Bill Schultz O Hair A

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.)

~~~~~~~~~~ SNIP ~~~~~~~~~~