1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agnosticism
AGNOSTICISM. The term “agnostic” was invented by Huxley in 1869 to describe the philosophical and religious attitude of those who hold that we can have scientific or real knowledge of phenomena only, and that so far as what may lie behind phenomena is concerned—God, immortality, &c.—there is no evidence which entitles us either to deny or affirm anything. The attitude itself is as old as Scepticism (q.v.); but the expressions “agnostic” and “agnosticism” were applied by Huxley to sum up his deductions from those contemporary developments of metaphysics with which the names of Hamilton (“the Unconditioned”) and Herbert Spencer (“the Unknowable”) were associated; and it is important, therefore, to fix precisely his own intellectual standpoint in the matter. Though Huxley only 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 wrote very fully concerning his beliefs:—
“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 5th 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—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:—
“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. The one thing on 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 that I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. This was my situation when I had the good fortune to find a place among the members of that remarkable confraternity of antagonists, the Metaphysical Society. Every variety of philosophical and theological opinion was represented there; most of my colleagues were -ists of one sort or another; and I, the man without a rag of a belief to cover himself with, could not fail to have some of the uneasy feelings which must have beset the historical fox when, after leaving the trap in which his tail remained, he presented himself to his normally elongated companions. 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.”
This account is confirmed by R. H. Hutton, who in 1881 wrote that the word “was suggested by Huxley at a meeting held previous to the formation of the now defunct Metaphysical Society at Mr Knowles’s house on Clapham Common in 1869, in my hearing. He took it from St Paul’s mention of the altar to the Unknown God.” Hutton here gives a variant etymology for the word, which may be therefore taken as partly derived from ἄγνωστος (the “unknown” God), and partly from an antithesis to “gnostic”; but the meaning remains the same in either case. The name, as Huxley said, “took”; it was constantly used by Hutton in the Spectator and became a fashionable label for contemporary unbelief in Christian dogma. Hutton himself frequently misrepresented the doctrine by describing it as “belief in an unknown and unknowable God”; but agnosticism as defined by Huxley meant not belief, but absence of belief, as much distinct from belief on the one hand as from disbelief on the other; it was the half-way house between the two, where all questions were “open.” All that Huxley asked for was evidence, either for or against; but this he believed it impossible to get. Occasionally he too mis-stated the meaning of the word he had invented, and described agnosticism as meaning “that a man shall not say he knows or believes what he has no scientific ground for professing to know or believe.” But as the late Rev. A. W. Momerie remarked, this would merely be “a definition of honesty; in that sense we ought all to be agnostics.”
Agnosticism really rests on the doctrine of the Unknowable, the assertion that concerning certain objects—among them the Deity—we never can have any “scientific” ground for belief. This way of solving, or passing over, the ultimate problems of thought has had many followers in cultured circles imbued with the new physical science of the day, and with disgust for the dogmatic creeds of contemporary orthodoxy; and its outspoken and even aggressive vindication by physicists of the eminence of Huxley had a potent influence upon the attitude taken towards metaphysics, and upon the form which subsequent Christian apologetics adopted. As a nickname the term “agnostic” was soon misused to cover any and every variation of scepticism, and just as popular preachers confused it with atheism in their denunciations, so the callow freethinker—following Tennyson’s path of “honest doubt”—classed himself with the agnostics, even while he combined an instinctively Christian theism with a facile rejection of the historical evidences for Christianity.
The term is now less fashionable, though the state of mind persists. Huxley’s agnosticism was a natural consequence of the intellectual and philosophical conditions of the ’sixties, when clerical intolerance was trying to excommunicate scientific discovery because it appeared to clash with the book of Genesis. But as the theory of evolution was accepted, a new spirit was gradually introduced into Christian theology, which has turned the controversies between religion and science into other channels and removed the temptation to flaunt a disagreement. A similar effect has been produced by the philosophical reaction against Herbert, and by the perception that the canons of evidence required in physical science must not be exalted into universal rules of thought. It does not follow that justification by faith must be eliminated in spiritual matters where sight cannot follow, because the physicist’s duty and success lie in pinning belief solely on verification by physical phenomena, when they alone are in question; and for mankind generally, though possibly not for an exceptional man like Huxley, an impotent suspension of judgment on such issues as a future life or the Being of God is both unsatisfying and demoralizing.
It is impossible here to do more than indicate the path out of the difficulties raised by Huxley in the letter to Kingsley quoted above. They involve an elaborate discussion, not only of Christian evidences, but of the entire subject-matter alike of Ethics and Metaphysics, of Philosophy as a whole, and of the philosophies of individual writers who have dealt in their different ways with the problems of existence and epistemology. It is, however, permissible to point out that, as has been exhaustively argued by Professor J. Ward in his Gifford lectures for 1896–1898 (Naturalism and Agnosticism, 1899), Huxley’s challenge (“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”) is one which a spiritualistic philosophy need not shrink from accepting at the hands of naturalistic agnosticism. If, as Huxley admits, even putting it with unnecessary force against himself, “the immortality of man is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter,” the question then is, how far a critical analysis of our belief in the last-named doctrines will leave us in a position to regard them as the last stage in systematic thinking. It is the pitfall of physical science, immersed as its students are apt to be in problems dealing with tangible facts in the world of experience, that there is a tendency among them to claim a superior status of objective reality and finality for the laws to which their data are found to conform. But these generalizations are not ultimate truths, when we have to consider the nature of experience itself. “Because reference to the Deity will not serve for a physical explanation in physics, or a chemical explanation in chemistry, it does not therefore follow,” as Professor Ward says (op. cit. vol. i. p. 2 4), “that the sum total of scientific knowledge is equally intelligible whether we accept the theistic hypothesis or not. It is true that every item of scientific knowledge is concerned with some definite relation of definite phenomena, and with nothing else; but, for all that, the systematic organization of such items may quite well yield further knowledge, which transcends the special relations of definite phenomena.”
At the opening of the era of modern scientific discovery, with all its fruitful new generalizations, the still more highly generalized laws of epistemology and of the spiritual constitution of man might well baffle the physicist and lead his intellect to “flounder.” It is fundamentally necessary, in order to avoid such floundering, that the “knowledge” of things sensible should be kept distinct from the “knowledge” of things spiritual; yet in practice they are constantly confused. When the physicist limits the term “knowledge” to the conclusions from physical apprehensions, his refusal to extend it to conclusions from moral and spiritual apprehensions is merely the consequence of an illegitimate definition. He relies on the validity of his perceptions of physical facts; but the saint and the theologian are no less entitled to rely on the validity of their moral and spiritual experiences. In each case the data rest on an ultimate basis, undemonstrable, indeed, to any one who denies them (even if he be called mad for doing so), except by the continuous process of working out their own proofs, and showing their consistency with, or necessity in, the scheme of things terrestrial on the one hand, or the mind and happiness of man on the other. The tests in each case differ; and it is as irrelevant for the theologian to dispute the “knowledge” of the physicist, by arguments from faith and religion, as it is for the physicist to deny the “knowledge” of the theologian from the point of view of one who ignores the possibility of spiritual apprehension altogether. On the ground of secular history and secular evidence both might reasonably meet, as regards the facts, though not perhaps as to their interpretation; but the reason why they ultimately differ is to be found simply in the difference of their mental attitude towards the nature of “knowledge”—itself a difference of opinion as to the nature of man.
In addition to the literature cited above, see L. Stephen, An Agnostic’s Apology (1893); R. Flint, Agnosticism (1903); T. Bailey Saunders, The Quest of Faith, chap. ii. (1899); A. W. Benn, English Rationalism in the XIXth Century (London, 1906). (H. Ch.)