Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Agnosticism" is Not a Theological Position

A "theological position" would be an opinion of some sort (that's the "position" part) about something (say, existence or lack thereof) specifically about God (that's the "theological" part). "Either God exists, or God does not exist" is a theological position, because it contains the premise that both sides of the disjunction make sense. Put in metaphysical terms: that it's possible that God exists, and possible that God does not. But I'm not sure the agnostic is entitled to that much.

This is because the agnostic looks to me to be committed to the view that "Knowledge about God's existence is impossible." I think this is necessarily true about the agnostic because it makes no sense to say, "I choose not to have a belief one way or the other about X." As Socrates insists, one believes what one believes, whether one wants to or not. The attempt to reflect on our own beliefs, to honestly and courageously evaluate our reasons for holding them, is the beginning of philosophy. That is why "Because my family raised me to believe in God" is not an adequate answer to the question "Do you believe in God?" The question is about one's beliefs themselves, not the etiology of those beliefs, although that may be revealing (as it is, embarrassingly, in the example).

If this is so then another problem for agnosticism is that it is a consequence of a general epistemological attitude, that is, an attitude towards knowledge in general, and nothing particular to do with God. Aristotle's objections to Plato's metaphysics, Hume's objections to 17th century rationalism's metaphysics, are epistemological arguments with general application. Aristotle and Hume, hearty philosophers both, breathed deep and followed Socrates' dictum: they concluded (for closely related but interestingly different reasons) that they believed that various putative entities did not exist. They were willing to accept the consequences of the epistemological standards that they had set for themselves.

The agnostic wants to be a kind of sceptic: not sceptical of God's existence, but sceptical about the possibility of knowledge of God's existence. The move is to avoid the unpleasantness of denying God's existence by denying the possibility of knowledge of God's existence. Wittgenstein would say, "When you say that asserting God's existence or denying God's existence is impossible, because there is no way of knowing which possibility is fact, you are (merely) stating that it makes no difference, that neither proposition carries any meaning because there are no pragmatic consequences either way." That is he would apply his general criticism of sceptical arguments. In fact Wittgenstein holds that propositions about spirituality are impossible for the same reasons that he holds that propositions about aesthetics, ethics and phenomenal experience, for examples, are impossible. But a crucial point here is that he denies that this makes them insignificant (as Hume or A. J. Ayer, say, might do): he affirms the great significance of many aspects of experience that lie beyond the bounds of language.

Where does this leave the agnostic? (I am fighting off the urge to go on to Kierkegaard.) The agnostic cannot say, "I believe that God might exist or God might not, but I believe that knowledge of which is true is impossible." This is self-contradictory. In order to (really) believe that God might or might not exist, one must believe that there are (somewhere, somehow) reasons for believing one or the other. But the agnostic must claim that there are no such reasons, else why not examine them with Socrates and the gang? (Just as an aside, I think that there are reasons for and against believing in God: thus I am not agnostic, even if I have not reached a conclusion.) No, the agnostic is simply refusing to examine his or her own beliefs. Pascal was right: just doesn't want to get into trouble. Agnosticism is a refusal to do theology, not a theological position.


  1. I Agree. That's why I identify myself as a skeptic (in theory, atheist in practice :-) ) and not an agnostic. Those that label themselves agnostics usually have no opinion on the subject. They don't care and they want to appear politically correct to the public opinion. It's very similar to the difference between apathetic and a non aligned or non partisan voter. The former will not bother himself to go vote. He just doesn't care.

  2. So, are you saying that all agnostics, by force of your logic, are disingenuous?

    And would your same analysis apply to "Negative Theology" (a rather large swath of the historical theological closth)?

    I find my self technically agnostic at times, but I do not recognize myself in your descriptions, so I am curious. Mostly it is the case because I find the question "Do you believe in God?" a bit incoherent. Its something to a larger of questions like, "Do you believe in America?" It folds in questions of existence with questions of trust and then judgment of its nature. Sure America exists, but in a curious kind of way. Sure I believe in many stated or socially powerful American values. But there is a curious fashion in which the "in" part (even the "exists" part) is ambiguous. I can find myself being fairly agnostic about the knowledge we can have of "America" (we have to specific criteria, etc.).

    The larger question of "Do you believe in God?" seems to be something of the same to an even greater degree. And I can see myself saying that one cannot have knowledge of God due to the kind thing that God is taken to be (that is, in the Wittgenstein sense, there is no reference to criteria).

    In fact it strikes me that Wittgenstein's position on knowledge as defined by reference to criteria would technically place in an agnostic position towards the belief in God's existence. What exactly is the criteria to which one would refer? In a sense, God is the ultimately Grammatical Statement. What is the criteria by which we can say "All rods have length"? Well, that's just how we use the words length and rods. Is knowledge of God's existence simply an after affect of "well, that's just how we use the word "God"?"

  3. or, to put it another way...

    Given Wittgenstein's...

    “How do I know this colour is red?—It would be an answer to say: ‘I have learnt English’” (PI §381).

    Wouldn't one also say,

    "How do I know that God exists? - I have become Catholic"

  4. Hello Anderson

    Very good text! I'm a philosopher from Brazil and I'm very happy to find this blog and I will read it all.

  5. "The attempt to reflect on our own beliefs, to honestly and courageously evaluate our reasons for holding them, is the beginning of philosophy."

    Reasons come to an end somewhere.

    I've recently been thinking about what connection can be made (if any) between this Wittgensteinian view and Plantinga's view that belief in the existence of God (or some such belief) is 'properly basic' (i.e., is it possible to rephrase Plantinga's position in Wittgensteinian terms).

    In a very interesting article, C. G. Luckhardt argues that epistemological reasons come to an end in the grammatical paradigms of 'know/don't know' language games (here are a summary passage from that article and a link to the whole article). Along those lines, the question is: Is 'There is a god' a paradigm of our epistemological language-games?

  6. Looks to me like everything "just is". But it is possible to come up with an explanation for why there are good and bad things in the universe--and what is good and bad and why.
    Imagination is unlimited in this way. You could object to the explanation or hold it invalid,
    but some explanation can be created.
    Ultimate questions like, "why anything at all?" one can prduce and answer for, something can be thought up. But the ultimate question keeps coming up: "why any explanation at all? Because xyz.
    And why xyz? because of abc And why abc? because of..Ad infinitum.
    It is this that I think Wittgenstein meant.

  7. I don't know if this is just to haggle over words, but I'm not sure that questions of atheism, theism, agnosticism, skepticism, pantheism, etc. as you have here laid them out are really theological positions but philosophical ones.

    As long as we are on the plane of discussing God as a plausible or implausible, theoretically knowable or theoretically unknowable, theoretically proven, or skeptically doubted being, I think we are still doing philosophy.

    It's only when we are accepting a faith tradition (or multiple ones) and taking its sources and not strictly rational ones that I think we enter into doing "theology" proper. Because theology is the study of God or gods and assumes there is a God or gods from the outset.

    So, I would argue that atheism, the philosophical position that there are no gods available to study, is a rejection of theology as much as agnosticism is. And skepticism is a choice to hold off on doing theology until there is philosophical evidence that would permit acceptance of (a) a metaphysical entity known as God and (b) the authority of a specific faith tradition or traditions for interpreting that God's nature/works/etc.

    I think it's important to keep this space between philosophy and theology because if you are a skeptic about the metaphysical God but absolutely convinced that special revelation is bogus for epistemological reasons then as far as RELIGIOUS belief and practice goes you are far closer to the agnostics and atheists than your characterization of yourself above would indicate.

    Now, maybe you're equally open-minded a skeptic about special revelation, capable of persuasion to accept it as you are of the metaphysical God, in which case you are a skeptic about the existence of God and a skeptic about whether theology contains any truth at all. But that's something specifically different than simple skepticism about the philosopher's God that gets combined with confident atheism about the specially revealing gods of faith.

    Personally, I am simply a metaphysical skeptic when it comes to the existence of a unified, eternally existent "ground of all being" or Anselmian "perfect being" of some sort. But based on my views of epistemic justification, in principle I completely rule out special, narrowly given, revelation as a legitimate source of authority and so am atheistic with respect to all religious interpretations of God the second they go beyond the philosophically plausible.

    I do not believe there is any such field of knowledge called "theology" (except if by that term you mean a species of literature, myth, and history of ideas.) And technically it is POSSIBLE (since anything is POSSIBLE) that some theological tradition is actually true but we can in principle have no knowledge of it and so should never make belief claims about it.

    To that extent I might really be an agnostic about whether there can be special revelations but, being committed to the principle that we should not affirm what we cannot have adequate reasons to believe, that means rejecting the claim that the theology done from within that "special revelation" could ever be called "knowledge." Even if it HAPPENED to be right.

  8. Dan, thank you for the links. I have added Camels With Hammers to the blogroll here.

    I would not describe myself as a sceptic: I am persuaded by Wittgenstein’s arguments that sceptical claims make no sense: they involve an improper use of the verb “to know.” The existence of the external world, for example, is not the sort of thing about which one can either know or fail to know. “God” taken as “ground of being” (Tillich) or “universal mind” (Hindus, Spinoza) looks to be relevantly similar (harder to cash that out than it looks!) to “the external world”: not the kind of thing that qualifies as an object of knowledge. The agnostic wants to be a sceptic: he wants to tell us that we don’t know something that we are sure that we do know. I hold sceptical problems to be pseudoproblems.

  9. Thanks for the reply and for adding me to the blogroll, it's very appreciated. (I will do likewise when I figure out where mine goes, the site's still new!)

  10. Me again. I'm looking at your words on the agnosticism post: 'The agnostic cannot say, "I believe that God might exist or God might not, but I believe that knowledge of which is true is impossible." This is self-contradictory. In order to (really) believe that God might or might not exist, one must believe that there are (somewhere, somehow) reasons for believing one or the other. But the agnostic must claim that there are no such reasons...'

    To my mind there is also the 'active' agnostic, who has considered, concluded that there are valid but currently unprovable arguments either way, and chooses to not be partisan.

    I say this because one could use the same argument about a Buddhist, who will not generally espouse the view that there is a presence usually known as 'God'; the Buddha himself would famously not be drawn on this notion, and from the Buddhist perspective to buy into one or other position is to buy into the 'illusion' of dualism...

    So personally I guess I conclude that both an agnostic and a Buddhist could in fact make that statement! (Respectfully, as a non-philosopher but one very interested in ontology etc.)