Agnsticism (from the Greek – unknowable) is a philosophical concept according to which we can not know anything about God and in general about any ultimate and absolute bases of reality since it is unknowable that knowledge about what can’t in principle be convincingly confirmed by the testimonies of an experienced science. The ideas of agnosticism were widely spread in the 19th century among English naturalists.
The term “agnosticism” was proposed in 1869 by T. Huxley in one of his public appearances to denote the position of the natural scientist in the religious and philosophical discussions of the time. Huxley considered agnosticism as an alternative to those who believed that the objective truth of some statements should be believed even in the absence of logically satisfactory evidence of experience. Huxley himself always emphasized the epistemological meaning of agnosticism, emphasizing that this is not a doctrine, but a method that allows limiting claims for knowledge on the part of those who wish to know about the world more than in principle they can confirm the evidence of experience. However, the world outlook aspect of agnosticism invariably came to the fore in practically all real contexts of the discussion of this concept. And it was precisely as an ideological concept that agnosticism became the object of sharp and far from always correct criticism from both religious circles (still attributed to atheism) and the most consistent materialistic directions (identifying agnosticism with subjective idealism).
In its argument, agnosticism follows the epistemological ideas of D.Yum and I. Kant, but it specially builds these ideas. A significant role in the formation of agnostic views among British philosophers and scholars was played by the critical analysis by W. Hamilton (1829) of the arguments of V. Kuzen on the knowability of the nature of God (Hamilton’s argument, for example, was almost completely reproduced by H. Spencer). Hamilton, on the basis of Kant’s ideas, argued that our experience, which lies at the base of knowledge, is limited only by causally conditioned entities, and knowledge that goes beyond the limits of experience becomes antinomical. At the same time, he gave these ideas a specific methodological direction: he argued, for example, that when trying to get knowledge about absolute and unconditional, i.e. the final foundations of reality, there are an alternative, incompatible descriptions, etc. Thanks to such formulations, the idea ofthe boundaries of cognition turned out to be correlated with the everyday practice of natural scientists and took the form of concrete, intuitively obvious for them a statement of the limits of cognition as limits of the effectiveness of experimental science. This concrete statement expresses the epistemological essence of agnosticism – with the help of the means available to the science of science, we can not say anything about what is supposed to be absolute and unconditional.
Thus, agnosticism only in the most general sense belongs to the tradition of philosophical skepticism, which critically assessed the possibilities of cognition on the basis of an analysis of the internal inconsistencies in cognitive activity. The specificity of agnosticism is connected precisely with a more or less clear identification of the sphere of quite successful cognitive activity. Such identification, of course, limits cognition, but guarantees, as it seemed, the internal harmonization of the cognitive process and the validity of its results. Inconsistencies in cognition arise only when cognition is beyond the bounds of a very definite, indubitable confidence in the sphere of cognitive activity, and only at this point agnosticism puts limits to cognition.
The boundaries of knowledge are constantly expanding, Huxley emphasized, although beyond the limits of human cognitive abilities there are always questions about which science in principle can not provide reliable evidence of experience – these are questions concerning God and all sorts of metaphysical realities. The specificity of agnosticism, therefore, is that it tries to use skepticism only to limit irrepressible claims to knowledge and thus provide a kind of a demarcation of interests. Agnosticism, for example, denies religious beliefs in the status of experienced knowledge and accordingly calls scientists as scientists not to participate in solving religious problems. However, the basis for such a balance is an obvious conceptual inconsistency, which later became the main point of the hard criticism of agnosticism.
Agnosticism expresses the position of the scientist as a scientist, but at the same time, science itself is outside the sphere of his criticism. Agnosticism simply does not discuss the relevant problems, referring sometimes to the practical effectiveness of experimental natural science, sometimes to common sense. From close positions, but more consistently, this topic was later presented in positivist philosophy: metaphysical, i.e. which does not have an empirically meaningful solution, it also declares the general question of the knowability of something (A.Ayer), while positivism shifted attention from the question “What can not we know?” to the question “What is scientific knowledge?”, solvable means of special research of science. But in this way positivism challenges the actions of scientists, and agnosticism, which is devoid of obvious grounds, ceases to exist as a special philosophical position; it seems to have dissolved into positivist programs for the reconstruction of science, the demarcation of science and metaphysics, and so on. These programs proved to be unrealizable and later, within the framework of postpositivism, the relevant subject matter reduced to traditional skepticism.
The most determined opponent of agnosticism is Marxist epistemology. However, in Marxist criticism of agnosticism two plans should be distinguished. First of all, this is a very effective criticism of the narrowness of the conceptual foundations of agnosticism, connected with the Marxist interpretation of cognition as an instant of social and historical practice. Marxism presupposes a detailed assessment of the possibilities of cognition, the grounds of which go beyond the scope of intrascientific activity, and criticizes agnosticism for the narrowness of its worldview horizons, for the lack of historicism in assessing the possibilities of scientific cognition, for reducing knowledge to scientific knowledge only, and for science to experimental natural science, For all its rigidity, this kind of criticism does not exclude the element of constructiveness, the “positive removal” of agnosticism.
The Marxist critique of agnosticism is unfolding differently when it is not actually about the cognizability of the world as such, nor about the forms in which cognition is realized in concrete cognitive practices, but about the recognition of the materiality of the world, agnosticism is reproached for limiting knowledge to the sphere of experience (the world of phenomena) and denying the cognizability of what lies at the heart of experience (matter, thing-in-itself), stands on the position of subjective idealism. But this reproach implies such an extensive understanding of cognition that in any case it loses sight of concrete cognitive practices, and in particular those on which agnosticism is based. For this kind of criticism, there is no difference between Hume and Kant, between Kant and Huxley, it is only important that they isolate the “phenomenon” from what is, the sensation from the sensed. At the same time, the object of rigid, ideological criticism is not historical agnosticism, but skepticism in general.
Elements of agnosticism were present in many scientifically oriented philosophical doctrines of the 1st half of the 19th/20th century – from pragmatism to critical realism. In the newest trends of the philosophy of science, the term “agnosticism” is used, as a rule, in historical and philosophical contexts.