Thomas Huxley vs. Bertrand Russell on the Definition of Agnosticism

Thomas Huxley invented the word agnostic, and by it he meant skepticism:
Agnosticism is not a creed but a method, the essence of which lies in the vigorous application of a single principle... Positively the principle may be expressed as in matters of intellect, do not pretend conclusions are certain that are not demonstrated or demonstrable. Link
Bertrand Russell defined it differently:
Are agnostics atheists?

No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an Agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism. His attitude may be that which a careful philosopher would have towards the gods of ancient Greece. If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists. Link
Then comes this recent video telling us all how we should define it, siding with Huxley:



I object to someone defining the words I use. The people who seek to define my words for me have power over me. They basically are claiming I cannot use a word the way I want to use the word. I can use any word I want to, so long as it communicates.

Can't we all just get along here and ask the person using a word what s/he means if it's used differently than the dictionary definition? You see, dictionaries don't attempt to tell us what a word should mean. They tell us how most people use the word.

In any case, what word would you propose to describe Russellian agnostics? There are many of them. If there is no word describing them then shouldn't there be?

18 comments:

Camus Dude said...

Discussion over the meaning of the words "agnostic" and "atheist" (and cognates) seem never ending among the non-religious, and I'm sure you, John, at least, have heard much of what I have to say below.

While I laughed as heartily as anyone when Stephen Colbert asked on his show a year or two back, "Isn't an agnostic just an atheist without balls?", I think Colbert was mis-using (to my mind) the words "agnostic" and "atheist."

To me, the words deal with different philosophical concerns. Atheism is a metaphysical position. Do you believe a god or gods exist? No, I do not; thus I am an atheist. Agnosticism is an epistemologocial position. Do I know that god does or does not exist? No, I don't. Thus, I am an agnostic atheist (at least when I'm being careful with my terminology).

On the other hand, I think that if a god does exist, we still wouldn't be able to have knowledge of him/her/it. I mean, so far we have no knowledge of this being, and if 14 billion years of silence isn't enough to convince anyone that waiting for someone to pick up the other end of the line is a waste of time, I don't know what will.

Jeffrey A. Myers said...

Hard Atheist: I KNOW there is no God.

Soft Atheist: We cannot KNOW there is no God, but see no evidence whatsoever of Its existence and see sufficient evidence contradicting its existence that I believe beyond any reasonable doubt that It does not exist. Further, even if It does exist, I see no evidence whatsoever that It has any interest in us as a species, let alone has any interest in adjudicating disputes or mete out 'justice' between our species and see sufficient evidence contradicting that assertion to hold that if It exists that It is irrelevant.

Agnostic: We cannot KNOW there is no God and I am either unpersuaded or uninterested in the evidence purporting to either prove or disprove its existence. I am uncertain and unpersuaded as to whether any hypothetical God is interested in us or not, but find the idea of General and Special Revelation and they hypothesis contained therein regarding specific descriptions and purported Knowledge of God to be unsupported by the evidence.

stevec said...

I would called the Russellian agnostic and agnostic atheist.

If I have a penny here, you do not know whether it is heads or tails. You don't know. You also do not believe it is heads. You also do not believe it is tails. You also do not believe it is neither heads or tails. You lack belief that it is heads, tails, or neither. You don't know.

Likewise, the agnostic atheist does not know whether any gods exist. He does not believe that any gods do exist. He does not believe that no gods exist. He doesn't know.

He's still an agnostic atheist as far as I'm concerned.

BobCMU76 said...

I have the problem often in these discussions, that folks don't agree on definition and talk past each other. Of course, I'm usually trying to get agreement on some definition of "the divine," with people who hold the concept, but are ashamed to, and so won't admit it.

To me, the contrast which defines "agnostic" is not "(dis)beliving," but "apathetic." Most people who arrive at some closure regarding the nature of "the divine" generally do so once they stop caring.

Brenda said...

It's pretty simple to understand what these words mean so here goes.

Theism is the belief that god exists.
Atheism is the belief that god does not exist.

Or if one objects to the inclusion of "belief" we can change it.

Theism asserts that the sentence "god exists" is true.
Atheism asserts that the sentence "god exists" is false.

"I object to someone defining the words I use. The people who seek to define my words for me have power over me."

Well that's just too bad isn't it. That's pretty much the whole crux of the problem isn't it? It isn't about what is rational, it's about power. Specifically the expression of one's will to power.

"I can use any word I want to, so long as it communicates."

And that is the problem. Defining atheism as a "lack of belief" fails to communicate what atheists actually are. If I define an apple as a "lack of orangeness" I have failed to communicate what an apple is.

"You see, dictionaries don't attempt to tell us what a word should mean. They tell us how most people use the word."

Use value and dictionary lists fail to adequately explain human language. You really can't just make up any old word however you please. It has to relate in some way to all the other words we have.

John said...

Words do have power, and we need to own that power. Atheism is turning into a social movement and I think we need to do our best to own and manage the word the way "gay" was owned and "geek" was not only owned but changed.

Atheist means hater of god, evil, satanist, communist to many. Presenting the weak definition ("lack of belief") as the right one can help change that a bit by at least causing people to stop and rethink. The strong definition doesn't do that. The weak definition is also a bit more inclusive, which if you are in a social movement can be good. Finally, the weak definition keeps the burden of proof on the theist, which is useful if nothing else.

As to what it actually means ... both the strong ("I believe there is no god") and weak version of atheist are in the dictionary. According to the Atheist Experience guys, philosophical dictionaries define atheism as "not theism" or "lack of positive belief." But that's not really the point, IMO, and I suspect they engage that definition specifically to keep the burden of proof where it belongs in their arguments.

At the moment, I think Russell's definitions are the wrong ones. But it's nice to see where the current colloquials came from.

Vinny said...

I prefer the label agnostic, but Russell's description captures my thinking quite well. There is no practical difference between my thinking on the question of God’s existence and that of most atheists I know.

In many cases, I find that the distinction between atheists and agnostics lies more in how they think about theism than in how they think about God. Atheists are more likely to agree with Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris that religion is inherently harmful and that mankind would be better off without it. Agnostics are less likely to be convinced that elimination of religion is either desirable or feasible.

Hez said...

I'm going to provide the best definition now and settle the "debate".

Atheism is the lack of belief in god(s).
The reason why this definition is so, is because atheism encompasses both gnostic (having knowledge that god doesn't exist) and agnostic atheism (not having knowledge / assuming knowledge isn't possible / not even familiar with theism / etc).
In other words, a "lack of belief" is the only definition that encompasses both gnostic and agnostic atheists.

As for using the term agnostic by itself, I hate it. Agnostic is an epistemic word that needs to be coupled with an ontology in order to make any sense. Saying that you're an agnostic (and nothing more) is the equivalent to saying that "I believe that knowledge in regards to X is unattainable", without defining X.

You're either an atheist or a theist when it comes to a particular conception of god (you can't be both or neither). Your claim to knowledge (gnosticism/agnosticism) in regards to that concept is what *describes* your belief (atheism/theism), not what defines it.

Ok, there! Can we all just adopt this and move along? All the unnecessary confusion is tiresome.

Vinny said...

Hez,

Thanks for taking care of that.

Brenda said...

Hez said...
"Atheism is the lack of belief in god(s)."

Definition FAIL!

My table lacks a belief in god, therefore my table is an atheist.

"The reason why this definition is so, is because atheism encompasses both gnostic ... and agnostic atheism"

Logic FAIL!

This is called begging the question. What you did was to assume that atheism and agnosticism are the same thing, they are not, and then formulated your definition so vaguely that it includes both. Of course the problem is that the definition is so vague that literally ANYTHING that is not a theist must be an atheist.

Once again, we do not define an apple by saying that it is not an orange.

"Agnostic is an epistemic word that needs to be coupled with an ontology in order to make any sense."

Too bad, deal. Agnosticism is a form of skepticism. So an agnostic is someone who doubts the claims of either atheism or theism.

"Can we all just adopt this and move along? All the unnecessary confusion is tiresome."

No we can't. What is tiresome are arrogant atheists who try to convert agnostics into atheists by defining them out of existence.

The reason this is an issue is because atheists got all butt-hurt because the theists had a very effective argument against them. Namely that you can't prove that god doesn't exist. Which leaves you with only agnosticism, but if you're agnostic then you can't be a flaming jerk on YouTube and scream at teh ebil theists so they invented this lame idea that "atheism is really a lack of belief". Which was really a brilliant move because that way you can flame theists all day long but they can never say a word about you because there is no such thing as atheism when you define it as a "a lack". Which is just an absence and therefore atheism doesn't even exist.

Hez said...

Wow, that was painful to read, Brenda. You just blurted out whatever came to your mind without reasoning through it.

"This is called begging the question. What you did was to assume that atheism and agnosticism are the same thing, they are not, and then formulated your definition so vaguely that it includes both."

Actually, that's exactly what you're doing. You're the one assuming that the belief is in the same category as ones claims to knowledge for that belief - it is not.
Atheism is not in the same category as agnosticism. You're falsely assuming they're both ontologies.
Also, learn your logical fallacies.

You believe that "agnosticism" does not entail atheism (or theism by extension), while at the same time you admit that agnosticism either entails theism or atheism - this is inconsistent:

"Agnosticism is a form of skepticism. So an agnostic is someone who doubts the claims of either atheism or theism."

Here you equivocate atheist with atheism:

"Of course the problem is that the definition is so vague that literally ANYTHING that is not a theist must be an atheist."

The definition of atheism is what the belief actually is. The definition of atheist refers to someone with that belief.
The former doesn't mention who holds the belief (just what the belief is), while the latter refers to someone holding the belief.

"No we can't. What is tiresome are arrogant atheists who try to convert agnostics into atheists by defining them out of existence."

Here we go contradicting yourself again.
So let me ask you: what does their agnosticism refer to? It has to refer to theism/atheism, right? You said it yourself.

"The reason this is an issue is because atheists got all butt-hurt because the theists had a very effective argument against them. Namely that you can't prove that god doesn't exist."

I see you must be a new reader to this blog (or any atheist blog for that matter)?
All that it takes to disprove a concept is to show a logical inconsistency within the concept. Disproving god is trivial.

"Which leaves you with only agnosticism, but if you're agnostic then you can't be a flaming jerk on YouTube and scream at teh ebil theists so they invented this lame idea that "atheism is really a lack of belief". Which was really a brilliant move because that way you can flame theists all day long but they can never say a word about you because there is no such thing as atheism when you define it as a "a lack". Which is just an absence and therefore atheism doesn't even exist."

Did you see the part in my previous response where I said that atheism entails either agnosticism or gnosticism? Clearly not.
You can only blame yourself when you fail at debating youtube atheists for not asking them what kind of atheist they are.

John said...

Both definitions get used. Different groups use different definitions. So far, all the atheists I've met who care to define it use the definition in this video and on Wikipedia: atheist = "lacks a belief in God." (Wikipedia has a brief etymology section on the word showing it as it bounces back and forth between meanings, BTW. Worth reading.)

I pick this definition for one major reason above all: it is the definition most in use by people who call themselves atheists. That has some weight to me.

Another reason: "a-" meaning "lack of" has support in other words. Amoral, apathetic, asexual ...

John: the word for Russell's Agnostic appears to be "agnostic." At least in the blurb you posted, agnostics include people who "hold that the existence of God, though not certain, is very probable; so probable that it is worth acting upon in practice."). If you don't think "agnostic" includes agnostic Christians, what is the word for these people otherwise? Shouldn't there be one?

I also don't like his definitions much because by his definition, I have never met an atheist. I've never heard an argument that could disprove deism, for example. I've certainly met people who were certain that a particular God-concept (like the Christian one) was wrong, but none in the general case because it includes unfalsifiable Gods.

Agnostic and atheist become useless words in his category. I've never met an atheist who was absolutely certain that no gods exist--in particular, once you bring up the deistic God, a thinking atheist may scoff, but he won't disprove it. I don't think it can be done.

Brenda said...

Hez said...
"You're the one assuming that the belief is in the same category as ones claims to knowledge for that belief - it is not.
Atheism is not in the same category as agnosticism."


Well, yes and no. I don't think they are in the same category. Nevertheless, despite their etiology how people use them places them in a particular relation to theism.

Atheism refers to people who deny that god exists. Theism to those who assert he does and agnosticism to those who doubt the claims of both. Despite the fact that the clear etiology of agnosticism implies that agnostics deny all possibility of knowledge that is not what people mean when they use the word. They simply mean that they have doubts about the truth claims for or against the proposition that "god exists".

Theism asserts that G, where G = "god exists". Since the prefix "a" means "not" an atheist then must be one who asserts that ¬G. The error that today's atheists make is to claim that atheism = ¬theism. There is a profound difference between asserting the negation of a proposition and asserting the negation of a set of people who hold a proposition. The negation of the set {T} where T = "the set of those who assert G" does not yield the set {A} where A = "the set of those who lack belief in G". It instead returns everything that is not a member of {T}. Including rocks and galaxies.

I have had atheists tell me flat out that in fact tables and chairs are atheists because tables and chairs lack belief. That is the correct logical deduction given the definition of atheism as a lack of belief.

Brenda said...

Hez also said...
"The definition of atheism is what the belief actually is. The definition of atheist refers to someone with that belief.
The former doesn't mention who holds the belief (just what the belief is), while the latter refers to someone holding the belief."


This is total nonsense. Under your definition of atheism as a lack of belief it cannot be a belief at all. Nevertheless I suspect that you subconsciously realize this must be false. It is false because under that definition atheism must have no content, yet it has content. The content of atheism is the assertion that ¬(god exists).

I have been told many times that atheism is not a belief yet here you are claiming the contrary. I think that atheists adopt the incoherent position that theirs is a lack of belief because it permits them to conduct a kind of Kabuki theater of No-atheism. A position from which they can launch attacks at their opponent yet never admit of any in return because rhetorically "No-atheism" does not even exist.

Atheist live in denial. They adopt this attitude because it allows them to postpone providing a rational justification for their claim that god does not exist, which they cannot do.

"Disproving god is trivial."

By all means, prove the negative. I eagerly await your refutation.

"You can only blame yourself when you fail at debating youtube atheists for not asking them what kind of atheist they are."

It is impossible for there to be "kinds" of atheists because the proposition that "god exists" is either true or false. You either assert that the statement is true or it is false. Of course people can have many different reasons why they believe in god or do not. That is a different question. And of course a newborn baby cannot be a theist or an atheist for the obvious reasons, same for animals.

Besides, the YouTube comment was just a joke. Relax.

Hez said...

"Atheism refers to people who deny that god exists. Theism to those who assert he does and agnosticism to those who doubt the claims of both."

You've just implied that atheists have knowledge of god's existence but are in denial. You realise this, yes?

You're also (once again) contradicting yourself. You say that agnosticism is a middle ground between atheism and theism (I've already told you more than once why it is not), but then you go ahead and say the following:

"It is impossible for there to be "kinds" of atheists because the proposition that "god exists" is either true or false. You either assert that the statement is true or it is false."

Oops! What happened to agnosticism being the middle ground?

"Despite the fact that the clear etiology of agnosticism implies that agnostics deny all possibility of knowledge that is not what people mean when they use the word."

I never argued that agnosticism implied solely that. Please, quote me where you think I did.

"They simply mean that they have doubts about the truth claims for or against the proposition that "god exists"."

Oh, dear. So here you say outright that you believe agnosticism has nothing to do with believing that knowledge not being attainable. Do you also deny that people who hold these beliefs exist?

"The negation of the set {T} where T = "the set of those who assert G" does not yield the set {A} where A = "the set of those who lack belief in G". It instead returns everything that is not a member of {T}. Including rocks and galaxies."

I don't suppose you're going to come at me next and argue against the definitions of amoral, apathetic, asexual, atemporal, apolitical and asocial? All those words are defined by a lack of something (as John pointed out).

"I have had atheists tell me flat out that in fact tables and chairs are atheists because tables and chairs lack belief. That is the correct logical deduction given the definition of atheism as a lack of belief."

Actually, that's the correct logical deduction if you think that chairs can be referred to as "someone", as the definition of atheist states.

Regardless, it's nothing but a red herring. Heaps of words can technically be applied to things that they're not meant to apply to.
Welcome to language; where words aren't always used as intended, and metaphors/euphemisms exist.

"This is total nonsense. Under your definition of atheism as a lack of belief it cannot be a belief at all."

Yes, it can. The only thing that lacking belief in theism implies, is that you don't hold theistic beliefs.
It doesn't tell you that the atheist has no beliefs in regards to theism, it just tells you that he's not a theist.
This is (once again) the reason why "a lack of belief" is the best definition - "a lack of belief" is the only thing that gnostic and agnostic atheism have in common.

"I have been told many times that atheism is not a belief yet here you are claiming the contrary."

Atheism is not necessarily a belief. It depends if it's agnostic atheism or gnostic atheism (the former can include a subset of people who are not familiar with theism).
Think of a person who's never encountered a particular type of theism in his life. Is he an atheist or a theist in regards to that conception?
Clearly, an atheist. Is he gnostic or agnostic in regards to that atheism? Well, gnostic deals with knowledge, while agnostic ("a" prefix meaning without) deals with a lack of that knowledge. So, it's clearly the latter.

Hez said...

"By all means, prove the negative. I eagerly await your refutation."

See arguments from biblical contradiction, argument from non-belief, argument from evil, argument from the impossibility of an atemporal mind, etc.

In summary: your definition of atheism and theism do not account for a subset of people who come about their belief not through knowledge; It assumes atheists are theists in denial; and it mistakenly equivocates the epistemic with the ontological.

John said...

Atheism is now a social movement and a statement of identity. When you define the scope of the word, you are defining the scope of movement itself. When you define the word atheist, you are telling people who call themselves "atheists" what they are.

That's why the definition matters. I call myself an atheist. I don't want to relinquish the word, and if you try to tell me that atheism is being sure there are no Gods, I would have to. I am not sure, just sure enough to reject the Gods I have seen. I resent someone telling me I have to have an impossible certainty just to call myself an atheist. I reject it.

On the other hand, when I called myself an agnostic I didn't want to pick up all the baggage that came with the word "atheist." It's a big, scary word filled with negative connotations thanks to religion, and identifying with it is a big, scary leap. When we define atheist to mean "anyone who lacks a belief in God," we're pulling people into the big tent earlier than they might want to.

That said, the correct definition is "lacks a belief in God" :P This will be decided by those who proclaim themselves atheists, and what they say about themselves. Prominent atheists are overwhelmingly defining it the way the linked video does (at least those who try to define it). Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, The Atheist Experience to name a few. The press kit being pushed to try to help media understand the subject defines it this way, as well.

Ian Andreas Miller said...

If a Russellian agnostic is one who suspends judgment, the person might be an anapophasist.