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 . . .