What is Agnosticism?

Any definition of agnosticism inevitably ends up invoking Thomas Huxley, the man who apparently coined the phrase. Fortunately enough, Huxley was a fascinating chap, and if you’re interested in his life I can heartily recommend Adrian Desmond’s biography, ‘Huxley’.

Huxley lived in the nineteenth century and was famously a contemporary of, and cheerleader for, Darwin. As a young man he saw first hand the effects of poverty in Victorian England, and as the son of a poorly paid school teacher (will we never learn?) realised that his talent and ambition were likely to be blocked by England’s class system. Huxley came to equate the Church of England with the elitism he despised, and when the chance came to undermine it, it’s fair to say he took it with an almost manic enthusiasm. One of the enduring ironies of Huxley’s story is that, as perhaps the most forceful proponent of evolution of his time, he never really took the central mechanism of natural selection on board.

Nevertheless, he worked hard to exploit the difference between the story of creation as told by Darwin, and that which had been traditionally told by the church. His line of attack amounted to, if they got this wrong, how can we trust them to have anything else right? From whence comes their moral authority now? In hindsight we can see that the angle is perhaps a little unfair. Sure, the church had failed to see how life, in all its abundance and variety, had come to be, but then so had everybody else.

Early on in the battle, Huxley seemed to be of the opinion that the one group who hadn’t missed what now appeared obvious were the scientists (Huxley was also the first to use the term scientist to describe those who professionally undertake the business of scientific study. A spin doctor extraordinaire, he was essentially carving out a niche for himself in a world where title was everything). And that meant, when it came to other matters, like the proper organisation of society, or defining moral values, perhaps science could also lead the way. It speaks well of Huxley that, when his attempts to do this foundered, he reached the conclusion that this was not the case at all. Science, he realised, was the way forward when it came to understanding the physical world, but when it came to metaphysical matters there was no way of establishing anything from first principle.

As an aside, it’s also worth mentioning that Huxley thought deeply about what science was, and what separated it from other forms of knowing. His conclusion, that it is little more than the formalisation of the methods we use everyday to make sense of the physical world, strikes me as particularly modern.

So, with a distrust of the church, and frustrated in his attempts to replace it with science, where could he turn to answer the big questions? The whys and the shoulds and the for-what-purposes? Agnosticism (although he coined the term much earlier) in a way provided his answer. Rather than choosing between believing in a God, and believing there is no God, would it not be possible to simply say ‘I have no idea, and so I shall withhold judgement?’

This withholding of belief sits at the heart of agnosticism. The term translates to ‘lack of knowledge’. A sort of ‘don’t know, can’t know, won’t pretend to know’, although that, in my case, is slightly misleading. So briefly, it’s worth considering one or two variants of agnosticism, so as to bring fully into focus the type of stance I am personally explaining. Some people, in my experience atheists in particular, like to argue that we’re all agnostics really, that one can be an agnostic Christian or an agnostic atheist or whatever. Their reasoning goes, if agnosticism means lack of knowledge, well none of us know for sure, so while we have a belief, we’re not certain it’s true, hence we’re agnostic.

I see little point in arguing terminology. If that’s how some people define agnosticism, excellent. But it’s not what I mean. What they speak of, it seems to me, is actually fallibilism, the acknowledgement that even’s one dearest beliefs may be incorrect. The smartest theists and atheists you meet are likely, I suspect, to be fallibilists. It’s an intellectually respectable position. But it’s not mine. My agnosticism speaks not of a lack of certain belief, but of a lack of belief altogether. I’m the person watching a coin spinning in the air, asked to call heads or tails. I don’t know what it will be. I have no belief what it will be (and I’ll call tails, because why not?)

The other point worth noting is that some agnostics, and probably we would count Huxley amongst them, defend agnosticism as the most appropriate intellectual response to the business of not knowing. The principle of, ‘in the absence of reason for jumping one way or the other, not jumping at all is better’, is one they endorse, for a variety of reasons. I don’t. I don’t think you should be an agnostic, unless it appeals to you. I don’t think agnosticism is a smarter or more reasonable approach than theism or atheism (or rather, than the best versions of each). But I do think agnosticism has some unique advantages, and weighing them against the advantages offered by the other stances strikes me as sensible. So I will try to explain those advantages as best I can, over the coming posts.

But there’s a lot to get through, because a great many of the assumptions that go to make up my agnosticism could be challenged, and the first thing to do, I think, is to consider the strongest of those challenges, and think about how the agnostic might go about answering them. Next time I’ll outline a road map for how I intend to do that.

2 thoughts on “What is Agnosticism?

  1. JP says:

    Hi Bernard,

    Related to Huxley’s modern view of science as “the formalisation of the methods we use everyday to make sense of the physical world”, have you seen the one line definition of science philosopher of science Alex Rosenberg likes to use? Science, he says, is “common sense recursively reconstructing itself”.

    Pretty neat, don’t you think?

  2. Hi JP

    I’d not come across that one before, but I’m sure I’ll be quoting it in the future. Very nice.


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