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Date: 2009
New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2009
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Agnosticism is a view concerning humanity’s knowledge of GOD: namely, that God is humanly unknowable. Etymologically, agnosticism (Gr. agnostos) means an unknowing, a profession of ignorance. The word agnostic was first used by Thomas H. Huxley (1825–1895) in 1869. Having joined the Metaphysical Society and wanting to show his opposition to the members’ extravagant claims of knowledge of the mysterious, Huxley adopted the name agnostic. The term came to designate anyone who denies knowledge of immaterial REALITY, and especially of the existence and nature of God.


An agnostic is not an atheist. An atheist denies the existence of God; an agnostic professes ignorance about His existence. For an agnostic, God may exist, but REASONING can neither prove nor disprove it. Agnostics have been divided into two groups: (1) those who deny that reason can know God and make no judgment concerning the existence of God and (2) those who deny that reason can prove it but nonetheless profess a belief in God’s existence. A well-known instance of the first group is Bertrand RUSSELL; a famous example of the second is Immanuel KANT. With few exceptions, modern and contemporary agnostics belong to the second group.

Another division of agnosticism may be made in terms of the philosophical commitments that cause their adherents to deny the possibility of knowing God. These commitments are many and varied, but the principal ones in the history of thought are NOMINALISM, EMPIRICISM, KANTIANISM, the theory of the unconditioned, LOGICAL POSITIVISM, and EXISTENTIALISM.

Nominalism. WILLIAM OF OCKHAM, the father of philosophical nominalism, denied that the human INTELLECT could with certitude demonstrate the existence of a single, infinite God. For Ockham, universality or COMMUNITY was only a condition of thought, and in no sense a truth, about BEING. In other words, there is nothing in things that allows the mind to transcend from them to God.

The line of reasoning for Ockham and his followers is clear. Unless there resides in the beings of man’s EXPERIENCE a RELATION that orders them to God, the mind cannot demonstrate the existence of God from the existence of these beings. For the nominalist no such

Robert Green Ingersoll, (1833–1899). Illinois attorney general and agnostic lecturer. Robert Green Ingersoll, (1833–1899). Illinois attorney general and agnostic lecturer. © CORBIS

relation exists. Relation bespeaks an ORDER between two things. And because order must include the things ordered, it implies a pattern of inclusiveness, or universality. Universality, however, cannot be part of the structure of being, but only of the signification of words. Nominalism thus erases universality from being. Each individual is simply oneself—a singular instance of existence.

To put universality in things, argue the nominalists, is to confuse the order of being with the order of signification. Things may be really dependent on God, but the mind could know this only if it could intuit some relation between things and God. But because of the atomistic (nonuniversal) nature of the singular, this is impossible. The singular can reveal to the intellect no illative force, no moment of TRANSCENDENCE. Analysis of the singular never uncovers objective universality. Page 6  |  Top of ArticleThus does nominalism block off any philosophical ascent to God by way of intellectual inference. The fruit of nominalism in natural theology is agnosticism.

What the nominalists fail to recognize is that, while each being is indivisibly singular, the INTELLECT has the power to consider one aspect of the singular while leaving others out of consideration. Thus the intellect can attain universal notions, such as man, animal, substance, and so forth. Universality is in the thing, in the sense that the perfection that is considered is in the thing; but as in the thing, the perfection is inseparable from the singularity of the thing. For example, the nominalist no doubt believes that there is a proper function of the mind, that if one does not embrace nominalism one has failed to acquire a correct belief about the nature of things, and thus that one’s mind is not functioning properly. But to say that there is something about the nature of mind against which one can measure whether individual minds are functioning properly means that even the nominalist’s intellect has the power to extract universal notions from singular entities.

Moreover, the order that results from received existence can be grasped by the intellect, although not by the SENSES. Change, imperfection, limitation, composition—these are all intelligible facts about the things of man’s experience that spell out for his intellect the contingent condition of their being. CONTINGENCY, and hence order and dependence, may be impervious to his senses, for they are not sensible facts; but they are open to his intellect because they are facts of existence. Thus the intellect is not only justified but necessitated to make an inference from caused to Uncaused Being. For example, once one realizes that the universe is wholly contingent and that there cannot be an infinite regress of contingent beings, one understands that the universe must be the result of an Uncaused Being, which no other being is necessary to account for.

Empiricism. The central teaching of EMPIRICISM is that all knowledge comes through experience. While such a truism need not lead to agnosticism, historically it did so because of the empiricists’ quarrel with rationalism.

RATIONALISM maintained that such terms as contingent and necessary were both true in what they defined and actually descriptive of the real world. For the empiricist this is impossible. Man experiences what happens in the world, not that it must so happen, that is, that it must happen contingently or necessarily. “Necessity,” writes David HUME, “is something that exists in the mind, not in objects.” And because man does not experience necessity, he cannot say that the causal proposition “Every event has a cause” has been gained from experience. The necessity and universality found in the causal proposition is not grounded in objects, but in some condition of man’s thinking about objects. Empiricism explains the origins of the causal proposition in terms of human habits of thought. Repeatedly experiencing B following A, one comes to anticipate B whenever he experiences A. But because he does not experience a connection between them, he cannot say that B must follow A.

This obviously means that the human mind can never reason with certitude to the existence of God. For this would be asserting a necessary connection between mundane events and a supramundane being, a connection that falls outside human experience. To assert this connection is to commit the fallacy of rationalism; one inserts a necessity derived from his concepts into the world of events. As with nominalism, empiricism precludes transcendence from effect to cause by rejecting for knowledge the objective value of the causal principle or of CAUSALITY.

The empiricists are guilty of a one-dimensional interpretation of human experience. As has been seen, imperfection, limitation, composition, relations, differences, and so forth, are just as clearly facts about a thing as are its color, size, shape, and motion. While the former are not sensory data, it would be arbitrary to argue that they are not facts of human experience. To limit experience to what is directly perceptible by the five senses is to eliminate a large part of experience and to go against experience itself. It is true that man does not sense causality, that he does not sense relations; but he does experience them, not with his senses but with his intellect. Sensory experience is only one kind of experience. The activity one experiences among beings is attended by the intellectual INSIGHT that these beings are really related and hence are true causes and effects. For example, the knowledge that one has first-person immediate awareness that one is an AGENT who maintains IDENTITY over time is not the result of the five senses. Rather, such first-person knowledge is presupposed in the very employment of the five senses. That is, the five senses are had by someone, an agent, and that someone seems to have intellectual powers by which he acquires knowledge outside of sensory experience. Consequently, because the demonstration for the existence of God is grounded, above all, in an intellectual, rather than sensible, experience of reality, empiricism fails as a warrant for agnosticism.

Kantianism. Kant subscribed to the Humean critique of causality. Yet he viewed the construction of his critical philosophy as the proper synthesis of rationalism and empiricism. The importance of Kant in the history of agnosticism cannot be overstressed. In the minds of most non-Catholic thinkers, Kant’s Critique of Pure Page 7  |  Top of ArticleReason has given the coup de grâce to any possible proof for the existence of God.

Kant’s criticism. In removing necessity from things, Hume seemed to be destroying the objective value of the necessary truths of the physical sciences, mathematics, and metaphysics. To justify the necessity and universality of such truths (at least for science and mathematics), Kant proposed his theory of the synthetic a priori judgment. A judgment is synthetic, rather than analytic, when its content refers to empirical reality; and it is a priori when it involves elements not drawn from that reality. “Every event has a cause” is an example of a synthetic a priori judgment. It is a judgment that deals with events and hence refers to empirical reality; but it has elements not drawn from empirical reality, namely, universality (every event) and necessity (has a cause), and so is a priori. As Hume had correctly pointed out, universality and necessity are not concepts drawn from the object. The important fact about such a judgment is that, although not drawn completely from empirical reality, it is always applicable to it. This is so because the judgment “Every event has a cause” expresses a condition for the very experiencing of events, at least in a unified way. A synthetic a priori judgment contains two elements: one formal, the work of the understanding, and the other material, the product of experience. Because such judgments express the very conditions that make knowledge of the world possible, they have objective validity whenever applied to this world. The way man knows empirical reality, and must know it, is as objective as the thing known. It now remains to be seen how this view of knowledge leads of necessity to agnosticism.

To be perceived, a thing must be experienced here and now. The here and now, or space and time, are not intrinsic properties of the thing but are necessary conditions for perceiving the thing. In like manner, cause, substance, and relation are not intrinsic properties of the thing but are necessary conditions for understanding it. And only those things that can be perceived in space and time can be understood. But God is a reality that is entirely outside space and time, and so there are no conditions that could make any knowledge of Him possible. There is no way for the intellect of man to have an objective knowledge of God.

But obviously, says Kant, man can form an idea of God. The mind forms such an idea whenever it seeks for the cause of causes, for the ultimate unifying principle of all beings and of all thought. But God as a unifying principle is merely an idea, that is to say, a concept formed by the transcendental activity of human reason with no guarantee of an objective correlate outside the reason. To form an idea of God, then, is in no way to prove that there is a God. Not subject to the conditions of space and time, God is not perceivable. Unperceivable through the senses, He must remain forever unknowable to understanding.

If all Kant were saying is that God in His own Being is in no way subject to the senses or intellect of man, so that one can never have any direct natural knowledge of Him, he would be no more agnostic than the most orthodox Catholic philosopher. His agnosticism consists in his absolute refusal to give to the understanding of man even an indirect knowledge of God. God cannot be known either in Himself (which all admit) or through creatures. The objective reality of God can never in any sense become a term for human understanding. Because God is outside all the conditions for human understanding, no category of the mind can be applied to Him. Thus the category of cause cannot be applied to Him. The application of causality is valid among the beings of empirical reality (PHENOMENA), but not among those of transempirical reality (NOUMENA). God’s existence cannot be inferred or concluded to, for in passing from phenomenal reality to noumenal, the reason steps outside the conditions of human understanding. Hence this transition results in no objective knowledge of reality, but only in empty concepts.

It is true that Kant, on moral grounds, saw the necessity for postulating a belief in God (or in the idea of God), but because such a postulate has no cognitive content and does not guarantee the actual existence of God, this aspect of Kant’s critical philosophy in no way mitigates his agnosticism.

An analysis of Kant’s epistemology makes it clear that he equated BEING with “being-sensible.” If an absolute condition for knowing anything is that it be first perceived in human sensibility, then, of course, only sensibles are knowable. This would mean that all other facts in man’s knowledge of being—its distinction from other beings, its limitations, its composition, and so forth—belong not to the thing but only to the way man knows the thing. He could not predicate them about the thing itself, but only about the thing as in his knowledge. He could not say “man is limited,” but only “man must be known as limited.” In Kant’s view, one cannot say that limitation, imperfection, and composition (all the facts of being that lead one to God) are facts about being independent of the knowing process. And this is to equate being with “being-sensible.” Admittedly, to grasp these facts (including the fact of existence itself) an intellect is needed; the senses are not enough. But to say that therefore they are the product of the intellect, they are due merely to the way the intellect knows, is a false conclusion. The way the eye sees color or the ear hears sound is certainly not the way color or sound is present in objects; but no one denies that there is in the object the proper and sensible correlate of color Page 8  |  Top of Articleand sound. So, too, with the intelligible elements of being. They will yield their presence only to an intellect, and in an intellectual way. But they are as much facts about a being as are its sensible facts. To deny this is to deny the very existence of things, for existence is not a sensible fact.

Theory of the Unconditioned. Under the influence of Kant, agnosticism began to assume the form of a philosophical theory, the theory of the unconditioned. The two names most commonly associated with this theory are Sir William HAMILTON and Herbert SPENCER. The former develops it in his main work, Philosophy of the Unconditioned, and Spencer devotes the first 100 pages of his First Principles to “The Unknowable.” While neither man has been read much for quite some time, their influence during their lifetime was considerable, and their views on man’s knowledge of God have been embraced by many contemporary theologians and philosophers who stress God’s absolute transcendence (e.g., Karl BARTH, Paul TILLICH).

The theory of the unconditioned is in its essentials Kantian, and briefly it comes to this. To think of an object is to condition it, either by putting it into some class, as when one says “God is a substance,” or by relating it to some other object, as when one says “God is a cause.” Because all knowledge goes from the known to the unknown, every object must be known in terms of something else. An object that cannot be conditioned by either classification or relation is unknowable, for to know is to condition. But God, as Infinite and Absolute Being, transcends every condition. Thus God is unknowable and is the very negation of thought. To classify the infinite is to make it finite; and to relate the absolute is to make it relative. To say, therefore, that God is a substance, or a cause, or a being, are so many meaningless statements. There is only one meaningful statement that can be made about the unknowable: that it cannot be known.

If this teaching simply meant that man can have no direct knowledge of God, in the sense that God in Himself can never be grasped as a term within man’s knowledge, it would be acceptable. But it means more than this. For in an indirect knowledge of God through creatures, either God becomes a term of knowledge or not. If He does not, man does not know God, but only creatures. If He does, then He has been conditioned by a relation (cause), and so once more it is not God man is thinking about but only some subjective notion he calls God.

How does one break through the dilemma presented by this theory? By a close look at the act of existing of a FINITE BEING and a closer look at what it means to know. The very contingency of an imperfect act of existing demands that it has grounds for existing that are outside itself. Its existence is received existence. Contingent existence is a contradiction in terms unless it has its source in Necessary Existence. But can man know this Necessary Being? He cannot know it in itself, but he can know that there must be such a being. In affirming the necessity of such a being, what terminates his knowledge is not the being of God but the truth of the proposition “There must be a God.” Thus the being of God is left unconditioned, but man’s knowledge has been conditioned and determined to a truth about God, namely, that He exists. Thus, the problem with this theory is that it confuses ONTOLOGY (the study of being) with EPISTEMOLOGY (the study of knowledge). For “being known” is not a property of a thing, because if the thing is never known its being is not altered. Just as a diamond never discovered remains the same diamond even after its whereabouts are known, a God never known does not change if He becomes known.

Moreover, the truth of God is about an existing being (and not an empty concept), for man’s knowledge has been determined by actually existing beings precisely as caused by God. And in this sense one can say that God is the indirect object, and the object that logically terminates one’s thinking, for it is through His being that the things that determine one to know Him exist. The error of the theory of the unconditioned is that it equates conditioning in knowledge with conditioning in being. Man can know God through creatures without affecting God’s being. In fact, although this is not the present concern, even a direct vision of God such as the ANGELS and saints have in heaven, leaves the divine being completely unconditioned, unaffected, for the whole act of knowledge as such is in, and hence affects, the knower. Conditions concern the way one knows, not what one knows. The agnostics fail to make this important distinction.

Logical Positivism. A fashionable form of contemporary agnosticism, especially in the United States and Britain, arises from LOGICAL POSITIVISM. This school, whose methodology is linguistic analysis and whose theory of knowledge is empiricism, teaches that a proposition is true if its language elements are reducible to, or verifiable in terms of, some direct or indirect sense experience. Propositions that make no claim to describe reality, such as those of logic and mathematics, are true if consistent with themselves. Factual propositions belong to the empirical sciences and formal propositions to the logical and mathematical sciences. Both sets of propositions can be either true or false, and both have their proper meaning because they can be seen as either reducible to sensory experience, as in the case of factual propositions, or as self-consistent, as with formal propositions.

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Statements about God are neither factual nor formal. Because the subject of such propositions falls outside both direct and indirect sense experience, the elements of such propositions are not verifiable in terms of any knowable experience. They can be shown to be neither true nor false. Thus they are meaningless, “nonsensical” bits of language. Nor are they formally true, because they claim to bear upon a real object. If no such claim were made, the logical positivists would grant that statements about God would have formal (not factual) truth. They could be viewed as instances of a consistent use of language or a possible way that ideas could be related.

As is clear, the agnosticism espoused by the logical positivists is simply a restatement, in terms of the analysis of language, of the basic positions of Hume on the origin of knowledge and of Kant on the noncognitive value of “transcendental ideas.” Moreover, logical positivism is self-refuting. For the claim that the only propositions that are meaningful are either empirically verifiable or self-consistent is itself neither empirically verifiable nor self-consistent. Thus, on its own grounds, logical positivism is meaningless.

Existentialism. The most important philosophical movement of the mid-twentieth century is undoubtedly existentialism. Briefly, this doctrine teaches that the only ESSENCE the individual man has is that which he freely creates for himself through the decisive realization of his human possibilities. Man in his existence is free tendency. He makes himself what he is. To say that he possesses a stable and determined essence is to rob him of his FREEDOM and to make his being a fixed and formalized unfolding of a predetermined pattern. Moreover, as a continual flux of existential tendencies, man cannot grasp himself through any conceptual knowledge, for a concept immobilizes and so falsifies reality. Man’s being, rather, is grasped by an encounter of experience with himself and others, and not by an insight into intelligible patterns, for there are none.

Existentialism is agnostic for several reasons. First, it refuses to man any rational or conceptual understanding of God. Second, even when some awareness of a ground of Being is suggested, one can never identify this ground with God. For these objects of “transcendence” (the All-Embracing in Karl JASPERS, Being Itself in Martin HEIDEGGER, Nothingness in Jean-Paul SARTRE) are described in terms philosophically incompatible with a personal and genuinely transcendent God. Furthermore, one can never be sure, because of the type of awareness involved in PHENOMENOLOGY, that these objects are not the product of one’s own CONSCIOUSNESS. Third, existentialism is agnostic because in the horizontal movement of phenomenological awareness one never attains a moment of seen inference to a source of being. The roots of intelligibility having been removed from being, nothing remains in the flux of existential moments by which man can grasp a relationship to a Being that transcends the flux. In spite of their great concern for the freedom and openness of the human spirit, existentialists are still the victims of Humean empiricism, but now it is an inverted empiricism, the empiricism of consciousness.

The error of the existentialists is twofold. First, they fail to recognize that a finite being without an essence is a contradiction. Finite existence is always the existence of something, from its very beginning. Man without an intrinsic limit or essence would be an act of infinite existence. The second error is their failure to recognize that unless human freedom is grounded in intelligence and dependent upon it, man cannot know the possibilities among which he can choose. Finally, these possibilities of man are really surreptitiously reintroduced essences, because an essence is a POTENCY that can be realized (made actual) through existence. There are many excellent and profound things in existentialism. But the suppression of the human essence and the APOTHEOSIS of freedom are not among them.


At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the urbane temperament and erudition of the thoughtful agnostics of the prior two centuries has been largely supplanted by a new ATHEISM, far more publicly aggressive than its agnostic or atheist predecessors. Best-selling books by Sam Harris (1967–), Richard Dawkins (1941–), and Christopher Hitchens (1949–) are notable examples of this trend. With the increased sophistication of theistic philosophy and apologetics since the mid-1960s, the world of unbelief and SKEPTICISM has been, for the first time in centuries, put on the defensive. In an academic world in which THEISM, let alone Christianity, was not considered a serious intellectual threat to a naturalistic hegemony, agnosticism was a safe haven for unbelievers who did not want to be labeled “atheists.” But now that sophisticated theists are offering a variety of compelling arguments for believing in God and rejecting NATURALISM, agnosticism is perceived as an unsatisfactory halfway house between theism and atheism for those unwilling to commit on the question of God’s existence. Because Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and other militant atheists have convinced many of their readers that the cultural stakes are too high to remain on the fence, those who would have in the past been comfortable with the classification “agnostic” are more likely to reject that label today.

An interesting phenomenon attends the writings of an agnostic. He describes the Unknown God in the same terms as the theist: infinite, absolute, necessary, Page 10  |  Top of Articletranscendent, and so forth. The impression is given that the agnostic knows no less about God than the theist and the theist no more than the agnostic. If God is unknowable, why does the agnostic know so much about Him? The touchstone of an agnostic is not what he says about God, but what he intends these statements to mean. The all-important difference is this: The theist claims his statements about God legitimately bear upon an existing object and give him true and valid knowledge of this object. The agnostic denies that his statements about God have any of these characteristics. They are not statements about an existing object at all, but only about an idea wholly constructed by his mind.



Arthur C. Cochrane, The Existentialists and God (Philadelphia 1956).

James Daniel Collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago 1959).

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston 2006).

Avery Cardinal Dulles, “The Rebirth of Apologetics,” First Things 143 (May 2004): 18–23.

Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, eds., New Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York 1964).

Robert Flint, Agnosticism (New York 1903).

Sir William Hamilton, Philosophy of the Unconditioned (Edinburgh, Scotland 1829).

Régis Jolivet, The God of Reason, translated by Mark Pontifex (New York 1958).

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by J. M. Santa Maria, Madre de Dios. Meiklejohn (London 1872).

Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined and Explained (San Francisco 1993).

Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, translated by Edith M. Riley (New York 1950).

Alister E. McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Downers Grove, Ill. 2007).

J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen, Does God Exist? The Debate between Theists and Atheists (Buffalo, N.Y. 1993).

Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God (Ithaca, N.Y. 1967).

Bertrand Russell, “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic? A Plea for Tolerance in the Face of New Dogmas” in Atheism: Collected Essays, 1943–1949 (New York 1972).

J. J. C. Smart, “Atheism and Agnosticism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta (Stanford, Calif. 2004), available from (accessed March 3, 2008).

Herbert Spencer, First Principles (London 1862).

Alfred Edward Taylor, Does God Exist? (New York 1947).

Frederick Robert Tennant, Philosophical Theology, 2 vols. (Cambridge, England 1928–1930).

James Ward, Naturalism and Agnosticism, 2 vols. (New York 1899; reprint, New York 1971).

Rev. Maurice Redmond Holloway SJ
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Rockhurst College, Kansas City, Missouri

Francis J. Beckwith
Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies
Baylor University (2009)

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3005400014