Beyond Agnosticism

Beyond Agnosticism September 15, 2016

There is a healthy dose of agnosticism in my worldview. There is much that I don’t know, and I am aware that I don’t know, and that some thing I think I know, I do not know with certainty.

Yet ultimately I self-identify as a Christian and not an agnostic. I recently came across a nice quote that articulates why. Aidan Kimel quoted Victor White as follows:

St Thomas’s position differs from that of modern agnostics because while modern agnosticism says simply, ‘We do not know, and the universe is a mysterious riddle’, a Thomist says, ‘We do not know what the answer is, but we do know that there is a mystery behind it all which we do not know, and if there were not, there would not even be a riddle. This Unknown we call God. If there were no God, there would be no universe to be mysterious, and nobody to be mystified.’ (Victor White, God the Unknown, pp. 18-19)

Kimel added:

An answer that is not an answer, an explanation that is not an explanation, a reality whose nature we cannot comprehend, a riddle from which we cannot escape. Or in Thomas’s words: “God’s effects then are enough to prove that God exists, even if they are not enough to help us comprehend what he is” (ST I.2.3).

From the blog post, “Can Reason Prove The Existence Of God?” HT Dănuț Mănăstireanu.

St Thomas’s position differs from that of modern agnostics

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  • davybuoy

    Pretty unconvincing. While this could be stretched to justify deism it is wholly unfit to justify any of the actual religions operating on this planet.

    • That’s a very odd comment, not least because it not only seems unaware of a wide array of the actual religions on this planet, but it assumes that Deism isn’t one of them!

      • davybuoy

        You say this is part of your justification for identifying as Christian. Which like every religion claims to know so much more about God and to be his agent. This basis doesn’t justify any of that.

        • Sorry, are you new to this blog? I’m a liberal Protestant with a mystical bent. Apologies if you arrived here with no background and mistook what kind of Christianity I reflect. Of course, from what you wrote, it is perhaps more likely that the problem is that you have a very narrow and/or limited familiarity with Christianity and so think it is a monolithic tradition.

          • davybuoy

            I am a medium term follower of yours but thanks for the reminder. If it helps I think this line of thinking fails for all religions (except deism, which admittedly I think of as a philosophical position rather than a faith to be practised) not just the multitude of competing Christian sects. Several of which I have personal experience of.

          • Well, the line between philosophy and religion is a blurry one.

            If you’ve been here in the medium term and my viewpoint isn’t clear then that is a definite indicator that it is long overdue for me to blog about certain topics again! 🙂

  • David Evans

    The problem is that by calling the unknown “God” he implies that it is in some sense personal (though he claims to know nothing about it). Calling it “The Force” would have different implications

    • “The Force” would simply be another term for an infinite unknown that would be every bit as likely to be wrong in important ways. God as “personal” is but one view of God, and even within classical theism, God is often thought of as unchanging and thus not “personal” in a sense that is anything like the normal usage of the term.

      • David Evans

        This is something that has always puzzled me. Theologians are frequently to be heard saying that the fine-tuning of the universe can only be explained as the decision of a personal God to make a habitat for intelligent life. An impersonal precursor or cause for the universe would simply not explain that, they say. (How an unchanging entity could be thought of as making a decision is another question.)

        Then of course, God in the Bible is sometimes angry with people and responds in various ways to their actions and prayers. He even talks to them.* The ordinary Christian, I think, regards these as events happening in time, and would find it hard to understand how that God could be unchanging.

        * (edited) And in one case doesn’t he even allow a prophet to persuade him not to destroy a city?

        • Yes, I think a lot of people simply can’t grasp, no matter how clearly theologians may articulate their viewpoint, that what is being offered is not a view of God that is intended to mesh with the Biblical narrative depictions, at least if those are taken as literal descriptions. Indeed, you seem to have fallen into that very pitfall, suggesting that the act of creation has to involve a “decision of a personal God.”

          • David Evans

            If I have fallen into that pitfall I think a number of theologians are in there with me. I can’t find a direct reference, but these lines occur in a discussion of Swinburne on fine-tuning:

            Materialism is complex in the sense that it postulates a great number, possibly an infinite amount, of material objects to provide a complete explanation of the universe. Theism, on the other hand, postulates a single personal cause of the universe, therefore, incredibly much simpler.
            On theism, God is a person who is endowed with an infinite degree of power, knowledge, and freedom, and so forth


  • Matthew Richardson

    It seems to me that the fundamental difference between the two viewpoints you describe is not what label they use for the unknown, but rather what function the unknown performs and what our attitudes toward it should be. The label God implies certain functions (providing meaning for existence) and attitudes (reverence, devotion, or ultimate concern) that other labels would not. It seems to me that simply using the label ‘the unknown’ would allow for solutions that do not require those functions or attitudes, and therefore might be preferable to some.


  • jekylldoc

    My problem with Aquinas’ answer is not his answer but the question. Acknowledging the mystery behind it all doesn’t get us very far in understanding how to relate to it. If, in the end, I am going to relate to God in ways guided by my tradition, why should I even concern myself with the question “How do I know the terms refer correctly to some entity or force or presence or process?” ?

    In my view, the epistemological basis for relating to God is not to be found in correctly defining God, even the God behind God, as Tillich would have it. The epistemological basis for relating to God is experiential. Regardless of what it is exactly I have related to, the experience has left me changed. Discernment is not found in careful philosophy but in more relationship to God.

    The result of that discernment is not superior ability to enunciate the truth about God. If, indeed, such truth actually exists: I am convinced there is error about God, but I am not convinced anything “about” God is true. There is God in the second person, so to speak, but not in the third. What discernment gives is better ability to actually relate to whatever it is we are relating to.

  • gewaite

    Why is religion so boring?

  • Jason Clark

    Huxley was a scientist, above all else. He saw the scientific method in picking apples at the market. The agnosticism he defined was a belief in that scientific method, and it amounted to a form of demarcation. No objective testable evidence = a subjective unfalsifiable claim. Results: unscientific and inconclusive. No belief as to the truth, or falsehood, of the claim. It is not compatible with athe-ism, the belief gods do not exist, or the-ism, the belief gods do exist.

    “I say, strive earnestly to learn something, not only of the results, but of the methods of science, and then apply those methods to all statements which offer themselves for your belief. If they will not stand that test, they are nought, let them come with what authority they may.”

    “Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.”

    He outright considered it “immoral” to form beliefs about objective truth claims with no supporting objective evidence.

    “That which Agnostics deny and repudiate, as immoral, is the contrary doctrine, that there are propositions which men ought to believe, without logically satisfactory evidence; and that reprobation ought to attach to the profession of disbelief in such inadequately supported propositions.”

    People have a tendency to retroactively call something “agnosticism”, that is nothing like agnosticism, as defined by the man who came up with the term.

    Suspension of belief/judgement is a part of agnosticism, and it’s pre-Huxley roots lie in the likes of Phyrronic scepticism.

    Sextus Empiricus:

    “Let the Dogmatists first agree and concur with one another that god is such and such, and only then, when they have sketched this out for us, let them expect us to form a concept of god. But as long as they do not settle their disagreements we cannot tell what agreed-upon conception we are supposed to get from them.”

    “Furthermore, if we go by what the Dogmatists say, even if we form a conception of god it is necessary to suspend judgment concerning whether he exists or does not exist. For it is not pre-evident that god exists.”