On Agnosticism

We are able to believe, with every fiber of our being,
That a thing may be impossible, but true
We convince ourselves of miracles—accept them without seeing—
It’s a fairly common thing for us to do

Though we’re able to be skeptical of other peoples’ view
We retain our own illusions, even so.
If God actually existed; if a miracle was true;
If it wasn’t false belief, how could we know?

My aggregator sent me to the Oxford University Press blog, to an article “Religious Belief: A Natural Phenomenon With Natural Causes“. The essay explores Bayesian inference and Hume’s essay on Miracles. Not the best, nor the worst, treatment of the topic I have seen, but it did lead to today’s verse.

And it got me thinking about something I have thought about quite a bit recently–you see, my aggregator sent me to another place (I have forgotten where) where the writer was trying to clear up some vocabulary, and asserted (confidently, and wrongly) that agnosticism was the middle ground between positive belief and positive disbelief in God. (Never “a god”, always “God”, which is the first sign of assuming things not in evidence.) Anyway, I wanted to muse a little bit about agnosticism.

I had always been taught that agnosticism is best approached not as a personal thing–whether one claims to know or not know a thing (in this case, about the existence of or reality of a god)–but as a global thing–whether it is possible at all to know a thing (ditto). So, assuming a god exists (let’s call it, or him, God… and Him), could we possibly know? As advertised, of course, I would have to say “no”. I cannot know (though I could believe) that God was omniscient: what tests could I give Him, that would not be something a demigod (or Satan, or IBM’s Watson) could also pass? I cannot know that God was omnipotent: what tests could I give Him? Omnipresent? Suppose I could literally see Him (not metaphorically conclude his presence from what I actually do see) everywhere I look–I am physically unable to look everywhere; I cannot conclude omnipresence. Could I know, with my human imperfections (in sensation, perception, thought, and memory) that He is perfect?

I cannot see any other position than agnosticism, globally, and so am personally agnostic. I make the same claims for scientific knowledge as well; science, though, is accustomed to the concept of provisional truth, truth that is acted on as if it were bedrock, but which may be updated if new evidence comes along.

So I am a “hard agnostic”; I don’t know, and neither do you. But of course, that does not stop anyone from believing, or not believing. We do not need perfect knowledge in order to come to a conclusion. To believe it without the willingness to change (provisionally, that is) requires faith, though.


  1. k_machine says

    The way I see it, you’re either a believer or non-believer. Since agnostics do not worship gods, I think they’re in fact non-believers/atheists.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    My sister fully admits she cannot *know* whether there is a god, but she believes there is, and makes a virtue out of faith: “It’s not important *what* you believe, just *that* you do.”

    I, of course, disagree.

    But she is clearly an agnostic believer.

  3. Cuttlefish says

    Come to think of it, Pascal’s Wager is an appeal to agnostics to believe despite a lack of knowledge.

    And the “Certum Est Quia Impossibile Est” argument proudly embraces not just a lack of knowledge, but an understanding of the impossibility of some of the claims of the religious.

    Certainly, a great many believers want to convince us that the evidence points to a god, but this is absolutely not a constant among believers!

  4. AMM says

    The way I see it, you’re either a believer or non-believer. Since agnostics do not worship gods, I think they’re in fact non-believers/atheists.

    There are two kinds of people: those who believe there are (only) two kinds of people, and those who don’t.

    In this case: there are those who believe it is up to them to decide what other people “really” are, regardless of what those people may say about themselves, and there are those….

  5. Cuttlefish says

    I dunno, AMM, I think there is a case to be made for assigning definitions at times. Certainly, it is important to know what people self-identify as, but if we left it there, there would be far fewer bigots in the world, and a lot more (self-identified) non-bigots who behave precisely as bigots do.

    I have no problem identifying non-believers as atheists even when they do not self-identify that way–for some purposes, at least. And I have no problem recognizing that they have valid reasons for not self-identifying that way, for (perhaps) other purposes. My problem, in this case, is simply that not all agnostics are non-believers.

  6. corwyn says

    I cannot know that God was omnipotent: what tests could I give Him?

    Quite right. Omnipresent (et al), by itself, requires infinite evidence. This is a simple consequence of Bayes’ Theorem.

    However, if you want to define gnosticism as being absolutely certain, then the same math proves, that too is impossible. And we are ALL agnostic, about EVERYTHING. Which makes the word a bit redundant.

  7. says

    While I think it is worth acknowledging the logical impossibility of absolute certainty, I don’t think it deserves much more than a footnote. There are a wide variety of solipsistic-type ideas — brain-in-vat, universe-as-a-simulation, justnowism — and they can be fun to think about, but they are scientifically untouchable, by construction.

    I struggled as an adolescent, over how to deal with the implied certainty of the word atheist, versus the lack of emphasis on the absence of belief implied by the word agnostic. I was quite pleased to discover Bertrand Russell’s essay, “Am I Atheist or Agnostic?” which I felt completely settled the matter. Some time later I was describing that position to a friend, who responded (paraphrasing): “of course no one means they know there are no gods or goddesses, because no one can know — the word atheist must imply some degree of agnosticism, otherwise it doesn’t really mean anything”.

    A. C. Grayling & Richard Dawkins were in an iq2 debate several years ago, debating two catholic apologists, and the subject of Dawkins’ seven point scale of theistic belief came up — in his book Dawkins laid out a seven point scale: 1 being a theist who is absolutely certain a god exists, 7 being an atheist who is absolutely certain no gods exist, and 2-6 being varying levels of confidence in belief in between. Dawkins then said he himself was a 6.5 or a 6.9, and I think in the book he also says he doesn’t expect many people to say they are sevens. And when I read that I agreed, but then in this debate A. C. Grayling gave this gem:

    Truth is a very very, hard thing to find, except in local empirical circumstances. Much much more significant than that is rationality. And the word rationality is a very interesting one. The first part of it, ratio, is about proportioning evidence to the conclusions that you derive from it. It means being guided by your very best exploration of the evidence, your very best, most responsible reasonings, and submitting things to public test and debate. Rationality is the key. To behave, to think, and to believe, rationally, on the basis of evidence, that is the surest path towards truth. You have to remember what Voltaire said, “I will defend with my life the person who is seeking the truth, but I will not be so keen on the person who claims to have it.” Finally, there is one big difference between Richard Dawkins and myself on the question of the 6.5, and agnosticism [(on Dawkins’ 7 point scale of theistic belief)]. I am not one little bit agnostic about fairies, or pixies, or goblins, and so on for all the other super natural agencies that might be invoked… And for exactly the same kind of rational, I hope, reasons, I’m not agnostic about deities and gods and goddesses and the rest of it.

    After hearing Grayling I immediately adopted the 7 position. And I’ve begun taking up the position that if the words “certainty” and “proof” are to mean anything at all, surely they can be applied to many familiar topics. (Elsewhere Grayling has also pointed out the word “proof” really means “a convincing argument,” but that many people have begun to take it to mean something much stronger that only really shows up in mathematics, though that is really the origin of the term there as well.) I am certain (insofar as the word means anything), that the Earth is approximately spherical. And I am equally certain that the gods and goddesses worshiped by humans for the last several millennia were all the product of human imagination & ignorance — pareidolia shaped by natural selection — rather than physical, or even logical possibilities. In fact I’ve begun to argue that the very concept of supernaturalism, that something can exist outside of nature, is logically incoherent. (This of course drives a lot of people wild, but it also traps them in bizarre positions, like arguing that we can’t know, with certainty, that Harry Potter is fictional — it gets quite absurd.)

    As I said at the top, I think it’s worth acknowledging the existence of solipsism, but beyond mere acknowledgement it really gets us absolutely no where, whereas granting that single assumption — that we can gather at least some reliable information about the universe — really gets us this incredibly broad, deep, and detailed picture of the universe, of nature, of our history, and our future.

  8. says

    Re: Cody Reisdorf

    I’ve had similar thoughts as Grayling on fairies, goblins, and other mythical creatures. But rather than use that to say I’m a 7 on Dawkins’ scale, I instead say I’m a 6.9 for all of those fairy tales, and lump gods in with the rest. There’s really no reason to treat gods differently from other mythical creatures, but like you illustrated in your first paragraph, we can’t be absolutely 100% certain about anything. The scale is just made up anyway, so 6.9 vs. 7.0 isn’t a huge deal, especially when you explain to people what you really mean by it.

  9. doublereed says

    Such conversations I always find troublesome because it’s all this hoity toity perfect information nonsense which is not what anyone means when they talk about beliefs or even statements of truths.

    Like when somebody says they know something, like the Statue of Liberty is green, they aren’t talking about perfect information or absolute certainty. That’s not what people mean.

    Absolute certainty is useless and worthless and completely impractical, so it’s pointless to discuss in real terms. The discussion is purposefully obfuscated to say as little as possible about a person’s real beliefs. Hard agnosticism denies practical aspects of knowledge and cedes too much to woo.

    God doesn’t exist. I know that almost as well as I know the Statue of Liberty is green.

  10. says

    “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” ~ Thomas Huxley, 1884

    At a time when the narrow, “no god”, definition of “atheist” was, by far, the common usage, Huxley gave us agnosticism. People had been looking for a word to describe no belief and a broader definition of “atheist” wasn’t common usage, or even common knowledge. Being a scientist, above all else, he presented agnosticism as a form of demarcation. No evidence = untestable/unfalsifiable = unobjective/unscientific, results…inconclusive. No belief, as to the truth, or falsehood, of the proposition.

    He, in no way, shape, or form, considered agnosticism compatible with theistic or atheistic belief…

    “Consequently Agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology. On the whole, the “bosh” of heterodoxy is more offensive to me than that of orthodoxy, because heterodoxy professes to be guided by reason and science, and orthodoxy does not.”

    “That which Agnostics deny and repudiate, as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions.”

    “Theism and Atheism; the doctrine of the soul and its mortality or immortality–appear in the history of philosophy like the shades of Scandinavian heroes, eternally slaying one another and eternally coming to life again in a metaphysical “Nifelheim.” It is getting on for twenty-five centuries, at least, since mankind began seriously to give their minds to these topics. Generation after generation, philosophy has been doomed to roll the stone uphill; and, just as all the world swore it was at the top, down it has rolled to the bottom again.”

    He, did not consider it a dogmatic position…

    “The extent of the region of the uncertain, the number of the problems the investigation of which ends in a verdict of not proven, will vary according to the knowledge and the intellectual habits of the individual Agnostic. I do not very much care to speak of anything as “unknowable.” What I am sure about is that there are many topics about which I know nothing; and which, so far as I can see, are out of reach of my faculties. But whether these things are knowable by any one else is exactly one of those matters which is beyond my knowledge, though I may have a tolerably strong opinion as to the probabilities of the case. Relatively to myself, I am quite sure that the region of uncertainty–the nebulous country in which words play the part of realities –is far more extensive than I could wish.”

    The broader definition of atheism has only become somewhat more popular in the last 30 years, or so…

    ” In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter.

    The introduction of this new interpretation of the word ‘atheism’ may appear to be a piece of perverse Humpty-Dumptyism, going arbitrarily against established common usage. ‘Whyever’, it could be asked, ‘don’t you make it not the presumption of atheism but the presumption of agnosticism?'” ~ Antony Flew, 1984

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