Self-Contradictory Agnosticism

“In the third place, there are many who are avowed agnostics. These are not intellectually indifferent or unable. On the contrary, they are often very sophisticated. They are the men with a little learning, which is a dangerous thing. They may be experts in the field of medicine and daubers in the field of epistemology. They will tell you that it is patent that nobody knows anything about the origin of matter and of life, and that it is therefore a conceit to say that he does. They therefore think it to be truly humble to say that they do not know. It is this attitude that underlies much of present-day scientific method which wants to limit its investigations to the facts and draw no great conclusions from them about ultimate matters.

This attitude is usually coupled with the felt or stated assurance that, after all, man has no metaphysical need. All that man needs is to get along for his three score years and ten in the environment in which he finds himself. He may wonder what is going to happen after this life, but he surely need not worry about it because it is certain that he can do nothing about it.

With such as these it would seem that the point we should be most anxious to drive home is that in trying to be agnostic, and in trying to say that they have no need of metaphysics, they have already given one of the two possible answers to every question of epistemology that may be asked. They have, as a matter of fact, said that all the facts—or, in epistemological language, they have said that the object and the subject of knowledge—exist apart from God and are able to get along without God. They think they have said nothing at all about ultimate matters, while as a matter of fact they have in effect said everything that could be said about them, and, we believe, more beside. They have tried to be so modest that they did not dare to make a positive statement about anything ultimate, while they have made a universal negative statement about the most ultimate consideration that faces the mind of man. That this charge is fair is apparent from the consideration of the opposite. Suppose that the object and the subject of knowledge do not exist apart from God. Suppose, in other words, that the Christian theistic conception of philosophy is true. In that case, it is not only possible to know something about ultimate things, but in that case the knowledge of proximate things depends upon the knowledge of ultimate things. In that case, not a single fact can be known unless God is known.

What the present-day agnostic should do then is to make his position reasonable by showing that God does not exist. The burden of the proof is upon him. He claims, of course, that the burden of the proof is upon us when we hold that God exists. Yet this is clearly not the case, since his own position, to be reasonable, must presuppose the nonexistence of God. If God does exist, man can know him, for the simple reason that in that case all knowledge depends upon him. Hence an agnostic position must first prove that God does not exist.

From these considerations it follows that agnosticism is completely self-contradictory. And it is self-contradictory not only upon the assumption of the truth of theism, but it is self-contradictory upon the assumption of the truth of anti-theism, which is the assumption of agnosticism. It is, in the first place, psychologically self-contradictory upon its own assumptions. Agnosticism wants to hold that it is reasonable to refrain from thorough epistemological speculations because they cannot lead to anything. But in order to assume this attitude, agnosticism has itself made the most tremendous intellectual assertion that could be made about ultimate things. In the second place, agnosticism is epistemologically self-contradictory on its own assumptions because its claim to make no assertion about ultimate reality rests upon a most comprehensive assertion about ultimate reality. This is, of course, the point of pivotal importance. It is hard to make men see that they have, as a matter of fact, in effect made a universal statement about the whole of reality when they think that they have limited their statements to only a few facts in their immediate vicinity. We should attempt to make plain that the alternative is not between saying something about ultimate reality or not saying anything about it, but that the alternative is rather between saying one thing about it or another. Every human being, as a matter of fact, says something about ultimate reality.

It should be noted that those who claim to say nothing about ultimate reality not only do say something about it just as well as everybody else, but they have assumed for themselves the responsibility of saying one definite thing about ultimate reality. They have assumed the responsibility of excluding God. We have seen again that a God who is to come in afterward is no God at all. Agnosticism cannot say that it is open-minded on the question of the nature of ultimate reality. It is absolutely closed-minded on the subject. It has one view that it cannot, unless its own assumption be denied, exchange for another. It has started with the assumption of the non-existence of God and must end with it. Its so-called open-minded attitude is therefore a closed-minded attitude. The agnostic must be open-minded and closed-minded at the same time. And this is not only a psychological self-contradiction, but an epistemological self-contradiction. It amounts to affirmation and denial at the same time. Accordingly, they cancel out one another, if there is cancellation power in them. But the predication of agnosticism cannot be said to have cancellation power unless the whole anti-theistic system be first proved true. And the whole position could never be proved true because every fact would have to be in before the agnostic should be willing to make any statement about any other fact, since one fact may influence other facts. Now since clearly no individual agnostic can hope to live till all the facts are in, every individual agnostic must die with an “open” mind and at the same time with a closed mind on the subject of God’s existence. On his death bed he must make not one, but two pronouncements. He cannot say science has no pronouncements to make and let it go at that. He must make first a universal negative statement which, we have seen, is involved in his agnostic position. Then he must at the same time be completely open-minded on the question of God’s existence. He must say that there cannot be a judgment, and at the same time he must look around the corner for it as the next fact that might, for all his own position allows him to hold, appear. The only way, then, that the agnostic can seek to harmonize his mutually exclusive statements that he finds himself constantly making about ultimate reality is to hold that none of them mean anything because all of them operate in a void. And he could not say anything about the void unless there were something beyond the void. In other words, he cannot argue for the truth of the agnostic or the generally non-theistic position except upon the assumption of the truth of the Christian theistic system.

It is on this wise, then, that we shall have to deal with agnosticism. We can first show that it is self-contradictory since Christian theism is true. Then we must show that it is self-contradictory if anti-theism were true. And finally we must show that it would not even have power to show itself self-contradictory upon its own assumption unless theism is true. The anti-theistic conception of the self-contradictory presupposes the theistic conception of the self-contradictory for its operation.

Incidentally, we may point out that, in addition to being psychologically and epistemologically self-contradictory, the agnostic is morally self-contradictory. His contention was that he is very humble, and for that reason unwilling to pretend to know anything about ultimate matters. Yet he has by implication made a universal statement about reality. He therefore not only claims to know as much as the theist knows, but the claims to know much more. More than that, he not only claims to know much more than the theist, but he claims to know more than the theist’s God. He has boldly set bare possibility above the theist’s God and is quite willing to test the consequences of his action. It is thus that the hubris of which the Greeks spoke so much, and upon which they invoked the wrath of the gods, appears in new and seeming innocent garb.

Agnosticism of the type criticized is characteristic of all the movements in physics, biology, psychology and philosophy spoken of above. Not all of them are usually spoken of as agnostics, because many of them claim to know about finite things even if they disclaim knowledge of ultimate things. But it is itself a sign of agnosticism not to classify as agnostics not only all who disclaim knowledge about ultimate reality, but also all those who claim to have knowledge about finite matters without having knowledge about God. The assumption of those who say they are not agnostic about finite things, but only about God, is that finite things can be known apart from God. From the Christian theistic point of view, such as claim knowledge of finite things and disclaim knowledge of God are as much agnostics as those who disclaim knowledge of both. This is involved in our argument which showed that to attempt to know a finite object apart from God involves one in self-contradiction upon one’s own assumptions.”

(Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 182-185)


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