Month: February 2016

Skeptical Atheism vs. Atheism

It occurred to me today that ‘atheism’ is probably far more broad than most atheists give it credit for – and that this is not necessarily a good thing. Of course, one of the benefits of the term ‘atheism’ is that it is so open – it literally just means not accepting the any hypotheses that entail the existence of a god or gods (by contrast, I would say an ‘agnostic’ is a person who doesn’t accept such hypotheses and also believes it is fundamentally impossible to obtain evidence for or against them – in practice, most agnostics are technically atheists, and most atheists probably lean towards agnosticism a bit).

But that still leaves many possible beliefs in unsubstantiated hypotheses. This first came to my attention when debating with someone who claimed it was possible to be an atheist and also to believe in karma as a ‘law of conservation.’ Of course, it’s not really a well-formed hypothesis; it doesn’t make any testable predictions whatsoever. But, since this person denied that this law was a god, or even a ‘depersonalized god-like power,’ technically, they could also say they were an atheist.

Here are some other claims that could be made alongside with a claim to be an atheist:

  1. A belief in reincarnation.
  2. A belief in ghosts.
  3. A belief in faeries.
  4. A belief in ceremonial magick.
  5. A belief in invisible personal powers that surround us – ‘daemons,’ to borrow a Greek term – but which are not actually ‘gods’ (whatever that means).
  6. A belief in unicorns.

So, from henceforth, I would prefer to identify myself as a ‘skeptical atheist.’ What I mean by this is that I’m not just an atheist, but that I also reject hypotheses unless they are either a. testable, b. allow us to make well-defined theories about the nature of the world, or let us simplify those theories somehow (basically, I am willing to consider various theories of ontology, even though many of those aren’t testable per se, because we need to have a theory of ontology in order to make well-defined theories about the universe – unless we are going to be pure pragmatic positivists and not ask about what the fundamental building blocks of the universe might be, and even then, theories of ontology can help us simplify our hypotheses about the universe).

As an example of the latter sort of theory, I accept the anti-solipsism hypothesis that other people also have minds. But technically, this is not testable. We cannot prove that other people have minds that have experiences like ours. So why should a skeptical person want to accept this theory? Because it greatly simplifies the world. Otherwise, we would have to say ‘There are all these human bodies, all of them going around acting like me, but somehow, I am unique in having a mind.’ So the anti-solipsism hypothesis simplifies our picture of the universe. The pure pragmatic positivist meanwhile would be forced to avoid accepting or rejecting the anti-solipsism hypothesis, because it is not strictly testable.

By this sort of reasoning, I would therefore reject belief in ghosts, reincarnation, karma, and unicorns, because they are either untestable without simplifying our picture of the universe, or else there is no evidence in favour of them, and plenty of evidence against them.

By calling myself a ‘skeptical atheist,’ I think I am describing myself much more accurately than the term ‘atheist’ alone.


I’m going to give another example of this second type of theory, or rather, three examples. These are all ontological theories, they will take some time to explain, and they don’t help to illustrate the above point about atheism vs. skeptical atheism. So, most readers would probably want to stop now. If you go on, you have been warned.

Let us first consider what a ‘mind’ is. Our mind is made up of a collection of many experiences that are experienced together (our current visual sensations, audible sensations, emotions, etc.), which flow into one another as time passes. So I would suggest that whenever there is an experience, it is had by a rudimentary mind. If those experiences exist in a complicated combination which flows into the future, we get something of a more complex mind like the human mind. Of course, one mind could influence another and then cease to exist, but pass on some of the information which it contained by influencing that other mind before ceasing.

First theory: ‘Materialism.’ The being of matter does not always involve any minds. Matter exists by itself without any minds in most cases. But in some cases, it exists in conjunction with a mind.

Second theory (really, a variant of the first): ‘Materialism with inherent mental potential.’ Matter does not always exist in conjunction with a mind, but it has the potential in certain combinations to give rise to experiences.

Third theory: The ‘James and Nietzsche’ theory. This is inspired by the ideas of William James (in many of his papers on ontology and epistemology), and Friedrich Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil, 36). All matter is inherently comprised of experiences – not necessarily the sorts that we have, and not consisting of long-enduring sequences of experiences like our minds, in general, of course. A given molecule might consist of a millions of minds every second, popping into existence, acting in some manner, and popping out of existence again, influencing their ‘descendants.’ (This is merely illustrative; whether molecules are in any way fundamental to matter is a question for physics – suffice it to say that the fundamental building blocks of our universe, according to this ontological theory, are lots and lots of little collections of experiences, i.e. minds). But of course these tiny combinations of experiences, when put together properly, can form much larger and longer-lasting minds.

Now, none of these are testable. But, on the grounds of simplicity, I am split perhaps 50% in favour of the James and Nietzsche theory, 40% for the second theory, and 10% for the first. I dislike the first theory because it requires an ad hoc addition of a mind. The second and third theories are therefore much simpler (although arguably the second theory merely is the first theory, with an ad hoc ability added – still, it seems much simpler). The third theory is arguably a bit simpler than the second, but I don’t see it as tremendously simpler, so it’s hard for me to decide between those two.

(It’s worth noting that one of the reasons for the third theory, historically, was the question, brought to light by British empiricist philosophers Hume and Berkeley, of whether it is possible to have a well-formed concept of ‘being’ apart from ‘mental being.’ I, like William James, believe our immediate experiences are not merely ‘static impressions,’ the way Hume and Berkeley described them, and thus, like James, I maintain that we have well-defined notions of things like activity, causation, and power – notions which Hume believed were empty.)