The Language of God: The Irony of Misunderstood Agnosticism

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The final part of this chapter on the godless takes aim at agnosticism. Collins first gives Huxley’s coinage of the term, and then he proceeds to misunderstand agnosticism in a way that’s rife with glaring contradictions.

Collins gives a lengthy quote of Huxley’s from Wikipedia, which you won’t find in the Wikipedia article he references! His citation doesn’t even mention when he accessed that page. Time to rant here: I have a friend who is a media specialist with my local library system, and she – and many others in her field – rant about students citing directly from Wikipedia. Ideally, they say, one can use it to check out information, but one should always go to the source material – the references for the article – to determine the value of the material. After all, they say, one can’t just assume that the source material referenced in any given Wikipedia article is a credible primary source. I find Collins’ direct citation of Wikipedia as a primary source to be intellectually lazy.

I have no idea where he got his entire quote, but you can find a portion of it here. The gist of the quote is that Huxley noticed that people seemed to have attained a certain “gnosis” regarding the problem of God’s existence, whereas Huxley had not attained such “gnosis.”

“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” (p.167).

Collins misinterprets the quote: “An agnostic, then, is one who would say that the knowledge of God’s existence simply cannot be achieved” (p.168). He then describes “strong agnostics” as stating that such knowledge could never be achieved and “weak agnostics” who say such knowledge is simply not available right now.

But wait a minute. Collins wouldn’t be able to conclude from Huxley’s quote above that an an agnostic would say that the knowledge of God’s existence simply cannot be achieved. After all, the quote Collins lifted from Huxley references the people who profess to have such knowledge. Huxley’s term would be more suited to simply negate that quote: agnostics are people who profess to have a lack of such knowledge. Just as a-theism is a lack of a belief in god(s), a-gnosticism would be the lack of knowledge of god(s). To conclude that agnostics say such knowledge is simply impossible requires additional steps in logic that Collins does not provide. In addition, Collins contradicts himself: at one point he says that an agnostic would say such knowledge “simply cannot be achieved” and then – in the very next sentence! – states that some (weak) agnostics just think we don’t have the knowledge right now, which sounds a lot like “maybe we’ll have that knowledge later.”

Collins then proceeds to characterize agnostics with bald assertions: “Most agnostics simply take the position that it is not possible, at least for them at that time, to take a position for or against the existence of God,” “many biologists would put themselves in this camp,” and “It is a rare agnostic who has made the effort to [consider all the evidence for and against the existence of God]” (p.168). There are, of course, no references backing his conclusions. Collins paints agnostics with a broad brush that screams “agnosticism is a cop-out!”

There is a possible objection that would rule out Collins’ strong v. weak dichotomy regarding agnosticism and show that agnosticism is far from a cop-out. If a strong agnostic claims that knowledge about god is impossible, then wouldn’t this mean that the agnostic has certain knowledge about gods (that gods are pesky in their unknowability) and/or the nature of reality relative to those gods? If that’s the case, and strong agnosticism is self-refuting, then weak agnosticism is the only form you have.

I have occasionally run into people who question whether I’m really an atheist or whether I’m an agnostic. Unfortunately, if these people were to read Collins’ book, they would not be any closer to understanding why a/theism and a/gnosticism is not an either/or proposition.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.facepunch.com/member.php?u=298989 Jeep-Eep

    So to put it in less flowery language, he’s a massive oaf with a bio degree flailing about like a centerfuged octopus?

  • Rieux

    I’m an atheist of the Gnu variety who has no truck with Francis Collins, but most of the positions (regarding the definition(s) of agnosticism) you are, in this post, criticizing him for stating seem to me extremely common and run-of-the-mill in atheist/agnostic circles. I haven’t read The Language of God, and from what I’ve heard about it it seems like the vast majority of the things the man has to say about religion and atheism are nonsense. That said, this post seems to me like a harsh and dubious criticism of a rare instance in which the guy got things generally correct.

    Are you really unfamiliar with the “weak/strong,” “have no knowledge”/”believe no knowledge is possible” conceptions of agnosticism? In my experience, those are widespread—and, I thought, fairly widely accepted—notions within ath/ag circles. I take it Collins did a poor job of citing his sources, but it’s not all that hard to fix that omission; did you consider doing that?

    Here’s the relevant passage from mathew’s “An Introduction to Atheism,” which (according to me) was the preeminent online treatise on atheist semantics during the Usenet age:

    The term ‘agnosticism’ was coined by Professor T.H. Huxley at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He defined an “agnostic” as someone who disclaimed both (“strong”) atheism and theism, and who believed that the question of whether a higher power existed was unsolved and insoluble. Another way of putting it is that an agnostic is someone who believes that we do not know for sure whether God exists. Some agnostics believe that we can never know.

    In recent years, however, the term agnostic has also been used to describe those who simply believe that the evidence for or against God is inconclusive, and therefore are undecided about the issue.

    To reduce the amount of confusion over the use of term agnosticism, it is recommended that usage based on a belief that we cannot know whether God exists be qualified as “strict agnosticism” and usage based on the belief that we merely do not know yet be qualified as “empirical agnosticism.”

    Or how about Austin Cline, the maintainer of atheism.about.com, in his essay “What is Agnosticism?”:

    [I]t remains the case that the term agnosticism is used fairly exclusively with respect to a single issue: do any gods exist or not? Those who disclaim any such knowledge or even that any such knowledge is possible are properly labeled agnostics. Everyone who claims that such knowledge is possible or that they have such knowledge might be called “gnostics” (note the lowercase ‘g’).

    I see that you (understandably) don’t think much of citing Wikipedia, but here’s what it has to say on this question:

    Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable.

    Noting your objection to citing Wikipedia, that Wiki statement cites to The Skeptic’s Dictionary and two philosophical dictionaries—solid support, it seems to me.

    I think all of the above demonstrates that the mathew/Cline/Wiki/Caroll/Hepburn/Collins definition of “agnosticism” is not at all coming out of left field. I’m sure you can find plenty more material that strongly supports it with some quick reference searches.

    As a result, I think most of this post unfairly beats up on Collins for correctly describing the way “agnosticism” is used in numerous learned discussions—among atheists!—of atheism and agnosticism.

    Later on in this piece I think you’ve found Collins actually saying things that deserve criticism, such as the “It is a rare agnostic” crap. And none of the above remotely calls into question the aggravation that we as atheists regularly encounter regarding use of the agnostic label; more than one of the sources I’ve cited above makes it very clear that atheists are not interested in being told that we’re more dogmatic than agnostics, that agnosticism is a more reasonable alternative to atheism, or that kind of nonsense.

    Moreover, none of the above calls into question what I’d say is the fundamental (social) problem with agnosticism—that it is almost exclusively used by people who are actually atheists but don’t have the guts to withstand the social penalties that come with calling yourself an atheist. Indeed, that’s pretty obviously the whole reason Huxley coined the term in the first damn place; he was in fact an atheist—he didn’t believe in gods!—but he wanted a less ugly word to describe himself. (Subsequent atheists, even firebreathing ones like Robert Ingersoll, have shamefully retreated into the ag-word as well.)

    Anyway. There are serious issues with agnosticism and the way it plays into societal atheophobia. I don’t doubt for a minute that Francis Collins, in a lousy book of dime-store theology, steps in it repeatedly regarding such issues. That said, picking on the man for accurately describing the way the term “agnosticism” is very frequently used in atheist/agnostic circles seems to me poor form. Surely the guy got enough things wrong in that book that you don’t need to waste time and energy thumping him for the handful of things he got right.

  • Rieux

    …Oh, and for whatever it’s worth, here is my attempt to introduce readers to atheist/agnostic semantics. As you can see, I define agnosticism pretty much the same way it appears Collins did, and (as should be obvious by now) I think there are good reasons to do so.

  • http://religiousatrocities.wordpress.com Jon Jermey

    I agree with Collins that atheism is untenable — but for different reasons. You can find full details at:

    http://atheistwiki.wikispaces.com/Why+agnosticism+entails+special+pleading

    To summarise: an agnostic applies different standards of proof to propositions about God than to other propositions. But the only possible justification for doing that would be the belief that propositions about God are true. So the ‘agnostic’ either believes that statements about God are true, while claiming they do not, or is simply irrationally inconsistent in applying their standards of proof. Either way, this is not a logically tenable position to hold.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Well, Rieux and I don’t generally agree on anything, and we agree that his definition of agnostic is not, in fact, all that wrong. About the only thing of importance is that agnostic is not an alternative to atheism/theism, but a way of classifying subtypes of them. I, for example, am an agnostic theist. A strong agnostic theist, in fact.

    Thus, I’d like to address your argument about strong agnosticism being self-defeating. It’s a commonly presented one, but it isn’t very good because it’s trying to demonstrate that we know something about a proposition that we never claimed not to know: details of the concept we’re considering. Strong agnostics about the proposition “God exists” claim that it is not possible to know the truth value of that statement. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t claim to know the details of the properties that the purported entity “God” is supposed to have — ie the conceptual details — in at least a loose manner, enough to be able to analyze the concept analytically and be able to prove to the level of knowledge that if such an entity existed, we would not be able to know that it existed.

    Think, for example, about positing an alternative universe that in no way interacts with ours. By definition, the lack of interaction seems to preclude knowledge, and since that’s by definition and pure deductive logic it seems that statement would count as knowledge.

    Additionally, it is possible to merely believe a strong agnostic position without knowing it, so they wouldn’t even have to claim knowledge of the thing that you claim makes it self-refuting.

    So there are a number of ways to get around the self-refutation you say is there.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Jon Jeremy,

    This doesn’t follow, because there’s no reason to think that they think it that much different from other propositions. If they take it to Huxley’s extreme and insist that you should withhold belief, you might have a point, but your examples are not of that sort, where they believe things without knowing them true. They are instead of examples where they do withhold belief because they don’t know.

    The breakfast cereal example is a bit off as well, since they really don’t have ANY reason to think of that other than that it’s possible. But agnostics don’t, in fact, simply have that it being possible is sufficient to withhold belief. Since knowledge doesn’t require certainty, it is always going to be possible that other things could be true even if we know that something is true. But there are more reasons to at least consider the possibility that God exists than in your breakfast cereal example. A better analogy might be that you’ve had that box of cereal sitting in the cupboard for a while and aren’t sure if it’s gone bad. Most people will ignore it unless it’s an extreme length of time or they have other evidence — like smell or taste — that it’s no longer good.

  • BJ Marshall

    @Rieux:

    I think Collins got the definitions of strong / weak agnosticism (what your blog post calls strict / empirical agnosticism) correct, but I disagree with the way that Collins makes his point. I think he does his readers a disservice by confusing things, and perhaps I did not take enough strides myself to clear them up.

    Collins concludes from the Huxley quote (“…who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant”) that an agnostic is one who would say that knowledge of God simply cannot be achieved. Collins’ conclusion simply doesn’t follow from the quote given, especially in light of those church leaders professing to know about God. His broad-brush definition of agnosticism (“knowledge … simply cannot be achieved”) then flies in the face of his later statement how weak agnostics just don’t have the information right now.

  • BJ Marshall

    @Verbose Stoic:

    Think, for example, about positing an alternative universe that in no way interacts with ours. By definition, the lack of interaction seems to preclude knowledge, and since that’s by definition and pure deductive logic it seems that statement would count as knowledge.

    I think I need some help appreciating this. If I understand correctly, then I could take any proposition P and, assuming that P would not give itself away with any evidence, I could take that lack of evidence for believing P. Why should I bother believing P if there’s no evidence for it?

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    BJ,

    I’m talking about agnosticism and your objection to strong agnosticism specifically, and pointing out that you could know that you could never know that an alterative universe that doesn’t interact with ours at all existed while being agnostic about whether or not it exists (since that’s what that argument proved, deductively).

    Agnosticism talks about knowledge, not belief. In the case of the alternative universe, you might be correct in saying that no evidence is possible, which was kinda the point of my using it as a clear and unrefutable example where it is simply not possible to know that it exists. The other propositions aren’t anywhere near that extreme. Since the standards of evidence for knowing something are higher than simply believing it, saying that you can’t know whether or not P is true does not automatically translate to “There is no evidence for P”, nor does any definition of agnosticism commit them to believing any proposition that they are agnostic about.

    To settle the last question, we need to turn to an analysis of when it is acceptable to believe something if you don’t know it to be true.

  • Rieux

    I think Collins got the definitions of strong / weak agnosticism … correct….

    You do? Oh.

    It’s hard for me to understand, then, why you never say that in the post. As written, the central thrust of this post seems to be that Collins is all wrong about what he thinks agnosticism is.

  • Rieux

    VS:

    Rieux and I don’t generally agree on anything….

    Gee; I didn’t realize that we knew each other all that well.

    Hm.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Rieux,

    We generally don’t agree in our limited interactions, buttressed perhaps by the things you say that I disagree with but haven’t replied to [grin].

  • konrad_arflane

    After all, they say, one can’t just assume that the source material referenced in any given Wikipedia article is a credible primary source.

    More to the point is this instance, one can’t assume that anything quoted from Wikipedia will remain in the article quoted, since the contents of each article can (theoretically) change completely from day to day. So apart from quoting WP being lazy, it’s also useless in a printed work.

  • L.Long

    Reading the article and the comments it all seems to come down to the same old thing…
    What the hell do you mean by (insert name)?
    xtian. islame, deist, agnostic, atheist????? WHAT IS IT???
    Which is why when the person says ‘I am a (insert).’
    I ask for a 4 sentence definition.

  • Quath

    I sometimes get asked about the agnostic vs atheist from people who are mildly religious or questioning. They tend not to want a whole thesis on the issue, so I have learned to summarize it by saying that there are two ways to look at it.

    One is that gnostic/agnostic is about knowing and it is independent of belief (theist/atheist). So one can be an gnostic atheist where they know there are no gods, or an agnostic atheist, where they don’t believe in any gods, but one can never be 100% certain. The same can be applied to theism. Sometimes I go a step further by saying that agnosticism seems to be the only really defensible position (compared to gnosticism) since 100% certainty is very hard to ever justify. I may even go a step further and mention that one can be gnostic about the nonexistence of self-contradictory gods.

    However, I notice that many people use “agnostic” to be the in-between position between an atheist and a theist. It could be that they are questioning and not ready to come down on one side or another. Or they don’t believe but think “atheist” sounds like a dirty word. Or they do believe, but think that their friends may think that it is silly to do so.

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    In defense of Wikipedia, every article has a history tab that contains every change made to the article and the dates. You can even compare multiple prior versions against each other. There are also comments regarding the changes, and arguments for and against.

    Heck, when I was in school, using an encyclopedia of any kind was unacceptable. Wikipedia is better than a lot of simple encyclopediae

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Quath,

    Could you drop the “never be 100% certain” portion? Knowledge hasn’t required absolute certainty since Cartesian epistemology was rejected for being impossible to achieve. We all know things that we aren’t and can’t be certain of, so it’s quite misleading to make that a part of what it means to know, especially when you go on to say that agnosticism is reasonable because of that impossibility that epistemology has moved on from a long time ago.

  • Jon Jermey

    As a pragmatist I assume that what people mean when they say ‘God exists’ or ‘God might exist’ is the same as if they said ‘Blue cheese exists’ or ‘Purple cheese might exist’ — that is, a thorough search of those parts of the universe accessible to me would or might turn up an example of the substance in question. To say ‘blue cheese exists but you can never, in principle, find it’ seems to me both a different kind of proposition and a nonsensical one: how does ‘exists’ in this context differ from ‘doesn’t exist’? What additional meaning is it supposed to convey?

    So arguing for a God who is undetectable in principle doesn’t impress me: it just concedes that God doesn’t exist and then tries to sneak back some new meaning of ‘exists’ that nobody in their right minds would agree to. There’s also the fact that pretty much every sincere theist believes in a God you CAN detect: the ‘undetectable God’ is clearly an ad hoc theological construct created solely to try and defeat this kind of objection.

  • http://www.commonsensethoughtcontrol.com Tim

    Verbose Stoic: I tend to put it in terms of “I don’t believe in any gods, but I think you could probably define ‘god’ in such a manner to have no meaningful interaction, where I could not disprove that gods existence. That doesn’t mean I’ll believe in such a being or even give it equal chances of likeliness/unlikeliness, but one could certainly define a god in a manner similar to Russell’s teapot.”

  • Quath

    Verbose Stoic,

    I agree that absolute certainty is impossible to achieve. However, there are still people who believe it is possible. I have talked to believers and atheists who think that 100% knowledge about something existing is achievable. One atheist said that she knows all gods do not exist. I pointed out how that is such a hard thing to justify a 100% certainty. However, she still maintained they were 100% certain. It is a lot easier to find believers who will say this as well.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Quath,

    I think in those cases you should just explain that knowledge does not require that, and leave it at that. Your responses, again, seemed to say that knowledge requires certainty, and it doesn’t. That atheist may well know that God does not exist even without certainty.

    And you can get certainty … from deductive arguments, so generally analytic claims. So it isn’t common, but we have some of those.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Tim,

    I’m not sure what your response is addressing. The “complete lack of interaction” was a strong case that I used to demonstrate a point, using a universe. I didn’t claim that God was like that, and I disagree that it’s ONLY at the point of “no meaningful interaction” that knowledge would not be possible. My whole point was to show that there are indeed cases where something might exist and you couldn’t know it in principle, but that’s not the only case.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    Jon Jermey,

    “As a pragmatist I assume that what people mean when they say ‘God exists’ or ‘God might exist’ is the same as if they said ‘Blue cheese exists’ or ‘Purple cheese might exist’ — that is, a thorough search of those parts of the universe accessible to me would or might turn up an example of the substance in question. To say ‘blue cheese exists but you can never, in principle, find it’ seems to me both a different kind of proposition and a nonsensical one: how does ‘exists’ in this context differ from ‘doesn’t exist’? What additional meaning is it supposed to convey? ”

    That’s not how I use the term “exists”, nor do I think that that is how the concept IS generally used. First off, it would eliminate all non-empirical existence, so might leave out things like mathematics. Second, it would leave out any entites that only deductive proofs could find, but most people would find it odd to simply say that such things can’t exist. And finally, it would make the example I gave absolutely nonsensical, but it does seem that it makes sense to people and that most people would not in any way say “Well, then that universe doesn’t exist”. It seems reasonable to accept that that sort of universe would exist and that we wouldn’t know about its existence. Yes, pragmatically you wouldn’t treat it much different from something that simply didn’t exist, but surely we’re talking about the concept of “exists”, and not just its practical application in your everyday life?


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