atheism, philosophy

Do we have epistemic “oughts”?

I’ve been contemplating for a while about the “oughts” within epistemology. It is often said that we should do something, or that we are obligated to consider certain types of evidence. But what exactly does this mean? Specifically, I don’t see that it can have any meaning given an atheistic perspective.

Take a recent example. I was talking to a friend of mine who asserted that we “ought” to be skeptical about all things.* The friend was referring to the existence of God as an example, and continued to argue that there are specific things we epistemically should or should not do. We should, for example, approach the question of God’s existence with skepticism. We should take empirical evidence above any other type of evidence. The examples could be multiplied.

The question that came to mind, however, is what kind of justification does an atheist have for arguing that we have epistemic “oughts”? In other words, what is it about people that means we owe it to… well, something… to fully investigate the universe? For, on atheism, there cannot be meaning to our lives other than a “noble lie”  which we tell ourselves in order to try to infuse  our lives with meaning(Dr. L.D. Rue–cited in On Guard by William Lane Craig, 46). The universe is on a countdown until cosmic heat death. Any actions we take are ultimately utterly devoid of meaning, for no matter how much we impact the human race for good or evil (and who knows what those terms mean, on atheism!?), the human race will, inevitably, fade into non-existence, along with the rest of the universe.

But then what does it matter what our beliefs are? How is it that we can have “oughts” about what we do or don’t believe? What kind of justification is there for thinking that we should or should not try to discover the truth about the universe? Ultimately, my actions, on atheism, do not matter. In the grand scheme of things, I am just more matter in motion, on a big hunk of matter in motion, in a universe filled with matter in motion, which will, itself, fade away.

It is because of this that I cannot think of any reason that there could be epistemic “oughts” on atheism. I think that atheistic philosophy (and indeed anything, on atheism) is an ultimately pointless endeavor, trying to infuse meaning into a universe which is utterly devoid of meaning.

There cannot be epistemic “oughts” on atheism. The very idea is a fiction, another “noble lie” invented to try to keep us from despair.

*I have the friend’s permission to write about this on my blog.


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


3 thoughts on “Do we have epistemic “oughts”?

  1. “We should take empirical evidence above any other type of evidence.”

    But what if there is no evidence of empirical evidence? I think of the origin of the universe in this sense “oughts.” Shouldn’t we know where we came from? Isn’t it telling that science is trying so desperately to find an answer to this “ought” and cannot do so naturalistically?

    I agree, J.W. Good post.

    Posted by sabepashubbo | August 17, 2010, 1:20 PM
  2. Wow. This really makes you think. It’s almost as if we’ve had to create ground rules in order to sustain philosophy until philosophy itself can arrive at a truth which validates itself.

    There really are no epistemic “oughts” on atheism, but one must assume epistemic oughts in order to arrive at atheism. In the same way, one must assume epistemic oughts, such as dictated by the normative standards in the view of deontological Justification, “Believe what has justification”, “hold beliefs in accordance to their warrant”, etc., in order to arrive at theism, which then validates the rules as true morale obligations.

    None of these are morally necessary on Atheism. But, suppose a person believes nothing except that he exists. Ought he assume that the epistemic “oughts” are really “oughts” before he begins to reason, or should he simply use them as tools to arrive at truth? It’s very weird that you can’t know whether or not epistemic duties are really required of you until you use them to find out whether or not you are.

    Posted by Evan | September 13, 2010, 10:57 PM
  3. I’m sorry if writing responses to old posts is frown upon here, but “oughts” in epistemology usually have an unspoken “if you care about truth” clause. Like when someone shows you how you ought to swim it usually has an implicit “if you don’t want to drown”. You have to measure or calculate the value of voltage in a system if you care about not burning the components you’re putting there. What does it mean to be skeptical about voltage value? As far as I understand it means to not accept any given voltage value unless you know that someone got this value with a precise calculation from good starting data or with a measurement using the right tools and methods.
    Good starting data may also be calculated from other data or measured.

    Posted by Vamair | May 2, 2017, 5:43 AM

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