The doctrine that the existence of God, or any ultimate cause beyond material phenomenon, cannot be known nor denied. The term is derived from the 'unknown' God in Acts 17:23, and was first used in 1869, by Thomas Henry Huxley. Etymologically, the word is from a-, "without" + gnostic, which is from the Greek gnostikos (γνωστικος), which is from gnosis, "knowledge." In a letter dated March 13, 1881, Richard Holt Hutton wrote that the term "agnostic" was "suggested by Prof. Huxley at a party held previous to the formation of the now defunct Metaphysical Society, at Mr. James Knowles's house on Clapham Common, one evening in 1869, in my hearing. He took it from St. Paul's mention of the altar to 'the Unknown God.'"

"But there is nothing per se irrational in contending that the credences of Theism are inconclusive, that its doctrines are unintelligible, or that it fails to account for the facts of the universe, or is irreconcilable with them. To express this kind of polemic against religious faith the term 'agnosticism' has been adopted." - E. Conder, Basis of Faith, 1877

Note that an agnostic is not strictly a person who does not know whether God exists. An agnostic, by definition, does not know whether God exists. However, a person who does not know whether God exists is not necessarily agnostic.

Agnosticism is not "the belief that nothing can really be known without concrete logical proof." It is only the doctrine that it is not possible for a human being to know whether God exists or not.

Were an agnostic supposedly "presented with provable evidence" that there is no God, he would not change his agnostic perspective to disbelieve in God. An agnostic believes that it is impossible for the human mind to know whether there is a God or not. The presented "provable evidence" would in fact be unprovable, because the recondite knowledge of the existence or nonexistence of God would still be considered unknowable by the human mind. While evidence might appear to an individual to be decisive, an agnostic believes that it is impossible for the human mind to know whether the evidence, and reasoning leading to the proof of the nonexistence of God, is in fact sound.

Similarly, were an agnostic supposedly "spoken to by the Christian God," he would not change his agnostic perspective to believe in the Christian God. A God, by definition, is superior to all other beings, possibly with the exception of other Gods. Thus, even a being of seemingly infinite knowledge and power would not necessarily be God. Therefore, were a being of such power to speak to a person, that being might appear to be God, regardless of whether the being is or not, and so could, in fact, not be. In other words, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (Arthur C. Clarke). Thus, in fitting with agnosticism, that person could not know whether the being they encountered was God or not, and so would not change their belief.

See also: atheism, theism

Huxley, who coined the word, did not consider agnosticism to be solely about God. As he put it in his 1899 essay, Agnosticism and Christianity (in response to Henry Wace's accusation that agnosticism is "mere evasion"):

Agnosticism is not properly described as a "negative" creed, nor indeed as a creed of any kind, except in so far as it expresses absolute faith in the validity of a principle, which is as much ethical as intellectual... that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty... The justification of the Agnostic principle lies in the success which follows upon its application, whether in the field of natural, or in that of civil, history; and in the fact that, so far as these topics are concerned, no sane man thinks of denying its validity.

He goes on to list "Materialism and Idealism; Theism and Atheism; the doctrine of the soul and its mortality or immortality" as all belonging to the "region of uncertainty."

And in his earlier (1889) essay, Agnosticism:

Is the modern more or less complete suspension of judgment as to the facts of the history of regal Rome, or the real origin of the Homeric poems, anything but agnosticism in history and in literature?

Also from Agnosticism:

That which is unproved today may be proved, by the help of new discoveries, tomorrow. The only negative fixed points will be those negations which flow from the demonstrable limitation of our faculties. And the only obligation accepted is to have the mind always open to conviction.

This is notably at odds with the modern sense of the word. By Huxley's definition, a person with good evidence for God's existence could in theory be an agnostic and a theist at the same time. Huxley seems to have changed his mind at some point about whether or not this could actually come to pass. In Agnosticism, he avers that "the limitation of our faculties ... renders real answers to such questions not merely actually impossible, but theoretically inconceivable," but in Agnosticism and Christianity, he states "I do not very much care to speak of anything as 'unknowable.' ... I confess that, long ago, I once or twice made this mistake; even to the waste of a capital 'U.'"

Agnosticism, a word used by Professor Huxley, to express the thought, that beyond what man can know by his senses, or feel by his higher affections, nothing can be known. Facts, or supposed facts, both of the lower and the higher life, are accepted, but all inferences deduced from these facts as to the existence of an unseen world, or of beings higher than man, are considered unsatisfactory, and are ignored. Agnostics, positivists, and secularists have much in common, and many people exist to whom any one of the three names might be indifferently applied.


Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.

Ag*nos"ti*cism (#), n.

That doctrine which, professing ignorance, neither asserts nor denies.

Specifically: Theol.

The doctrine that the existence of a personal Deity, an unseen world, etc., can be neither proved nor disproved, because of the necessary limits of the human mind (as sometimes charged upon Hamilton and Mansel), or because of the insufficiency of the evidence furnished by physical and physical data, to warrant a positive conclusion (as taught by the school of Herbert Spencer); -- opposed alike dogmatic skepticism and to dogmatic theism.

 

© Webster 1913.

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