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The terms agnosticism and agnostic were coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869. The concept however has long existed, a philosophical and theological view that the existence of God (or potentially other matters) is either unknown, or inherently unknowable. The term has since come to be commononly used to describe those who take a doubtful or noncommittal stance on the existence of God as well as various esoteric matters of world religions.

Many agnostics are people who do not believe in absolute truth. Others doubt the likelihood of various religious phenomena, and reserve judgment. Yet others believe that people can have scientific or real knowledge of phenomena, but when it comes to what lies behind phenomena there can be no evidence that entitles anyone either to deny or affirm anything. The singular characteristic of agnosticism is uncertainty or doubt.

Table of contents
1 Origin of the term
2 Modern uses
3 Some Views Within Agnosticism
4 Origins of agnosticism
5 The logic of Agnosticism
6 See also
7 External references

Origin of the term

The word agnostic comes from the Greek a (no) and gnosis (knowledge). Among the most famous agnostics (in the original sense) were Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Bertrand Russell. Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian is considered a classic text about agnosticism. It has been argued from his works, especially Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, that David Hume was an agnostic, this however remains subject to debate.

Agnosticism is not to be confused with a view specifically opposing the doctrine of gnosis and Gnosticism - these are religious concepts that are not generally related to agnosticism.

Modern uses

Most modern uses focus on the question of the existence of God rather than a broad range of metaphysical questions. The term may be applied to the simple failure to hold that God does or does not exist (i.e., not taking a stand). In this sense, the twentieth century logical positivists, such as Rudolph Carnap and A. J. Ayer, who viewed that any talk of God and perforce considerations of whether one can know that God exists are simply nonsense; would count as agnostics. The " freethinking" tradition of atheism calls "agnosticism," used in this sense, "weak atheism" (or "negative atheism"). However, some critics have pointed out that many agnostics live as if there were no God, not as if there were one, which makes agnosticism in their eyes a brand of atheism. And of course non-atheists and impartial data collection services [1] [1] display the common use of the term, distinct from atheism (along with secular, non-religious or a variety of other catagories some prefer to include) in its lack of rejecting the existance of God.

The term has many uses, however. One alternative first suggested by Huxley states, "In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable" (Huxley, Agnosticism, 1889). A. W. Momerie has noted that this is nothing but a definition of honesty. Huxley's usual definition went beyond mere honesty, however, and he insisted that these metaphysical issues were fundamentally unknowable.

Some Views Within Agnosticism

Origins of agnosticism

Agnostic views are as old as philosophical skepticism. But the terms "agnostic" and "agnosticism" were applied by Huxley to sum up his thoughts from that time's contemporary developments of metaphysics about the "unconditioned" (Hamilton) and the "unknowable" (Herbert Spencer). It is important, therefore, to discover Huxley's own views on the matter. Though Huxley 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 discussed his views extensively:

"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, May 6, 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. I 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 who 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:

"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."

Huxley's agnosticism is believed to be a natural consequence of the intellectual and philosophical conditions of the 1860s, when clerical intolerance was trying to suppress scientific discoveries which appeared to clash with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis and other established christian doctrines. Agnosticsm should not, however, be confused with deism, pantheism or other science positive forms of theism.

The logic of Agnosticism

In order to understand the logic of the position adopted by agnostics, it is necessary to understand the correct parsing of statements of belief or knowledge. Such statements are not about facts, but about other statements. In the jargon of the logician, they are second-order predicates.

There are two possible statements as to the facts either God Exists or God does not exist. Since X can either agree or disagree with each, there are a total of four possibilities:

Joining these with a conjunction, one can derive four possibilities:

1. The Theist agrees with the statement God Exists AND does not agree with the statement God does not exist

2. The (strong) Atheist does not agree with the statement God Exists AND agrees with the statement God does not exist

3. The Agnostic (or weak atheist) does not agree with the statement God Exists AND does not agree with the statement God does not exist

4. But one cannot agree with the statement God Exists AND agree with the statement God does not exist, since it implies agreement with the statement God Exists & God does not exist. Similarly, the agnostic position implies that the agnostic does not agree with the statement God Exists & God does not exist.

It is clear that the agnostic position is an intermediate between strong atheism and theism.

There are two other points to note. The first is that it is unnecessary to draw a distinction between belief and knowledge; to claiming agnosticism is about knowledge, while atheism/theism is about belief. This is a furphy, since knowledge implies belief one cannot intelligibly KNOW that X and not also BELIEVE that X.

The second is that it is not true that the presence of a belief in a god and the absence of a belief in a god exhaust all of the possibilities. There are four, not two, possible positions.

See also

External references