Thanks to commenter George, who posted a quote from Thomas Huxley about how he came up with the term "agnosticism," I've been able to appreciate more deeply this faithless approach to life.
Here's the quotation:
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.
Usually agnosticism is associated with metaphysics. This makes sense, since Huxley simply added a negative, "a," to "gnostic" -- which refers to esoteric knowledge about godly stuff.
But we can be agnostic in regards to anything we don't know about. Why our car won't start. Whether we hold a winning lottery ticket. If our favorite sports team will end up a champion this coming season.
Agnosticism is about honesty, humility, and a profound respect for reality. If we say we know something, there needs to be solid demonstrable evidence backing up that claim. Otherwise, we're not afraid to admit "I don't know."
Agnosis is a wonderful state of being. Open. Receptive. Curious.
Also, when a situation demands it, fiercely skeptical of those who pretend to have a clear vision of reality but are just spouting a blind belief. In one of my first posts on this blog, I quoted classics scholar A.H. Armstrong:
When claims to possess an exclusive revelation of God or to speak his word are made by human beings (and it is always human beings who make them), they must be examined particularly fiercely and hypercritically for the honor of God, to avoid the blasphemy and sacrilege of deifying a human opinion.
Or, to put it less ferociously, the Hellenic (and, as it seems to me, still proper) answer to “Thus saith the Lord” is “Does he?,” asked in a distinctly skeptical tone, followed by a courteous but drastic “testing to destruction” of the claims and credentials of the person or persons making this enormous statement.
The only thing I'd change in this quotation is to make it "honor of reality" rather than "honor of God." But that's my churchlessness speaking.
I do like how Armstrong makes clear that even religious types shouldn't uncritically accept claims about God's nature, since this deifies a human conception rather than divine reality.
If there is a god, or gods, obviously this supernatural side of the cosmos is darn well hidden, since there is no agreement among religions about what divinity consists of. So mystery must appeal to divinity.
Dan Barker used to be a fundamentalist evangelical preacher who saw the light. Now he is an avid atheist and author of a terrific book, "Godless." He demolishes the logic of Pascal's Wager, then offers his own:
I have my own bet: Barker's Wager. Suppose there is a god, but he is only going to reward those people who have enough courage not to believe in him. This god is no less likely than Pascal's. By believing in a god, Christians are risking eternal torture! When they die, they will be very impressed (so will we atheists).
I'm also a big believer in not believing in God. Or any other metaphysical reality for which there isn't demonstrable evidence. If God exists, I figure this will please her (oh, please, let the goddess who I'm pleasing be hot -- and I don't mean in a hellish way).
After all, before we can love somebody, or some thing, we have to know that person or entity. Otherwise we're simply loving our own imagination, concept, thought, emotion, or whatever.
Remaining in a receptive state of agnosticism, knowing that we don't know, honors the unknown. We don't ascribe made-up qualities to the unknown. We don't tell the unknown, "You've got to be like this."
We search. We question. We remain open to evidence. We scan the unknown horizon. Agnostics are eager to drop the "a" and become gnostics, knowers, as discussed by Bill Schultz in "The Essence of Agnosticism."
But like a fine wine, the bottle of agnosticism shouldn't be opened before the right time -- which is when demonstrable evidence blows the skeptical cork off. Schultz:
Even though it took place many years before his announcement of an agnostic principle, Huxley's nearly instantaneous adoption of Darwin's Theory of Evolution from a reading of Darwin's Origin of Species clearly demonstrates that an agnostic can easily abandon either a wrong position, or an indecisive (agnostic) position, when confronted with the proper material in support of what will become the "proper" position.
The true agnostic goes neither farther than the evidence will support, nor ignores the evidence and logic which is supportable by scientific inquiry of the highest quality. This is obvious from the quote of Huxley's epistemological definition of agnosticism given at the top of this piece.
That quotation contains a clear commandment that any agnostic must "follow your reason as far as it can take you without other considerations." No true agnostic will ever ignore that commandment merely to continue asserting an uncertainty when demonstrable evidence and logical reasoning demand a particular position be taken.
It does not matter whether you restrict the concept of agnosticism to merely epistemology, or if you extend that concept into the metaphysical realm, when you see evidence which demands a verdict, you will react by assigning the proper values of truth or falsehood to the conclusion being argued.
However, if no such evidence exists, or if you do not yet know what is the proper conclusion which may logically be drawn from that evidence, then the agnostic principle demands that you refrain from adopting any conclusion as being the expression of ultimate truth. As this concept was so clearly set forth by Huxley, it can unequivocally be found to express the essence of agnosticism.
Spot on Brian. The Huxley family were very openminded, Thomas was self-educated and the grandfather of Aldous who with Alpert and Leary tried everything under the son.
I guess the only thing about agnosticism is that it may come accross as indicisive, to be confused at it were - but that is exactly what i am.
Some on here, particularly the RS folk seem so certain of it all, that there is The Truth, and that it can be found.
The more one learns about the universe and/or reality, the stranger it seems, and its undoubtedly even stranger than we could ever imagine.
Its true tho that i do find mysticism quite interesting and one cannot dismiss something unless its been tried. But we know Thor or Poseidon is unlikely to exist, no matter what pagan tradition we try. I think mysticism perhaps does offer more than this, but if mysticism offers anything, its seems likely to be concerning our mind and consciousness - as opposed to any transcental power such as God.
Posted by: George | January 10, 2010 at 07:36 AM
Thanx for a nice post. But (imo)
some are agnostic by choice
some are agnostic by culture
some are agnostic by fashion
some are agnostic by legacy
some are agnostic by conscience!!
I am likely to call myself progressively not agnostic which I may not be able to proclaim till my last breath............
Posted by: rakesh bhasin | January 10, 2010 at 07:47 AM
"If we say we know something, there needs to be solid demonstrable evidence backing up that claim."
How would you define 'solid demonstrable evidence?'
If I make the claim, "I know I'm in a good mood this morning," would my subjective experience and subsequent testimony to the case be considered as solid demonstrable evidence?
Testimony is considered a type of evidence, but to be solid it generally needs corroboration, i.e. two or more separate sources of evidence, which would be difficult in the above example. Also, being subjective in nature, I'm not sure my good mood this morning is demonstrable. Observable maybe, but maybe not - what if no one is around? Yet I still feel comfortable saying, "my good mood is something I know."
Posted by: john | January 10, 2010 at 11:22 AM
John, there is a big difference between subjective and objective knowledge. Knowing our self really isn't about knowing some "thing," unless we consider ourselves to be thing-like. It is more what has been called "knowledge by identity." We know our self by being our self.
If I'm sad, I know I'm sad because I'm sad. As I frequently say on this blog, "I feel..." can't be questioned by someone else. Feeling is a private world inaccessible to others. But if we expect other people to accept our statement about some objective aspect of reality, there has to be demonstrable evidence in support of it.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | January 11, 2010 at 12:27 AM
An attractive force between two bodies exists.
Gravity is the attractive force between two bodies.
A cause of the universe existing exists.
God is the cause of the universe existing.
Gravity and God are just the names we give to the respective phenomena (a) the attractive force between two bodies and (b) the cause of the universe existing. So, if we agree on what the names denote, then wouldn't the "demonstrable evidence in support of it (our claim)," be the phenomena (a) & (b)?
Posted by: john | January 12, 2010 at 09:59 AM
John, what makes you think there is a cause for the universe existing? There is no evidence for this. We need to define our terms.
Do you take "universe" to mean everything in physical existence? If so, "cosmos" is the preferred term used by many/most scientists, since the multi-universe theory has a lot going for it. That is, the "universe" we are a part of may very well not be the only universe in existence.
So let's make your statement "A cause of the cosmos existing exists." Again, why? Couldn't the cosmos simply be, a given?
There is a big logical (and reality) problem in assuming that the totality of existence has to behave like things in existence. This is the basic flaw in your argument.
We see that there are causes of things within the cosmos. So our human minds jump to the conclusion, "The cosmos must have a cause." But the cosmos isn't a thing. It is everything. You presume a vantage point from which you can look at the cosmos and say "It had a beginning; there was a cause of it."
Where is that vantage point?
Religious believers say that God is uncaused, eternal, always has been and always will be. But God is unseen and unknown. Why not posit the same qualities of the cosmos? It is uncaused, eternal, always has been and always will be.
If everything has to have a cause, then God also has to have a cause, so invoking God as the cause of the cosmos just shifts the question back up a level. I prefer to keep things as simple as possible. Let's call the cosmos uncaused.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | January 12, 2010 at 10:21 AM
I don't know if there need be a cause for everything (and sorry for the loose usage of existence), but I don't believe that lack of knowledge in that regard gives one the grounds to assert an antithesis. That 'something is uncaused' is every bit the affirmative as 'everything has a cause.' Consequently, I could just as easily apply…
"if no such evidence exists, or if you do not yet know what is the proper conclusion which may logically be drawn from that evidence, then the agnostic principle demands that you refrain from adopting any conclusion as being the expression of ultimate truth."
… to: "Let's call the cosmos uncaused."
Posted by: john | January 12, 2010 at 09:00 PM
John, my point was that a cosmic chain of causality has to end somewhere. Theologians like to end it at God, with divinity being the eternal entity that has been, is now, and always will be. A naturalistic scientific perspective ends the chain with what is observable: the cosmos.
So I'll stick with my assertion that the cosmos (defined as "everything in existence") must be uncaused. Otherwise we have to posit a cause of that "everything," which obviously is still part of "everything" since that cause exists.
If that cause had a cause, both causes are still part of "everything." So pretty obviously everything doesn't have a cause. Only things within everything do. This is marvelously clear to me; perhaps it isn't to you. That's fine.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | January 12, 2010 at 09:14 PM