O'Hair vs. Huxley - Appendix A

The Project Gutenberg Encyclopedia - Agnosticism



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AGNOSTICISM. The term ``agnostic'' was invented by Huxley 
in 1869 to describe the philosophical and religious attitude 
of those who hold that we can have scientific or real 
knowledge of phenomena only, and that so far as what may lie 
behind phenomena is concerned--God, immortality, &c.--there 
is no evidence which entitles us either to deny or aflirm 
anything.  The attitude itself is as old as Scepticism 
(q.v.); but the expressions ``agnostic'' and ``agnosticism'' 
were applied by Huxley to sum up his deductions from those 
contemporary developments of metaphysics with which the 
names of Hamilton (``the Unconditioned'') and Herbert Spencer 
(``the Unknowable'') were associated; and it is important, 
therefore, to fix precisely his own intellectual standpoint 
in the matter.  Though Huxley only began to use the term 
``agnostic'' in 1869, his opinions had taken shape some time 
before that date.  In a letter to Charles Kingsley (September 
23, 1860) he wrote very fully concerning his beliefs:-- 

``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, the 5th of May 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. l 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--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 cover this attitude, 
Huxley gave (Coll.  Ess. v. pp. 237-239) 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, a Christian or a freethinker, I 
found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready 
was the answer.  The one thing on 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 that I had not, and had 
a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble.  
This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a 
place among the members of that remarkable confraternity of 
antagonists, the Metaphysical Society.  Every variety of 
philosophical and theological opinion was represented there; 
most of my colleagues were -ists of one sort or another; and 
I, the man without a rag of a belief to cover himself with, could 
not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings which must have 
beset the historical fox when, after leaving the trap in which 
his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elongated 
companions.  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.'' 

This account is confirmed by R. H. Hutton, who in 1881 wrote 
that the word ``was suggested by Huxley at a meeting held 
previous to the formation of the now defunct Metaphysical 
Society at Mr Knowles's house on Clapham Common in 1869, in my 
hearing.  He took it from St Paul's mention of the altar 
to the Unknown God.'' Hutton here gives a variant etymology 
for the word, which may be therefore taken as partly derived 
from agnostos (the ``unknown'' God), and partly from an 
antithesis to ``gnostic''; but the meaning remains the same 
in either case.  The name, as Huxley said, ``took''; it was 
constantly used by Hutton in the Spectator and became a 
fashionable label for contemporary unbelief in Christian 
dogma.  Hutton himself frequently misrepresented the doctrine 
by describing it as ``belief in an unknown and unknowable 
God''; but agnosticism as defined by Huxley meant not belief, 
but absence of belief, as much distinct from belief on the 
one hand as from disbelief on the other; it was the half-way 
house between the two, where all questions were ``open.'' All 
that Huxley asked for was evidence, either for or against; 
but this he believed it impossible to get.  Occasionally 
he too mis-stated the meaning of the word he had invented, 
and described agnosticism as meaning ``that a man shall not 
say he knows or believes what he has no scientific ground 
for professing to know or believe.'' But as the late Rev. 
A. W. Momerie remarked, this would merely be ``a definition 
of honesty; in that sense we ought all to be agnostics.'' 

Agnosticism really rests on the doctrine of the Unknowable, 
the assertion that concerning certain objects--among them 
the Deity--we never can have any ``scientific'' ground for 
belief.  This way of solving, or passing over, the ultimate 
problems of thought has had many followers in cultured circles 
imbued with the new physical science of the day, and with 
disgust for the dogmatic creeds of contemporary orthodoxy; and 
its outspoken and even aggressive vindication by physicists 
of the eminence of Huxley had a potent influence upon the 
attitude taken towards metaphysics, and upon the form which 
subsequent Christian apologetics adopted.  As a nickname 
the term ``agnostic'' was soon misused to cover any and 
every variation of scepticism, and just as popular preachers 
confused it with atheism (q.v.) in their denunciations, 
so the callow freethinker--following Tennyson's path of 
``honest doubt''--classed himself with the agnostics, even 
while he combined an instinctively Christian theism with a 
facile rejection of the historical evidences for Christianity. 

The term is now less fashionable, though the state of mind 
persists.  Huxley's agnosticism was a natural consequence of 
the intellectual and philosophical conditions of the 'sixties, 
when clerical intolerance was trying to excommunicate scientific 
discovery because it appeared to clash with the book of 
Genesis.  But as the theory of evolution was accepted, a new 
spirit was gradually introduced into Christian theology, which 
has turned the controversies between religion and science 
into other channels and removed the temptation to flaunt a 
disagreement.  A similar effect has been produced by the 
philosophical reaction against Herbert Spencer, and by 
the perception that the canons of evidence required in 
physical science must not be exalted into universal rules of 
thought.  It does not follow that justification by faith 
must be eliminated in spiritual matters where sight cannot 
follow, because the physicist's duty and success lie in 
pinning belief solely on verification by physical phenomena, 
when they alone are in question; and for mankind generally, 
though possibly not for an exceptional man like Huxley, an 
impotent suspension of judgment on such issues as a future 
life or the Being of God is both unsatisfying and demoralizing. 

It is impossible here to do more than indicate the path out 
of the difficulties raised by Huxley in the letter to Kingsley 
quoted above.  They involve an elaborate discussion, not 
only of Christian evidences, but of the entire subject-matter 
alike of Ethics and Metaphysics, of Philosophy as a whole, 
and of the philosophies of individual writers who have dealt 
in their different ways with the problems of existence and 
epistemology.  It is, however, permissible to point out that, 
as has been exhaustively argued by Professor J. Ward in his 
Gifford lectures for 1896-1898 (Naturalism and Agnosticism, 
1899), Huxley's challenge ( ``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'') is 
one which a spiritualistic philosophy need not shrink from 
accepting at the hands of naturalistic agnosticism.  If, as 
Huxley admits, even putting it with unnecessary force against 
himself,``the immortality of man is not half so wonderful 
as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of 
matter,'' the question then is, how far a critical analysis 
of our belief in the last-named doctrines will leave us in 
a position to regard them as the last stage in systematic 
thinking.  It is the pitfall of physical science, immersed as 
its students are apt to be in problems dealing with tangible 
facts in the world of experience, that there is a tendency 
among them to claim a superior status of objective reality 
and finality for the laws to which their data are found to 
conform.  But these generalizations are not ultimate truths, 
when we have to consider the nature of experience itself. 
``Because reference to the Deity will not serve for a 
physical explanation in physics, or a chemical explanation 
in chemistry, it does not therefore follow,'' as Professor 
Ward says (op. cit. vol. i. p. 24), ``that the sum total 
of scientific knowledge is equally intelligible whether 
we accept the theistic hypothesis or not.  It is true that 
every item of scientific knowledge is concerned with some 
definite relation of definite phenomena, and with nothing 
else; but, for all that, the systematic organization of 
such items may quite well yield further knowledge, which 
transcends the special relations of definite phenomena.'' 

At the opening of the era of modern scientific discovery, 
with all its fruitful new generalizations, the still more 
highly generalized laws of epistemology and of the spiritual 
constitution of man might well baffle the physicist and lead 
his intellect to ``flounder.'' It is fundamentally necessary, 
in order to avoid such floundering, that the ``knowledge'' of 
things sensible should be kept distinct from the ``knowledge'' 
of things spiritual; yet in practice they are constantly 
confused.  When the physicist limits the term ``knowledge', 
to the conclusions from physical apprehensions, his refusal 
to extend it to conclusions from moral and spiritual 
apprehensions is merely the consequence of an illegitimate 
definition.  He relies on the validity of his perceptions of 
physical facts; but the saint and the theologian are no less 
entitled to rely on the validity of their moral and spiritual 
experiences.  In each case the data rest on an ultimate basis, 
undemonstrable, indeed to any one who denies them (even if he 
be called mad for doing so), except by the continuous process 
of working out their own proofs, and showing their consistency 
with, or necessity in, the scheme of things terrestrial on 
the one hand, or the mind and happiness of man on the other.  
The tests in each case differ; and it is as irrelevant for the 
theologian to dispute the ``knowledge'' of the physicist, by 
arguments from faith and religion, as it is for the physicist 
to deny the ``knowledge'' of the theologian from the point 
of view of one who ignores the possibility of spiritual 
apprehension altogether.  On the ground of secular history and 
secular evidence both might reasonably meet, as regards the 
facts, though not perhaps as to their interpretation; but the 
reason why they ultimately differ is to be found simply in 
the difference of their mental attitude towards the nature of 
``knowledge,'-itself a difference of opinion as to the nature of man. 

In addition to the literature cited above, see L. Stephen, An 
Agnostic's Apology (1893); R. Flint, Agnosticism (1903); T. 
Bailey Saunders, The Quest of Faith, chap. ii. (1899); A. W. Benn, 
English Rationalism in the XIXth Century (London, 1906). (H. CH.) 

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