Epistemology Series - Agnosticism

By Josh Hickok

     Agnosticism is a different sort of epistemology.  It’s sort of the anti-epistemology, claiming that our cognitive faculties are so limited as to be inadequate to inform us of anything.  In short, it says we cannot know truth.  Immanuel Kant is the best-known of the agnostics but one can definitely see its roots in the 18th century philosopher David Hume.  He began the separation of the thing in itself and our perception of it.  So powerful was this argument that it even startled the rationalism out of Kant, who was “awakened from his dogmatic slumbers.”  Kant began to synthesize the two main epistemologies of the time - empiricism and rationalism. He claimed that while we have a priori mechanisms inborn to us, all of our knowledge content was supplied by experiences.  Our inborn structures formed the rough experiences into different “categories,” thereby putting a splint in between what something actually is and what it appears to be.  The result is epistemic agnosticism, a (no) - gnosis (knowledge).

     This, of course, is extremely harmful to everything about Christianity - why believe if you simply cannot know?[1]  Indeed, this is harmful to every system that claims to have a method of knowing something.  Fortunately, there is nothing to be scared of.  This belief system (or system of un-belief) has a fatal flaw so glaring it cannot be overlooked.

     In the end, agnostics are forced to face a dichotomy: either we do know something or we do not.  There is no middle ground.  Men like Kant certainly believed you could know something, but only by methods of faith and transcendentalism.  Reason is ruled out (hence the name of his famous work, Critique of Pure Reason).  But here’s the kicker - if in the end of an argument we contradict the means of getting to the very conclusion, is it still valid?  What I mean is, if somebody said that they know that it is impossibly for us to know anything, would you believe them?  Of course not! How do they know that?  Like any skeptic stance on knowledge, it falls apart at the core.  I tend to view agnosticism as a big experiment with the reduction ad absurdum (RAA) method.  RAA, or a reduction to absurdity, is the manner in which someone goes about proving premises false with its own logical conclusion.  For agnosticism, it goes something like this:

     If all our knowledge is shaped by inborn faculties, then there is no such thing as knowable truth.

     All of our knowledge is formed by inborn faculties.

     Therefore, there is no such thing as knowable truth.

     Since the conclusion is obviously absurd, then one of or both the premises are false.  But we need not try and figure that out. We can be content knowing that it is unsound so the whole theory falls apart.  A great example of the RAA method is found in the Bible- Hebrews chapter 6, vs. 1-6.  The writer of Hebrews shows that the idea of “falling away” from the faith is absurd, because of its consequences - that we can invalidate the crucifixion of Christ, or put him to shame a second time.  This shows a great knowledge of logic by its author.

     Agnosticism does indeed force one to think about how we go about learning in our world.  This is a strong point of agnosticism, as it is with many false belief systems.  We as Christians must be prepared to give an answer to all people who ask, even if they claim not to believe in anything at all!

[1] Some Christians may argue that they believe because they can't/don't know.  On one level, we agree: there are things that we cannot fully understand and so we believe (or have faith) that God is telling us the truth in His Word.  On another level, one of the purposes of Midwest Apologetics is to demonstrate that we can know something about God.  Belief in Him is defensible - it is not a blind faith but a reasonable faith.



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