanation for the universe, you’re saying that the existence of the universe is mysterious.”

    No, just that it’s currently unknown. Next week some scientist might solve it. That’s hardly mystery-mongering.

  • mikespeir

    I’ve never quite gotten this “skeptical of skepticism” thing. What would that be, a suspicion that credulity might be better? Probably you mean a feet-in-concrete refusal to be moved from anything contrary to the things “I know that I know” in some kind of quasi-fideistic sense. But to me that’s not skepticism.

    Nevertheless, I like the thrust of this argument as an ideal. The problem is that we have lives to live. Even if we have the leisure to speculate about, for instance, the origin of the universe, it’s a question that has occupied the best minds for centuries. I don’t have a lot of years in this world and I certainly don’t have one of the best minds. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested. What it does mean is that I’m not going to fool away a lot of what little time I have in speculation that likely isn’t going to yield any sure conclusion. On the other hand, I am going to be skeptical of any notion–like that of a god who poofs things into existence–that doesn’t accord with the things I’m pretty sure of.

    • Daniel Fincke

      His point, I think, would be that atheists as a group need to be engaged in metaphysical speculation, even if an individual atheist need not. Presumably, it would suffice for the lay atheist to know that there are atheist metaphysical theories out there and to be able to cite them and refer them to the theist who charges that we have nothing to offer at all.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I’ve never quite gotten this “skeptical of skepticism” thing. What would that be, a suspicion that credulity might be better? Probably you mean a feet-in-concrete refusal to be moved from anything contrary to the things “I know that I know” in some kind of quasi-fideistic sense. But to me that’s not skepticism.

      I think what he means by radical skepticism is the view that we can only entertain hypotheses that are borne out by our best science. But this principle itself “we can only entertain hypotheses that are borne out by our best science” is not one that is scientifically demonstrated. So, the skeptic of any hypotheses not borne out by our best science would have to be skeptical of such a principle. If she is not skeptical of this principle she employs, she is accepting something not borne out by our best science, contrary to her own principles.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    I don’t care for the “skeptical of skepticism” phraseology either, even though I also generally agree with the thrust of this post.

    A better way of putting it, perhaps, is that we should not confuse skepticism with an undue status quo bias.

  • http://wazaghun.blogspot.com/ Wazaghun

    “”” You’ve got to propose theories before you can test them. The failure to speculate destroys the very root of science. “””
    There is no way to propose a “theory” that can’t possibly be tested in the first place or that a priori can’t (ever) be supported by evidence.
    Take the big bang.
    In order to propose a real theory about the big bang this theory would have to be testable or falsifiable.
    In my view this would include being able to go to a stage like the one “before the big bang actually occured”.

    Sorry but I am not able to do that and hence say that i simply don’t know. Not only do i not know what was before the big bang but actually i don’t even know or can imagine how i could possibly formulate a theory that would actually deserve that name.


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