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Thomas Henry Huxley and agnosticism

Note: This article is largely based on an out-of-copyright 1911 encyclopedia article. This material has been removed from the article on agnosticism. It is written from the viewpoint of its time of writing and place of origin, and needs extensive editing to bring it up to date and to conform with the Wikipedia NPOV policy.

Origins of agnosticism

Agnostic views are as old as philosophical scepticism. But the expressions "agnostic" and "agnosticism" were applied by T. H. Huxley to sum up his deductions from (on that time) 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 beliefs 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, the 6th 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. 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:

"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 coyer 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 fi-yvowTos (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 misstated 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 belief about certain objects—among them the Deity— can never have any "scientific" ground. This way of solving, or passing over, the ultimate problems of thought has had many followers. It has been popular in cultured and scientific circles that were tired of dogmatic creeds of contemporary orthodoxy. The support of agnosticism by eminent physicists like Huxley greatly influenced modern metaphysical speculations and even the form that 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 in their denunciations, so callow freethinkers—following Tennyson's path of "honest doubt"—classed themselves with the agnostics—even while they combined an instinctively Christian theism with a facile rejection of the historical evidences for Christianity.

Huxley's agnosticism was a natural consequence of the intellectual and philosophical conditions of the 1860s, 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 canon 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. The physicist's duty and success lie in pinning belief solely on verification by physical phenomena, when they alone are in question. 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. 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.