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Agnosticism

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AGNOSTICISM. Whereas scepticism, as a technical term in philosophy, denotes varying degrees of doubt as to whether some or all of the psychological processes, purporting to yield knowledge, really do so, agnosticism rather asserts that, of certain kinds of objects or facts, we possess assured knowledge, while as to certain other kinds of alleged existents we have, and can have, none. The kinds of alleged objects, knowledge as to which the agnostic believes to be impossible, are such as are the primary concern of metaphysics and theology : God, the soul and its im mortality, and—more generally speaking—the ultimate realities of which phedomenal things, such as the sciences study, are ap pearances. Of these phenomenal things, we have ever-increasing and irrefragable knowledge; as to the things per se, the ontal or noumenal existents, of which the "things" of common sense and science are the knowable shadows or appearances, we can never have knowledge pure and subjectively undefiled. If we know that they are, we cannot know what they are; if we can assert their existence, we are ignorant as to their essence.

The name "agnosticism" was coined by Huxley about 187o to distinguish this philosophical attitude from others, but the atti tude had been professed before. It is, in fact, one of the issues of Kant's imposing theory of knowledge, and it had become, through the investigations of Sir W. Hamilton, Dean Mansel and Herbert Spencer, more sharply defined and more elaborately de veloped. Huxley, who was perhaps its most widely-known champion in the latter half of the 19th century, gave definite ness to its exposition by forcibly contrasting metaphysical and theological belief with scientific knowledge. We can now see that the controversial issue was confused, through failure at that time to realize that the word "knowledge" denotes not one sole psychological process and product, but several that are distinguishable; and also that what is called scientific knowledge is not quite so simple in its psychologital structure, nor so logic ally "positive" in its nature, as the philosophically-inclined repre sentatives of science in Huxley's day were wont to assume. The positivists who were led by the progress and prestige of physical science to regard science as constituted entirely by sense-data, linked together solely by relations such as could be read-off with the inevitableness and self-evidence of similarity, temporal se quence, etc., overlooked the fact, which had been clearly discerned by Hume, that we have no logical right to pass from our sporadic and evanescent sense-data, which yield evidence only as to here and now, to belief in a stable system of permanent things governed by law. The right is not a matter of logical neces sitation but of psychological inevitableness; not of logical cer tification but of pragmatic verification; not of logical certainty but of personal certitude or sanguine confidence. Thus science is not knowledge, in the strict sense of reading-off, supple mented by logical inference. Such knowledge, and indeed the phenomenal objects about which it claims to know, are constituted such by suppositions that, in the first instance, are read into the data. Thus "knowing" means, in science of the actual, something different both from the immediate "acquaintance" of sense-per ception and from the "truth" that is yielded by pure sciences, such as mathematics, whose "objects" are ideas—such as the line without breadth—and not actual things. This is also the doctrine of Kant. But Kant held that the reading-in that is involved in scientific knowledge is a priori necessary, so that such know ledge is knowledge in the strictest sense; whereas the reading-in that is involved in metaphysics and theology is but tentative and humanly expedient. This hard line between what Kant called understanding and reason—we might say between knowledge and mere belief—is now seen to be psychologically arbitrary, not so hard as he thought, and indeed to be drawn at the wrong place. Hence the rigid separation, once wont to be alleged between science and philosophy, and, on the strength of which, meta physics and theology were disparaged, is no longer possible. The agnostic can no longer have that certainty as to the foundations of his science, in virtue of which he asserted nescience as to the non-phenomenal. The difference between the knowledge which he asserted and the knowledge which he disclaimed is one of degree of verifiability, not of kind or of intrinsic constitution.

But agnosticism, which issues out of Kant's phenomenalism, is imbued with consequences of what may be said to be another oversight of Kant, perhaps still more significant in import. Kant tried to work with the supposition that, though facts compel us to assert the existence of things per se, we can know no more about them. His doctrine implies that we can only know the phenomenal. This is the teaching that was developed by Ham ilton into the dogmas that we can have no knowledge of the absolute or of ultimate reality, and no absolute or pure know ledge of anything: all knowledge is but relative. As to its Kantian foundation, it seems obvious that if we must posit things per se, in order to account for our sense-data being forthcoming, so must relations between things per se be posited to account for the stable connections between sense-data, which science elabor ates into laws of nature. Indeed, unless we create most of our data out of nothing or out of our subjective states, etc., there must be structure and detail in the ontal corresponding to that which we observe in the phenomenal. Appearance cannot be appearance of nothing. Hence, instead of the Kantian formula, that we only know phenomena, it is more correct to say that we know the noumenal through the phenomenal. Thus there is not absolute nescience as to the noumenal, as agnosticism would assert. The most that can be urged is that we do not see the noumenal, so to say, through plate glass, but through the irre movable spectacles of the mind, which make a difference to the noumenal object or phenomenalize it. It is at this point that Hamilton's doctrine of the relativity of knowledge applies. He would regard phenomenal knowledge of the noumenal as not knowledge at all, because, in having it, we are not identical with the objects known nor become acquainted with them as they are in themselves. Our knowledge falls short of the ideal standard, in that it is impure—which is what he chiefly means by "rela tive." But it may be doubted whether knowledge suffers in value on that account. There is no reason to assume that, in imaging the real, the phenomenon veils it or caricatures and misrepresents it ; it may reveal it, and reveal its significance just as effectually as would seeing face to face. What matters is that phenomenal knowledge should be relevant to reality, not that it should mirror its naked structure. An ordnance map serves all purposes of the tourist, though it may not mirror the coloured landscape or the geological formations of the district; it is relevant, if but appearance and not a copy. There is point to-point correspondence between the lines and contours on the map and the streams, roads, gradients, etc., of the country which it represents. Our phenomenal knowledge may bear—nay, must bear—much the same sort of relation as this to the realities which manifest themselves in and through the sensible and phenomenal. It enables us to "find our way about" our world, to be on terms of understanding with it and it may minister as much to spirit ual wisdom as to practical prudence ; for all that it is but phenomenal. That "we see through a glass, darkly" may be our lot here ; but it does not follow that we are wholly blind as to all that concerns our souls' health. Thus it would appear that agnosticism is superfluously modest. Its demurrer to the philo sopher's claim that knowledge as to ultimate reality in general is inaccessible is not sustained. If it would refuse the name of knowledge to such cognition it would seem to be cherishing a conception of knowledge to which no actually forthcoming "know ing" corresponds. For science itself, wont to be taken as the paradigm of knowledge, is at bottom interpretative, constructive, ejective and partly symbolical. Its inductive method involves faith, for which there is reasonable, but not logical, justification. And knowledge as to the objects with which metaphysics and theology are concerned, is but a further extension of the same method and the same sustaining faith as science uses, applied to such facts as evince meaning or purpose and value or significance, as well as to those which yield laws as to physical structure and connections.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.-J. Ward, Naturalism and Agnosticism; R. Flint, Bibliography.-J. Ward, Naturalism and Agnosticism; R. Flint, Agnosticism (1903) . (F. R. T.)

knowledge, science, phenomenal, objects and noumenal