Knowledge Blast: Agnostic Thought
We are, for a better use of the word, ‘limited’ in our ability to fully conceive of our place in the grand scheme of the universe…if there is a ‘scheme’ to begin with at all. What does one mean by this? Well, for one, think of the limitations of the human body in matters regarding understanding. Neuroscience has given us insight into the nervous system, which allows us the ability to compute sensory information collected from-what we believe to be- reality; it has shown this system, thus far, to be at fault. Instead of revealing a perfect system that would allow for us the ability to fully perceive the world around us, without the tendency to align perceptions of reality, with biases favouring self-interest and self-preservation. We are instead evolved with a pattern recognition system that favours matters that regard self-interest, and self-preservation; pattern seeking mammals who have developed systems of ‘order’, with a-some-what, ‘disordered’ nervous system. The irony alone should make us stop to think about just how much we claim to know about the world around us. In philosophy, specifically that of epistemology- which deals with the nature of what we claim to know- there is an epistemological position known as ‘agnosticism’, and it deals with knowledge…especially that of its limitations.
Before we can lay the ground work for agnosticism, we need to first understand a couple key words and their definitions. Firstly: the word ‘belief’ refers to an ‘act of confidence in a proposition’; to hold a ‘belief’ is to have confidence that, one’s idea of reality conforms to the way reality functions. The belief in the proposition ‘pigs fly’, for example, is to say that one has confidence that pigs-for all intended purposes-can, in fact, fly. Beliefs can either be justified (this being in the sense that those beliefs have evidence to support them, in the form of an account of a causal linkage- linking ideas and reality together), or they can be unjustified (this being in the sense that those beliefs have little evidence to support them). When a belief is justified it is constituted as being ‘knowledge’; when a belief is held but is not justified it is constituted as being ‘faith’. Secondly: the word ‘knowledge’ refers to a ‘well-justified true belief’; as mentioned before, if a belief has been substantiated well enough with evidence that the belief aligns with reality, and thus is constituted as being ‘true’, then that belief constitutes as being ‘knowledge’. Semantics aside: onto agnosticism.
Agnosticism is a position on knowledge… nothing else. It is specifically the position on epistemology that states, absolute knowledge and certainty-on matters concerning human understanding-to be unknowable; in other words, it is the position that says, ‘we cannot claim to know absolute knowledge and certainty on any matter regarding truth’ (From the Greek word, ‘agnōsis’, which literally translates into ‘without knowledge’). It is the rejection of absolute knowledge claims. Originally coined by the British biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, in 1869-in which he clarified that:
“Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.”(‘Agnosticism’, 1889, Thomas Huxley)
What Huxley means by this, is that agnosticism makes no claims beyond which reason permits it can. It is not arrogant in stating absolute certainty on a matter that has yet to be ascertained; it simply states that we are limited in our capacity to know. Furthermore, Huxley expresses that the role of agnosticism is ‘not’ meant to be taken as a position of mindless ignorance towards the truth of a proposition; it is simply meant to be taken as a position of scepticism towards claims made in absolute certainty and knowledge. Huxley’s reasoning follows from the fact that the methods in which we come to knowledge are inherently at fault. This is due to the limitations of the human mind in fully conceiving the world around it. For instance: we have yet to traverse the whole of the cosmos, and reveal everything within it, to make claims of absolute knowledge about it. Those who are certain in their convictions, over the truth of a proposition’s validity, cannot be so; to claim absolute knowledge on a proposition, they need to possess all available knowledge in the cosmos, including the past, present and future. This is just not possible given our mental limitations.
Huxley’s use of the word ‘agnosticism’ differs tremendously on how the public uses the word today. For instance: it is wrongly assumed that agnosticism is a position between, ‘atheism’ and ‘theism’, or otherwise portrayed as a ‘non-compatible term’ that cannot be reconciled with either ‘theism’ or ‘atheism’. This false understanding of agnosticism is not merely a manifestation of the misconceptions aimed at those who are ignorant about the term’s meaning; it is also held with such vehemency, by those who are reluctant to want to be associated with ‘theism’ or ‘atheism’, for cultural reasons. In understanding agnosticism, to be merely a position on knowledge that neither affirms the claim of absolute knowledge about a proposition of truth, nor makes any comment on the nature of believing in said proposition, the ‘agnostic’ is humbling themselves with acknowledging their limitations. It should be noted that agnosticism does not deal with belief; it only deals with knowledge. Whereas theism and atheism deal respectively with belief or non-belief in a deity’s existence, agnosticism and Gnosticism deal respectively with what we claim to know about that deity’s existence or non-existence. Agnosticism takes the position that absolute knowledge and certainty about the non-existence or existence of a deity is unknowable, and Gnosticism takes the position that absolute knowledge and certainty about the non-existence or existence of a deity is knowable. Therefore, the word ‘agnostic’ is compatible with the word ‘atheist’ or ‘theist’, as is the word ‘gnostic’.
This compatibility can be expressed as so:
-Agnostic atheism: Does not believe in a deity’s existence, but does not claim to know that a deity does not exist.
-Gnostic atheism: Does not believe in a deity’s existence, but does claim to know that a deity does not exist.
-Agnostic theism: Does believe in a deity’s existence, but does not claim to know that a deity does exist.
-Gnostic theism: Does believe in a deity’s existence, but does claim to know that a deity does exist.
Agnosticism can be further expressed in terms of the strength one is willing to put in this scepticism towards claims made in absolute knowledge. ‘Temporal agnosticism’, is the position most often taken by those who identify as ‘agnostic’; it expresses that the data for a deity’s existence or non-existence is inconclusive, and thus one should withhold their judgement in either proposition. However, this does not mean that the data will remain inconclusive; it just means that until such time when the data becomes conclusive to a proposition’s validity, judgement should be withheld. ‘Permanent agnosticism’, takes a much more hard line position than temporal agnosticism; it states that due to our limitations as evolved primates, we cannot make absolute knowledge claims about the non-existence or existence of a deity. Therefore, strong agnostics state that judgement cannot be made about either proposition’s validity. Agnosticism’s sceptical approach towards claims made in absolute knowledge and certainty is the cornerstone of inquiry, in both science and philosophy; it is for this reason that many in both the scientific and philosophical disciplines will state-when they are uncertain about the truth of a proposition-that they are ‘agnostic’ towards it. This is both an honest and humble thing to do, when one does not know.
If we are to conceptualise agnosticism in a frame work that will do it justice; we need only look as far as Richard Feynman. Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who worked at Cornell University in the mid-20th century; best known for his work in quantum mechanics, specifically that of quantum electrodynamics. An avid speaker and educator, Feynman is known for his intellect and support for the scientific method, as well as the ‘Feynman method’ of learning. The Feynman method of learning involves four key steps; these steps will be applied to agnosticism, but these steps can be applied to any concept one is willing to learn. These steps are as follows:
Step 1: Identify a concept of study.
Step 2: Explain concept, as if to teach others about it.
-Explanation: Agnosticism is a position on knowledge that states that absolute knowledge and certainty are unknowable.
Step 3: If one gets stuck on explanation, refer back to original source material.
-Original Source Material: “Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle … Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” (Huxley, Thomas. ‘Agnosticism’. 1889.)
Step 4: Simplify Concept and use examples, along with analogies to emphasise it.
-Simplification of Concept: I don’t know.
-Example of concept in use: “What is in that unopened box?”, “I don’t know…and neither do you.”
-Analogy of concept: “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a teapot revolving around the Sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”(Russell, Bertrand. “Is There a God? ”. ‘The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Voll 11: Last Philosophical Testament, 1943-1968’. Routledge. pp. 547-548.)
The Feynman method allows us to understand agnosticism by means of looking at the concept, and identifying with it. From Huxley to Russell, agnostic thought has sought to represent itself in society, through society’s great minds. These minds have sought, in their endeavours to push against the tide of extremism that absolute knowledge brings, to build a society by which inquiry and scepticism are held up as beacons of hope for the world. Furthermore, those who proclaim-with such vehemency-that they know the truth of a matter absolutely, and everyone else who does not know this truth are simply wrong, are deluding themselves in their conclusions. As mentioned at the start of this piece, the human mind is limited in its capacity to know the world around it, and as a result, conclusions that are made today can be wrong tomorrow. This is why scientific hypotheses are tested against reality, and falsified; if the hypothesis succeeds all the tests against it, and is proven empirically, it is ranked up to the level of ‘theory’-which is one of the highest distinctions attainable. However, this theory is ‘not-wrong’ but it is not ‘right’ either, for future experiments could undo the ones done at present. This is why science makes provisional conclusions and not absolute ones.
We live in a time of turbulence and confusion (The most recent example of this has been the death of twelve ‘Charlie Hebdo’ satirical artists, in Paris, at the hands of Muslim extremists. What was their crime? For daring to draw cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, in an ‘unflattering manner’.), where many seem to find themselves speaking out against extremism; the kind brought by those who claim to hold the ‘Truth’…the absolute ‘Truth’-as it were. For these demagogues and proliferators who espouse rhetoric, anyone who scrutinises or expresses doubt towards their claims makes themselves a target for violence and censorship. This is worrying in the 21st century, where science has revealed tremendous things about our limitations; if we wish to continue to live as a species, we need to throw off the shackles of certainty and embrace humble doubt. The first step towards wisdom is to realise how ignorant you are; once you realise that, then acquiring knowledge becomes an act of humility. And, it is for this reason that we have got thus far in our cognitive ability to inquire about the cosmos around us. If we are to continue to do so, it is time we start striking back at those making claims of absolute knowledge and certainty…before it is too late.
Written By: Anthony Avice Du Buisson (8/01/2015)