COLUMN By DOUG THOMAS
Oct. 14, 2009
The term Agnostic is derived from the ancient Greek word gnosis-knowledge. By the word agnostic, the Greeks seem to have meant one who has no knowledge in a very general sense. In 1869, Thomas Huxley used the word to describe how he did not know about things metaphysical. This is not quite the same as the ancient Greek meaning, although I think Thales and Epicurus would have understood exactly what he meant.
Agnosticism refers to a much broader philosophical area than just the question of the existence of god(s). It concerns the whole nature of knowledge. How do we truly know things? What can be considered to be true?
As soon as one looks at Agnosticism in that way, one can get a clear picture of the absolute nature of agnosticism in direct contrast to the fence-sitting image that Richard Dawkins attacks in The God Delusion.
Agnostics require empirical evidence, derived from observation and experimentation, as a basis for knowledge. Once empirical facts have been determined, one can transfer and extrapolate knowledge to arrive at other hypotheses, if not truths.
For example, after thousands, perhaps millions, of grade nine experiments we know that the boiling point of distilled water is 100 degrees celsius at sea level (212 degrees Fahrenheit). We can extrapolate from this to determine that other liquids have boiling points too and set up experiments to prove that hypothesis.
Rule one, then, of Agnosticism is that empirical evidence is required to determine what is true.
The second rule is a more philosophical extension of the first. Since we Agnostics realize that not having empirical evidence about everything is perfectly normal, we are quite comfortable not knowing. As a layperson, I do not know what happened before the big bang. That doesn't bother me because I know that scientists whose lives are spent studying the subject don't know either.
Not knowing about things I could know merely fuels my quest for knowledge. This does not make me uncomfortable - just curious. The limits of time and intelligence dictate what I can know about things I should know about. My curiosity simply confirms Epicurus' first pleasure: the pleasure of learning.
Rule two, then, is that we are comfortable not knowing what we can't know.
Theists and Atheists want to know the Agnostic position on the existence of god(s). Without empirical evidence either way, and without an empirical test to gather that evidence, we Agnostics don't know and can't know. We are comfortable with that. The question of the existence or non-existence of god(s) is not all that important to us.
Having said that, I can say that I am probably in agreement with Richard Dawkins when he says he is 99.9 percent sure that gods don't exist. I am, in short, a non-believer who is quite comfortable not knowing things I can't know, but curious about the things I can know. I am Agnostic simply because I am most comfortable with Agnosticism as I understand it.
Doug Thomas is an English teacher and novelist, an agnostic member of SOFREE (Society of Ontario Freethinkers), and an active member of the Humanist Association of Canada. He is also Managing Editor of Canadian Freethinker.