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Agnosticism

AGNOSTICISM: A philologically objectionable and philosophically unnecessary but very convenient term, invented toward the end of the nineteenth century (1869) as a designation of the skeptical habit of mind then quite prevalent. It is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as the doctrine which holds that “the existence of anything beyond and behind natural phenomena is unknown, and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.” It is thus equivalent to the common philosophical term, skepticism, although expressing the phase of thought designated by both alike from the point of view of its outcome rather than of its method. Some have held, it is true, that the true agnostic is not 88 he who doubts whether human powers can attain to the knowledge of what really is, or specifically to the knowledge of God and spiritual things, but he who denies this. But there is a dogmatic skepticism, and there is no reason why there may not be a more or less hesitant agnosticism. The essential element in both is that the doubt or denial rests on distrust of the power of the human mind to ascertain truth. It is common, to be sure, to speak of several types of agnosticism, differing the one from the other according as the basis of the doubt or denial of the attainability of truth is ontological, generally psychological, definitely epistemological, or logical. But useful as this discrimination may be as a rough classification of modes of presenting the same fundamental doctrine, it is misleading if it suggests that the real basis of doubt or denial is not in every case epistemological. When it is said, for example, that God and spiritual things are in their very nature unknowable, that of course means that they are unknowable to such powers as man possesses; nothing that exists can be intrinsically unknowable, and if unknowable to men must be so only because of limitations in their faculties of knowledge. And when one is told that the sole trouble is that the balance of evidence is hopelessly in equilibrium, and the mind is therefore left in suspense, that of course means only that such minds as men have are too coarse scales for weighing such delicate matters.

Agnosticism is in short a theory of the nature and limits of human intelligence. It is that particular theory which questions or denies the capacity of human intelligence to attain assured knowledge, whether with respect to all spheres of truth, or, in its religious application, with respect to the particular sphere of religious truth. As mankind has universally felt itself in possession of a body of assured knowledge, and not least in the sphere of religious truth,—nay as mankind instinctively reaches out to and grasps what it unavoidably looks upon as assured knowledge, and not least in the sphere of religious truth,—agnosticism becomes, in effect, that tendency of opinion which pronounces what men in general consider knowledge more or less misleading, and therefore more or less noxious. Sometimes, no doubt, in what we may, perhaps, call the half-agnostic, these illusions are looked upon as rough approximations to truth, and are given a place of importance in the direction of human life, under some such designation as “regulative truths” (Mansel), or “value judgments” (Ritschl), or “symbolical conceptions” (Sabatier). The consistent agnostic, however, must conceive them as a body of mere self-deceptions, from which he exhorts men to cleanse their souls as from cant (Huxley).

In effect, therefore, agnosticism impoverishes, and, in its application to religious truth, secularizes and to this degree degrades life. Felicitating itself on a peculiarly deep reverence for truth on the ground that it will admit into that category only what can make good its right to be so considered under the most stringent tests, it deprives itself of the enjoyment of this truth by leaving the category either entirely or in great part empty. Refusing to assert there is no truth, it yet misses what Bacon declares “the sovereign good of human nature,” viz., “the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it,—the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it,—and the belief of truth which is the enjoying of it.” On the ground that certain knowledge of God and spiritual things is unattainable, it bids man think and feel and act as if there were no God and no spiritual life and no future existence. It thus degenerates into a practical atheism. Refusing to declare there is no God, it yet misses all there may be of value and profit in the recognition of God.

Benjamin B. Warfield.

Bibliography: Modern agnosticism takes its start in the philosophy of Kant and runs its course through Hamilton and Mansel to culminate in the teaching of Herbert Spencer; its most authoritative exposition is given in their writings and in those of their followers. Good select bibliographies of the subject may be found in A. B. Bruce, Apologetics, p. 146, London, 1892, in F. R. Beattie, Apologetics, or the Rational Vindication of Christianity, i. 521, 531, Richmond, 1903, and in R. Flint, Agnosticism, London, 1903, foot-notes, especially that on p. 643, where the titles of works on the cognoscibility of God are collected. Consult, besides the above, from the Christian dogmatic standpoint, J. Ward, Naturalism and Agnosticism, ib. 1903; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, I. i., ch. iv., New York, 1871; B. P. Bowne, The Philosophy of H. Spencer, ib. 1874 (a criticism of Spencer’s agnosticism); J. Owen, Evenings with the Skeptics, 2 vols., London, 1881; J. McCosh, The Agnosticism of Hume and Huxley, New York, 1884; J. Martineau, Study of Religion, I. i., ch. i.-iv., London, 1889; H. Wace, Christianity and Agnosticism, Edinburgh, 1895; J. Iverach, Is God Knowable? London, 1887. The agnostics’ position is set forth in H. Spencer, First Principles, ib. 1904 (called “the Bible of Agnosticism”); J. Fiske, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, Boston, 1874; K. Pearson, The Ethic of Freethought, London, 1887; R. Bithell, Agnostic Problems, ib. 1887; idem. The Creed of a Modern Agnostic, ib. 1888; idem, Handbook of Scientific Agnosticism, ib. 1892; Christianity and Agnosticism, a Controversy consisting of Papers by H. Wace, T. H. Huxley, Bishop Magee, and Mrs. Ward, New York, 1889 (this discussion aroused wide interest); L. Stephen, An Agnostic’s Apology, London, 1893; T. Huxley, Collected Essays, vol. v., 9 vols., ib. 1894 (contains his side of the controversy with Dr. Wace); W. Scott Palmer, An Agnostic’s Progress, London, 1906.

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