2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Philosophy

Certainty series
  • Nihilism
  • Agnosticism
  • Uncertainty
  • Probability
  • Estimation
  • Belief
  • Justified true belief
  • Certainty
  • Determinism

Agnosticism (from the Greek a, meaning "without" and gnosis, " knowledge", translating to unknowable) is the philosophical view that the truth value of certain claims — particularly theological claims regarding metaphysics, afterlife or the existence of God, god(s), or deities — is unknown or (possibly) inherently unknowable. Some agnostics take a stronger view that the concept of a deity is incoherent, thus meaningless and irrelevant to life. The term is used to describe those who are unconvinced or noncommittal about the existence of deities as well as about other matters of religion. Early Christian church leaders used the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) to describe "spiritual knowledge". "Agnostic" came from the union of it to the Greek / Latin prefix a, and was originally coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869 to describe his philosophy. Agnosticism is not to be confused with religious views opposing the doctrine of gnosis and Gnosticism— these are religious concepts that are not generally related to agnosticism.

Agnostics claim that either it is not possible to have absolute or certain knowledge or, alternatively, that while certainty may be possible, they personally have no knowledge. Agnosticism in both cases involves some form of skepticism. Data collection services often display the common use of the term, distinct from atheism in its lack of disputing the existence of deities.

Agnostics are normally listed alongside categories such as atheist and non-religious, although this may be misleading. For example prominent agnostics such as Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Michelle Bachelet have been notably Christian in their outlook.

Qualifying agnosticism

Critics of the term "agnostic" claim that there is nothing distinctive in being agnostic because even many theists do not claim to know god(s) exists -- only to believe it. Under this asserted distinction between the words "belief" and "knowledge," agnosticism has recently started suffering from terminological ambiguity. While critics maintain the distinction is not contrived; others reject the distinction as trifling. By contrast, compare:

  • "I believe god(s) exist(s)" means that "I know god(s) exist(s)".
  • "I believe god(s) exist(s)" can still mean "I don't know if god(s) exist(s)".

If this distinction is accepted, the term agnostic becomes orthogonal to theism without further qualifiers, and many qualifiers become contradictory unless the distinction is accepted. If this distinction is ultimately accepted by the larger public, the group formerly described by the term will again find themselves without a label, because the qualifiers provided would be inappropriate for their philosophy.

Recently suggested variations include:

  • Strong agnosticism (also called hard agnosticism, closed agnosticism, strict agnosticism, absolute agnosticism)—the view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of god(s) are 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(s) is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable, therefore one will withhold judgment until/if more evidence is available.
  • Apathetic agnosticism—the view that there is no proof either existence or nonexistence of god(s), but since god(s) (if exist) appear unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely academic.
  • Ignosticism—the view that the concept of god(s) 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. This branch of agnosticism does not focus on a deity's existence.
  • Agnostic theism (also called religious agnosticism)—the view of those who do not claim to know existence of god(s), but still believe in such an existence. (See Knowledge vs. Beliefs)
  • Agnostic spiritualism—the view that there may or may not be a god(s), while maintaining a general personal belief in a spiritual aspect of reality, particularly without distinct religious basis, or adherence to any established doctrine or dogma.
  • Relative Agnosticism-This is similar to Agnostic spiritualism, but with the added view that if it was empirically proven that god(s) do or do not exist, it would not affect the beliefs of the Relative Agnostic.
  • Agnostic atheism—the view of those who do not know of the existence or nonexistence of god(s), and do not believe in god(s).

Philosophical opinions

Among the most famous agnostics (in the original sense) have been Thomas Henry Huxley, Robert G. Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell.

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 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.

Robert G. Ingersoll

An Illinois lawyer and politician who evolved into a well-known and sought-after orator in 19th century America, and who has been referred to as the "Great Agnostic."

In an 1896 lecture titled Why I Am An Agnostic, Ingersoll related what led him to believe in agnosticism and articulated that belief with:

Is there a supernatural power -- an arbitrary mind -- an enthroned God -- a supreme will that sways the tides and currents of the world -- to which all causes bow? I do not deny. I do not know -- but I do not believe. I believe that the natural is supreme -- that from the infinite chain no link can be lost or broken -- that there is no supernatural power that can answer prayer -- no power that worship can persuade or change -- no power that cares for man.
I believe that with infinite arms Nature embraces the all -- that there is no interference -- no chance -- that behind every event are the necessary and countless causes, and that beyond every event will be and must be the necessary and countless effects.
Is there a God? I do not know. Is man immortal? I do not know. One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be.

In the conclusion of the speech he simply sums up the agnostic belief as:

We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know.

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.

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.

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.

Retrieved from ""