Agnosticism

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Agnosticism

is the belief that the truth values of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, as well as other religious and metaphysicalclaims—are unknown.

Agnosticism sometimes indicates doubt or a skeptical approach to questions. In the popular sense, an agnostic is someone who neither believes nordisbelieves in the existence of a deity or deities, whereas a theist and an atheist believe and disbelieve, respectively. Philosopher William L. Rowe states that in the strict sense, however, agnosticism is the view that humanity lacks the requisite knowledge or sufficient rational grounds to justify either belief: that there exists some deity, or that no deities exist.
Thomas Henry Huxley, an English biologist, coined the word agnostic in 1869. However, earlier thinkers have written works that promoted agnostic points of view.

These thinkers include Sanjaya Belatthaputta, a 5th-century BCE Indian philosopher who expressed agnosticism about any afterlife, Protagoras, a 5th-centuryBCE Greek philosopher who was agnostic about the gods,  and the Nasadiya Sukta in the Rig Veda which is agnostic about the origin of the universe.
Since the time that Huxley coined the term, many other thinkers have extensively written about agnosticism.

Defining agnosticism

According to philosopher William L. Rowe, in the popular sense an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of a deity or deities, whereas a theist and an atheist believe and disbelieve, respectively; but that in the strict sense agnosticism is the view that human reason is incapable of rationally justifying the belief that deities do, or do not, exist.

Thomas Henry Huxley said:

Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle…Positively the principle may be expressed: 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.

Etymology

Agnostic was used by Thomas Henry Huxley in a speech at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1869to describe his philosophy which rejects all claims of spiritual or mystical knowledge. 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 ancient religious movement of Gnosticism in particular; Huxley used the term in a broader, more abstract sense.] Huxley identified agnosticism not as a creed but rather as a method of skeptical, evidence-based inquiry.

In recent years, scientific literature dealing with neuroscience and psychology has used the word to mean “not knowable”. In technical and marketing literature, “agnostic” often has a meaning close to “independent”—for example, “platform agnostic” or “hardware agnostic”

Qualifying agnosticism

Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume contended that meaningful statements about the universe are always qualified by some degree of doubt. He asserted that the fallibility of human beings means that they cannot obtain absolute certainty except in trivial cases where a statement is true by definition (i.e. tautologies such as “all bachelors are unmarried” or “all triangles have three corners”). All rational statements that assert a factual claim about the universe that begin “I believe that ….” are simply shorthand for, “Based on my knowledge, understanding, and interpretation of the prevailing evidence, I tentatively believe that….” For instance, when one says, “I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy“, one is not asserting an absolute truth but a tentative belief based on interpretation of the assembled evidence. Even though one may set an alarm clock prior to the following day, believing that waking up will be possible, that belief is tentative, tempered by a small but finite degree of doubt (the clock or its alarm mechanism might break, or one might die before the alarm goes off).

 

Types of agnosticism

Agnosticism has, more recently, been subdivided into several categories, some of which may be disputed. Variations include:

Agnostic atheism

The view of those who do not believe in the existence of any deity, but do not claim to know if a deity does or does not exist.

Agnostic theism

The view of those who do not claim to know of the existence of any deity, but still believe in such an existence.

Apathetic or pragmatic agnosticism

The view that there is no proof of either the existence or nonexistence of any deity, but since any deity that may exist appears unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely academic.

Strong agnosticism (also called “hard”, “closed”, “strict”, or “permanent agnosticism”)

The view that the question of the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities, and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable by reason of our natural inability to verify any experience with anything but another subjective experience. A strong agnostic would say, “I cannot know whether a deity exists or not, and neither can you.”

Weak agnosticism (also called “soft”, “open”, “empirical”, or “temporal agnosticism”)

The view that the existence or nonexistence of any deities is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable; therefore, one will withhold judgment until evidence, if any, becomes available. A weak agnostic would say, “I don’t know whether any deities exist or not, but maybe one day, if there is evidence, we can find something out.”

History

Hindu philosophy

Throughout the history of Hinduism there has been a strong tradition of philosophic speculation and skepticism.

The Rig Veda takes an agnostic view on the fundamental question of how the universe and the gods were created. Nasadiya Sukta (Creation Hymn) in the tenth chapter of the Rig Veda says:

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Greek philosophy

Agnostic thought, in the form of skepticism, emerged as a formal philosophical position in ancient Greece. Its proponents included ProtagorasPyrrhoCarneadesSextus Empiricus and, to some degree, Socrates, who was a strong advocate for a skeptical approach to epistemology. Such thinkers rejected the idea that certainty was possible.

Hume, Kant, and Kierkegaard

Many philosophers (following the examples of AristotleAnselmAquinas, and Descartes) presented arguments attempting to rationally prove the existence of God. The skeptical empiricism of David Hume, the antinomies of Immanuel Kant, and the existential philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard convinced many later philosophers to abandon these attempts, regarding it impossible to construct any unassailable proof for the existence or non-existence of God.

In his 1844 book, Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard writes:

Let us call this unknown something: God. It is nothing more than a name we assign to it. The idea of demonstrating that this unknown something (God) exists, could scarcely suggest itself to Reason. For if God does not exist it would of course be impossible to prove it; and if he does exist it would be folly to attempt it. For at the very outset, in beginning my proof, I would have presupposed it, not as doubtful but as certain (a presupposition is never doubtful, for the very reason that it is a presupposition), since otherwise I would not begin, readily understanding that the whole would be impossible if he did not exist. But if when I speak of proving God’s existence I mean that I propose to prove that the Unknown, which exists, is God, then I express myself unfortunately. For in that case I do not prove anything, least of all an existence, but merely develop the content of a conception.

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