The Essence Of Agnosticism
by Bill Schultz
The word “agnostic” was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley, and so there can only be one single point of departure for any discussion of the essence of agnosticism. That point is the definition of agnosticism chosen by Huxley himself:
Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle. Positively, the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, follow your reason as far as it can take you without other considerations. And negatively, in matters of the intellect, do not pretend that matters are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable.
— “Agnosticism”, 1889
In all respects, Huxley’s agnosticism is an epistemology; a method for sorting what is “true” from what is “untrue.” But at the same time, the word “agnosticism” creates a third category for what is “unknown,” or “uncertain,” and which, therefore, cannot presently be categorized as either “true” or “untrue.”
Anyone who believes that human knowledge must be less than god-like must acknowledge the imperfection of human knowledge, whether considered in the past, present, or future tenses. All Huxley states is that for those forms and types of knowledge for which no demonstrable facts exist in support or in opposition, we MUST assign all such matters to the third category of the unknown, and if we cannot even conceive of a demonstrable fact which might prove the matter one way or the other, then that knowledge is clearly unknowable, at least so far as our present understanding of the matter can go.
Any epistemology will undoubtedly interact with the metaphysical world-view of the person adopting that epistemology. Agnosticism is no exception to this rule, and thus modern usage equates the term with the naturally resulting metaphysical world-view of agnosticism. For this reason, a typical definition of agnosticism given by several dictionaries would assert that an agnostic believes the nature of god is unknown, and is probably unknowable.
This extension of the concept of agnosticism is at odds with the beliefs of Huxley himself, who continued to vigorously assert:
That it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can provide evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts and in my opinion, is all that is essential to agnosticism.
— “Agnosticism and Christianity”, 1889
Whether you choose to leave agnosticism as nothing more than the epistemology of scientific facts and logical reasoning, or you adopt the modern view that this epistemology naturally interacts with your metaphysical world-view in order to produce a uniquely agnostic world view, probably including a view as to the nature of God, there is one thing which is certain: agnosticism denies the validity of facts which MUST be taken on pure faith alone. There is no place in agnosticism for facts which are “not demonstrable.” There is no place in agnosticism for conclusions which are not supported by both demonstrable facts and a logical reasoning process to reach the asserted conclusion.
This by no means ensures that agnostics will always assert only conclusions that are ultimately true. Nor does it imply that agnosticism is merely a synonym for “I don’t know.” It is true that many agnostics will say “I don’t know” in reply to metaphysical questions. But that response merely means that those agnostics lack either the demonstrable facts or the logical chain of reasoning which would allow them to reach a proper conclusion for the assertion under consideration.
Do not forget that, even limiting yourself to the premise of the Huxley quote, agnosticism has a two part definition. The second part requires an “I don’t know” response when the proposition under consideration lacks either demonstrable facts or a proper chain of logical reasoning in support of it. But, and this is very important, the demand of the first part of the definition of agnosticism is that an agnostic will not hesitate to declare a proposition true or false based on the demonstrable evidence and a logical chain of reasoning in support of the proposition which rests on that evidence.
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.
The text of this essay is Copyright © 1996, by William A. Schultz. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of the author.