Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 A - Agnosticism


Agnosticism: Term introduced by T.H. Huxley for the thesis that one does not know whether or not there is any God. (A-gnosis: no knowledge)

This seems a logically tenable position and it is possible that there are or have been a few real agnostics, but normally it seems to be a way to have one's cake and eat it - one believes there is no good evidence that there is any God, rather like one believes there is no good evidence that there is any mermaid or griffon, but one wants to avoid trouble with powerful religious believers, and therefore claims one does not know whether or not there is a God.

So here are a few mostly logical arguments and problems related to agnosticism.

1. One logical point here is that very few people really are agnostic about griffons or mermaids, in the way or for the reasons that they are or pretend to be agnostic about god, even though griffons and mermaids are at least as logically possible as an infinitely powerful, all-knowing, benevolent Maker of All, which is what many believers and unbelievers regard as a good definition of what they mean by "God".

The relevant difference that makes people usually agnostic about god's existence while being dismissive about the existence of mermaids seems to be that disbelievers in griffons or mermaids are not punished by persecution of the faithful and also do not run the risk of being sent to hell if, after all, that infinitely powerful, all-knowing, benevolent Maker of All turns out to exist, after one dies, and happens to be a Calvinist God with a large and hot and eternal hell for unbelievers.

2. A moral point here, apart from having or lacking the courage of one's opinions (which differs considerably in moral value with the risks one may run, such as an active inquisition) is that one effectively does choose whether or not one lives according to the moral and philosophical teachings of some religious faith, or one does not. To claim with an honest face that one chooses not to live or believe  according to a religious faith but that one does not really and truly know that there is no God such as the faithful pray to and believe in, seems rather a lot like saying that one acts in real life as if there are no griffons and mermaids, and as if one does not believe there are any, but is quite willing to - pretend to - believe there are, if this avoids problems with faithful believers in such things.

3. Also, there is another logical point involved for those who defend their agnosticism with the thesis that the Godhead, if He (She, It) exists, is beyond human comprehension: What one does not comprehend admits of no other inference than that one does not comprehend it, and not at all that there is something one does not comprehend ... and caused all, and is benevolent, and knows all, and is all-powerful etc. That is just a combination of wishful thinking and fallacious moral shilly-shallying.

And indeed, the rational position about what is incomprehensible is that there is very much one does not fully or at all comprehend - and that one must wait for better evidence and more research to say anything at all about it.

The rhetorical move of Tertullianus, namely "credo quia absurdum" that is "I believe" the teachings of the Church "because they are absurd", with the suggestion that one would not need to believe if they were not absurd or one could prove them as one can prove a mathematical theorem is fallacious: One cannot believe what is absurd.

4. Here also enters a related point about evidence and assumptions: Believers in a god often pretend or sincerely believe that belief in a god and disbelief in that god or any god are logically on a par, and that both belief and disbelief are a kind of belief.

This is fallacious and confused: Somebody who believes that there is something X of a certain kind K in reality posits and assumes more than somebody who does not believe so, for whatever reasons, simply because positive belief involves the positive assumption of more, possibly much more, in reality than the absence of such a belief.

Moreover, one very real difficulty with assuming a godhead that created reality such as one believes that one knows, is that this is no merely trivial and smallish addition to what one believes already, but seems to involve the positing as real of something that is at least as complicated, complex, baffling and large as all of reality: Assuming a god to explain reality is assuming at least as many complexities as one believed already in an attempt to explain these - and, unlike natural reality, without the possibility of empirical scientific experiment to test one's hypotheses.

5. All evidence I have seen about the Gods is that none of them ever appeared to me, and that it seems as if not only all thousands of divine religions except one's own are mistaken about the divinity, but more simply that all thousands of divine religions are mistaken - though all these religions do provide very good evidence for the thesis that it is very easy for a human being to delude oneself with wishful thinking, including fearful religious superstition, and be deluded by priests, who are often mostly or total hypocrites in the faith they preach, and by religious fanatics.

6. Finally, agnosticism has yet another logical problem: The fact that virtually everybody will agree that some faiths are more irrational than others. Should the agnostic also be agnostic about the degree of irrationality of a faith?

In the same vein: Should an agnostic be agnostic about the (un)wisdom of adding ever more hypotheses - say: of gods, of devils, of saints, of spooks, of ghosts, of dragons, of .... - all of which may be eminently understandable when conceived of as wishful thinking but rather whacky, at least, and with hardly any evidence from a scientific point of view?

My brief answer is wholly along the lines of Hume and Clifford:

"A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence."
    (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding)

"It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence"
   (W.K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief)

And I do not know of any religion that makes sense reasonably, which also is not a good reason to be agnostic about its possible existence, but which is a good reason to be positive there probably is none.

Also see: Atheism, Clifford, Religion



 Original: Aug 8, 2004                                                 Last edited:12 December 2011.   Top