What is the philosophical definition for Agnosticism (compared to Atheism/Theism)?


Is there an agreed upon definition for Agnosticism from a philosophical perspective? Is there a proper philosophical categorization of it compared to theism/atheim?

Looking through the literature I have so far, and questions/answers on this site, there seem to be many different definitions for the various combinations of theism/gnosticism and atheism/agnosticism. In fact, agnosticism itself can be defined as simply the state of being without knowledge (not-knowledge), compared to the the more conclusive position of believing it is not possible to ever have a certain knowledge. I would say the former is just a "weak" form of another belief (theism, atheism or agnosticism), while the latter is a proper understanding of agnosticism as a philosophical term.

For example, in Bertrand Russell's description of his belief, he says he would describe to a philosopher that he is an agnostic, but to a man on the street, that he is an atheist. This seems to imply that the agnostic position is a philosophical one based on specific logic that the man on the street may not understand.

Given Russell's comments, is the problem of defining agnosticism really due to the fact that these discussions often allow for or include the unphilosophical "man on the street" weak variants that are susceptible to slipping between theism/atheism/agnosticism?

On the other hand, some claim that agnosticism is just a subset of atheism. Their argument rests of the definition of the term atheism to be everything that is not theism, rather than the belief that God does not exist - in other words, it can include any belief where one does not positively assert that God exists.

I tend to think of agnosticism as a separate philosophical system of belief compared with positive atheism (i.e. I am convinced that God does not exist). That is because I believe an agnostic covers both sides - they do not believe that one can prove God exists, but also do not believe that one can prove God does not exist.

Is there a philosophical means of settling this debate, or is this just a matter of term definition? Is there a definition of agnosticism which lends itself more to epistemological formulations?


Posted 2015-12-20T09:43:43.350

Reputation: 956

Question was closed 2015-12-28T04:52:50.067


See Atheism and Agnosticism : "The main purpose of this article is to explore the differences between atheism and agnosticism, and the relations between them."

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2015-12-20T15:38:34.470

I think this is widely discussed (and well depicted) in the thread What is the difference between knowledge and belief?. Insofar, it may be a duplicate.

– Philip Klöcking – 2015-12-20T17:04:51.827

Note also Ignosticism.

– Chris Degnen – 2015-12-20T18:15:05.297

@MauroALLEGRANZA That article still doesn't come up with a clear definition of agnosticism. It seems to simply be a survey, and perhaps that is the right answer - that one can't pin it down, or that it is not used in a technical manner, philosophically speaking. – LightCC – 2015-12-20T19:41:39.467

@PhilipKlöcking I hadn't seen that in my survey before posting, thank you for the reference. I don't think this is a duplicate, though it is related. They do get into it a little bit in some of the answers, but sort of as side notes. I believe a direct, clear answer is helpful to anyone with this question. – LightCC – 2015-12-20T19:51:33.353

@ChrisDegnen Yes, I did see Ignosticism mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for Agnosticism. I would call that a subset of Agnosticism, and definitely in the philosophical camp. I don't think this helps, though, with whether or not we can narrow down or specify more clearly the definition of Agnosticism. – LightCC – 2015-12-20T19:56:36.513

Its often very difficult to pin down philosophical concepts to simple definitions. That's one of the things that makes philosophy so interesting -- it doesn't need an exact definition to move forward. That being said, what era of definition of "atheist" are you looking to use? In modern vernacular, there are hard atheists and soft atheists. Soft atheism is known to be almost identical to agnosticism, if not a synonym for it. – Cort Ammon – 2015-12-20T23:20:01.877

1Hi. Concerning "some claim that agnosticism is just a subset of atheism. Their argument rests of the definition of the term" - an argument cannot rest on a definition, it seems to me; unless the definition is accepted by all the disputants. – Ram Tobolski – 2015-12-21T00:09:43.093

@RamTobolski People who disagree on a definition can certain argue the correct definition - I agree with you that a formal/logical proof can only proceed once the definition is agreed upon (or based on a particular formulation of the definition). That's part of the reason for my question, I'm wondering if agnosticism (and to a lesser extent, atheism) has a good, agreed upon formulation, at least from a more formal philosophical perspective. – LightCC – 2015-12-21T15:03:35.927

1I don't see what the philosophical concern is here. "agnosticism" comes from the greek "a" (not) "gnosis" knowing - the person claims simply not to know or be able to know. – James Kingsbery – 2015-12-21T18:46:45.587

@JamesKingsbery A claim that one cannot have knowledge of something is a pretty basic truth claim. Though, it appears agnosticism is only sometimes used to denote that aspect of certain beliefs. – LightCC – 2015-12-22T07:39:32.590

1Sorry, let me rephrase: I understand why this is related to philosophy, but I don't understand why this is something other than looking it up in a dictionary, wikipedia, etc. – James Kingsbery – 2015-12-22T15:36:30.123

@JamesKingsbery I get your comment - I suppose for me this term is used in so many different ways, for example, looking at wikipedia, it is just a broad survey of all the opinions. There are several different opinions (like Dawkins 7 degrees of belief). I was wondering if the philosophic community had come to agree on any one in particular. Especially from an epistemological level. These terms just seem very unstable, everyone takes them to mean something a little different. – LightCC – 2015-12-22T16:41:12.117



I'll take a whack at my own question here, based on the comments and additional resources folks have pointed out.

It appears that there is not an "agreed upon" definition of agnosticism (and to a lesser extent, atheism), even from a more narrow or formal philosophical perspective for the purpose of understanding one's epistemological position. Even so, there does appear to be commentary in the literature where attempts are made to create this distinction.

The weak, soft or "man on the street" form

Russell Bertrand does equivocate between agnosticism and atheism, stating that he would tell a philosopher that he is an agnostic, while telling a "man on the street" that he was an atheist, as discussed here.

As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.”

― Bertrand Russell, in Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas (1947 or 1949)

This does appear to get at the general problem with these two terms. There are "hard" and "soft" forms of both, and sometimes the formulation for what is "hard" and what is "soft" (or strong and weak) overlap each other, depending on who is creating the formulation.

For example, one can use the term agnostic to simply indicate that one doesn't have enough information to make a decision yet. This is the "common" definition (or "man on the street" version). In this sense, it typically also implies that one feels no urgency to make a decision and/or is not urgently seeking more information. In this sense, one can be agnostic about just about any subject - you could be agnostic about theism, or atheism, about the origin of the universe (in either case), or practically about any worldview or philosophical framework.

If you state you are an agnostic according to this "common" definition, the proper follow-up question is "agnostic to what?" Are you agnostic to theism, or agnostic to atheism, or agnostic to both, or agnostic to any philosophy at all?

The strong, hard and/or philosophical form

Bertrand seems to imply there is a more philosophical form of the term(s), or at least one which a philosopher will understand, while a "man on the street" will not. By this he must imply that a philosopher would naturally put an agnostic in the atheism camp, and he is first an atheist, believing there is not a God, and secondarily, agnostic, in that in some sense he is either open to further evidence, or simply believes on an epistemological level that it is not possible to prove the non-existence of God.

I consider the strong form of agnosticism to go even a step beyond Russell's position. A "strong form" agnostic doesn't make a final decision on whether God exists or not. They believe that there is not enough evidence to prove the case either way (pro or con). T.H. Huxley's position is described this way in Atheism and Agnosticism (Standford Encyclopdia of Philosophy)

Huxley thought that we would never be able to know about the ultimate origin and causes of the universe. Thus he seems to have been more like a Kantian believer in unknowable noumena than like a Vienna Circle proponent of the view that talk of God is not even meaningful. Perhaps such a logical positivist should be classified as neither a theist nor an atheist, but her view would be just as objectionable to a theist. ‘Agnostic’ is more contextual than is ‘atheist’, as it can be used in a non-theological way, as when a cosmologist might say that she is agnostic about string theory, neither believing nor disbelieving it. In this article I confine myself to the use of ‘agnostic’ in a theological context.

Huxley's agnosticism seems nevertheless to go with an extreme empiricism, nearer to Mill's methods of induction than to recent discussions of the hypothetico-deductive and partly holistic aspect of testing of theories.

... Huxley thought that propositions about the transcendent, though possibly meaningful, were empirically untestable.

Note that part in the middle about the Vienna Circle that believes talk of God is not even meaningful is called Ignosticism


Posted 2015-12-20T09:43:43.350

Reputation: 956

I interpret Russell's position differently: To a man on the street, he does not actively believe in a god or participate in any of the actions/beliefs that a believer would. To a philosopher, technically, he does not believe that "there is no god" nor does he believe in "there is a god" -- thus agnostic. I believe that this is an assumption about how the "man in the street" distinguishes between atheism and theism: to the man in the street, there is the set of (active) believers, and then everybody else is an atheist. – Dave – 2015-12-21T17:07:18.217

Nice answer :) See also Dawkins' seven degrees of belief

– Ram Tobolski – 2015-12-21T23:55:21.483

@Dave You may be right. I didn't dig into the source material very deep. – LightCC – 2015-12-22T07:41:17.983

@RamTobolski Nice link, thanks. I think they miss the mark a bit - at least personally I think it's got to at least be a two-axis (if not three axis) chart, it isn't just a linear scale with agnosticism in the middle. Well, I suppose it can be, but it can also have a depth of conviction that, like Huxley thought, that some of the knowledge in this realm is unknowable - or at least unprovable. – LightCC – 2015-12-22T08:04:20.137