What is agnosticism? Broadly speaking, it is the position that claims that human beings cannot ‘know’ whether God (or gods) exists or not. We simply do not have the means to have such knowledge. I put ‘know’ in scare quotes because that is where an agnostic puts the emphasis. The ancient Greek word, ‘gnosis’, means ‘knowledge’, and the so-called Gnostics of the early Christian era were regarded as being heretics – that is, subscribing to a mystical and mystery-oriented faith-doctrine that clashed with the acceptable ‘theistic’ doctrine of the Christian church – because they claimed to possess a kind of mystical knowledge of God.

I used the word ‘theism’ to distinguish ‘orthodox’ (meaning ‘correct opinion’) conceptions of God from gnosticism; ‘theism’ is the orthodox view that there is one God who created the universe, and that ‘He’ (not ‘She’, because this is a patriarchal view of the deity) stands in a relation of omnipotence to creation – in other words, through miraculous intervention, ‘He’ can do anything to change things and events at any time. During the early modern period, when Newton’s mechanistic (machine-oriented) notion of nature gained wide acceptance, the world was seen as a machine, and God as the one who set the machine going, and then absented himself from it. This view is known as deism, or the ‘absentee landlord’ conception of God.

Atheism, as is generally known, is the view that there are no gods, or God; strictly speaking it is not a belief that God does not exist – although this is the popular understanding of atheism – but simply an absence of belief in the existence of gods or God; the ancient atomistic thinker, Lucretius – writer of the famous text, De Natura Rerum (On the nature of things), is probably the exemplification of this view, and argued that the lack of belief in the existence of gods frees human beings to live a fulfilling life, fearing no retribution in an afterlife, and anticipating no rewards either.

Perhaps surprisingly, one encounters hidden agnostic elements in the thought of theistic thinkers, such as the early (3rd century CE) Christian philosopher, Tertullian, who is known for the saying, ‘Credo quia absurdum’ – ‘I believe because it is absurd’. A very important concept is here added to the debate, namely ‘credo’, ‘I believe’. This is not a reference to the ordinary sense of ‘belief’, as in ‘I believe that you are gluten-intolerant’; Tertullian’s use of the term denotes what is accurately, and significantly, for the position of agnosticism, called ‘faith’. Why then does he state that he believes (or has faith) ‘because it is absurd’? By implication, the articles of faith of Christianity (and this would be true of all religions, whether it is Judaism, Islam or Hinduism, for example), such as the belief in a Trinity that is at the same time THREE (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) AND ONE, cannot pass muster in terms of rational criteria (how can three distinct entities be one, etc.?). These objects of faith can therefore not be ‘known’, strictly speaking, and is therefore ‘absurd’ by definition. But that is why it can (or ‘must’) only be ‘believed’. Implicitly, Tertullian therefore combines theism and agnosticism by distinguishing between faith or belief and knowledge.

In fact, this distinction between faith and knowledge, which is implicitly at the basis of agnosticism, gave rise to two divergent currents of thought in the early middle ages, where thinkers belonging to one side constructed their arguments around the slogan, ‘Credo ut intelligam’, (‘I believe so that I may understand’) – a conservative position that derives from the thought of St Augustine, who argued that one cannot understand the objects of the Christian faith unless one experiences ‘divine illumination’ first, which is only possible through prior faith. The more progressive view turned this slogan around to read ‘Intellego ut credam’ (‘I understand so that I may believe’), which prioritises knowledge as the foundation of faith. What is clear about these two countervailing positions is that they tried, in different ways, to reconcile faith and knowledge. But can they be reconciled? Several important modern thinkers claim that they cannot.

The most important of these thinkers, in my judgment, is the 18th-century Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant, who demonstrated – to my mind conclusively – that the domain of ‘knowledge’ per definition excludes (knowledge of) God. At the same time Kant was quite a devout Christian, which reflects his implicit distinction between faith and knowledge. How did he demonstrate that the divine falls outside the scope of knowledge in the strict sense of the term?

Kant was very impressed by Newton’s macro-mechanics of nature, and probably believed, as Alexander Pope famously phrased it at the time, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, let Newton be! – and all was light”. He therefore set out to provide the philosophical justification of the claim that Newton’s work represented ‘true’ knowledge, and published his famous Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 with this aim in mind. But to justify Newton’s scientific system of nature Kant essentially had to ‘limit’ human knowledge to the empirical domain of experience. Here is a very brief account of how he did it.

All human beings share the same cognitive capacity, or reason. Kant divided reason into three ‘parts’, which are distinguishable, but always work together simultaneously, namely the forms of intuition (i.e. perception), namely space and time, the concepts or categories of understanding, and the regulative ideas of ‘pure’ reason. Through the perceptual forms of space and time we apprehend things in the world (just a way of saying that whatever we ‘know’, is unavoidably given to us in space and time), but without the categories of the understanding (including quantity, quality, causality, subsistence, possibility and existence) we could not make sense of the things we observe. As Kant famously put it: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”. Space and time provide the content; categories (concepts) provide understanding. Importantly, it is this ‘synthesis’ between sensibility (space and time) and understanding that comprises knowledge proper; unless experience (sensibility; things given in space and time) is organised and interpreted through the concepts of the understanding, it is not ‘knowledge’.

So what about God? Kant gave the idea of God (NOT concept; concepts interpret objects experienced in space and time) a place among the ideas of ‘pure’ (i.e. without experiential content) reason, namely the soul (self), the world (cosmos) and God, none of which can be the object of experience, and therefore cannot be ‘known’. How do we arrive at such ideas? We assume that everything we experience belongs to ourselves – to a ‘me’ of sorts, even if we never experience this self/me directly, but only though experiences like pain, joy, etc. The same with the world or cosmos as an orderly totality – we can never experience it all-at-once, but assume it exists because we experience a river, a beach, a mountain, etc., and assume they are part of the world/universe. The idea of God results from us experiencing causes like water boiling when heated, chickens resulting from eggs hatching, and so on, and we assume that the ‘ultimate’ cause must exist – the one we call God. BUT, importantly, these three ideas are NOT objects of knowledge, because nowhere do they result from a synthesis of sensible experience in space and time with the concepts of the understanding – they are ‘empty’ as far as experiential content goes, which is why they are ideas and not concepts or categories. This is an agnostic position, and to my mind an unassailable one.

One could go on elaborating on this theme, by pointing to 19th-century philosopher, Kierkegaard, talking about faith as a kind of ‘leap’ into darkness (that is, not a form of ‘knowing’), or to John Fowles’s illuminating contrast between science and faith (as a kind of mystical ‘knowing’) in his wonderful novel, The Magus, where a medical doctor witnesses a blind man ‘talking’ to God in the wilderness, and realises that this is something science could never enable one to understand. Or one could discuss Lacan, or D. H. Lawrence in this regard. But I think the point about agnosticism has been made.


Bert Olivier

Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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