Where are the Kantian Agnostics?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I’ve been reading the famous eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant lately.  Kant’s theory of knowledge only allowed for human knowledge to extend to those things we can directly experience through our senses.  Kant argued that we could not have direct experience of our self, the cosmos, or God.

Kant’s empiricism ruled out rational knowledge of these three things, so he argued that we must remain agnostic about their existence.  He also argued that for practical reasons, most of us believe that the self exists, that the whole universe (cosmos) exists, and that God exists, but these are positions of faith, not rational knowledge.

Kant’s agnosticism was a turning point in the history of epistemology (the study of knowledge).  What I find interesting is that his brand of agnosticism seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Why do I say this?  Kant argued that since the self, God, and the cosmos cannot be experienced by our senses, we cannot, in principle, make any rational statements about their existence or non-existence.  We just don’t know one way or another.  Kant believed that people who argued that God does not exist are just as foolish as people who argue that God does exist.  Both positions are rationally unprovable.

Most people who call themselves agnostic today don’t seem to hold Kant’s views any longer.  When I meet someone who says they are agnostic, they generally mean something like the following: “I haven’t seen enough evidence to know if God exists.”

The modern agnostic implicitly believes that one can have evidence of God’s existence, and thus rational knowledge of God’s existence, whereas Kant denies that there is ever any chance of there being evidence one way or another.

What is going on?  It seems to me that there are generally two kinds of agnostics today.  The first kind really is undecided on God’s existence and is waiting to hear evidence.  Given that evidence, they may come to decide that God exists.

The second kind of agnostic really believes that all the available evidence is stacked against God’s existence, but they don’t want to call themselves an atheist; maybe the “atheist” label seems too dogmatic.  In everything but name, however, they are an atheist – they know God does not exist.

Kant would think both of these kinds of agnostics are equally wrongheaded.  But where are the Kantian agnostics today?  Are there any left?  Are there any agnostics who truly believe that knowledge of God is impossible and that we must remain forever on the fence about it?  Do these same agnostics believe the same thing about the self and the cosmos?

Just wondering . . .

  • Ggodat

    Isn’t it simple logic to say that one must exist first to be able to question one’s existance? How could Kant have said he didn’t have enough proof of his existance. His statement should have been proof enough…

  • Andrew Ryan

    “In everything but name, however, they are an atheist – they know God does not exist.”

    That’s not what atheist means. Atheist simply means you don’t believe a God exists, not that you KNOW one doesn’t exist. One does not need perfect knowledge to believe or disbelieve something. You can be a gnostic atheist and claim to have knowledge that no God’s exist, but one can equally be an agnostic atheist, and rule out the possibility that such knowledge is possible. Equally one can be a gnostic or agnostic theist.

    A/gnosticism deals with knowledge, a/theism deals with belief.

  • Jeff

    I agree Greg. It seems simplistic that you can’t do anything if you don’t acknowledge one’s own existence.He wrote, therefore it existed, and how could his writings exist without a writer. Begins to become kind of a circular argument.

  • Ggodat

    Then why are your comments always portraying that you “know” God doesn’t exist. I honestly dont understand why you waste your time posting on this blog. I dont believe in aliens and spend zero time trying to chat about them or refute their existence to those believing in them. It simply just isn’t worth my time. Honestly, I would sincerely like to understand why you even care what we think. This is not a judicial or regulatory group that enacts laws or regulates so nothing discussed here can have any bearing on your life or well being. If I am wrong then I apologize but my belief is that you and others just want to fight…

    Ps. a gnostic atheist does not exist because no one can disprove the existence of God. You will assuredly say the same is true of a Christian but more than enough evidence for God has been given by his creation of the heavens (no offence meant Billy) he needs not this Blog nor I.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Then why are your comments always portraying that you “know” God doesn’t exist.”

    Total nonsense. Cite please. I’d settle for a quote where I even say that it is unlikely that God exists.

    “Ps. a gnostic atheist does not exist because no one can disprove the existence of God.”

    It would take me too much time to debunk every part of your ‘Gish Gallop’, but many people do indeed make the argument that the claims made for a God are self-contradictory. I’m not going to make their arguments for them, but suffice it to say, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  • Anonymous

    I’m pleased that Bill has discovered Kant; hopefully, this means we won’t have to deal with his wrong-headed “you can’t have absolute morality without a moral lawgiver” arguments any more, since Kant shows (in the _Prolegomena_, and then in the _Metaphyics of Morals_) how objective, universal moral laws are derivable a priori from pure reason.

  • Ggodat

    Neither do you! I guess since I am smarter I win. Have a nice life, I’m done talking to you.

  • And now for the rest of the story… Kant believed in God and wrote in The Critique of Practical Reason that “it is morally necessary to assume the existence of God.” In essence, morality makes no sense unless we believe in God.

  • Andrew Ryan

    OK, so you went straight into a personal attack, accused me of saying things I never said, then when asked to back it up, you run away.

    I don’t care how smart you are – the above makes you rude and a coward.

  • Ggodat

    In the immortal words of Michael Scott, “Boom roasted”.

  • The Chisel

    I thought this was a great post Bill.

    Maybe you’ve answered you’re own question by defining some as “modern Agnostics” and “Kantian Agnostics”

    then again, perhaps it’s people simply using a term, without first understanding it’s proper definition.

  • Anonymous

    Kant’s arguments stand and fall independent on his personal beliefs. Kant gives a moral framework that invalidates your simplistic moral argument.

    I defy you to produce a single quotation from Kant where he argues that morality makes no sense unless we believe in God. Just one.

  • Anonymous

    What are you, 12? Time to go take a nap — the big boys need to use the computer now.

  • I understand that Kant thought that his formulations of the categorical imperative could be derived from reason. I was merely pointing out that there was more to the story. Some day maybe I’ll deal with Kant’s attempt to ground morality on pure reason, because I think it has flaws. Do you consider yourself a Kantian when it comes to ethics?

  • Andrew Ryan

    I think he’s missed that Scott is supposed to be a figure of fun, and that when Scott says that, it’s him who’s the idiot.

  • Andrew EC

    Do you honestly not understand my argument? I’m trying to be nice (as you’ve requested!), but it’s frustrating to say something and then have you come back with first an ad hominem and then a non sequitur.

    To recap:

    1. You’ve argued that objective morality requires a moral lawgiver; that is, that no secular system of moral thought produces universal moral laws.

    2. I’ve shown you an alternative moral system that is both a) secular and b) objective in the universal sense.

    3. You’ve countered by a) pointing out that the author that the author of the system was himself a theist (an ad hominem), and b) by arguing that it might be flawed (and asking me if I personally am a Kantian). That’s a non sequitur.

    The only thing necessary to defeat the moral argument is to contest the major premise (that objective moral laws require a lawgiver). So long as the Kantian scheme is plausible, the argument is false. That’s it.

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