concepts section, copyright Robert Ellis 2009

Agnosticism (and knowledge)

 Agnosticism is the recognition that we don't know, and it can be applied to every possible belief. For beliefs about things that lie beyond our experience we can have no evidence, and thus it is clear that we cannot know about them. For beliefs about things that lie within experience there is still plenty of room for doubt, because any assertions we make on the basis of our experience are limited in their justification by the limitations of our senses, the limitations of our viewpoint, and the limitations of our prior assumptions and categories for interpreting our experience. For more about the arguments for the limitations of our knowledge see scepticism page. Agnosticism is thus the most balanced and rational response to the lack of total justification for our beliefs: we may not know anything, and we cannot and should not affirm either that we know or that we do not know.

The habit in analytic philosophy of adopting a conventional account of 'knowledge', and claiming that we can "know" things on a weakened definition of knowledge, which is merely an analysis of how we use the word in everyday conversation, is unhelpful. It is unhelpful because it distracts our attention from the extent of our ignorance, which is a point which, for moral reasons, we need to bear in mind constantly. If we maintain a stronger sense for "know", requiring complete certainty, then the term does not become useless or meaningless: rather, it is reserved for making us aware of our lack of knowledge. We do not redefine "infinity" to be finite just because we cannot experience infinity, but rather use the term to maintain a conceptual usefulness for showing clearly what we do not experience: similarly with knowledge, we need to maintain a strong sense of the term so that we can fully appreciate that we may know nothing.

Agnosticism does not remove the possibility of justification from our beliefs, because justification, unlike knowledge, is an incremental term which can be calibrated in relation to experience. Justification depends on the extent to which we have removed the conditions of ignorance which prevent us from assessing our experience objectively. The conditions of ignorance include the assumptions either that we "know", or that we "don't know" about what we are dealing with, when all we actually have access to is degrees of justification.

The Middle Way involves agnosticism because all claims to knowledge (or to its absence) are metaphysical, and the Middle Way involves systematic navigation between positive and negative metaphysical claims. The practice of the Middle Way thus begins with agnosticism as an underlying attitude, and is undermined by claims to knowledge of any kind. Instead, the practice of the Middle Way requires the use only of provisional claims. Especially important in the Middle Way is metaphysical agnosticism, the avoidance of acceptance of claims that can be explicitly identified as metaphysical. 

The agnosticism involved here is hard agnosticism rather than soft agnosticism. Soft agnosticism involves the suspension of judgement whilst waiting for further evidence. However, no further evidence is possible in the case of any knowledge claim, so long as we do not have a God's-eye view. From our relative position, no amount of further evidence can provide certainty. Thus soft agnosticism is a way of hanging on to the possibility of certainty, when what we need to do is come to terms with the impossibility of certainty. Hard agnosticism is a better response in the terms of the Middle Way, because once we have fully taken on board that certainty is impossible and that we only have degrees of justification, we can then focus our attention much more clearly on that degree of justification.

Links to related discussion

Truth on the edge

Thesis introduction


Return to concepts page