We all know how frustrating arguing with a theist can be. They are just really bad at reasoning through an argument, or sometimes, they are actually so good at it that it defies our ability to understand why they can't (in general, don't want to) see the force of our arguments. But the agnostic can be especially frustrating in their own way. They generally do not argue for any particular position, they simply stand back and pick apart everyone else's arguments. In this way they set themselves up as the "rational" party, the one's who "just demand a higher degree of evidence" or certitude before they grant us the pleasure of their consent. With the theist, at least, we know where they stand, and we can condemn them for their willing ignorance or their obviously bad arguments, but be satisfied afterwards that we have a clear advantage over them in clarity and coherence of our own viewpoint (that of the truth!). But the agnostic is particularly infuriating because they take skepticism and run with it. They argue that truth is something which is hard to come by (true enough), and in the case of deities there simply isn't enough evidence to back up the claim that they do or do not exist. Wrong! Belief in deities is just as silly and absurd as belief in any other hypothetical nonsense, like trolls or fairies or hobgoblins, unicorns, leprechauns, ghosts, superheroes/supervillians, dwarves, elves, Nasgul, orcs, Cauldron-born, talking animals, ogres, witches, wizards, warlocks, dementors, etc., ad nauseum. The entire realm of magical and supernatural beings and their "powers" falls into the same class, and no specific deity is granted some special privilege or right to a degree of doubt about their non-existence as any other. If you rule one in, you rule them ALL in. And let's not forget that Yahweh has a host of angels in his "kingly court" as well, not least of which was Satan. There seems to be no single reason why we should entertain the idea of creator-deities and their prophets, nor distinguish "ours" (Yahweh/Jehova) from any of the other ones which have existed in the minds of men throughout history. Why not Uranus and Gaia, or Tiamat and Marduk, or Enlil the "father of the gods" in the epic of Gilgamesh, or Amon-Ra? So here's the thing, agnostics: shit or get off the pot. If you don't know what to believe, then have the courage to settle the matter for yourselves, because agnosticism is not a mature position to take. It is a resting point on the road to having some actual convictions about the way the world really is, and what it means to be rational or not. Do you think it is rational to believe that there could really be a Zamp in the lamp, or a Woset in the closet? What is the substantial difference between the whole host of supernatural beings and the Wocket in my pocket?
It is really easy to sit back and remain uncommitted to any particular belief, but at some point we all have to decide whether to believe in evolution, or global warming, or what our own sexual orientation is, or a million other things that are relevant to how we decide to live our lives. If you approach a topic of which you are ignorant, then just say you really aren't sure, you don't know all the arguments, you don't have all the information. You're still trying to figure it all out, still trying to make sense of things. But don't sit there and say that suspending judgment is really the only rational conclusion we can reach about what kinds of things are real and what kinds of things are fantastical and imaginary. It's not sophisticated to claim that there is any merit to looking at the world from a supernatural perspective, it's just annoying, and in my opinion, cowardly.
At least the theists stand for something. Agnostics only stand up for the idea that we can't know anything. Skepticism is great, but only up to a point. After that, it means you have no convictions.
Jedi...I think you struck the right note with "cowards." Being an out-and-out atheist takes the courage and strength of a Jedi Knight. Agnostics don't have it. Your post generated a lot of thoughtful philosophizing, but I still think the key issue is moral courage.
Moral courage and intellectual honesty are the two central issues here for sure, and I'm not sure how much the two can be pulled apart from each other. If you believe something, you must have the courage of your convictions to act on it. If you don't think the ground you are standing on is stable, you should move to new ground. If you don't think any ground is stable, then you have to ask yourself if you think some ground is more stable than other ground. If you are quite certain that a particular piece of ground is not stable, and would never step there yourself, or ever suggest to someone that stepping there themselves might be a good idea - if every fiber in your being says no one should step there ever, then the moral thing to do is to stand up for what you are sure is right. Otherwise, go stand on the fence, and don't come down on either side until you have the courage of your convictions. There is a question of semantics in there, I won't completely discount that, but it does bother me that a lot of people seem to want to have it both ways.
On the semantics side, at what point does reasonable, justified belief become knowledge? If it never becomes knowledge, than what is the point of having any convictions? Let me put it another way: doubt swings both ways. If you are unwilling to have the convictions that there are no deities, do you have the conviction that science is true? Do you know that you have two hands? If any and every belief can be doubted, what justifies you in any belief? These agnostics don't seem to get this point - you can doubt whether you have two hands just as much as you can doubt whether there are deities on an absolute scale. What is it exactly that makes something "known" and something else "unknown"?
You are right, of course, but would you have that conversation with an agnostic?
At some point, I figured "case closed" on God. People are inventing imaginary friends and worshipping them, it's very sad, but they always will. I'm through arguing God's existence. Let's move on to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
I'm with Alan! move on...
Once again, there's a difference between simply not knowing whether God exists, and then knowing (or believing) that this knowledge is unknowable -- as in, I don't know it, you don't know it, and none of us will ever know it. Agnosticism is the latter. And I think I would find agnostic theists refreshing. I mean it has to take some courage to admit that even if this person believes in God, he could never truly know whether God actually exists. I think that would be incredibly honest. It goes against the grain, especially for many Western (Abrahamic) religions that sort of dictate that if you believe in God, you must also know that he exists, because it was written in (enter line from Holy Text here)...
An agnostic theist must believe in God despite also believing that it is impossible for anyone to prove its existence. Takes "faith" to a whole new level...
It is a mistake to describe agnosticism as mere fence-sitting. Instead it is a recognition of the limits of human knowledge. An agnostic may well believe one way or the other, but he makes no claim to know.
This is precisely the sense Huxley intended when he coined the word. He never claimed to know things for which he did not have evidence and he seems to have thought that knowledge in this area was impossible. Here are his exact words:
When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker - I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis" - had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion.
Agnostic atheist here.
I'm ONLY 'agnostic' about the possibility of some 'creator' completely and totally removed from any and all of our religious texts. I'm as atheist about Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, etc as I am about Zeus or Quetzalcoatl. I do not see this as "fence-sitting" because belief would still require evidence on my part. Things like seemingly unlimited time and space are far beyond our understanding. These are "complex" things. We are VERY far off from knowing the ultimate origins of everything. Even IF such a deity did exist, I would lean more towards deism or an apathetic (or possibly even malevolent) being whose unconcerned with us. One, that once discovered, would just be something else to be explained by science. Not above it. Once again, without proof, this remains a harmless possibility in the back of my mind that has absolutely no impact on the way I live. For all intents and purposes, I am atheist.
Being 'agnostic' about the loosely defined deity is not the same as being agnostic about Thor any more than thinking ETs exist somewhere is the same thing as believing in the Klingon Empire.
Admittedly, my mind is open to change on this, but this is where I currently stand.
I have to disagree with your view of agnosticism. I at one point was an agnostic, and I find that oftentimes skeptics will label themselves agnostics until they do further research.
There is quite a misunderstanding about what agnostics believe, even within secular ranks. Agnostics don't bother themselves with proof, but they do actually argue for a legitimate and considerable stance. They claim that we cannot know -- and will never know -- if there is a god. They rely on the limited nature of human intellect much like ancient Islamic (al-Ghazali) and Jewish (Hillel) philosophy. Hillel famously said that in the search for truth, we may not ever win the battle, "but [you're] not allowed to give it up.]
I myself am not an agnostic, but the most clear definition of agnosticism comes from a label that all atheists should hold:
My conclusion is agnosticism, my belief is atheism.
The confusion over agnosticism is caused by a poor definition.
How does one know what is not knowable? Is that not itself contradictory? If a god did exist, and chose to demonstrate this fact to you, would you still be claiming it was impossible to know? That would be claiming to know you were too stupid to understand something but that you were smart enough to understand what you were too stupid to know. (I'm trying to figure that out too)
As I respect Huxley for all he accomplished, I think he was trying to be political when he should have tried harder to achieve intellectual integrity.
With tweaking, agnosticism could be a viable position but it would still be a subset of atheism.
Despite the train wreck of a definition, I still consider myself an agnostic atheist. I just have to be careful as to the company I keep when I use the term. These days, I generally call myself an atheist, with the intention of conveying the fact that I do not believe in deities. I am not saying deities do not exist.
As I respect Huxley for all he accomplished, I think he was trying to be political when he should have tried harder to achieve intellectual integrity.
I'm curious as to how you have arrived at that conclusion. In what sense do you think Huxley was being political? In the context of his time, it appears to me quite the opposite—he was in fact striving for intellectual integrity in precisely the same way as Clifford: insisting on evidence for his assertions.
The opinion is mine alone, a result of the admittedly little reading I have done of his life. I accept the fact that I'll probably be skewered with what I'm about to say by those with a more thorough knowledge of his life. Whatever...let's get on with the job.
To begin with, as I pointed out in the earlier post, the assertion regarding the limits of knowledge makes no sense. Any man as intelligent as Huxley should recognize this. Before I continue, I should make one thing clear. Definitions change over time. As I understand it, atheism during Huxleys' time meant a profound belief that deities did not exist. His resistance to this extreme was exhibited in the creation of the agnostic term. Unfortunately, this overlooks the fact that atheism "could" (and in my opinion, should) be considered a lack of belief in a diety. He sought the rational middle ground but failed to identify it correctly. He should have emphasized "what we know" and abandoned any attempts to identify "what we can't know". This would have forced the understood definition of atheism to change, or perhaps created definitions of both strong/positive and weak/negative atheism. I understand he might have failed in his attempt but that's the battle before you, not the one you necessarily want to fight.
Secondly, within the context of his career, Huxley is known for the influence he had upon the British school system. In attempting to improve the schools, he was forced to make steps to wrest if free of the religious influence pervasive at the time. Unfortunately, coming out and directly saying he was an atheist (not saying he thought of himself as one) would have made the job impossible, with enemies coming out of the woodworks. The definition he gave of agnosticism made it possible to continue on with the work or improving the secular quality of the school system at the same time as weakening the religious opposition to it. When clearly beaten, theists will pounce upon the admission by their enemies that they don't know everything. Good enough, we're still in charge, let's wipe our bloody noses and move forward.
In short, his definition was a political attempt to appease the opposition yet continue on with what he knew to be of vital importance. In the context of his time, I believe it to be understandable. He probably knew the job would take may years beyond what he had to give. It had to be begun sometime however.
Unfortunately, his definition of agnosticism is the one that stuck. We are bound to it only in the sense that it is his definition. As brilliant as he was, we are not forced to continue to understand agnosticism the same way. I think he brought us forward, just not as far forward as was necessary. Cross purposes seemed to have gotten in the way.
I may be wrong in my thinking and look forward to other interpretations. While I look forward to the opinions of others I tend to be contemplative, not argumentative.
Unfortunately, his definition of agnosticism is the one that stuck.
Huxley coined the word and surely had every right to define it. Huxley coined the word agnostic in 1869 when the Metaphysical Society was being organized and each member was asked to give an initial statement of his personal viewpoint. It was most definitely not—as you have characterized it—"a political attempt to appease the opposition."
Huxley's concern was with what could be known, not what was believed. He did not think it was possible on the basis of available evidence to date to know that gods existed or that no god existed. The term agnostic entered circulation almost immediately and appeared in print only a few weeks later. It gained rapid circulation because it described a new position more nuanced and more scientific. There was no lack of discussion of the word and its meaning, but curiously little response from the church for quite some time although Huxley himself was often mentioned at church congresses.
Only much later was there a formal attack against Huxley's position. That was raised at the church conference at Manchester in 1888 by the Very Reverend Henry Wace, who equated agnosticism with atheism. Wace stated that
It is, and it ought to be, an unpleasant thing for a man to have to say plainly that he does not believe Jesus Christ. It is, indeed, an awful thing to say.
Wace's problem, which surfaced in this first attack, was that he could not understand that anyone did not accept authenticity of the scriptures. As a result he put the locus of Huxley's claims in the wrong place and never made a good argument against him. He did not, could not, or would not understand how Huxley could question the authenticity of scripture itself. As he put it:
Why do we believe that Jesus Christ redeemed all mankind? Because he said so. There is no other ultimate ground for it. The matter is not one open to the observation of our faculties; and as a matter of science we are not in a position to know it.
Huxley replied in a long article in which he made his position quite clear—that he doubted the evidence of scripture. Huxley was quite good at argument and not the least hesitant to challenge a churchman. The whole makes interesting reading and reveals Huxley's scientific mind: he was simply not willing to draw conclusions without evidence and considered that position the essence of agnosticism.
The back and forth continued in several articles and a few others joined in the fray. The entire exchange after Wace's initial talk was published in the US in Popular Science Monthly and later the articles were collected in a book. The whole is available online. One passage in Huxley's first reply is relevant to your claim that Huxley was attempting to appease the opposition:
…that "it ought to be" unpleasant for any man to say anything which he sincerely, and after due deliberation, believes, is, to my mind, a proposition of the most profoundly immoral character. I verily believe that the great good which has been effected in the world by Christianity has been largely counteracted by the pestilent doctrine on which all the churches have insisted, that honest disbelief in their more or less astonishing creeds is a moral offense, indeed a sin of the deepest dye, deserving and involving the same future retribution as murder and robbery. If we could only see, in one view, the torrents of hypocrisy and cruelty, the lies, the slaughter, the violations of every obligation of humanity, which have flowed from this source along the course of the history of Christian nations, our worst imaginations of hell would pale beside the vision.
As old and tired as he may have been at this point, 'Darwin's bulldog' was still full of fight and not ready to appease anyone.