One of the first pieces I ever wrote on the web was about agnosticism. Before James died there was little spare time for writing nevermind spare time for thought. I had recently opened a personal web page. I decided to put some time into it. Agnosticism was my chosen subject. When I put finger to keys, I realized I had very little formal exposure to the topic. Well twelve years later, here is an update.

The term agnosticism seems to be used commonly in two senses, firstly specifically with respect to god and the divine in general, and more commonly these days with the profane. For example, I could accurately say, I am agnostic on the subject on whether there has ever been life on Mars. But if someone put a gun to my head and said, “Make a bet.” I would bet against the proposition.

Of course, the concept of agnosticism has been around for millennia. Huxley coined the phrase in the English language. Here is a quote of what he might mean by it:

Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. Consequently, agnosticism puts aside not only the greater part of popular theology, but also the greater part of anti-theology. On the whole, the “bosh” of heterodoxy is more offensive to me than that of orthodoxy, because heterodoxy professes to be guided by reason and science, and orthodoxy does not.

Notice Huxley did not constrain the meaning simply to concepts of the divine.

Is agnosticism a form of atheism? Well it depends on one’s definition of atheist. But in short, an agnostic need not be an atheist, if we limit agnosticism to what we can say with reasonable certainty, ie know. For example, there are agnostic theists, they are difficult to find; but for example, Mark Vernon is one. Salvor Dali considered himself an agnostic Catholic as possibly did John von Neumann.

Personally, I don’t find this position easy, I can’t argue for my position with reasonable certainty, but I will believe it anyway. But then look at my Life on Mars comment. Having said that, I am not advocating for life on Mars. Now it could be argued I advocate against a literal belief in say Christianity, but then I think there is more than enough evidence against a literal belief in the stories in the Bible or of stories of Valhalla. Some, I find, might possibly be based on some actual event, but I can’t help but think they likely have been distorted by the lever of time. Take a look at what is happening in the everyday current events now.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins takes a swipe at the permanent agnostic position (PAP). He found TAP, temporary agnostic position a more rational approach. While I get Richard’s underlying arguments, I find the overall approach suspect. Science is the ultimate PAP. The scientific method is continuously checking for errors, it is permanently agnostic. Newtonian mechanics held sway for two and a half centuries, we now understand it is in a sense wrong. Don’t get me wrong on a day to day basis I live and breath Newtonian mechanics. But the GPS in my car is a not so subtle reminder that Newtonian mechanics is a really useful approximation. The theory of relativity for all its improvements is incompatible with the theory of quantum mechanics, our two most accurate theories. Science can’t help but take on a permanent agnostic mechanism. That is not to say scientists and others don’t occasionally drop their agnosticism when it comes to theories. I think Bertrand Russell’s observation is useful here:

I think nobody should be certain of anything. If you’re certain, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves certainty. So, one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a certain element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt. … One has in practical life to act upon probabilities, and what I should look to philosophy to do is to encourage people to act with vigour without complete certainty.

Notice how Russell point outs we can never be absolutely sure but nevertheless we still have to play the game so to speak. Also, I found the contradiction in the quote amusing, I wonder if Russell did it intentionally.

Agnostics have different flavours like atheists and theists. We might have some believe we can never know whether god exists. These agnostics might have a militant bumper sticker saying like, I don’t know and neither do you </joke>. Some might claim we cannot know now. There is an eyewatering position of knowing we cannot know, not that I have come across anyone with this gnostic position. My personal take is simply to hold the position of simply I don’t know (with certainty). I might change my mind at some future date. Now the certainty might change with the subject matter. For example, I can by and large safely dismiss literal versions of Norse, Abrahamic, Roman and Greek Gods with some certitude. Bearing in mind Russell’s observation:

As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience, I should say that I ought to describe myself as an agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

Anyway, below is a doodle I have updated depicting various positions regarding God and gods.

As all models are wrong, this model is also wrong; but I hope it is useful (apologies to George EP Box).

Theism and deism. Here’s how I use the words: deism refers to a belief in non personal gods, I have heard this concept described as a delinquent Dad. While technically panentheism is not strictly deism it is close enough for me. Theism refers to a belief a personal God; note the upper-case G. Theism would include beliefs in Roman, Norse, Greek and Abrahamic Gods. But there is a catch, theism can also refer to a belief in Gods or gods deistic or otherwise. So, we need to be aware of the context of the word theism is being used.

my garden shed

In a more profane use of the word agnostic, how should I treat commonly held beliefs that I find incoherent? I suppose I should be agnostic about free will. What would being agnostic about free will look like? Well I could say I can’t say for sure I know whether we have free will. But then would I have to take a similarly neutral stance on fairies under my garden shed. I can provide evidence for my shed at the top of the garden, but how do I go about coming to a conclusion on fairies under the shed? A belief in fairies, pixies and the like was fairly common in Victorian times, what happened for this belief to wane? Yet for me a belief in free will is similar to a belief in fairies. Taking Russell’s advice to heart, I suggest an agnostic goes where their evidence and logic takes them. Go with vigour but do so cautiously as it may be in the wrong direction.

4 thoughts on “Agnosticism

  1. Nice to see such a long piece. I should probably read it again. Interesting that at end you came back to free will issue.

    But equating belief in FW to belief in fairies? That is a little harsh. After all, FW is closely associated to “taking responsibility” and it seems your piece is about Responsibly believing. For a guy that doesn’t believe in Freedom, it seem you want to take responsibility for your beliefs.

    I think term “agnostic” is best left in it Theological context. B. Russel’s contention that he is not certain God (cap G) is not sincere, I think. Now if he wants to mess with defining god differently, he might have some elbow room. Some of us want to play with the idea of freedom, and then make it more believable that we can be responsible, too.

    But then I’m not aaaabbbsssooolutellyyyy sure, granted. But that I Do Things, and not just have things done to me, That I am quite convinced of. That’s a better def of Free Will.
    I want to read more, Thank you!


  2. But equating belief in FW to belief in fairies? That is a little harsh.

    You think comparing believing in libertarian free will with fairies is harsh. OK … you will have to explain that to me.

    FW is closely associated to “taking responsibility”

    I don’t think so, or at least not exactly. Is not the free will about being morally responsible? I may or may not be shaped to take on responsibility … depending on how the universe has unfolded?

    Also responsible has two broad meanings. Is the sun responsible for the bulk of life on Earth? Is a mouse responsible for the droppings it leaves? I would argue humans are responsible in the last two meanings and not the moral one.

    Russel’s contention that he is not certain God (cap G) is not sincere, I think.

    I think you misunderstand Russell here. He said he could not prove God does not exist. So, he does not beat up on people who believe God does exist. Much in the same way I don’t beat up on people who think structures are somehow representative of free will. 🙂

    But that I Do Things, and not just have things done to me, That I am quite convinced of.

    Of this I am relatively sure too. But that is not an issue for free will. Can you do otherwise? Austin could not … remember?

    Why leave agnosticism purely in the theological realm? That certainly was not Huxley’s intent?


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