Brief definition: Agnosticism is the recognition that we may not have knowledge, because what we think we know may not be true. It is most commonly applied to our lack of knowledge of God’s existence, but can also be applied to any other knowledge claim.
- Hard agnosticism is the recognition that we can never achieve certainty in our knowledge because of our finite and embodied nature.
- Soft agnosticism assumes that we might possibly achieve knowledge in the future, so sees agnosticism as temporary
Middle Way Philosophy here recommends hard agnosticism.
Agnosticism is the recognition that we may not know, and it can be applied to every possible belief. For beliefs about things that lie beyond our experience we can have no evidence, and thus it is clear that we cannot know about them. For beliefs about things that lie within experience there is still plenty of room for doubt, because any assertions we make on the basis of our experience are limited in their justification by the limitations of our senses, viewpoint, prior assumptions and categories. Sceptical arguments spell out these grounds for doubt. Agnosticism is thus the most balanced and rational response to the lack of total justification for our beliefs: we may not know anything, and we cannot and should not affirm either that we know or that we do not know.
Agnosticism does not remove the possibility of justification from our beliefs, because justification, unlike knowledge, is an incremental term which can be calibrated in relation to experience. Justification depends on the extent to which we have removed the conditions of ignorance which prevent us from assessing our experience objectively. The conditions of ignorance include the assumptions either that we “know”, or that we “don’t know” about what we are dealing with, when all we actually have access to is degrees of justification.
The Middle Way involves agnosticism because all claims to knowledge (or to its absence) are metaphysical, and the Middle Way involves systematic navigation between positive and negative metaphysical claims. The practice of the Middle Way thus begins with agnosticism as an underlying attitude, and is undermined by claims to knowledge of any kind. Instead, the practice of the Middle Way requires the use only of provisional claims.
Especially important in the practice of the Middle Way is metaphysical agnosticism, the avoidance of acceptance of claims that can be explicitly identified as metaphysical. Metaphysical agnosticism requires a practice of even-handedness in dealing with different metaphysical claims, plus a certain philosophical wariness.
The Middle Way involves hard agnosticism rather than soft agnosticism. Soft agnosticism involves the suspension of judgement whilst waiting for further evidence. However, no further evidence is possible in the case of any knowledge claim, so long as we do not have a God’s-eye view. From our relative position, no amount of further evidence can provide certainty. Thus soft agnosticism is a way of hanging on to the possibility of certainty, when what we need to do is come to terms with the impossibility of certainty. Hard agnosticism is a better response in the terms of the Middle Way, because once we have fully taken on board that certainty is impossible and that we only have degrees of justification, we can then focus our attention much more clearly on that degree of justification.