I recently heard the claim that atheists are forced to establish themselves as the authority for their own arguments. Now, this can be fairly easily cast aside, since some people, including atheists, can take the position that you cannot have any real authority for knowledge whatsoever. You can then childishly call them their own authority still, but they are simply saying you cannot have “true” knowledge. That there is no way to be objective so, in fact, they are claiming they can never be authorities.
This form of philosophic skepticism, not to be confused with modern skepticism, which I will describe as “the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics.” This is a valid position to take logically, though not one I take myself, since, while valid, it is entirely useless since it makes all knowledge completely unattainable and all opinions about knowledge relative to one another. This is something I personally cannot believe for more than a moment. Now I’ll be going through my own views on how we have attained, and have, knowledge. For those who do not know this branch of philosophy is known as epistemology.
First I do not hold a belief in an objective source of knowledge. I do not rule it out, but I have no reason to think one exists. This means I have a subjective epistemology as opposed to an objective one. Though this is not the end: I don’t just need to say “well, now I’m the ultimate holder of knowledge” because that claim is in fact an objective epistemology in disguise. No, I don’t need to claim I am the ultimate authority of my argument. I only need to say that my argument ultimately rests on some number of assumptions, of which I may be able to support, but which I cannot prove unless we find that objective source, or way, to knowledge.
In fact, I would argue that, to be honest, every epistemology needs to be comfortable making the claim that they rest on some number of assumptions. Objective epistemologies may then claim that they have already found the ultimate source of knowledge (though they do not have to make that claim).
I think it is very important to able to outline what your base assumptions are. If you can’t, then how will you know if your arguments actually make sense? If your arguments even match your assumptions? Or perhaps are just circularly defined by them? What’s more, if you don’t outline them well enough, then you may just end up changing them from one argument to the next without realizing it.
I define my basic assumptions as follows
Reality is self-consistent
I have some senses, while imperfect, which allow me to learn things about the reality I find myself in.
None of these things are a given, as we can’t be sure that we do exist in a sense that is meaningful to us, but, by granting them, we allow ourselves to do everything we need to to draw useful conclusions.
From these assumptions, I can come to the conclusion that, since reality is real and consistent, if I test my perceptions enough times against reality, I will be able to determine which arguments are consistent, and, therefore, which are likely to match reality and which ones fail to be consistent.
You can also determine that, since your perceptions indicate you are human, and other humans exist, the same rules of imperfect senses apply to them and you can work together to determine the limitations of each others senses. From there, you can determine other “laws” and theories about the nature of reality. Doing so becomes trivial so long as you can show that it is consistent with the perceptions that you trust.
This epistemology also contains all it needs to disprove it’s second assumption. If reality isn’t consistent, then you’ll quickly find that no test you do gives those consistent results you need to test your perceptions. This is a strength opposed to a weakness, since we’ll know if it doesn’t work, but fortunately for this epistemology we sure seem to live in a consistent reality.
Back to that original claim I took issue with: I do not need to be the ultimate source of authority. My authority comes from the cyclical nature of testing and re-testing to gain the knowledge that is closest to the truth. That truth is to be discovered from reality itself. Reality is my ultimate authority, since it is what I test my hypothesis and perceptions against, and what I form my future opinions against. Sure, I can get it wrong, but if I keep testing my perceptions and my theories I’ll find out, and then adjust to that fact.
For those interested my epistemology, it is a kind of Bayesian epistemology. I’d suggest looking into that if you want to learn more about this sort of epistemology.