The Fog Of
Agnosticism, unlike atheism, opens the door however so slightly to the possibility of a supreme, divine being.
Agnosticism's position is that the truth, or the reality of certain claims regarding the existence of God, or gods, are unknown or unknowable. And for the most part, seems un-provable. For some, the idea of a deity is one that is confusing and so is rendered meaningless and irrelevant to life.
Overall, there seem to be several streams of agnostic thought. On one hand, we have those who believe that a deity probably does exist but who is to say what can be known, if anything, about this deity. Another group would be those who believe that it is most likely improbable that one exists but leaves the door open to the possibility. And lastly, those individuals who are undecided, unconvinced, or uncommitted about the matter, and do not feel it important to them one way or another. And although it may or may not be possible to possess this knowledge of God or a deity, they do not possess that knowledge, nor does it seem that agnostics are really interested in finding out if such knowledge does exist.
Agnosticism came into greater prominence, like atheism, in the later 1800s and early 1900s by those who would have been considered the "intellectual elites" of their age. Individuals who held influential positions in the fields of science, academics, and philosophy, to name a few.
The word "agnosticism" is a combination of the Greek "a", meaning "without" and the word "gnosis" (knowledge). The translation is "unknowable", or "without knowledge". A term that was coined by a prominent English biologist by the name of Thomas Huxley in 1869 as a tactical methodology for approaching religious questions, particularly the existence of God. And specifically to repudiate, or attack the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the origins of life and the universe.
Thomas Huxley would later become known as "Darwin's Bulldog" in his attempts to defend Darwin's theory of evolution. This is interesting since prior to the publication of Charles Darwin's book "The Origin of Species" in 1859, Huxley had rejected Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's theory of transmutation. A theory in biological evolution that held to the belief that species evolved by the inheritance of traits acquired, or modified, through the use or disuse of body parts. Why did he reject this? It was based on what he considered insufficient evidence to support it. And yet, after Darwin's publication, Huxley reconsidered, for he thought that Darwin at least gave a good enough hypothesis for it, even though he felt the evidence was still lacking. It seems that all it took was a good enough hypothesis for him to desert the scientific ethics he initially held. But why? An obvious answer would be that there is only one other option for a person to choose with regard to the beginning of life and the universe. And for those who reject God, it is not an option at all. That option is intelligent creation.
But first, let us take a moment to review some of the statements key individuals who helped shape agnosticism have made over the years.
Thomas Huxley - "I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless, I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel. I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as Christianity asserts. So with regard to the other great Christian dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can I, who am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deeds - have to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them.
"I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori (pre-formed or conceived) objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter..."
Robert G. Ingersoll - referred to as the "Great Agnostic", was a son of a Congregational minister. He later became an Illinois lawyer and politician, and a well-known orator in America during the 19th century. In his lecture entitled "Why I Am an Agnostic", he stated the following:
"Is there a supernatural power... an arbitrary mind... an enthroned God.... a supreme will that sways the tides and currents of the world to which all causes bow? I do not deny, I do not know. But I do not believe. I believe that the natural is supreme... that from the infinite chain no link can be lost or broken. That there is no supernatural power that can answer prayer... no power that worship can persuade or change... no power that cares for man. I believe that with infinite arms Nature embraces the all... that there is no interference... no chance that behind every event are the necessary and countless causes.
And that beyond every event will be and must be the necessary and countless effects. Is there a God? I do not know. Is man immortal? I do not know. One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be."
Although not able to deny the existence of God, or knowing whether there was one, Ingersoll nevertheless made the conscious, personal decision not to believe and instead embraced nature, or naturalism. A common result for many agnostics and atheists is to gravitate toward naturalism or humanism. Ingersoll’s reasons for this, one can only speculate.
Bertrand Russell was a 20th-century British mathematical logician and philosopher whose grandfather had been the British Prime Minister. Orphaned as a child, he was raised under stern religious rule by his paternal grandmother. Something he said that had influenced him throughout his life. Apparently not in a positive way. It appears that it was something he viewed negatively. He admitted that there were difficulties with his ethical stances. He saw logic and science as principle tools of philosophy and sought to show that mathematics was derived from logic. In his pamphlet entitled "Why I am not a Christian", Russell gave what is considered the classic statement for agnosticism. He laid out his arguments for the existence of God and his objections to Christian teachings. In a speech he gave in 1939 on the existence and nature of God, he stated the following:
"The existence and nature of God is a subject of which I can discuss only half. If one arrives at a negative conclusion (which he personally seemed to have from his past) concerning the first part of the question, the second part of the question does not arise. And my position, as you may have gathered, is a negative one on this matter."
And yet, in 1947 he demonstrated his inner wrestling with the subject of God:
"As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an agnostic because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God..."
In his 1953 essay, “What Is An Agnostic” Russell stated:
"An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time..."
"... I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty-four hours, including events that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then produced to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence. (He should have considered a study in biblical prophecy.)
Though he would later question God's existence, in his undergraduate years, he fully accepted the Ontological Argument:
"I remember the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane (at Cambridge University where Russell was a student) when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it; "Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound!" (Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1967)
In theology and in the philosophies of religion, an ontological argument for the existence of God is an argument that God's existence can be proved "a priori". That is, by intuition and reason alone. Opponents of this have preferred to rely on cosmological arguments for the existence of God instead. The argument works by examining the concept of God and arguing that it implies the actual existence of God. Simply put, if we can conceive of God, then God exists. It is therefore self-contradictory to state that God does not exist. Russell, not unlike many people, wrestled with faith, God's existence, and what he really believed.
Whereas atheism states, with limited knowledge, that God does not exist, agnosticism states that knowledge of God is not attainable.
What could a statement like that be based on? Knowledge is continually expanding. Through innovation, increased knowledge, and more we are constantly seeing new products, new inventions, new medicines, new machines, new improvements, and new discoveries. We learn more in the sciences, history, and astronomy. To say we are not able to gain more knowledge on God would be premature you think?
Let me ask you, does that really sound like a reasonable statement to you?
I remember one day as a young teenager back in the 1960s when my Dad started to talk about a comic strip that he liked to read in the local newspaper called "Dick Tracy". In it, Dick Tracy would often use his super-duper futuristic 2-way phone watch. Keep in mind that this comic strip was created in 1939. At that time the idea of something like a phone watch was straight out of science fiction. He pointed to it and said, "You know what, one day that will become a reality". He believed in the pioneering spirit that drives us to dream of things future and then under that inspiration set out to make it a reality.
I was reminded of that long-ago conversation the day I learned of the iPhone when it made its debut in 2007, and a short time later when smartwatches came to the market for the masses. Science fiction once again became a reality. Unfortunately, Dad never lived long enough to see it happen. But, once again he was right!
Seeing then that knowledge is ever increasing, we should never underestimate what might yet be discovered or learned. Nor, write off the fact that future events yet to transpire may provide answers or bring about a new revelation regarding the truth and existence of God.
The point is that it would behoove all of us to keep in mind that what may be unknowable now, or presently unattainable, does not mean it will forever remain that way. It would be silly to think so.
What is intriguing is that we have come to believe in the potential existence of other dimensions, of life on other planets, or in other galaxies beyond our own, even though there are presently no facts to reinforce this. We have grown up on Star Trek, Quantum Leap, Star Gate, and others that imagine what these things might be like. Today we call it all science fiction. Yet we seem to believe in the possibility.
We fantasize about what space travel, higher intelligence, and a futuristic world might be like. However, the very same people that would reject the notion of God's existence are open to embracing these other things by faith as plausible concepts.
This demonstrates one of the lessons I have learned over the years. People will believe what they want to believe, hear what they want to hear, and see what they want to see.
We have wireless internet, radio waves, satellite and T.V. signals, short waves, CBs, cell phone conversations and so much more invisibly moving through our airspace. Sounds and images that we do not see or hear, but are there. It is only when we have the right equipment necessary can we access them. A modem, a TV, a satellite dish, cable, transistors, a smartphone, tablet to name a few. Is it then hard to conceive of a God that resides on a plane not our own? Not visible but there? A dimension or space beyond His own creation? It shouldn't be.
We are currently confined to the dimension we exist in. It is all that we presently know and understand. And although we theorize about the existence of other dimensions, we seem to ignore that if God exists, it is possible He is not limited.
We pour millions of dollars into observatories, orbiting space telescopes, and audio dishes as we search the vast universe for signs, signals, or evidence of other life beyond our own. We send equipment to planets to analyze, take pictures and snap up samples of the surface of that planet as part of the investigation. Why? There is a belief, a hope, that other life may possibly exist. Or, at least to find signs that it once did.
Many individuals included in this mix are agnostics and atheists. They too are convinced that there is life beyond Earth. Yes, the same ones that say either God does not exist, or there is no way to know if there is a God. This demonstrates their capability to believe even without knowledge or evidence, but choose what that may be. Intelligent life elsewhere? Yes. God? No. For them, this seems more plausible. Much of this belief is dependent on their perspective regarding science.
Agnostics just don't want to be pinned down to a God reality. That would mean specificity and accountability.
This is where agnosticism has stopped. No defined answer, no nugget of cold-hard facts. Though many agnostics may be content to remain and live in this state of indifference and ignorance, we choose not to and so our search presses onward in seeking further and deeper answers.
"People only see what they are prepared to see!"
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Agnosticism recognizes the potential of God's existence but just does not offer much beyond that. Once again, like atheism, agnosticism has not given us much that would persuade us to stop our investigation. They too provide no answers, no solution, no facts, and therefore no conclusion, And, for the most part, most agnostics are content with that. We, however, want more than this to hang our hat on.
How about science then? Hasn't science shown this God thing to be nothing more than superstition and folly?
That is next!