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1st June 2020

Lock & Whitfield - original w:Woodburytype, Public Domain,

How agnostic can you get?

Few words in English are more misunderstood or more misused than “agnostic”.

It’s often taken to mean sceptical or unable to make up one’s mind, or unwilling to commit oneself. In its common use by journalists, it is usually reduced to meaning doubting or cynical. In religion, it’s usually taken to imply atheism for the faint-hearted.

The dictionaries are useful but ambiguous. The OED says that an agnostic is one who “holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (as far as can be judged) unknowable.”

This is much closer than most, and the OED gets one thing perfectly correct when it attributes the coinage to Thomas Huxley.

Huxley was one of the sharpest scientific minds of the nineteenth century. He was Professor of Natural History at what is today Imperial College and among other students taught H.G. Wells. He is remembered mainly for championing Darwin on publication of On The Origin Of Species. Because of this he is something of a hero to atheists, and agnosticism is sometimes taken to mean a watered down form of atheism. Being remembered for this reason would have exasperated the fiercely intelligent Huxley in view of his real intention in coining the word.

To Huxley the sole aim of science is to go where the data takes you and no further. He wrote, “In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration . . . In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

But there was another important consideration that he brought to the question of the existence of a creator. In the nineteenth century this question was perennially debated by clergymen and metaphysical philosophers. Huxley’s originality was to see that the question of whether a creator exists is not a theological or philosophical question, but a scientific one. A creator either exists or doesn’t. If a creator exists, said Huxley, then that existence must be demonstrable by a suitably constructed experiment. The fact that, at present, conducting such an experiment is beyond our ability does not change the nature of the question – it is still a scientific one.

If we are unable to conduct the experiment that would falsify the premise (either now or at some future time) then we are in a state of ignorance about which we can say nothing meaningful. Here Huxley is anticipating Wittgenstein (whereof we cannot know, thereof we cannot speak.) It isn’t a question about a creator: it’s a question about knowing.

An agnostic is one who recognises that, without empirical evidence, we cannot claim to know in the scientific sense, and that there are some religious questions that fall in this category.

The existence of a creator is a question like “Is there water on Mars?” Some think there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to support the belief that the red planet is awash with the stuff, but the only way we can settle the question scientifically is to travel there, take samples and analyse them. Until then the only correct scientific position is to remain agnostic on the matter. And any debate on the subject based on remote telemetry is little more than metaphysical philosophy.

Far from disguising his atheism, or hedging his bets, or remaining undecided, Huxley contributed a first rate neologism to the language that reminds us, or should remind us, of the only rule in science that matters: it’s the data and only the data that counts.

Despite bringing clarity to the subject, Huxley was misunderstood and misrepresented from the outset, beginning with the occasion on which he coined the word. In 1869 James Knowles founded The Metaphysical Society to debate religious questions. It attracted many notable members including the Dean of Westminster Abbey, economist Walter Bagehot, the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Prime Minister William Gladstone, John Ruskin, as well as sundry archbishops, bishops and clergymen, and Huxley.

Shortly before he founded the Society, Knowles held a dinner party at his house on Clapham Common. Huxley was among the guests that evening and it was here that he proposed the word agnostic to his fellow diners. His intention, of bringing the existence of a creator within the realm of rational debate, was misunderstood by some of those present. Religious writer Richard Hutton was among the dinner guests and later told a friend that “[Huxley] took the word from St Paul’s mention of the altar to the unknown God,” thus shoehorning the word into a biblical context.

The Spectator’stake on it in January 1970 was that, “In theory [Huxley] is a great and even severe agnostic, who goes about exhorting all men to know how little they know.” Bishop Fraser missed the point entirely, writing in the Manchester Guardian that “The agnostic neither denied nor affirmed God. He simply put him on one side.” The Quarterly Review even denied Huxley’s credentials as a scientist, referring to, “The pseudo-scientific teachers of what has been termed the Agnostic Philosophy.”

Huxley’s Victorian contemporaries placed on his neologism the gloss that the existence of a creator was a question that cannot be answered in principle – that God is unknowable. For Huxley, though, ignorance of a creator is a purely empirical matter – we don’t yet have the data that would resolve the question. This leaves open the possibility that at some future date science may develop to the point where an experiment can be conducted. Such an idea would have been as outrageous to the Victorian mind as Huxley’s claim that mankind had descended from apes.

I find myself admiring Huxley in a number of ways not least of which was his often brilliantly original turn of phrase. In another context (but one which just as easily refers to religion) he remarked, “The great tragedy of science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

I suspect that Huxley regarded such a slaying not as a tragedy but as a mercy killing and not a cause for sorrow but a celebration of science’s greatest strength.

Richard Milton is a writer and journalist

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