A Personal View


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By Bruce Barbour - December 2023 (Version 1.1)


Wikipedia attributes the original definition of Agnosticism to Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869. Earlier thinkers had promoted agnostic points of view however it was Huxley that coined the word "agnostic". It was formed by the combination of the ancient Greek words "ag" meaning without and "gnosis" meaning knowledge.

Huxley also provided a series of excellent definitions and explanations (also from Wikipedia):
  • "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."
  • [The agnostic] "principle may be stated in various ways, but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what Agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to Agnosticism."
  • "Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle ... Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable." (My emphasis.)
A common definition of the word today (again according to Wikipedia) is "human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist".

The main difference to note is that the Huxley definition gives the word Agnostic a much wider scope than simply not supporting a belief in a specific God or any god. It defines an agnostic as a person who does not say
he knows or believes that which the person has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe. I largely support this wider definition with minor exceptions.

What agnosticism is not is philosophical scepticism (not to be confused with the everyday use of the word). Neither is it denialism. Philosophical sceptics doubt whether any Knowledge is possible. Agnostics believe Knowledge is possible but make the bar for achieving that status relatively high.

Scientific justification is the main route to reliable Knowledge, though as discussed in other articles on this site some science is only justified to the 95% level. A hypothesis proven by repeatable scientific experimentation is still classed as a "theory" which is an acknowledgement that subsequent testing and other experimentation may disprove the theory. Science requires an open mind at all times. Though over time theory may become more and more certain. (Until someone like Einstein comes along!)

I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong
Bertrand Russell
Huxley rejects human reason as a reliable source of Knowledge by itself. I think in some circumstances solely using reason is sufficient. Such as in denying Bertrand Russell's orbiting china teapot. However solely using reason without scientific backup to justify knowledge is in many cases not justified and is used far too often without sufficient justification.

I am agnostic about the belief in free will. While I think it is likely that humans have free will, I admit this is not sufficiently proven to be certain. If convincing repeatable scientific proof is provided at some stage in the future this may change my view to more certain. Until then free will is the working hypothesis that I accept. I am agnostic about humans being hard determined - but I am more sceptical about it than I am for free will. However again I am willing to accept proof if that is offered in the future. Knowledge and science is not the same as religious belief. There should be no leaps of faith in science. Although leaps of speculation are allowed, so long as they are acknowledged as such.

I am agnostic about atheism and theism. It is really about what is defined as god. Based on reason alone the gods described in the books of the major Abrahamic religions seem unlikely. However this does not eliminate all possible concepts of god.(e.g.) Reasoned arguments are not sufficient however definitive scientific proof is currently impossible.

I am agnostic about meaning but tend to err on the side that meaning is possible, even if that meaning ends up being solely a personal meaning. The alternative is to say there is no meaning therefore why bother looking, or investigating, or broadening the mind. Perhaps part of the meaning of life is to investigate, to search for knowledge and understanding of the Universe and our part in it. To look to the skies, to look at nature, with awe and wonder. Perhaps that in itself is sufficient meaning. A necessary part of this process is to admit there is information and facts that are not known and other information that you are agnostic about. If everything is certain in your mind then there is no point in searching and questioning.

One of the issues that sometimes worries me about the agnostic position is that it can make a person seem indecisive or even wishy-washy. So be it. It is a criticism I am willing to bear. For me I believe agnosticism allows a person to be most open to changes in knowledge. It allows a person to say this is what I presently think is true while leaving open the willingness to accept that the truth is something else in the future. It allows a person to investigate a whole range of issues with a mind that is open and to go wherever the investigation leads, willing to change, willing to embrace possibilities. It is the position that allows the most potential for growth, to not be stuck in the one mindset.

* * * * * * *

This is an aside about science. I hope that you can see from my writings that I love science. It is the most reliable path to Knowledge. However some of the approaches of people who profess to be scientists, and renowned scientists at that, is the reliance they may place on mathematical models. A mathematical model is developed and may have been shown to work in some instances. That is the numerical outcomes of the models may align with what is observed in the Universe. This is fine.

Sometimes these models can be interpreted to suggest something that has not presently been observed. This is fine too. It points to a possible direction of future research. My issue is that it seems that sometimes some scientists may promote the unverified mathematical predictions as already accepted science. Perhaps it is just a laziness on their part in not stating when they are talking that the mathematical prediction is not confirmed science. Perhaps they just assume people will know this.

With novel mathematical models there is always two possibilities: the model may be correct or it could be wrong - it might be missing a variable or two. This is not known so correctness can't be assumed even if it seems to provide an answer to some questions.

An example of this is the Multiverse. This possibility apparently falls out of some of the quantum equations. If true the Multiverse would solve some of the unanswered questions that scientists have about the Universe. However this possibility has not been verified by any experimental science. No Universe outside our current one has been observed - and it is difficult to see how one could ever be observed. This make the status of the Multiverse simply an interesting possibility, an interesting hypothesis - no matter how good the math seems to be.

The only way to scientific Knowledge is through the scientific method and observation of physical systems. Scientific Knowledge is not from the predictions of mathematical equations. Mathematical models are useful in that they may point the way to formulating an hypothesis which can then be tested, or to physical proof to be searched for. Anything more than that requires a leap of faith which, as I have said before, should not be part of science.

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