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QUESTION: What is agnosticism?


The term agnosticism raises questions in many philosophy discussions. When the conversation turns to religion, many state their position with terms like “skeptic,” “atheist,” or “agnostic.” After reading this primer on agnosticism and examining what you believe, you’ll be better prepared to intelligently join the debate.

What does “agnostic” mean?
The term “agnostic” is derived from two Greek words: a, meaning “no,” and gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” Literally an agnostic is a person who claims to have no knowledge. Often agnostics apply this lack of knowledge to the existence of God. In this case, an agnostic is one who does not affirm or deny the existence of God.

What does an agnostic really believe?
There are two basic forms of agnosticism. The weak form claims that God is not known. This view holds onto the possibility that God may be known. The strong form of agnosticism claims that God is unknowable. This form says God cannot be known by anyone.

Two other types with respect to the ability to know God are limited and unlimited agnosticism. Limited agnosticism holds that God is partially unknowable. It is possible to know some things, but not everything, about God. Unlimited agnosticism, however, claims that God is completely unknowable. It says that it is impossible to know anything about God.

Foundations of agnosticism The two most influential thinkers to advance the philosophy of agnosticism were David Hume (1711-1976) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). While Hume was technically a skeptic, his arguments inevitably lead to agnosticism.

At the heart of David Hume’s ideas was his claim that there are only two kinds of meaningful statements. He wrote in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

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

Unless a statement is either a relation of ideas or a matter of fact, it is meaningless. Since statements about the knowledge of God are outside of these two categories, God is essentially unknowable.

The second foundational idea of Hume was that there are no necessary causes. We can never know for certain that something caused anything else. According to Hume, all sensations are unconnected, and any causal connection we make is in entirely in our minds. These connections are made only after we experience repeated conjunctions of events. Without the ability to understand the cause of the universe, we can never truly know anything about God.

Kant: In Hume’s Footsteps
Immanuel Kant’s philosophy was greatly influenced by Hume. Kant attempted to merge the ideas of rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism held that there is certain innate knowledge within everyone. On the contrary, empiricism maintained that we are born as blank slates, and all knowledge is gained by experience. Kant concluded by pulling together the merits of both sides. The content of knowledge came by experience (as the empiricists contended), but the structure or form of knowledge is developed in the mind (as the rationalists held).

This “solution” resulted in agnosticism for Kant. If one cannot know anything without experience through the senses, and if that sensed knowledge can only be structured in our minds by innate categories, then we can only know things as they are to us. We can never know reality as it actually is. Our reference point is always ourselves and not the things themselves. There is a gap between appearance to us and reality. Kant’s conclusion was agnosticism about reality and God.

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