Wednesday, May 21, 2008


I was asked this morning what "Agnostic" means and why it is that I associate myself with that way of thinking instead of the "Atheist" association. Here is why:

Agnosticism is the philosophical view that the truth value of certain claims — particularly metaphysical claims regarding theology, afterlife or the existence of God, gods, deities, or even ultimate reality — is unknown or, depending on the form of agnosticism, inherently unknowable.

Demographic research services normally list agnostics in the same category as atheists and non-religious people, using 'agnostic' in the newer sense of 'noncommittal'. However, this can be misleading given the existence of agnostic theists, who identify themselves as both agnostics in the original sense and followers of a particular religion.

Agnosticism can be subdivided into several subcategories. 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 an omnipotent God and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience.
  • Mild agnosticism (also called weak agnosticism, soft agnosticism, open agnosticism, empirical agnosticism, temporal agnosticism)—the view that the existence or nonexistence of God or gods is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable, therefore one will withhold judgment until/if more evidence is available.
  • Apathetic agnosticism (also called Pragmatic agnosticism)—the view that there is no proof of either the existence or nonexistence of God or gods, but since any God or gods that may exist appear unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely academic anyway.
  • Agnostic theism (also called religious agnosticism)—the view of those who do not claim to know existence of God or gods, but still believe in such an existence.
  • Agnostic atheism—the view of those who do not know of the existence or nonexistence of God or gods, and do not believe in them.
  • Ignosticism—the view that a coherent definition of God must be put forward before the question of the existence of God can be meaningfully discussed. If the chosen definition isn't coherent, the ignostic holds the noncognitivist view that the existence of God is meaningless or empirically untestable. A.J. Ayer, Theodore Drange, and other philosophers see both atheism and agnosticism as incompatible with ignosticism on the grounds that atheism and agnosticism accept "God exists" as a meaningful proposition which can be argued for or against.

"Agnostic" was introduced by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869 to describe his philosophy which rejects Gnosticism, by which he meant not simply the early 1st millennium religious group, but all claims to spiritual or mystical knowledge. This is not the same as the trivial interpretation of the word, and carries a more negative implication for religion than that trivial interpretation.

Early Christian church leaders used the Greek word gnosis (knowledge) to describe "spiritual knowledge." 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. Huxley used the term in a broad sense.

In recent years, use of the word to mean "not knowable" is apparent in scientific literature in psychology and neuroscience, and with a meaning close to "independent", in technical and marketing literature, e.g. "platform agnostic" or "hardware agnostic".

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 title 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:

"When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis,"–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble."

"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.

If you would like to know more, I urge you to look into it yourself as there are as many different opinions on Agnosticism as there are people in the world...if you know what I mean.



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