Why Agnosticism Probably Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

Agnostics are often characterized as ambivalent or wishy-washy fence sitters who refuse to make up their minds. But there's much more to agnosticism than these tired misconceptions, including a stricter adherence to scientific principles than those typically invoked by atheists.

Top image: "The Eye of God" Helix Nebula (NGC 7293). Credit: Hubble/NASA/Rogelio Bernal Andreo.

The current culture war doesn't leave much room for agnostics. Atheists and theists are battling it out for memetic supremacy, each side making cocksure proclamations as to whether or not God truly exists. Theists make the case for God by appealing to faith, scripture, or any number of now-archaic arguments. Atheists take the diametrically opposed stance, arguing that there's no reason to believe that a supreme being exists.

And woe betide anyone who dares to complexify the polarized nature of this debate. As far as this battle is concerned, the answer is either black or white; there's no tolerance for nuance or doubt.

The vociferousness of these sentiments have largely forced agnosticism to the philosophical sidelines. That and some fairly serious misconceptions as to what it really means. These days, agnosticism is often mischaracterized as an undecided response to a question. And in fact, the term is frequently applied outside of a religious context when describing things for which we haven't yet made an opinion. For example, we can say we're "agnostic" about climate change, neither believing it or disbelieving it. Alternately, it's used to express our ambivalence about something, using the term to equate to such sentiments as, "I don't care," "I don't really want to know," or "I don't even want to think about it."

But this casual usage of the term betrays its original purpose, an epistemological stance and methodology in which skepticism and empiricism — two hallmarks of the scientific method — takes center stage.

'To An Unknown God'

To understand what it means to be agnostic about the existence of God, it's important to understand where the term came from.

Back in 1869, T. H. Huxley coined the term to counter the rampant dogmatism exhibited by many of his peers. Unwilling to subscribe to another "ism", and inspired by a reference in the Bible to an "unknown God," he came up with the word "agnostic." The word, said Huxley, was "suggestively antithetic to the 'gnostic' of church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant." And indeed, the term was never intended to be some go-between between atheism and theism; the absence of an "ism" was quite deliberate.

Huxley was convinced that humanity cannot and will never know the ultimate origin and causes of the universe. In this sense he was a Kantian skeptic — a subscriber to the notion that we cannot know the world because the mind's structures are a distorting influence on our knowledge of what is real. This is what Kant referred to as the Veil of Perception — an idea that's reminiscent (though not as severe) as Cartesian skepticism (i.e. 'the only known truth is one's own self-awareness'). Ultimately, Huxley thought that arguments about the transcendental and metaphysical (though possibly meaningful) were empirically untestable.

What's remarkable about Huxley's skepticism was his stance against certainty and those who refused to doubt — especially those who insisted that their theism or atheism must be true.

Moreover, Huxley's agnosticism was more than just stubborn skepticism — it was a methodology. As noted by the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor:

He saw agnosticism as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. But he refused to see it as a creed in the traditional sense of the word, and saw it far more as a method. The method he had in mind is broadly that which underpins scientific inquiry. It means, on the one hand, taking one's reason as far as it will go and, on the other, not accepting anything as true unless it is somehow demonstrable.

Which he rightly compares to Buddhist philosophy:

All traditions of Buddhism agree that one should not believe something simply for the sake of believing it, but only if it can somehow be demonstrated as true, if it can be realised in some practical way.

The Unknown Unknowns

Indeed, many agnostics are skeptical of those who claim to have all the answers in regards to life, the universe, and everything. They view hardcore atheists and devout believers with equal scorn — and they often see the two camps exhibiting the same kind of overzealousness when making their case and propagating their views. To the agnostic, it's just as important to prove the existence of God as it is to disprove God's existence; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

What's more, and as noted by philosopher Gary Gutting:

Atheism may be intellectually viable, but it requires its own arguments and can't merely cite the lack of decisive evidence for religion. Further, unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism...remains a viable alternative. The no-arguments argument for atheism fails.

Agnostics also argue that, because there are so many scientific questions about existence that remain unanswered, it's grossly premature to start speaking of incontrovertible certainties. For example, consciousness is a vexing "hard problem". And there's no shortage of metaphysical explanations for our existence and the presence of the universe, including quantum-fueled multiverse theories, spontaneously forming space brains, computer simulations, string theoried multidimensionality, the presence of what appears to be a finely tuned universe, and black holes that spew out a never-ending chain of black hole-spewing universes.

Stunting Science?

But many atheists counter — and with good reason — that too much skepticism can be a problem. Indeed, when taken to an extreme, skepticism can be quite debilitating and even harmful to the scientific method.

Take, for example, the absurd verificationism of the logical positivists of the early 20th century. According to their theory of knowledge, the only statements that are cognitively meaningful are those that can be verified either logically or empirically. Though fashionable among epistemologists for a time, it was eventually counter-argued that such a strict criterion for verifiability made universal statements practically meaningless — which would pose an unreasonable restriction on what could be considered science.

Karl Popper was a vociferous critic of logical positivism. He argued that science cannot move forward without falsifiable predictions. What's more, he found tremendous value in metaphysics, which he viewed as an important requirement for the development of new scientific theories. Popper believed that an unfalsifiable concept (and thus an unscientific and perhaps metaphysical concept) in one era can, later, through evolving knowledge or technology, eventually become falsifiable, and thus scientific.

As Bertrand Russell once said "Skepticism, while logically impeccable, is psychologically impossible, and there is an element of frivolous insincerity in any philosophy which pretends to accept it."

It's an important lesson that should be heeded by both atheists and agnostics. When it comes to "knowledge," a certain pragmatism is required; having knowledge is about believing with appropriate justification what is true. Knowledge can be highly probable, but never certain.

The Agnostic Atheist

Now, all this philosophizing is fine and well, but how are we to live? Just what, exactly, are we supposed to believe and value? Personally, my agnosticism on the matter of God is tilted heavily in favor of disbelief. My day-to-day is rooted under the presumption of atheism, which in turn has led me to adopt secular humanist and secular Buddhist values. But epistemologically, I know that I cannot know about God or other metaphysical unknowns. This is why I describe myself as an agnostic atheist, a "belief system" that's referred to as agnosto-atheism.

And I'm not alone. Outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins has admitted that he's agnostic because he cannot disprove the existence of God. On a scale from 1 to 7, he says he's a 6.9 in terms of the certainty of his beliefs, adding that, "I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very, very low."

Nick Spencer of The Guardian also supports agnostic atheism, arguing that agnosticism can most certainly be accompanied by an overarching metaphysical — or materialist — conviction:

And that points us to a difficulty with agnosticism. Attitudes are fine but they need to be about something. Adjectives need nouns. If Huxley was indeed an agnostic, he was an agnostic atheist, tending away from the divine but unwilling (so he claimed) to be too dogmatic about it.

Thus understood, we all need a dash of agnosticism – of appropriate intellectual reserve in the face of the big questions. The dogmatic alternative, familiar to us as "fundamentalism", is neither appealing nor helpful.

But we should not imagine agnosticism is a complete and sufficient metaphysical position. The question is not simply whether you are an agnostic, but what kind of agnostic you are.

So what kind of agnostic are you?

Sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy | New York Times | Guardian | The Week

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