concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011

Metaphysical agnosticism

Metaphysical agnosticism is the view that the best stance to take in relation to metaphysics is agnosticism. In other words, beliefs that are beyond all justification in terms of experience should neither be believed nor disbelieved. This is a central part of Middle Way philosophy. The Middle Way was originally inspired by the 'silence' of the Buddha on metaphysical matters, and metaphysical agnosticism simply extends this silence to a definite refusal to adopt one position or the other, avoiding both eternalism (which generally depends on the acceptance of positive metaphysical claims) and nihilism (which generally depends on their denial).

Metaphysical agnosticism rests on a philosophical case against all claims to justify metaphysics through reason alone, or through revelation from God. Both Hume and Kant made a comprehensive philosophical case against metaphysical claims based on reason alone. A basic version of their argument could be condensed to this one: reason is merely a process for drawing conclusions that must be true given prior assumptions, nothing more. Therefore any conclusions we draw from reason are only as strong as the assumptions we began with, providing us with further analysis of what we mean, but not with new information. Appeals to revelation from God more obviously depend only on dogma, and this dogma is more likely to be accepted when we confuse the meaningfulness of God with metaphysical claims about him. We do not need to assert God's metaphysical "existence" or his capacity to make "true" revelations to find God meaningful and valuable.

If experience is the only basis on which we can justify our beliefs, we also have to accept the incrementality of these beliefs, as experience is also incremental. We also have to take care not to interpret our experience in terms of metaphysical dogmas that have unconsciously been adopted. A process of critical thinking is required to distinguish justifiable beliefs from those that are based only on metaphysical assumptions. We do not have access to truth, but nor are our justified beliefs shown to be untrue, so we should substitute incremental justification for claims about truth. All claims need to be provisional and subject to further examination, although it may also be necessary to have faith that runs in front of experience in order to make that examination possible. Such faith is justifiable (and avoids dogma) only when metaphysical assumptions have been avoided. The more abstract the theory, the more provisional faith in it is required to test it out in experience, as is the case for some far-reaching but abstract scientific assumptions and for Middle Way philosophy itself: but abstract beliefs that can be related to experience should not be confused with metaphysical beliefs, which cannot.

Metaphysical agnosticism is even-handed in avoiding the negation as well as the assertion of metaphysical beliefs. The distinction between refraining from believing a metaphysical claim, and believing in its untruth or its negation is sometimes a subtle one - but nevertheless important. For example, in the case of God, agnosticism about God's existence should be clearly distinguished from the belief that God does not exist (which I would refer to as atheism). The type of agnosticism involved here is sometimes referred to as 'hard' agnosticism, as it does not involve the expectation of further evidence about metaphysical claims, but rather the recognition that there cannot be any evidence about metaphysical claims. This is thus in no way an indecisive position, but a definite position that confronts the nature of the evidence about God and other metaphysical claims.

Links to further discussion:

Metaphysical agnosticism from thesis

Metaphysics (introductory) page

God (introductory) page

Agnosticism concept page

Truth on the Edge


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