Saturday, 18 August 2012
An Aside: Agnosticism
Core to the book is the polemic exhibited by all sides in the science-religion debate. People really know their own minds, and often claim to know the minds of their opposition. The version put forward all seems very black and white.
One point of view that hardly gets represented is agnosticism. In fact agnostics are if anything derided for being stuck in the middle, unsure and usually depicted astride a fence. The irony here is that agnosticism, as it was originally introduced by Huxley, is a far stronger, more self-aware position than either of the extremes who seem to take up antagonistic positions for the sake of contridiction. It is more akin to modern day atheism, but without the acerbity.
Here is an excerpt from my previous book on Darwin, Darwin in Scotland, that defines what agnosticism is, a bit better:
Agnosticism has become a bit of a dirty word for being non-committal in the arenas of strongly held views and bullish opinion. Well, there was nothing irresolute about Huxley who introduced the term in 1869 to describe his firm rejection of Natural eology while still being able to accept biblical moral teachings. Like his friend and colleague Darwin, Huxley also strove for truth and understanding through Hume’s scientific method; he considered Hume’s "Natural History of Religion", one of the first robust naturalistic analyses of faith as a human behaviour, to have ‘anticipated the results of modern investigation’. Thus, it was not a cowardly escape by Huxley, to admit to there being gaps in his understanding: without (Greek: a-) knowledge (Greek: gnosis). It was a confident and courageous salute to the complexity in nature, and complexity in our intelligence, as a part of nature. From Huxley’s later essay "Agnosticism" in 1889:
"When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain ‘gnosis’, – had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion […] So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of ‘agnostic’. It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the ‘gnostic’ of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant; and I took the earliest opportunity of parading it at our Society […] Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith."
Hume’s empiricism demands that an idea must be demonstrable before becoming a known Matter of Fact, and Huxley’s agnosticism was an admission to gaps in that knowledge. He was making a move away from Creationism, whereas Intelligent Design is seen as a political ‘God of the gaps’, and a return to Creationism.
The tragedy is that Intelligent Design advocates are honestly trying hard to integrate science and religion, ulterior more political motives aside. The travesty is that it is presented purely as a science, whereas in fact it doesn’t fully match Huxley’s agnosticism as an exacting and discerning methodology for truth.