Religion and Language Part III: On Agnosticism
Sep 9, 2011

Religion and Language Part III: On Agnosticism

In previous posts on this series on Religion and Language (on deism, in part I; one morality, in part II), I have looked at the way careful attention to the language used to describe religion makes many different religious arguments vacuous. As we shall see, the same can be said of agnosticism.

Agnosticism is sometimes upheld as if it itself is not a definitive claim about the nature of the universe. A non-claim, if you will, and devoid of the alleged unsubstantiated arrogance of theism or atheism. As such, it often manages to escape the intellectual standards required to make ones claims well defined and intellectually justified.

Quite the contrary, it is indeed an asserted claim. Namely, it is the assertion that a certain type of knowledge (the existence of a deity) is outside of our understanding or abilities to determine. As physical creatures, this claim is putting a definitive limit on the nature of the universe and, in particular, the allowable states of knowledge attainable by humans within it.

In order to defend this claim, one must first define it. As in, the agnostic must define the concept of a deity to which one is asserting we cannot prove or disprove of it. Agnosticism is surely more than simply the kind of epistemic uncertainty we might attach to any claim (given how our observations and logic and the like might be fallible), since it is implicitly about deities, so we need to know what about this deity is worthy of this special attention that agnosticism claims. Of course, we all have a loose conception of what a deity is as popularized by our religions and culture, but coming up with a philosophically meaningful definition isn't easy, quite the opposite.

Agnostics usually don't define the deities that they are agnostic about. But one property of this deity usually stands out as present, either implicitly or explicitly. Namely, the deity has the property that it is outside of the capacity of our logical and evidential systems to derive. This is entirely circular. It is defining a deiy as being outside of our rational and observational bounds to determine (perhaps adding other irrelevant properties) and then "deducing" that it is outside of our rational and observational bounds to determine. It is like saying that an invisible object is invisible.

Of course, few would frame it so bluntly. Perhaps it is possible to give a different definition of a deity and deduce its unprovability from that. However, I have never seen a definition which is not functionally equivalent to the property I described above, nor seen a subsequent deduction. It would appear that agnosticism, as a claim about the universe, is neither right or wrong but simply vacuous.

It should be noted that agnostics can be separated into roughly two different persuasions. Firstly, there are those who maintain that our inability to determine this isn't just a matter of present limitations, but that it could never in principle be discovered. This is the form of agnosticism that the above argument argument finds to be meaningless without requiring further modification.

The second type is a more practical form which maintains that this is an a priori knowable fact, we just don't have the observational or logical abilities to know it just yet. It is comparable to Russel's Teapot (although not exactly the same) which notes our agnostic stance to the question of a teacup flying arround Mars. This is a knowable fact, it is just that we didn't have the technological capacities (at the time of his writing) to possibly observe it. A technology improves (with our new satellites around Mars, say) it is determinable. In this, the argument changes from "an unknowable fact is unknowable", which is circular, to "a knowable fact currently isn't known". However, one still needs to specify what this knowable fact about deities actually is. That key definitional problem has not gone away.

As a note on the false modesty of agnosticism, it is worth noting that agnosticism and (weak) atheism are claims in two very different categories. Agnosticism, particularly of the "in principle" variety, is a claim that certain types of knowledge are simply outside - absolutely, cosmically outside - our ability to know. Weak atheism, on the other hand, is a claim about the state of human evidence and asserts that the evidence such as we have or can reason with our minds is slim to none. Far from being an absolute claim about the nature of the universe, it is just a claim about the nature of our human evidence and reason. Is it not thus the case that agnosticism, despite its pretensions, is the more arrogant claim?

As specified in the first post on the subject, we now have a list of five different properties commonly ascribe to the concept of a deity which I will repeat:
1) The 'first cause' deity which creates the universe
2) The deity which breaks the 'infinite regress' problem
3) The deity which indues morality in the universe
4) The deity which breaks the 'is-ought' problem
5) The deity which is outside of human logic and reason
These properties are logically independent from each other; one can easily have any, none or all of them and can, if one wishes, ascribe any other number of properties from omniscience to answering your prayers. When most people conceive of a deity - particularly those of theism- they usually think of it as having numerous different properties but it is worth remembering that most of those are logically independent. When one tries to argue for something (such as the necessity of a deity to explain the universe, or that the deity gives morality to the universe, or that the concept of a deity is outside of our evidential and rational system) what this reduces to is simply invoking the relent assumed property as part of the definition - a tactic that cannot be anything except vacuous.

That this problem occurs with such regularity is a function of the edifice of religious language and terminology that has been built up and may appear to have prima facie meaning but, upon closer inspection, does not. We have a large body of terms associated with deities without a meaningful conception of them. Just because we have a body to terminology with sentences expressible in English hardly means that those sentences denote a coherent concept. In all branches of philosophy - and the philosophy of religion cannot escape this - the precision of language and the necessity of semantics remains of paramount importance.

Finally, I want to refer the reader to my previous post, The Names We Use For People Who Do Not Believe In God(s), which provides a largely different justification for why I don't like the term 'agnostic', quite outside of the philosophical validity of the above arguments.

Read: Part I: On Religious Morality | Read Part II: On Religious Morality

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