AGNOSTICISM.—A philosophic theory, based on the relativity of human knowledge,
which maintains that the Absolute Being, as the Unconditioned, cannot be in any
sense known; or, as Herbert Spencer states it—"that the power which the
Universe manifests to us is utterly inscrutable" (First Principles, p. 46). The
term is sometimes employed, in a wider sense, to describe a theory which denies
the existence of the Absolute as unknown. But this use of the term is
inappropriate, for such a theory is not a logical deduction from the former,
since we cannot reason from ignorance to non-existence, and what is implied is
Gnosticism rather than Agnosticism.
The popular Agnosticism of the present day, both philosophic and scientific in
its historic associations, rests on the relativity of human knowledge, favouring
a suspension of judgment or scepticism as to the transcendent or supersensible.
While the relativity of human knowledge is matter of agreement, thinkers differ
according as they hold or deny the rational certainty of an intelligent First
Cause, according as they recognise belief based on necessary principles of the
reason, or admit the certainty only of that which is directly known as present
to the mind.
Hamilton, while denying that the Infinite Being can by us be known, maintained
that the existence must by us be believed (Discussions, p. 15; Letter to
Calderwood, Metaph., II., app., p. 530). So it is with Mansel (Limits of
Thought and Letters, Lectures, and Reviews, pp. 157,189). J. S. Mill, while
declining assent to belief in an Infinite Being, specially insisted on the
relativity of knowledge involving the impossibility of knowledge of the Absolute
(Examination of Hamilton, pp. 72-129). Herbert Spencer, pointing to the
reconciliation of religion and science, opens the First Principles with special
treatment of the Unknowable (pp. 1-123).