[3] Agnosticism

Introduction

Agnosticism refers to the school of thought in philosophy which asserts that it is not possible to gain knowledge regarding anything. The term was coined by T. H. Huxley, literally meaning “no-knowledge.” It is also called skepticism. The prominent men in this school of thought were David Hume and Immanuel Kant. They laid the philosophical basis for agnosticism. Immanuel Kant himself was a rationalist until he claimed he was woken up from his “dogmatic slumbers” by reading Hume. When studying the thoughts of these men, and refuting them, you will see that there are close overlaps with empiricism (the philosophy that all knowledge is gained by sensory experience). But since this essay deals with agnosticism, I will reserve a full rebuttal for empiricism later on. In this essay, I would like to briefly outline the chief contributions to agnosticism, refute them, and finally show you that agnosticism kills itself, with its very first principle.

David Hume

David Hume was a philosopher who lived during the time of the European Enlightenment. His epistemology of skepticism led him to agnosticism, and to throw doubt on the possibility of the miraculous and suspend judgments on metaphysical questions.

His skepticism was based on his epistemology. He was an empiricist, and hence believed that all knowledge comes only through sensations. Since no knowledge of God could be gained through sensory experience, he concluded that we cannot know God. In his famous Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding he writes this:

“If we take in our hand any volume – of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance – let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Read the above quote carefully, for with these very words Hume digs his own grave. He says that if a proposition is neither mathematical (abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number) nor empirical (experimental reasoning), it is meaningless. But look at the very statements he made to assert that! Is it either mathematical or empirical? Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. So, what shall we do with his words? In his own words, let us then, commit it to the flames, for it can nothing but sophistry and illusion! According to him, if a statement is neither analytical nor empirical it is meaningless. But look at the very statements he wrote to assert that. It is neither analytical nor empirical. By a consistent application of his own criteria we ought to conclude that his statements are meaningless.

So what do we do with his ideas and books? Commit it to the flames! History does not record whether he was consistent enough to do that, but it’s amazing and funny to see that these so-called giants in the history of philosophy made a morass of their own thinking, but were never aware of it. Hume’s skepticism was a result of his empirical epistemology. But who said that all knowledge comes through sensations? Did the very idea that all knowledge comes through sensations come through sensations itself? Then where did it come from? You can see an inconsistency right there.

Hume’s view was not a harmless one which was just another philosophy to fade with time. It had positive impact on Auguste Comte of the Vienna Circle, and later, A. J. Ayer, who came up with logical positivism. This is a philosophy of language which states that if a statement is not empirically verifiable, then it is meaningless and nonsensical. This view had devastating effects on Christian theology. Since all statements about God would fall outside empirical verification, they concluded that theology is nonsense. However, logical positivism too died by its own sword, since the very first principle that all statements should be empirically verifiable was not empirically verifiable.

Immanuel Kant

Another individual who owed his intellectual development to Hume was Immanuel Kant. He was trained in the rationalist line of thought which was advanced by Rene Descartes, Benedict Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz. The rationalists stressed a priori categories of the human mind, and knowledge. They were against the idea that knowledge comes through sensations. Contrary to that, the empiricists, such as John Locke, David Hume, and George Berkley stated that the human mind is a blank slate (tabula rasa) and that knowledge is gained by sensations. These two schools of thought are rivalry, and Kant attempted a synthesis between these two philosophies. What seemed like an epistemological advantage actually landed him up in agnosticism.

Kant was initially trained in the rationalistic tradition, but then after reading Hume he claimed that he was “awakened” from his “dogmatic slumber.” He tried to attempt a synthesis between these two ideas. He said that all our knowledge is gained a posteriori from sensations, but it is structured by the a priori categories in the mind.

However, following this syncretistic epistemology which appears to be an apparent epistemological gain, we land up with wholesale loss. If all knowledge which gained through sensations is structured by a priori categories, then we can only know things as they appear to us, not as they are in themselves. We can know the phenomena, but not the noumena. We cannot know a thing as it really is, but only how it appears to us. We cannot know reality, but only appearance. This led him to state that we can never know the real state of affairs about anything.

Types of Agnosticism

Norman Geisler outlines two ways in which agnosticism can be classified.[i] In the first type, agnosticism can be unlimited or limited. The former holds that God and reality is completely unknowable. The latter claims that God is only partially unknowable because of human finitude and sinfulness. This position will reserve careful consideration later on.

In the second type of categorization, agnosticism can be weak or strong. The weak form holds that God is unknowable, and the strong form holds that God cannot be known. Those who believe that God is unknowable, cannot drive home that proposition with rational certainty. This leaves open the option that God can be knowable. The stronger position, that God cannot be known is the view which deserves sharp criticism.

Geisler, when analyzing these views, narrows them down to three alternatives when discussing about knowledge of God:

[1] We can nothing about God; He is completely unknowable.

[2] We can know everything about God; He can be exhaustively known.

[3] We can know something, but not everything; God is partially knowable.

The first position will be analyzed shortly. The second and third position will be analyzed when dealing with theism and the possibility of knowledge. It is too big a topic to be discussed here and my intention right now is to refute agnosticism, and not to consider the alternatives to it.

Self-refuting statements

Complete agnosticism is self-refuting. The claim that “reality is unknowable” posits some claim to knowledge. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to make that statement in the first place. They know that reality is unknowable. One has to know something about God to state that God is cannot be known. In their explicit attempt to deny knowledge, the implicitly posit a claim to knowledge – they know that God cannot be known. One has to assume some knowledge about reality in order to deny all knowledge reality.

Thus we can see that agnosticism self-destructs. If you claim that we can know something, then you are no longer an agnostic. Agnostics are those who know for sure that you cannot know anything for sure. Agnosticism contradicts itself right at the level of the first principle and cannot move any further. Anybody claming to be an agnostic cannot have a worldview at all, since agnosticism is about denying knowledge rather than affirming it.

Agnosticism collapses at the level of the first principle and leaves you in an epistemological abyss. You cannot have a worldview on the basis of agnosticism. You are in intellectual darkness, groping about not knowing where you are going or what you are talking about. Of course, if you are consistent there, you would not “know” that you are in intellectual darkness, which is why you need Ambassadors of the Light to come and enlighten you about it.

Epilogue (?Epitaph)

Strictly speaking, agnosticism cannot be rightly classified as a legitimate epistemology, since in epistemology you are dealing with how knowledge can be attained, and agnostics are trying to avoid that very possibility. Are you skeptic and proud to be one? Have you believed that skepticism is synonymous with sophistication? Well it’s about time you woke up from your “dogmatic slumber.”

If you really don’t know anything, you should just keep your mouth shut. If you do not know, then why do you want to open your mouth to say anything in the first place? If you know nothing whatsoever about reality, you cannot make any statement about reality. Logically, you should keep silence. If you do, however, claim to be an agnostic, every time you open your mouth to state anything, you are contradicting yourself and writing your own epistemological epitaph.

Or are you are in the category which says “I do not know”? If that is so, I commend your humility in owning up to your ignorance. To correct ignorance one needs instruction. Keep reading further and you will be told about the Light that enlightens every man.


[i] Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics; Baker Books, 1999; p 11.

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