Agnosticism about Meaning

Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term “agnostic.”

I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.
~ Clarence Darrow 

I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong. ~ Bertrand Russell

Ubi dubium ibi libertas.
(Where there is doubt, there is freedom.) 
~ Latin proverb 


Agnosticism is the idea that the truth or falsity of some claim is unknown or unknowable; it also denotes a basic skepticism toward answering certain questions. Typically agnosticism applies to religious belief, but we will apply the idea to the meaning of life. The authors we call agnostic believe either that the question of the meaning of life is meaningless because it is unanswerable, or that the answer, if one exists, is unknowable.

In contrast with many other philosophers, I don’t believe that the word meaning properly applies only to words or signs, but that it also applies to activities such as human lives. But there is a more substantive objection to the meaningfulness of our question—that our question is meaningless because it is not possible to answer it. Accordingly, a question for which there cannot possibly be an answer is said to be meaningless, at least by supporters of the validity of the objection. Note that this does not mean that there may be an answer which we don’t know. Rather it means that the question asks for an answer which cannot be provided, thus rendering the question meaningless by definition. To understand this deeper objection, in our next 3 posts we will consider three extraordinary twentieth-century philosophers who advocated this view: Paul Edwards, A.J. Ayer, and Kai Nielsen.

Here are a number of great quotes about doubt and agnosticism.

It you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life, you doubt, as far as possible, all things.~ Rene Descartes

Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt particularly to doubt one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas and one’s axioms. ~ Will Durant 

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.~ Voltaire

Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt. ~ H. L. Mencken

We declare at the outset that we do not make any positive assertion that anything we shall say is wholly as we affirm it to be. We merely report accurately on each thing as our impressions of it are at the moment.~ Sextus Empiricus 

Trust a witness in all matters in which neither his self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor the love of the marvelous is strongly concerned. When they are involved, require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probability by the thing testified.~ Thomas Henry Huxley

You see … I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing.  I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here…I don’t have to know an answer.  I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.  It doesn’t frighten me. Richard P. Feynman

Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.~ Steven Pinker

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