Agnosticism is one of two states. Positivist agnosticism is a philosophical position stating that there can be no proof either way that a god does exist or does not exist (see also, skepticism). Positivist agnostics believe that there may be a god, but that he/she is unknown or inherently unknowable.
Non-positivist agnosticism is the state of holding no particular convictions with regard to the existence of god(s). This second form of agnosticism overlaps with weak atheism.
"With regard to the gods I am unable to say either that they exist or do not exist."
- — Protagoras (c. 490 – c. 420 BCE)
"And can you blame me, CLEANTHES, if I here imitate the prudent reserve of SIMONIDES, who, according to the noted story, being asked by HIERO, What God was? desired a day to think of it, and then two days more; and after that manner continually prolonged the term, without ever bringing in his definition or description? Could you even blame me, if I had answered at first, that I did not know, and was sensible that this subject lay vastly beyond the reach of my faculties? You might cry out sceptic and railler, as much as you pleased: but having found, in so many other subjects much more familiar, the imperfections and even contradictions of human reason, I never should expect any success from its feeble conjectures, in a subject so sublime, and so remote from the sphere of our observation."
Agnosticism has two general meanings.
- Knowledge of the divine is impossible.
- This definition is not to be taken as an alternative to strong atheism. Strong Atheism and theism deal with belief, while agnosticism and gnosticism deal with the basis for such belief — in particular, knowledge. For example, agnostic atheism holds that knowledge of the divine is impossible (or currently lacking) and thus belief in any gods is unjustified and illogical. On the other hand, agnostic theism is also perfectly valid. Any theist who says ‘just have faith’ is holding such a position, as they are admitting that they have no knowledge of whether a god or gods exist and yet still believe. Gnostic atheism and gnostic theism are pretty much self-explanatory given that the definition of "gnostic" is ‘believing that knowledge of the existence or nonexistence of the divine is possible or currently held’. A gnostic atheist claims that he or she knows that a god does not exist (or thinks that one day such knowledge will be obtained), and thus believes that there is no god. A gnostic theist, on the other hand, believes in a god because he or she claims to know that the god exists.
- Not believing in something without support.
- One can be agnostic about the existence of invisible immaterial pink leprechauns inside computers making them work (for example), because there is no evidence whatsoever that they exist. Assuming they do exist would be delusional. The logical default position must be that they don't exist unless evidence is found that they do. This is because the number of things we have no evidence of is essentially infinite: anyone could easily come up with hundreds of fantastical examples similar to the one above. In addition, there would remain an unending supply of ideas that no one has thought of yet. Believing in any particular such thing may not be illogical, but one simply cannot believe in everything until proven otherwise. Therefore, the default position is to not believe in anything, including gods, until or unless presented with sufficient evidence to cause one to believe. In the absence of such evidence, non-belief is the necessary default position. (The problem in this scheme is, of course, the definition of "sufficient evidence", which will differ from person to person.)
Often, people claim that they are agnostic because they lack conviction in a god and lack conviction in the idea that god does not exist. This is a correct usage of the term, and identical to the weak atheist state.
Such a description applies to people who have never heard of the idea of a god — e.g. babies, isolated tribes of people, etc, as well.