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Agnosticism

Agnosticism is the philosophical view that the truth values of certain claims—particularly theological claims regarding the existence of God, gods, or deities—are unknown, inherently unknowable, or incoherent, and therefore, (some agnostics may go as far to say) irrelevant to life. The term and the related agnostic were coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869, and are also used to describe those who are unconvinced or noncommittal about the existence of deities as well as other matters of religion. The word agnostic comes from the Greek a (without) and gnosis (knowledge). Agnosticism, focusing on what can be known, is an epistemological position (dealing with the nature and limits of human knowledge); while atheism and theism are ontological positions (a branch of metaphysics that deals with what types of entities exist). Agnosticism is not to be confused with a view specifically opposing the doctrine of gnosis and Gnosticism—these are religious concepts that are not generally related to agnosticism.

Agnosticism is distinct from strong atheism (also called positive atheism or dogmatic atheism), which denies the existence of any deities. However, the more general variety of atheism, weak atheism (also called negative atheism, and sometimes neutral atheism), professes only a lack of belief in a god or gods, which is not equivalent to but is compatible with agnosticism. Critical atheism admits that a god or gods are meaningful concepts but the evidence for them is not in hand, so a default position of not believing in them must be taken in the interim.

Agnostics may claim that it isn't possible to have absolute or certain spiritual knowledge or, alternatively, that while certainty may be possible, they personally have no such knowledge. In both cases, agnosticism involves some form of skepticism towards religious statements. This is different from the simple irreligion of those who give no thought to the subject.
 

Contents

1 Variations

2 Some philosophical opinions
2.1 Thomas Henry Huxley
2.2 Bertrand Russell
2.3 Logical positivism
3 References
4 See also
5 External links
Variations

Agnosticism has suffered more than most expressions of philosophical position from terminological vagaries. Data collection services [1], [2] often display the common use of the term, distinct from strong atheism in its lack of disputing the existence of deities. Agnostics are listed alongside secular, non-religious, or other such categories.

Other variations include:

  • Strong agnosticism (also called hard agnosticism, closed agnosticism, strict agnosticism, absolute agnosticism)—the view that the question of the existence of deities is unknowable by nature or that human beings are ill-equipped to judge the evidence.
  • Weak agnosticism (also called soft agnosticism, open agnosticism, empirical agnosticism, temporal agnosticism)—the view that the existence or nonexistence of God or gods is currently unknown but isn't necessarily unknowable, therefore one will withhold judgment until more evidence is available.
  • Apathetic agnosticism—the view that the whole question of God's existence or nonexistence cannot yet be properly answered, and therefore one should free oneself from a fruitless search.
  • Ignosticism—the view that the concept of God as a being is meaningless because it has no verifiable consequences, therefore it cannot be usefully discussed as having existence or nonexistence. See scientific method.
  • Model agnosticism—the view that philosophical and metaphysical questions are not ultimately verifiable but that a model of malleable assumption should be built upon rational thought. Note that this branch of agnosticism differs from others in that it does not focus upon the question of a deity's existence.
  • Agnostic theism—the view of those who do not claim to know God's existence, but still believe in his existence. (See Knowledge Vs Beliefs) Whether this is truly agnosticism is disputed. It might also imply the belief that there is something resembling god (or gods,) but a doubt of their exact nature or validity of claim.
  • Agnostic spiritualism—the view that there may or may not be a god (or gods,) while maintaining a general personal belief in a spiritual aspect of reality, particularly without distinct religious basis, or adherence to any doctrine.
  • Agnostic atheism—the view that God may or may not exist, but that his non-existence is more likely. Some agnostic atheists would at least partially base their beliefs on Occam's Razor.

Some philosophical opinions

Among the most famous agnostics (in the original sense) have been Robert G. Ingersoll, Thomas Henry Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Bertrand Russell. Some have argued from the works of David Hume, especially Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, that he was an agnostic, but this remains subject to debate.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Agnostic views are as old as philosophical skepticism, but the terms agnostic and agnosticism were created by Huxley to sum up his thoughts on contemporary developments of metaphysics about the "unconditioned" (Hamilton) and the "unknowable" (Herbert Spencer). It is important, therefore, to discover Huxley's own views on the matter. Though Huxley began to use the term "agnostic" in 1869, his opinions had taken shape some time before that date. In a letter of September 23, 1860, to Charles Kingsley, Huxley discussed his views extensively:

I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter. . . .
It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. . . .
That my personality is the surest thing I know may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

And again, to the same correspondent, May 6, 1863:

I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the "Christian" would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel. I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as "Christianity" asserts. So with regard to the other great "Christian" dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can I—who am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deeds—have to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them.

Of the origin of the name agnostic to describe this attitude, Huxley gave (Coll. Ess. v. pp. 237-239) the following account:

So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic." It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took.

Huxley's agnosticism is believed to be a natural consequence of the intellectual and philosophical conditions of the 1860s, when clerical intolerance was trying to suppress scientific discoveries which appeared to clash with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis and other established Jewish and "Christian" doctrines. Agnosticism should not, however, be confused with natural theology, deism, pantheism, or other science positive forms of theism.

By way of clarification, Huxley states, "In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable" (Huxley, Agnosticism, 1889). While A. W. Momerie has noted that this is nothing but a definition of honesty, Huxley's usual definition goes beyond mere honesty to insist that these metaphysical issues are fundamentally unknowable.

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell's pamphlet, Why I Am Not a "Christian", based on a speech delivered in 1927 and later included in a book of the same title, is considered a classic statement of agnosticism. The essay briefly lays out Russell’s objections to some of the arguments for the existence of God before discussing his moral objections to "Christian" teachings. He then calls upon his readers to "stand on their own two feet and look fair and square at the world," with a "fearless attitude and a free intelligence."

In 1939, Russell gave a lecture on The existence and nature of God, in which he characterised himself as an agnostic. He said:

The existence and nature of God is a subject of which I can discuss only half. If one arrives at a negative conclusion concerning the first part of the question, the second part of the question does not arise; and my position, as you may have gathered, is a negative one on this matter. (Collected Papers, Vol 10, p.255)

However, later in the same lecture, discussing modern non-anthropomorphic concepts of God, Russell states:

That sort of God is, I think, not one that can actually be disproved, as I think the omnipotent and benevolent creator can. (p.258)

In Russell's 1947 pamphlet, Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? (subtitled A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas), he ruminates on the problem of what to call himself:

As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one prove that there is not a God.
On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

In his 1953 essay, What Is An Agnostic? Russell states:

An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which "Christianity" and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.

However, later in the essay, Russell says:

I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence.

Note that he didn't say "supreme" or "supernatural" intelligence, as these terms are metaphysically loaded.

For Russell, then, agnosticism doesn't necessarily assert that it is in principle impossible to know whether or not there is a God. Moreover, "An Agnostic may think the "Christian" God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists."

Logical positivism

Logical positivists, such as Rudolph Carnap and A. J. Ayer, are sometimes thought to be agnostic. Using arguments reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s famous "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," they viewed any talk of gods as literally nonsense. For the logical positivists and adherents of similar schools of thought, statements about religious or other transcendent experiences could not have a truth value and were deemed to be without meaning. But this includes all utterances about God, even those agnostic statements that deny knowledge of God is possible. In Language, Truth and Logic Ayer explicitly rejects agnosticism on the grounds that an agnostic, despite claiming that knowledge of God is not possible, nevertheless holds that statements about God have meaning. This position, however, is valid only in the case of agnostics who define their agnosticism in this fashion. Ignostics define agnosticism in a manner consistent with the logical positivist view, holding theism to be incoherent.

References

Collected Essays, Thomas Huxley, ISBN 1855069229
Man's Place In Nature, Thomas Huxley, ISBN 037575847X
Why I Am Not a "Christian", Bertrand Russell, ISBN 0671203231
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume, ISBN 0140445366
Language, Truth, and Logic, A.J. Ayer, ISBN 0486200108

 

See also