Agnosticism

Agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible to know if the supernatural, including God, exists.

Agnosticism holds that the nature of God, gods, or supernatural phenomena is such that humanity can never know if they exist or not. It is a statement about what kind of knowledge a person can possess and about what kind of belief is proper or moral to hold. According to the term’s originator, British biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-95), the term describes a method of how people can use their intellect to come to hold, or refuse to hold, any particular belief.

Even though the term “agnosticism” did not come into popular use until Huxley coined it in 1869, the idea has existed for approaching 3,000 years. The earliest known expression of the idea comes from the Hindu Vedas, produced between c. 1500 and 500 BCE, which expressed skepticism at the ability to answer fundamental questions about existence. The Rigveda states, “Who knows for certain? … None knoweth whence creation has arisen …”

Ancient Greek philosophers voiced similar opinions about the nature of certainty and knowledge. When Huxley introduced the term, he created it from the Greek roots: a, for “without,” and gnosis, for “knowledge.” His belief was that the knowledge of God is unattainable, and a rational person can hold no belief about it.

In modern times, people often use “agnostic” to denote those who describe themselves as being unsure about whether a God exists. Yet the existence of the divine is not something agnosticism purports to answer. It expresses skepticism, especially regarding the extent of human comprehension. It is also a statement about the morality of hubris, holding that it is immoral to believe in something that has no basis or to assert an answer to an unanswerable question.

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One comment on “Agnosticism
  1. Huxley, ever the scientist, defined agnosticism as a form of demarcation. No objective testable evidence = a subjective unfalsifiable claim. Results: unscientific and inconclusive. No belief as to the truth, or falsehood, of the claim.

    Karl Popper also self-identified as an agnostic.

    “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” ~ Thomas Huxley

    Oxymoronic gnostic agnosticism, that somehow knows for certain it is impossible to know something, or that something is forever unattainable, is not what Huxley described. His was a personal statement, about what the individual agnostic knows.

    “The extent of the region of the uncertain, the number of the problems the investigation of which ends in a verdict of not proven, will vary according to the knowledge and the intellectual habits of the individual Agnostic. I do not very much care to speak of anything as “unknowable.” What I am sure about is that there are many topics about which I know nothing; and which, so far as I can see, are out of reach of my faculties. But whether these things are knowable by any one else is exactly one of those matters which is beyond my knowledge, though I may have a tolerably strong opinion as to the probabilities of the case. Relatively to myself, I am quite sure that the region of uncertainty–the nebulous country in which words play the part of realities –is far more extensive than I could wish.” ~ Thomas Huxley

    And, the word was put together agnost(os) + ic + ism, just like the word atheist was originally put together athe(os) + ist or ism. Agnostos and atheos were already Greek words. Those Greek words, in full, are the root words.

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