What is agnosticism? Much like the question “What is atheism,” I’ll start with some basic definitions and then move on from there. Going back to Google, I chose the first few results that turned up:
1. Wikipedia says: the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable.
2. The Catholic encyclopedia defines it as: A philosophical theory of the limitations of knowledge, professing doubt of or disbelief in some or all of the powers of knowing possessed by the human mind.
3. Dictionary.com has this to say: an intellectual doctrine or attitude affirming the uncertaintyof all claims to ultimate knowledge.
Again we find some overlap, but again we also see some pretty significant differences between definitions. One thing seems fairly clear, though. When we talk about atheism, we are talking about belief. When we talk about agnosticism, we are talking about knowledge. This, however, is where things can also tend to get a little vague. When talking about belief and knowledge in an “every day” sense, we switch back and forth between using the two concepts on a somewhat arbitrary basis. For example, I might say “I am going to A&P class this afternoon.” Is this a statement of knowledge or belief, or a statement of what I believe I know, or a statement about what I know I believe? While this example may sound a little silly (because it surely is, on a few levels,) this apparent conflict between what we know and what we believe can be a stumbling block of some significance when discussing more fanciful ideas, like gods.
So, let’s see which of the three definitions we like and dislike, and why. Definition #3 has one glaring issue with it, and that of course is the word ultimate (substitute ‘absolute’ or ‘100%’ to taste.) Once a person has set the knowledge phaser to “ultimate”, we really don’t have much choice but to admit our resulting uncertainty. But of course ultimate knowledge is a canard, setting us up for what is likely (who knows?) an unobtainable standard before we can make any knowledge claims. At best, this definition is a safeguard against holding to our knowledge claims dogmatically. Admitting that we may indeed be wrong about what we think we know is the surest path towards increasing our knowledge about any number of things. So while putting the small footnote “…but I might be wrong” after every knowledge claim might be the most intellectually honest thing we can do, it seems unnecessary once the red herring of ultimate knowledge has been properly noted and filleted.
Definition #2 seems at first blush to be significantly more workable (which is quite surprising, given its origin.) I suppose it mostly poses a challenge depending on how you read it. If we choose “professing disbelief in all of the powers of knowing possessed by the human mind,” we find ourselves in much the same boat as definition #3. This stance (presumably the result of a human mind) would seem to be a bit self-defeating, unless its author is also including this very definition in the realm of disbelief. And there we see the inherent issue with the definition: we simply have to stand somewhere, in relation to “knowing.” While it doesn’t explicitly say so, this definition seems to be nodding towards ultimate knowledge, just like definition #3. No, we cannot know with %100 certainty that we are not mistaken about any number of things. But, we don’t have to. We can acknowledge the fact that we are working with imperfect knowledge, and move forward with provisional information open to revision.
Coming at last to definition #1, we find what I can accept as a workable definition of agnosticism. It acknowledges that we generally only employ the word agnostic when talking about supernatural claims of one kind or another. After all, if we can be mistaken about more mundane claims, how much more might we be mistaken about the supernatural? None of this is to say that adopting a stance of mild agnosticism makes supernatural claims any more likely to be true. It merely acknowledges that such claims have nothing to recommend them, and indeed may never fall within the sphere of human knowledge. This is the point at which skeptics (myself among them) begin to pile on, rightfully asserting that the number of knowledge claims that we should be technically agnostic about are legion. A person could literally dream up thousands of deities, each and every one of which would be equally undisprovable by current and potentially future avenues of knowledge. How much time should we realistically be obliged to spend on making sure that we are agnostic with regards to all of them? Not much, I’m afraid. A simple reminder of how the burden of proof works will satisfy our needs, while still acknowledging that we remain open to new evidence (if and when it presents itself.)
I would like to end with a quote from John Harris’s essay “Wicked or Dead”, which helps to highlight one of the differences between atheism and agnosticism: “…there is no significant difference between saying ‘I do not believe there is a God’ and ‘I believe that there is no God.’ One sounds more decisive, that’s all. Atheism is the settled conviction that there is no God. Agnosticism about the existence of God is the inability to come to a conclusion on that question.” In other words, a person can know what they believe, while admitting that certainty may never be possible.
In my final installment, I will look at how atheism and agnosticism can (and should) happily coexist. We will answer some interesting questions, including “When we say we “know” something, do we really mean that we believe it strongly, for what we feel are good reasons?”