A C D E I J M O
Ab Ag

Agnosticism

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.

Distinction:

  • 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.

Detailed discussion:

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.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

3 thoughts on “Agnosticism

  1. Right, let’s see if I’ve got the hang of this Middle Way Philosophy.

    The scene: Adam and Eve (for want of any other names for these characters) are having a discussion about each other’s beliefs. They got started with beliefs about climate change – Adam believes that climate change is not happening, Eve believes that it is. In the course of their discussion about the justification for their beliefs Eve asked Adam what kind of evidence it would take for him to change his ‘skeptical’ view on climate change.

    Adam, realising that there is nothing that he can think of that would change his mind, diverts attention by asking Eve what kind of evidence it would take for her to change her ‘skeptical’ view on the existence of God. Adam is a life-long Christian, holding traditional protestant views on the existence and nature of God, whereas Eve says she has been an atheist ever since she rejected her Christian upbringing. The diversion is successful, as Eve realises that Adam has asked her something that she has never really thought about before… would there be any evidence that would change her belief in the non-existence of God? She feels quite self-conscious about this, as she has in the past berated Adam for what she calls a lack of ‘open-mindedness’ about climate change.

    Analysis from a Middle Way philosophy perspective: First, the two topics they were arguing about. Climate change is something that we can have provisional beliefs about (as they can be justified to some extent by evidence from experience), the existence of God is not something that we can have provisional beliefs about (because they are absolute, necessary for believing in something that is conceived as infinite and unchanging). This is the asymmetry between the two topics, and since Eve has not recognised this asymmetry it leads to her stalling.

    Adam has not taken the Middle Way. He cannot think of any evidence from experience that would change his belief that climate change is not happening. He is holding an absolute belief, about something that in principle can be justified.

    Eve has not taken the Middle Way, but for a different reason. In this situation she has got stuck in relativism – she is wondering if her belief in no God is equally as “unreasonable” as Adam’s belief in no climate change. If she carries on in this way she will probably decide that she’s going to have to ‘agree to disagree’ with Adam about climate change and the existence of God.

    The Middle Way in this situation would be to take the existence or non-existence of God as an issue that we can only be agnostic about, since either belief cannot be held provisionally – this is explained further in the introductory Middle Way philosophy video series (number 5, on agnosticism). It does not mean that the existence or not of God cannot be meaningful, however. With regards to climate change, whether we believe that climate change is happening or not, that belief should be held provisionally and be justified by evidence from experience. It isn’t that Middle Way Philosophy has an policy on climate change, but rather that it categorises climate change as a concept that can be justified to some degree by evidence from experience.

    [Usual caveats apply about conventional definition of the terms ‘God’ and ‘climate change’ in this example – I hope its clear from the context that I am talking about a traditional 20th century protestant Christian god and rapid anthropogenic global climate change!]

    1. I have put the word ‘skeptical’ in scare-quotes above as I’m using it there in the more widespread usage, meaning ‘denial’. None of the examples involve even-handed scepticism. Even-handed scepticism about an absolute concept (such as God) would lead via the Middle Way to hard agnosticism about it: we don’t have access to justification one way or the other so it is a concept that cannot be a justified belief, but which can still be meaningful. Even-handed scepticism about a justifiable concept (such as climate change) means not that we have to be agnostic about it, but that whatever view we have should be held provisionally – so that it is subject to revision in the light of evidence from experience – and the view should be incremental as whichever way we go on it, there are varying levels of justification for it.

  2. This sounds pretty good to me, Jim. There are a few points that could be added that might help clarify further, though.

    The difference between climate change and the existence of God can perhaps be most easily seen in the presence or absence of incrementality: there can be degrees of climate change and degrees of evidence making it more likely to be true, whereas the existence of God is either true or not true. It’s that incrementality that makes the former accessible to experience in a way that the latter is not. Perhaps we shouldn’t be asking ‘Is climate change true?’ but rather ‘How big a problem is it?’ and (when a certain magnitude has been offered) ‘How much evidence is there for that magnitude?’.

    The concept of falsification looms in the discussion between Adam and Eve. In my earlier writings I made more use of the concept of falsification than I tend to do now. I still think it’s easier to identify delusions than truths, but of course one can never be 100% certain about a delusion either. We can identify lots of sources of delusion wholly within experience (for example, cognitive biases) without having to deduce them from truths, and we can also identify absolutisation in every source of delusion. I think that means that we can be confident about delusions that we are avoiding to an extent that we can’t be confident about positive assertions. But that’s not quite the same as ‘falsification’ in the clearer scientific sense that Popper wanted to use it. I’m not sure that it’s always the case that we could come up with a clear falsification statement for every genuinely provisional belief, in the way that Popper demanded. Not every provisional belief, after all, is scientific, or could ever meet the socially-organised expectations of formal science. However, a belief seems much more likely to be held in a provisional way if we are aware of alternatives and have considered their justification, even if we can’t state exactly under what circumstances we would accept those alternatives.

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