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Agnosticism – A definition

Many people like to postulate on the great metaphysical questions of human. Many people like to think that God exists, others like to think that He does not. But there is a third category of people: those who do not like to deal with such questions because of lack of relative evidence. These people are called “agnostics”. The terms agnostic and agnosticism were created by Huxley to sum up his thoughts on contemporary developments of metaphysics about the “unconditioned” (Hamilton) and the “unknowable” (Herbert Spencer).

Thomas Henry Huxley

What I will demonstrate in this article is that if someone defines himself as “agnostic” he must not believe in anything concerning science and life. Or, in other words, someone who calls himself a “scientist” (thus, he believes in what we call “science” – see below) cannot at the same time call himself an “agnostic” and avoid questions about God in such a crude and un-scientific way…

I will achieve that by analyzing the nature of “knowledge” and by showing that there can be no such thing as “certain” knowledge: for us to say something about anything, we must have faith in something! There is nothing for which we have ALL the evidence required for us to “know” – after all who decides which is the level of knowledge required for someone to “know”? Noone.

The implications of that fact are very important especially for agnosticism: one cannot say “I don’t know” in some areas of knowledge but “claim” that he/she “knows” in others…

Faith or Evidence?

Many people rely solely on evidence to believe something. Others rely only on faith. Others – most of us actually – rely both on hard evidence and soft indications (i.e. evidence + faith up to a point) to believe in something. The first two categories of people are the extremes and these extremes make a very good job in trying to convince everyone that you must either rely on evidence or on faith exclusively so as to actually “know” if something is true. This is far from correct.

I will demonstrate by using simple human logic that such thing as “absolute knowledge” does not actually exist and that believing in anything always contains some degree of faith. This has a great implication as far as “agnosticism” is concerned: you must either choose to believe nothing (since every knowledge contains some “faith”) or to believe something about every question you deal with, but you CANNOT say “I don’t have evidence, thus I cannot have an opinion on this”…

The myth of absolute knowledge

Science uses evidence to reach to conlusions about the world. Scientists apply the tool of “logic” to these “hard” evidence and formulate theories that explain the world and, most importantly, predict the future behaviour of systems. So is the knowledge gained via this scientific method valid? Is what we learn via evidence and logic induction “real”? The answer is that we cannot be certain.

First of all, induction is a logical tool that can be used to draw great conclusions, but it is not a perfect tool. Its limits are the actual limits of our knowledge. Lets say you decide to formulate a scientific theory about frogs. You observe a frog and see that it is green and likes water. Then you observe another frog and see that it is also green and likes water. Then another, another, another and another…So by using logical induction you state your grand theory: “Frogs are green and they like water”. Have you discovered the truth? Should others believe you? Lets say they do and you become the world’s greatest “frogologist”…Everything seem fine, until you discover a black frog…

How do you decide when there is enough evidence to base one theory on? How does one scientist knows when to stop collecting data and start writing his theory? The answer is simple: he cannot know when to stop. So believing the conclusions science draws from the scarse evidence it has entails believing that induction actually “works” for the case we examine [1] [2].

Secondly, what do we know of the limits of our thought? As Wittgenstein well put it, we cannot know the limits of our thought because in doing so we should be able to think of what we cannot think! How do we then know if our senses totally fool us? How can we be certain that our brain functions correctly? And what does “correctly” mean anyway? The answer to such philosophical questions is quite simple: we cannot be certain of anything. So believing the results of science means that one must also believe that we think correctly, that nothing out of our brain reach exists and so on…

See my knol Religional Science for more details on the post-modern philosophy of Wittgenstein.

Following from the above, Science can create theories but cannot tell us anything about the “truth” of the world we live in. Science can create models of gravity, but is unable to say whether “gravity” is something real or not. The knowledge we have via science is relative and not absolute. And even if it is, we will neven know it. Please refer to my knol for The Limits of Science for a more detailed analysis of the matter.

The implications to agnosticism

When some people who BELIEVE in science are asked about the great metaphysical questions of humans (e.g. “Does God exists?”, “Why do we exist?” etc), they answer that the lack of evidence does not allow them to carry an opinion on these issues. Can this be a possible answer? No.

The reason why agnosticism is not a viable answer for someone who believes in science, is simple and based on what I have mentioned above for the myth of “absolute” truth. As described above, believing in science contains the notion of “faith”. So one cannot see the “lack of evidence” as a problem, while deciding to just ignore the same problem in another field of knowledge (you believe that all frogs are green because the great frogologist told you so, even though you do not have observed ALL the frogs in the Universe).

So the possibilities are:

1. You are a complete agnostic: You do not believe in absolutely ANYTHING, since believing in anything means having observed ALL possible data, KNOWING that your mind works correctly, being CERTAIN that your mind can think for what you think and so on.

2. You have an opinion, since knowing equals observing + analyzing logically + believing (see above). We can never actually “know” something, but we use that word often. That is acceptable, provided that we understand the true nature of the words we use.

3. You say that you DO NOT WANT to have an opinion. That is an absolutely valid option to choose.

However it must be noted that this has nothing to do with the often heard agnostic motto: “I do not have evidence to draw an opinion”…And it is even more weird (at least) to be a scientist and try to understand how everything in the universe works, but not want to learn why do you exist or what is the reason behind the existence of the whole universe…

In other words, if you have no problem using number π or the suare root of 2, then you do not have the “right” to use the excuse of “lack of evidence” when it comes to questions like “does God exist?”. If you use the idea of “infinite” in mathematics, then you cannot say that people who claim that God is infinite and exists do not have reliable evidence. If you believe in the existence of a number you cannot even write down on paper (see 3,14159…), then how can you use the excuse of “we cannot know” or claim that “I don’t want to know” when it comes to the meaning of your own life? If you discuss about the “Big Bang” for which you will never have empirical or experimental data, how can you not discuss about metaphysical questions?

Agnosticism is incompatible with human relations

Saying “I don’t know because I don’t have all the necessary hard evidence to draw a certain conclusion” can lead to many problems in everyday life. To put it simply, hard-core agnosticism is incompatible with everyday life and healthy human relations because it undermines the basis of human relations: trust. When a close friend tells you that he caught a very big fish the day before, would you believe him? Or would you deny even to discuss about it if your friend did not present hard evidence for the specific fish in discussion? If your wife tells you that she loves you, would you believe her? Or would you wait until specific hard evidence were presented to back-up her saying? How many evidence would it take to convince you? In life and especially in human relations many agnostics believe things without any evidence, but they tend to “forget” it or present these cases as something “different” from the cases discussed above. However the cases are similar. And to make things more complicated I would like feedback from agnostics on the following: If your son is accused of something in a court of law with all the evidence pointing towards the conclusion that he is guilty, but you really *know* your son and know he is a never-lying good kid, would you believe him if he said “I didn’t do it” ? Trust and love are things not based on evidence every time. Human relations are things not based on scientific experimental data and evidence. If you say to your wife that you love her as long as you have a list with evidence “proving” HER love to you, then this is not true love and this is not a healty human relationship. So what do you do? Would you just stop being an agnostic there?

Conclusion

Most of us apply agnosticism selectively to specific aspects of knowledge. As I have demonstrated above, human knowledge must always be based on evidence and faith at the same time – we can never be certain of something beyond any doubt! So agnosticism in some things and “knowledge” of others is not an option! Either believe, not believe or state that you do not WANT to decide – but don’t use the “lack of evidence” as an excuse for you “not knowing” in matters that may discomfort you!
And do not forget that no matter how many times an agnostic might say “I don’t know” he still cannot hide the fact that he/she constantly makes deliberate choices in his life: an agnostic who “does not know” if there is a God goes or goes-not to the church. So in his mind he does have an inclination towards one of the two possibilities.  In the same way an agnostic who “does not know” if causality exists in the worlds, looks for cause or does not look for causes in his everyday life. So in most cases the “I don’t know” is accompanied by more than specific choices that are made.

Moreover, the search for knowledge is what has driven humans to philosophy for thousands of years. Denying that reality and denying the inherent desire of humans to “know”, is simply unacceptable…If Socrates, Aristotle and Plato applied agnosticism, then we would still be eating bananas now…


As Frederick Copleston said, “If one refuses to sit down and make a move, you cannot be checkmated”. [3]
I am eagerly waiting for comments of agnostics who believe that I am wrong and they are right…
I will gladly hear anyone who can propose an objective criterion upon which we can rely so as to decide in which questions we are “allowed” to say “I know” (or, at least, have an opinion) and in which we are not. Feel free to post comments below.

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