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The terms agnosticism and agnostic were coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869 to describe the philosophical and theological view that the truth of the unexistence or existence of God, immortality, and the like are inherently unknowable. People can have scientific or real knowledge of phenomena, but when it comes to what lies behind phenomena there can be no evidence that entitles anyone either to deny or affirm anything.

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Origin of the term

The word agnostic comes from the Greek a (no) and gnosis (knowledge). Among the most famous agnostics (in the original sense) were Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Bertrand Russell. Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian is considered a classic text about agnosticism. It has been argued from his works, especially Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, that David Hume was an agnostic, this however remains subject to debate.

Agnosticism is not to be confused with a view specifically opposing the doctrine of gnosis and Gnosticism - these are religious concepts that are not related to agnosticism.

Modern uses

Most modern uses focus on the question of the existence of God rather than a broad range of metaphysical questions. The term may be applied to the simple failure to hold that God does or does not exist (i.e., not taking a stand). In this sense, the twentieth century logical positivists, such as Rudolph Carnap[?] and A. J. Ayer, who viewed that any talk of God and perforce considerations of whether one can know that God exists are simply nonsense; would count as agnostics. The freethinking[?] tradition of atheism calls "agnosticism," used in this sense, negative atheism[?].

The term has many uses, however, most in fundamental disagreement with the others. One alternative first suggested by Huxley states, "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, Agnosticism, 1889). A. W. Momerie has noted that this is nothing but a definition of honesty[?]. Huxley's usual definition went beyond mere honesty, however, and he insisted that these metaphysical issues were fundamentally unknowable.

The term may also be applied to:

  • the view that there is evenly-weighted evidence on both sides of the question of God's existence. (Huxley explicitly disagreed with this view, stating that there can be no evidence against God's existence, and there can be no evidence for it.)
  • the view that we are in no position to judge the evidence on either side. (This is the view that human beings are ill-equipped to properly interpret such evidence, if it exists, as the evidence likely exceeds human limits on understanding.)
  • the view that we cannot know one way or the other. (Perhaps this is a restatement of Huxley's view that such issues are inherently unresolvable because unknowable.)
  • the condition of lacking both theistic and atheistic views. (Even in Huxley's time, agnosticism and atheism were often confused.)
  • various other 'non-committal' approaches to the question of God's existence.

Origins of agnosticism

Agnostic views are as old as philosophical skepticism. But the terms "agnostic" and "agnosticism" were applied by Huxley to sum up his thoughts from that time's contemporary developments of metaphysics about the "unconditioned" (Hamilton) and the "unknowable" (Herbert Spencer). It is important, therefore, to discover Huxley's own views on the matter. Though Huxley began to use the term "agnostic" in 1869, his opinions had taken shape some time before that date. In a letter to Charles Kingsley (September 23, 1860) he discussed his views extensively:

"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 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"..

"It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions"..

"That my personality is the surest thing I know may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth."..

And again, to the same correspondent, the 6th of May 1863:

"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."

Of the origin of the name "agnostic" to cover this attitude, Huxley gave (Coll. Ess. v. pp. 237-239) the following account:

"So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of 'agnostic.' It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the 'gnostic' of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took."

Huxley's agnosticism is believed to be a natural consequence of the intellectual and philosophical conditions of the 1860s, when clerical intolerance was trying to suppress scientific discoveries which appeared to clash with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis and other established christian doctrines. As the theory of evolution became generally accepted by society, a notable christian trend emerged that acceptance of scientific theories and belief in organized religion were not mutually exclusive.

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