What Is Agnosticism? (1981)

H. J. Blackham

[This article was originally published in "Free Inquiry," Summer, 1981, pp. 31-33.]

Winds of Doctrine

As a definition of the limits of knowledge, "agnosticism" needs to be understood historically. Summarily and roughly, philosophy at the time of Plutarch (first century A.D.) offered six positions: on the one hand, a dogmatic Idealism or Materialism: on the other, skepticism, pragmatism, eclecticism, or fideism. The names of Plato and Democritus can be put at the head of the dogmatic traditions: Pyrrho has lent his name to fundamental skepticism; Isocrates made immensely influential a pragmatic view of philosophy; and Plutarch himself was the preeminent representative of a rational and ethical eclecticism. Perhaps Tertullian, if not Saint Paul, represents the constraints of fideism after Christian faith came into contact and conflict with Greek gnosticism.

The case for each of these positions was spelled out in verbal argument. Plato, in the Sophist (246-247), generalizes the permanent irreconcilable conflict between Idealists and Materialists as a Battle of Gods and Giants, which transcends the differences of the Idealist position; but he confidently assumed that they could not be insuperable, because knowledge was not to be had on other terms. He believed in the immortality of the rational soul and the real existence of the objects of its knowledge, which must be intelligible Ideas or Forms, independent of sense perceptions. Protagoras had already sounded the agnostic note, it may be said, with his "of all things the measure is Man," and explicitly: "As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist." But it is Isocrates who opposed the whole bent of academic philosophy in his development of the rationalizing Enlightenment of the sophists, a rationalism critical of and ready to ridicule "pure reason," the "phronesis" or idea of wisdom, which was the nuclear element in the development of Plato's though. This attainable intuitional knowledge was for Plato not only a view of all time and all existence sub specie aeternitatis but also the indispensable source of the right ordering of personal life and public affairs. Isocrates argued that no such knowledge was attainable that would suffice for all occasions and all purposes. Instead, he maintained, cultivation of the art of discourse, relevant to the whole life of civilized man and dealing with great causes and large ideas, was the best preparation for the most complete competence attainable. There was no institution devised by man that the power of speech had not helped to establish (Antidosis). The art of rhetoric and the art of thought were the same. The ability to deliberate and decide was the most versatile and useful of all abilities. This was to recommend and to teach method instead of doctrine, an open approach which, if it did not turn opinions into doctrines with the claim of knowledge, in the manner of the schools, provided a foundation for higher education and intellectual culture, a literary humanism occupied with large human affairs and concerns and addressed concretely to manifest problems with all the seriousness, but not necessarily with the detachment and never with the dryness, of the philosophic spirit. Isocrates was the most illustrious teacher of his time and made his school "the image of Athens." The pupils of Athens, as he said, became "the teachers of the rest of the word" (Panegyricus).

However, the argument of a discourse were not tautologies that could be ended with a Euclidean flourish: Q.E.D. The wits exercised in such performances were capable of producing a plausible argument on the other side that might be made to seem not less persuasive. Indeed, Protagoras had laid it down that there are two sides to every question and an opposing argument to any proposed, and he taught how to attack and refute any proposition. Since he also first introduced the Socratic method of dialogue and drew attention to distinction of tense and mood and to divisions of discourse, he pioneered development of the technical resources of argument, as well as exploiting for profit the tricks of the trade. Thus eristic theory and techniques, and what was sometimes called "methodics," became central to philosophy; and a high proportion of a philosopher's output was in this category, including even collections of refutative arguments, solutions of controversial questions, materials for argument, unscientific proofs, and the like. Diogenes Laertius listed many such works among the writings of Aristotle and Aristotle's pupil and successor, Theophrastus. Aristotle himself distinguished between methods for attaining knowledge, principally philosophical analysis, and methods of arguing in favor of the probable, principally dialectic.

With all this development of technical resources and refinements in argument in classical philosophy, there was no knock-out device to determine a definitive outcome. On the scientific side, there was systematic collections of observations in the search for causes, particularly in Aristotle's innumerable notebooks. But it is not too much to say that the manipulation of arguments and the collection of evidence (save of the kind needed in legal prosecution or defense) remained different disciplines and separate interests in classical philosophy.

At the same time, the effect on higher education of Isocrates' advocacy and successful practice of the art of disclosure as the primary intellectual discipline can hardly be exaggerated. It was a discipline that prepared men for public affairs and public employment. Themes for exercises were taken from literature, history, and moral philosophy to train men for pleading in the courts, arguing for causes in political assemblies, entertaining cultivated audiences, or simply making up their own minds. This was the foundation of the literary humanism so conspicuously successful in the Roman World at the time of the "Second Sophistic" (first two centuries A.D.) and in Europe during the Renaissance.

The First Turning-Point

In the second half of the sixteenth century, Montaigne read himself into the classical inheritance for a different purpose -- on a course of free inquiry. He discovered the interminable inconclusiveness of argument of verbal philosophy, and he ended with the ultimate doubt: Que sais-je? Blown, like Augustine, by the winds of doctrine, he could not feel safe in any of the positions; even skepticism was too unjustifiably conclusive. Pascal, reporting to his confessor on his reading, told him that he most respected Epictetus and Montaigne and, in summarizing their opinions for him, he said a discourse was to take it as it appeared and refrain from any examination, which would at once reveal difficulties and raise doubts. This is the professional routine of the philosopher and shows how brittle is the most careful discourse and how treacherous verbal answers are to free inquiry.

A little later, Francis Bacon, who, like Montaigne, was painfully aware that the whole legacy of classical philosophy was a discouragement to learning, set himself the task of reviving hope with a vision of the future inspired by the early successes of empirical methods of testing hypotheses. The loose, but reasonable, appeal to experience had to be refined as an appeal to a specifically devised experience constructed to test a particular theory. Within its limits, this was a decisive way of settling theoretical disputes. Novum Organum (1620) spelled out the new method of learning, which was to displace the literary humanism of Isocrates as the foundation of a positivist culture, obtaining knowledge piecemeal and cooperatively, provisional, corrigible, progressive, to be applied to "the relief of man's estate." Bacon, godfather of the Royal Society and acknowledged master of the philosophes in Diderot's Encyclopédie, left the winds of doctrine to blow where they listed and gave his attention to cultivation of the soil. In particular, his organum was a replacement of the magisterial Metaphysics of Aristotle and made way for the atomic model of Democritus. All the same, he did not set aside or put in question the assumption of theism. On the contrary, he counted on the new learning to fortify belief:

I had rather believe all the fables in the Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind. And therefore God never wrought miracle to convince atheism, because His ordinary works convince it. It is true that a little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion: for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no farther; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity. Nay, even that school which is most accused of atheism doth most demonstrate religion; that is, the school of Leucippus and Democritus, and Epicurus. For it is a thousand times more credible, that four mutable elements, and one immutable fifth essence duly and eternally placed, need no God; than that an army of infinite small portions, or seeds unplaced, should have produced this order and beauty without a divine Marshall. ["Of Atheism"]

Thus the clear-sighted Bacon, looking backward and forward and setting the minds of his contemporaries on the bright prospects opening up for empirical investigation and the technological manipulation of nature, had not in his own mind set science free from metaphysical assumptions and interests.

God on Trial

During this "century of genius," which produced the first spectacular fruits of modern science, those working in the fields of investigation did, like Bacon, assume that they were piecing together the divine design, enabled, as Kepler said, to "think the thoughts of God." Studying together, fraternally, the works of God, they were more blessed than students of the Word of God, who had taxed each other with heresy and soaked in blood the centuries beginning anno Domini. Science was another road to God, a second, less disputable revelation. Professional scientists, led by Newton, were amateur theologians. Since there was an order in nature that was being unraveled, it was only reasonable to assume, with Bacon, that it was the work of a rational, purposive intelligence that linked and sustained the whole. The onus was on anyone who thought otherwise to face the odds and justify his own irrationality. John Locke, who enthusiastically welcomed the new regime of empirical investigation and sought to provide its theoretical credentials, and who downgraded philosophers from architects of knowledge to under-laborers on the site of building operations, caring for the tools and preparing the ground, also was witness for the reasonableness of religious belief and excluded atheists from his republic of toleration -- on the ground that they were not bound by an oath. God was necessary politically as well as intellectually.

This general assumption that the new learning of science would not only establish positive knowledge but also bring its proofs to the overbeliefs that had been justified by unscientific proofs lasted till the end of the eighteenth century. It has been said that during this period "God was on trial."

The Second Turning-Point

The critical philosophy of David Hume, reinforced later by Kant (who said that Hume has awakened us from "dogmatic slumbers"), put in question the status and character of positive knowledge. He pointed out that it was simply knowledge of regular sequences and coexistences as presented to our observation of phenomena and did not carry or imply knowledge of causes, powers, natures, essences, or purposes. This began the disassociation of science from metaphysics, surrendering any claim on its behalf to answer general questions. With the steady progress of the sciences and the analytical attention of philosophers to what scientists were doing, it became abundantly clear that science was capable of dealing only with questions arising in the course of a line of research that were formulated in a way to provide answers that could be tested. Loose questions, general questions, first and last questions, the traditional metaphysical questions, were not a kind with which science was, or would ever be, competent to deal. During the period of trial science not only had not proved the existence of God, it had not even been able to do anything to reinforce the assumption. Laplace declared that he had no need of that hypothesis, and of course he had none. His statement was really about the irrelevance of that hypothesis to scientific business, not about its truth claim.

Thus, to look back at Bacon's statement in "Of Atheism," God's ordinary works as studied in the sciences did not "convince atheism," since they were preoccupied with "second causes scattered" and went no farther. He had begged the question when he went farther to say that Providence and Deity were necessary to link them in a chain, a rational order. Auguste Comte, too, anticipated the issue when he announced at the end of his Cours philosophique in 1851 that the servants of Humanity, theorists and practical persons, had irrevocably displaced the slaves of God and taken the management of earthly affairs into their own hands, to construct at last the true providence: moral, intellectual, and material. Comte said he was not an atheist because that was to take theology seriously, whereas the ages of theology and metaphysics were past and done with, succeeded by the positive sciences. On the side counter to Bacon in this respect, Comte claimed too much for the competence of science. But the overweening claims of theology were being checked, the onus on the unbeliever to justify his perverse irrationality reversed.

Logically, there was a return to the position of Protagoras after the lapse of more than two millennia. Science could not cope with metaphysical questions. They belonged as before to the about, the about of interminable inconclusive argument. Had science, then, made no difference? If metaphysical theories were irrelevant to the sciences, were scientific findings equally irrelevant to metaphysical theories? Even abstract arguments rely on evidence. The answer can be given in two main installments.

(1) The physical sciences in their earlier stages seemed to offer models of harmony and design, eminently attributable to a supreme intelligence. Biological studies were sooner to encounter doubts and difficulties for a teleological view. When the evidence produced by Darwin, and his theories, showed the possibility of an order in nature that was not purposive, a turning-point was reached. The ambiguity of "reason" in the interpretation of nature became apparent. There were reasons for what had happened, but not necessarily any reason. The absurdity of unbelief in a supreme reason (with or without capitals) was exposed as an unwarranted assumption. It was at this point that T.H. Huxley, Darwin's advocate, invented the word "agnosticism" (1869) to reinstate the position of Protagoras. The onus was shifted from the shoulders of the unbeliever to justify his perversity, to the shoulders of the believer to justify his belief, to show why he should be taken seriously.

(2) More indirectly, and on all fronts, scientific evidence has demolished the world in which traditional theological beliefs originated and developed. To bring them out of their context, to demythologize and reinterpret them is a delicate, maybe gratuitous, task for modern theologians; so their survival is more remarkable than impressive. Argument will go on, as always, and becomes ever more refined or sophisticated; and when religious beliefs are concerned, argument is not the whole matter and, for many, not the main matter. Intellectually, however, a disregard for religious beliefs does not have to be justified, as once it had, with its back to the wall. The boot is on the other foot. Historically, "agnosticism" does not merely mean a suspension of judgment. Rather, it means intellectual justification for a disregard of theology.

[H.J. Blackham is former president of the British Humanist Association and the author of many books on humanism and philosophy.]