What is Agnostic?

When someone tells me they are agnostic, I’m never entirely sure what they mean. To say you are agnostic without qualification is almost meaningless. Without specificity you may as well say “I don’t believe in anything” or “I believe in everything”.

There are two things you need to specify to bring meaning to your agnosticism.

The first is what exactly it is you’re agnostic about. For example, I am agnostic about dark matter. It helps solve some discrepancies in physicists equations, but we don’t really know what it is or if it really exists. The probability seems to be that it does exist, but that probability isn’t high enough for me to accept it. Therefore I am dark matter agnostic. To steal an example from Richard Dawkin’s new book, I’m also agnostic about life on other planets. Once again there is a reasonable probability that it exists, but the numbers are too vague to be sure.

You may say that stating you are agnostic about god is specific enough, but it’s not really. God means many different things to many different people. Are you agnostic about the Christian god? The Muslim god? Thor? Zeus? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? Are you agnostic about a god who created the universe then left it alone or about a god who created the universe and still oversees it?

I’ve also heard things like “I’m agnostic because I have a feeling there might be something else out there”, or “I’m agnostic because there must be more to the universe”. This to me is like saying I’m willing to believe in anything that doesn’t seem to exist because, well, it might. By this definition we were all agnostic about ipods until five years ago, we just didn’t know it then. I don’t know about things I don’t know about is a pointless statement.

The second thing needed to qualify agnosticism is the degree of your agnosticism. Absolute agnosticism about something means you think there is equal probability of it existing or not existing. If the probabilities are unequal, then you are partially agnostic one way or the other. I’m absolutely agnostic about dark matter (mostly because “dark matter” doesn’t really offer anything explanatory), but I’m only about 25% agnostic about life on other planets and I’m well over 90% agnostic about the possibility of alien visitation.

Because nothing can be disproved, strictly speaking we are agnostic about anything which may exist. We are agnostic about fairies, Santa Claus, the flying spaghetti monster and a Christian theist god. It is our degree of agnosticism which pushes us towards afairyism, asantaism, afsmism or atheism. As our degree of agnosticism approaches 100%, at some point we have to assume non-existance and abandon agnosticism for awhateverism. I am 99.9% agnostic about any supernatural entity therefore my agnosticism becomes atheism.

If you consider yourself agnostic, you must ask yourself what it is exactly you are agnostic about, and how agnostic you are about it.

9 thoughts on “What is Agnostic?”

  1. I always have a problem with this as well. To me, if you say you’re agnostic, it means that you believe it is impossible to know whether something is true or not. It doesn’t just mean that you don’t know. To say you are agnostic about dark matter means you think it’s impossible to prove or disprove its existence.

    I always get this problem when I tell people that I don’t believe in God but I also believe it’s impossible to disprove his existence. They always ask, “doesn’t that mean you’re agnostic?” It doesn’t, since if God exists, then there’s no reason it would be impossible to prove it. Disprove is different since you can always redefine God to be just outside what we do know. But that’s a theological problem.

    As a matter of fact, I would say it is actually impossible to be
    agnostic about certain things, such as life on other planets. All you have to do is either make contact or go visit other planets to find them. It may be impractical, but there is no fundamental reason why that knowledge (whether aliens exist or not) is unattainable.

    As a sidenote, dark matter has actually been directly observed recently: http://home.slac.stanford.edu/pressreleases/2006/20060821.htm

  2. To say you are agnostic about dark matter means you think it’s impossible to prove or disprove its existence.

    That’s not entirely true. In The God Delusion, Dawkins differentiates between what he calls TAP and PAP. That is temporary agnosticism and permanent agnosticism. Permanent agnosticism says something can never be proven/disproved. Temporary agnosticism says that based on current evidence we cannot be sure either way.

    I’m agnostic about dark matter until enough evidence is available to confirm it (and to explain what it actually is). I’m agnostic about life on other planets until we have better numbers. As the probability increases in scale and accuracy, my agnosticism decreases.

    Having said that, the press release you quoted pushes my dark matter agnosticism from 50% to about 40%.

  3. I understand the distinction, but I never would have called the ‘temporary’ case agnosticism at all. It sounds like a misnomer to me.

    It seems that when you hear “agnostic” you immediately assume the temporary case, whereas I think by default (and by definition) it is the permanent one. To be agnostic means you believe something to be fundamentally unknowable, which is an epistemologically different sort of problem from whether or not we currently know (or can conclude) something.

  4. Yes I tend to assume the temporary case, simply because I don’t see how anyone can be permanently agnostic about anything.

    The stuff we know and the stuff we can do now would seem positively godlike to a medieval peasant. Who knows what we will be able to achieve and what new evidence we will uncover in the coming centuries? To say that something is forever unknowable seems short-sighted and defeatist.

  5. I agree, at least mostly.

    For example, it is the current position of quantum physics that the position and momentum of a particle can not both be known simultaneously (the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle). That’s a kind of agnosticism, although perhaps it isn’t the most natural word to use. Granted, it might be the case (as with all scientific theories) that quantum physics itself might be wrong, but that doesn’t affect what the theory says in the meantime.

    Further, in mathematics it can be proved that some things are unproveable. I’m having trouble thinking of an exact example now though… some ideas about algorithms with infinite run times come to mind but I’ll have to look it up.

    But of course these are fields which depend on their precision of language. In our everyday lives and social sciences, it’s much more difficult to use the word agnostic and actually mean it. People often accuse (religious) agnostics about being wishy washy in their beliefs, but to be truly agnostic requires a conviction at least as strong as the most devout athiest. Defeatist it most certaintly is not.

    The solution is not to redefine what agnostic means (i.e. to indicate a weaker position of mere indecisiveness or ignorance rather than fundamental unknowability) but rather just admit what we don’t know (or haven’t decided) and get back to figuring out what the answers are.

  6. Some of you need to become better familiar with the evidence for dark matter. Although direct detection has yet to occur, the evidence for it’s existence in the universe is fairly overwhelming.

  7. Yes, the evidence is overwhelming that there is some stuff out there that we’ve decided to call “dark matter”, but what is it? How is it different from “normal” matter? What is special about it?

  8. Well, we do know something about dark matter.

    1) It doesn’t interact via the electromagnetic force. (we know this because, well, it’s *dark*, and because CMB power spectrum results show that it interacted with the photon-baryon fluid only through gravitation)

    2) It’s stable (as in, it has existed through the entire lifespan of the universe without decaying, which lets out such particles as free neutrons, which meet the first criteria)

    3) It’s not neutrinos. There just aren’t enough and they don’t weigh enough.

    4) Based on 1-3, it isn’t any particle which has yet been observed.

    5) It clumps on large scales, and forms a much greater proportion of overall mass at large scales (e.g. galaxies, or clusters of galaxies) than at small scales (e.g. stars and solar systems). This is also likely a result of 1-3.

    6) It’s at least fairly massive and “cool” (i.e. not relativistic), or it would have smoothed out the structure in the universe much more than it has. Whether it’s “cold” or “warm” is as yet undetermined.

  9. My understanding is that agnosticism is the belief that it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence (or non-existence) of god (or gods).

    From there one can go several places. You can take the existence of your favoured god on pure faith and be a theistic agnostic, you can simply say “who cares” and drop the whole debate, or you can defer to Occam’s Razor and be an atheistic agnostic.

    Agnosticism in the other context you mention doesn’t seem appropriate to me.

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