General Information

Agnosticism is the philosophical position that it is impossible to know about the nature or existence of God. The term was coined in 1869 by Thomas H Huxley from the Greek agnostos ("unknowable") to refer to his own conviction that knowledge is impossible on many matters covered by religious doctrines. Agnosticism is therefore concerned with questions of Epistemology, the examination of human knowledge; it considers valid only knowledge that comes from ordinary and immediate experience. Agnosticism is distinct from Atheism on the one hand and Skepticism on the other. Atheists reject belief in the existence of God. Skeptics hold the strong suspicion or probabilistic estimate that God does not exist. Agnostics refuse to make such judgments.

The agnostic position is as old as philosophy and can be traced to the pre Socratics and to the skeptics of ancient Greece. In modern times, agnosticism became prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly because of the growing mass of scientific data that seemed to contradict the biblical position and because of the disagreement of theologians and church authorities over the use of textual and historical criticism in the interpretation of the Bible. Many of the best known philosophers have been agnostics. Among them are Auguste Comte, William James, Immanuel Kant, George Santayana, and Herbert Spencer.

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Thomas E Wren

R A Armstrong, Agnosticism and Theism in the Nineteenth Century (1977); S Budd, Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society,1850 - 1960 (1977); E A Burtt, Types of Religious Philosophy (1951); J Collins, God in Modern Philosophy (1959); T H Huxley, "Agnosticism" and "Agnosticism and Christianity," in Collected Essays (1902); B Lightman, The Origins of Agnosticism (1987); G Mavrodes, Belief in God (1970); D Mills, Overcoming Religion (1980); B Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (1957).


Advanced Information

Agnosticism is a term generally used for the view that we do not know either in practice or in principle whether there is a God or not. Although etymologically the term is applicable to any kind of skepticism, T H Huxley coined the term to signify religious skepticism. Huxley first used the word in 1869 at a meeting of what later became the Metaphysical Society. There are conflicting accounts of how Huxley came to use the term. He said that he used the word as antithetical to the Gnostics of early church history. Agnosticism is to be contrasted with atheism and pantheism, as well as theism and Christianity. The theist asserts God's existence, the atheist denies it, while the agnostic professes ignorance about it, the existence of God being an insoluble problem for him. R H Hutton remembers the origin of the term as related to the reference which Paul made to the inscription on the altar to the unknown God (Acts 17:23).

Agnosticism is now used in a number of senses: (1) as the suspension of judgment on all ultimate issues, including God, free will, immortality; (2) to describe a secular attitude toward life, such as the belief that God is irrelevant to the life of modern man; (3) to express an emotionally charged anti Christian and anticlerical attitude; (4) as a term roughly synonymous with atheism.

While Huxley has been credited with giving the term its present popularity, there were many historical antecedents. Socrates in Plato's Republic is praised by the oracle of Delphi as the wisest man in the world because he was aware of what he did know and what he did not know. By far the most important and immediate precursors of modern agnosticism were David Hume and Immanuel Kant. In Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding he examines the notion of a "cause". He argues that one cannot know the cause of anything a priori. The idea of a cause arises primarily from the constant conjunction of two objects or things. Moreover, Hume rejects the possibility of belief in miracles.

Such a belief is based upon testimony. The testimony for a miracle is always counter balanced by the universal testimony to the regularity of the natural law. In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Hume thoroughly criticizes the argument from design. Two of his most important points are that the order observable in the universe may be the result of a principle inherent in matter itself rather than external to it and imposed upon it, and that the argument can never establish the moral attributes of God because of the widespread presence of evil in the world.

Kant was concerned with the limits of human knowledge. He argues that we cannot have any knowledge of things that are not possible objects of experience. Since God is not a possible object of our experience, we have no knowledge of him based upon pure reason. There may be practical reasons for believing in God, but classical theistic proofs were in principle doomed to failure.

Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century there were a number of factors which contributed to the intellectual respectability of agnosticism. The limits of human knowledge had been widely set at the limits of sense experience. Further, it was generally accepted that natural theology had failed, leading to a critical attitude toward standards of evidence and argument in religious matters. Religious beliefs could not meet the rigorous standards applied to scientific beliefs. Moreover, the physical sciences seemed to be at odds with biblical history and cosmology. Finally, questions were being raised about the divine government of the world. John Stuart Mill, for instance, argued that the world was poorly made and arbitrarily managed. The goodness of God was questioned since he was the creator of hell.

In the present intellectual climate agnosticism has taken a somewhat different form in the English speaking world. Many logical positivists and analytic philosophers have argued that the problem with theism is not one of evidence or argument, but of meaning and logical coherence. If religious discourse is understood as quasi scientific statements about the nature of reality and a transcendent being, insoluble problems arise. "God exists" and "God loves me" should be understood as meaningless about reality. That is, there is nothing in sense experience that will count for or against their truth.

Many who reject theism and Christianity prefer to characterize themselves as agnostics rather than atheists. The perceived advantages are twofold. First, agnosticism avoids the social stigma associated with atheism. Socially, atheism is not as respectable as agnosticism. Second, agnosticism at least appears to avoid the burden of proof. To assert or deny anything requires a reason. The profession of ignorance, however, needs no reasons.

While there may be a certain intellectual respectability to embracing agnosticism, William James points out there is great practical danger. James notes that there are some questions that are live, momentous, and forced. One must believe or disbelieve, even if the evidence is ambiguous, or risk great loss. The question of God's existence is such a question for James. For Christians, however, the evidence for God's existence and the truth of Christianity is decisively decided in God's self revelation in the Bible and the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

P D Feinberg
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

R A Armstrong, Agnosticism and Theism in the Nine - teenth Century; J Collins, God in Modern Philosophy; T H Huxley, "Agnosticism" and "Agnosticism and Christianity," in Collected Essays, V; J Pieper, Belief and Faith; R Flint, Agnosticism.


Catholic Information

A philosophical theory of the limitations of knowledge, professing doubt of or disbelief in some or all of the powers of knowing possessed by the human mind.


(1) The word Agnostic (Greek a, privative + gnostikós "knowing") was coined by Professor Huxley in 1869 to describe the mental attitude of one who regarded as futile all attempts to know the reality corresponding to our ultimate scientific, philosophic, and religious ideas. As first employed by Huxley, the new term suggested the contrast between his own unpretentious ignorance and the vain knowledge which the Gnostics of the second and third century claimed to possess. This antithesis served to discredit the conclusions of natural theology, or theistic reasoning, by classing them with the idle vapourings of Gnosticism. The classification was unfair, the attempted antithesis overdrawn. It is rather the Gnostic and the Agnostic who are the real extremists; the former extending the bounds of knowledge, and the latter narrowing them, unduly. Natural theology, or theism, occupies the middle ground between these extremes, and should have been disassociated both from the Gnostic position, that the mind can know everything, and from the Agnostic position, that it can know nothing concerning the truths of religion. (See GNOSTICISM.)

(2) Agnosticism, as a general term in philosophy, is frequently employed to express any conscious attitude of doubt, denial, or disbelief, towards some, or even all, of man's powers of knowing or objects of knowledge. The meaning of the term may accordingly vary, like that of the other word "Scepticism", which it has largely replaced, from partial to complete Agnosticism; it may be our knowledge of the world, of the self, or of God, that is questioned; or it may be the knowableness of all three, and the validity of any knowledge, whether of sense or intellect, science or philosophy, history, ethics, religion. The variable element in the term is the group of objects, or propositions, to which it refers; the invariable element, the attitude of learned ignorance it always implies towards the possibility of acquiring knowledge.

(3) Agnosticism, as a term of modern philosophy, is used to describe those theories of the limitations of human knowledge which deny the constitutional ability of the mind to know reality and conclude with the recognition of an intrinsically Unknowable. The existence of "absolute reality" is usually affirmed while, at the same time, its knowableness is denied. Kant, Hamilton, Mansel, and Spencer make this affirmation an integral part of their philosophic systems. The Phenomenalists, however, deny the assertion outright, while the Positivists, Comte and Mill, suspend judgment concerning the existence of "something beyond phenomena". (See POSITIVISM.)

(4) Modern Agnosticism differs from its ancient prototype. Its genesis is not due to a reactionary spirit of protest, and a collection of sceptical arguments, against "dogmatic systems" of philosophy in vogue, so much as to an adverse criticism of man's knowing-powers in answer to the fundamental question: What can we know? Kant, who was the first to raise this question, in his memorable reply to Hume, answered it by a distinction between "knowable phenomena" and "unknowable things-in-themselves". Hamilton soon followed with his doctrine that "we know only the relations of things". Modern Agnosticism is thus closely associated with Kant's distinction and Hamilton's principle of relativity. It asserts our inability to know the reality corresponding to our ultimate scientific, philosophic, or religious ideas.

(5) Agnosticism, with special reference to theology, is a name for any theory which denies that it is possible for man to acquire knowledge of God. It may assume either a religious or an anti-religious form, according as it is confined to a criticism of rational knowledge or extended to a criticism of belief. De Bonald (1754-1840), in his theory that language is of divine origin, containing, preserving, and transmitting the primitive revelation of Good to man; De Lammenais (1782-1854), in his theory that individual reason is powerless, and social reason alone competent; Bonetty (1798-1879), in his advocacy of faith in God, the Scriptures, and the Church, afford instances of Catholic theologians attempting to combine belief in moral and religious truths with the denial that valid knowledge of the same is attainable by reason apart from revelation and tradition. To these systems of Fideism and Traditionalism should be added the theory of Mansel (1820-71), which Spencer regarded as a confession of Agnosticism, that the very inability of reason to know the being and attributes of God proves that revelation is necessary to supplement the mind's shortcomings. This attitude of criticising knowledge, but not faith, was also a feature of Sir William Hamilton's philosophy. (See FIDEISM and TRADITIONALISM.)

(6) The extreme view that knowledge of God is impossible, even with the aid of revelation, is the latest form of religious Agnosticism. The new theory regards religion and science as two distinct and separate accounts of experience, and seeks to combine an agnostic intellect with a believing heart. It has been aptly called "mental book-keeping by double entry". Ritschl, reviving Kant's separatist distinction of theoretical from practical reason, proclaims that the idea of God contains not so much as a grain of reasoned knowledge; it is merely "an attractive ideal", having moral and religious, but no objective, scientific, value for the believer who accepts it. Harnack locates the essence of Christianity in a filial relation felt towards an unknowable God the Father. Sabatier considers the words God, Father, as symbols which register the feelings of the human heart towards the Great Unknowable of the intellect.

(7) Recent Agnosticism is also to a great extent anti-religious, criticizing adversely not only the knowledge we have of God, but the grounds of belief in Him as well. A combination of Agnosticism with Atheism, rather than with sentimental irrational belief, is the course adopted by many. The idea of God is eliminated both from the systematic and personal view which is taken of the world and of life. The attitude of "solemnly suspended judgment" shades off first into indifference towards religion, as an inscrutable affair at best, and next into disbelief. The Agnostic does not always merely abstain from either affirming or denying the existence of God, but crosses over to the old position of theoretic Atheism and, on the plea of insufficient evidence, ceases even to believe that God exists. While, therefore, not to be identified with Atheism, Agnosticism is often found in combination with it. (See ATHEISM.)


Total or complete Agnosticism--see (2)--is self-refuting. The fact of its ever having existed, even in the formula of Arcesilaos, "I know nothing, not even that I know nothing", is questioned. It is impossible to construct theoretically a self-consistent scheme of total nescience, doubt, unbelief. The mind which undertook to prove its own utter incompetence would have to assume, while so doing, that it was competent to perform the allotted task. Besides, it would be Impossible to apply such a theory practically; and a theory wholly subversive of reason, contradictory to conscience, and inapplicable to conduct is a philosophy of unreason out of place in a world of law. It is the systems of partial Agnosticism, therefore, which merit examination. These do not aim at constructing a complete philosophy of the Unknowable, but at excluding special kinds of truth, notably religious, from the domain of knowledge They are buildings designedly left unfinished.


Kant's idea of "a world of things apart from the world we know" furnished the starting-point of the modern movement towards constructing a philosophy of the Unknowable. With the laudable intention of silencing the sceptic Hume, he showed that the latter's analysis of human experience into particular sense-impressions was faulty and incomplete, inasmuch as it failed to recognize the universal and necessary elements present in human thought. Kant accordingly proceeded to construct a theory of knowledge which should emphasize the features of human thought neglected by Hume. He assumed that universality, necessity, causality, space, and time were merely the mind's constitutional way of looking at things, and in no sense derived from experience. The result was that he had to admit the mind's incapacity for knowing the reality of the world, the soul, or God, and was forced to take refuge against Hume's scepticism in the categorical imperative "Thou shalt" of the "moral reason". He had made "pure reason" powerless by his transfer of causality and necessity from the objects of thought to the thinking subject.

To discredit this idea of a "reality" inaccessibly hidden behind "appearances", it is sufficient to point out the gratuitous assumptions on which it is based. Kant's radical mistake was, to prejudge, instead of investigating, the conditions under which the acquisition of knowledge becomes possible. No proof was offered of the arbitrary assumption that the categories are wholly subjective; proof is not even possible. "The fact that a category lives subjectively in the act of knowing is no proof that the category does not at the same time truly express the nature of the reality known", [Seth, "Two Lectures on Theism" (New York, 1897) p. 19.] The harmony of the mind's function with the objects it perceives and the relations it discovers shows that the ability of the mind to reach reality is involved in our very acts of perception. Yet Kant, substituting theory for fact, would disqualify the mind for its task of knowing the actual world we live in, and invent a hinterland of things-in-themselves never known as they are, but only as they appear to be. This use of a purely speculative principle to criticize the actual contents of human experience, is unjustifiable. Knowledge is a living process to be concretely investigated, not a mechanical affair for abstract reason to play with by introducing artificial severances of thought from object, and of reality from appearance. Once knowledge is regarded as a synthetic act of a self-active subject, the gap artificially created between subject and object, reality and appearance, closes of itself. (See KANT, PHILOSOPHY OF.)


Sir William Hamilton contributed the philosophical principle on which modern Agnosticism rests, in his doctrine that "all knowledge is relative". To know is to condition; to know the Unconditioned (Absolute, or Infinite) is therefore, impossible, our best efforts resulting in "mere negations of thought". This doctrine of relativity contains two serious equivocations which, when pointed out, reveal the basic difference between the philosophies of Agnosticism and of Theism. The first is in the word "relativity". The statement that knowledge is "relative" may mean simply that to know anything, whether the world or God, we must know it as manifesting itself to us under the laws and relations of our own consciousness; apart from which relations of self-manifestation it would be for us an isolated, unknowable blank. Thus understood, the doctrine of relativity states the actual human method of knowing the world, the soul, the self, God, grace and the supernatural. Who would hold that we know God, naturally, in any other way than through the manifestations He makes of Himself in mind and nature?

But Hamilton understood the principle of relativity to mean that "we know only the relations of things"; only the Relative, never the Absolute. A negative conclusion, fixing a limit to what we can know, was thus drawn from a principle which of itself merely affirms the method, but settles nothing as to the limits, of our knowledge. This arbitrary interpretation of a method as a limitation is the centre of the Agnostic position against Theism. An ideally perfect possible knowledge is contrasted with the unperfect yet none the less true, knowledge which we actually possess. By thus assuming "ideal comprehension" as a standard by which to criticize "real apprehension", the Agnostic invalidates, apparently, the little that we do know, as at present constituted, by the more we might know if our mental constitution were other than it is. The Theist, however, recognizing that the limits of human knowledge are to be determined by fact, not by speculation, refuses to prejudge the issue, and proceeds to investigate what we can legitimately know of God through His effects or manifestations.

The second serious equivocation is in the terms "Absolute", "Infinite", "Unconditioned". The Agnostic has in mind, when he uses these terms, that vague general idea of being which our mind reaches by emptying concrete reality of all its particular contents. The result of this emptying process is the Indefinite of abstract, as compared with the Definite of concrete, thought. It is this Indefinite which the Agnostic exhibits as the utterly Unrelated, Unconditioned. But this is not the Absolute in question. Our inability to know such an Absolute, being simply our inability to define the indefinite, to condition the unconditioned, is an irrelevant truism. The absolute in question with Theists is the real, not the logical; the Infinite in question is the actual Infinite of realized perfection, not the Indefinite of thought. The All-perfect is the idea of God, not the All-imperfect, two polar opposites frequently mistaken for each other by Pantheists and Materialists from the days of the Ionians to our own. The Agnostic, therefore, displaces the whole Theistic problem when he substitutes a logical Absolute, defined as "that which excludes all relations outer and inner", for the real. Examination of our experience shows that the only relation which the Absolute essentially excludes is the relation of real dependence upon anything else. We have no right in reason to define it as the non-related. In fact, it manifests itself as the causal, sustaining ground of all relations. Whether our knowledge of this real Absolute, or God, deserves to be characterized as wholly negative, is consequently a distinct problem (see VI).


According to Herbert Spencer, the doctrine that all knowledge is relative cannot be intelligibly stated Without postulating the existence of the Absolute. The momentum of thought inevitably carries us beyond conditioned existence (definite consciousness) to unconditioned existence (indefinite consciousness). The existence of Absolute Reality must therefore be affirmed. Spencer thus made a distinct advance upon the philosophy of Comte and Mill, which maintained a non-committal attitude on the question of any absolute existence. Hamilton and Mansel admitted the existence of the Infinite on faith, denying only man's ability to form a positive conception of it. Mansel's test for a valid conception of anything is an exhaustive grasp of its positive contents--a test so ideal as to invalidate knowledge of the finite and infinite alike. Spencer's test is "inability to conceive the opposite". But since he understood "to conceive" as meaning "to construct a mental image", the consequence was that the highest conceptions of science and religion--matter, space, time, the Infinite--failed to correspond to his assumed standard, and were declared to be "mere symbols of the real, not actual cognitions of it at all". He was thus led to seek the basis and reconciliation of science, philosophy, and religion in the common recognition of Unknowable Reality as the object of man's constant pursuit and worship. The non-existence of the Absolute is unthinkable; all efforts to know positively what the Absolute is result in contradictions.

Spencer's adverse criticism of all knowledge and belief, as affording no insight into the ultimate nature of reality, rests on glaring assumptions. The assumption that every idea is "symbolic" which cannot be vividly realized in thought is arbitrary as to be decisive against his entire system; it is a pre-judgment, not a valid canon of inductive criticism, which he constantly employs. From the fact that we can form no conception of infinity, as we picture an object or recall a scene, it does not follow that we have no apprehension of the Infinite. We constantly apprehend things of which we can distinctly frame no mental image. Spencer merely contrasts our picturesque with our unpicturable forms of thought, using the former to criticize the latter adversely. The contradictions which he discovers are all reducible to this contrast of definite with indefinite thoughts and disappear when we have in mind a real Infinite of perfection, not a logical Absolute. Spencer's attempt to stop finally at the mere affirmation that the Absolute exists he himself proved to be impossible. He frequently describes the Unknowable as the "Power manifesting itself in phenomena". This physical description is a surrender of his own position and a virtual acceptance of the principle of Theism, that the Absolute is known through, not apart from, its manifestations. If the Absolute can be known as physical power, surely it can be known as Intelligent Personal Power, by taking not the lowest, but the highest, manifestations of power known to us as the basis for a less inadequate conception. Blank existence is no final stopping-place for human thought. The only rational course is to conceive God under the highest manifestations of Himself and to remember while so doing that we are describing, not defining, His abysmal nature. It is not a question of degrading God to our level, but of not conceiving Him below that level as unconscious energy. Spencer's further attempt to empty religion and science of their respective rational contents, so as to leave only a blank abstraction or symbol for the final object of both, is a gross confusion, again, of the indefinite of thought with the infinite of reality. A religion wholly cut off from belief, worship, and conduct never existed. Religion must know its object to some extent or be mere irrational emotion. All religion recognizes mystery; truth and reality imperfectly known, not wholly unknowable. The distinction of "knowable phenomena from unknowable reality behind phenomena" breaks down at every turn; and Spencer well illustrates how easy it is to mistake simplified thoughts for the original simplicities of things. His category of the Unknowable is a convenient receptacle for anything one may choose to put into it, because no rational statement concerning its contents is possible. In fact, Spencer calmly affirms the identity of the two "unknowables" of Religion and Science, without appearing to realize that neither in reason nor according to his own principles is there any foundation for this most dogmatic of statements.


The primary fact disclosed in our sense-knowledge is that an external object exists, not that a sensation has been experienced. What we directly perceive is the presence of the object, not the mental process. This vital union of subject and object in the very act of knowledge implies that things and minds are harmoniously related to each other in a system of reality. The real is involved in our acts of perception, and any theory which neglects to take this basic fact into account disregards the data of direct experience. Throughout the whole process of our knowing, the mind has reality, fundamentally at least, for its object. The second fact of our knowledge is that things are known according to the nature of the knower. We can know the real object, but the extent of this knowledge will depend on the number and degree of manifestations, as on the actual conditions of our mental and bodily powers. Whatever be the results reached by psychologists or by physicists in their study of the genesis of knowledge or the nature of reality, there can be no doubt of the testimony of consciousness to the existence of a reality "not ourselves". Knowledge is, therefore, proportioned to the manifestations of the object and to the nature and conditions of the knowing subject. Our power to know God is no exception to this general law, the non-observance of which is the weakness of Agnosticism, as the observance of it is the strength of Theism. The pivotal assumption in agnostic systems generally is that we can know the existence of a thing and still remain in complete ignorance of its nature. The process of our knowing is contrasted with the object supposedly known. The result of this contrast is to make knowledge appear not as reporting, but as transforming, reality; and to make the object appear as qualitatively different from the knowledge we have of it, not, therefore, intrinsically unknowable. This assumption begs the whole question. No valid reason exists for regarding the physical stimulus of sensation as "reality pure and simple", or as the ultimate object of knowledge. To conceive of knowledge as altering its object is to make it meaningless, and to contradict the testimony of consciousness. We cannot, therefore, know the existence of a thing and remain in complete ignorance of its nature.

The problem of God's knowableness raises four more or less distinct questions: existence, nature, possibility of knowledge, possibility of definition. In treating these, the Agnostic separates the first two, which he should combine, and combines the last two, which he should separate. The first two questions, while distinct, are inseparable in treatment, because we have no direct insight into the nature of anything and must be content to study the nature of God through the indirect manifestations He makes of Himself its creatures. The Agnostic, by treating the question of God's nature apart from the question of God's existence, cuts himself off from the only possible natural means of knowing, and then turns about to convert his fault of method into a philosophy of the Unknowable. It is only by studying the Absolute and the manifestations together that we can round out and fill in the concept of the former by means of the latter. The idea of God cannot be analyzed wholly apart from the evidences, or "proofs". Deduction needs the companion process of induction to succeed in this instance. Spencer overlooked this fact, which St. Thomas admirably observed in his classic treatment of the problem.

The question of knowing God is not the same as the question of defining Him. The two do not stand or fail together. By identifying the two, the Agnostic confounds "inability to define" with "total inability to know", which are distinct problems to be treated separately, since knowledge may fall short of definition and be knowledge still. Spencer furnishes the typical instance. He admits that inquiry into the nature of things leads inevitably to the concept of Absolute Existence, and here his confusion of knowing with defining compels him to stop. He cannot discover in the isolated concept of the Absolute the three conditions of relation, likeness, and difference, necessary for defining it. He rightly claims that no direct resemblance, no agreement in the possession of the same identical qualities, is possible between the Absolute and the world of created things. The Absolute cannot be defined or classified, in the sense of being brought into relations of specific or generic agreement with any objects we know or any concepts we frame. This was no discovery of Spencer's. The Eastern Fathers of the Church, in their so-called "negative theology", refuted the pretentious knowledge of the Gnostics on this very principle, that the Absolute transcends all our schemes of classification. But Spencer was wrong in neglecting to take into account the considerable amount of positive, though not strictly definable, knowledge contained in the affirmations which he makes in common with the Theist, that God exists. The Absolute, studied in the light of its manifestations, not in the darkness of isolations, discloses itself to our experience as Originating Source. Between the Manifestations and the Source there exists, therefore, some relationship. It is not a direct resemblance, in the very nature of the case. But there is another kind of resemblance which is wholly indirect, the resemblance of two proportions, or Analogy. The relation of God to His absolute nature must be, proportionally at least, the same as that of creatures to theirs. However infinite the distance and difference between the two, this relation of proportional similarity exists between them, and is sufficient to make some knowledge of the former possible through the latter, because both are proportionally alike, while infinitely diverse in being and attributes. The Originating Source must precontain, in an infinitely surpassing way, the perfections dimly reflected in the mirror of Nature. Of this, the principle of causality, objectively understood, is ample warrant. Spencer's three conditions for knowledge--namely: relation, likeness, and difference--are thus verified in another way, with proportional truth for their basis. The conclusions of natural theology cannot, therefore, be excluded from the domain of the knowable, but only from that of the definable. (See ANALOGY.)

The process of knowing God thus becomes a process of correcting our human concepts. The correction consists in raising to infinite, unlimited significance the objective perfections discernible in men and things. This is accomplished in turn by denying the limiting modes and imperfect features distinctive of created reality, in order to replace these by the thought of the All-perfect, in the plenitude of whose Being one undivided reality corresponds to our numerous, distinct, partial concepts. In the light of this applied corrective we are enabled to attribute to God the perfections manifested in intelligence, will, power, personality, without making the objective content of our idea of God merely the human magnified, or a bundle of negations. The extreme of Anthropomorphism, or of defining God in terms of man magnified, is thus avoided, and the opposite extreme of Agnosticism discounted. Necessity compels us to think God under the relative, dependent features of our experience. But no necessity of thought compels us to make the accidental features of our knowledge the very essence of His being. The function of denial, which the Agnostic overlooks, is a corrective, not purely negative, function; and our idea of God, inadequate and solely proportional as it is, is nevertheless positive, true, and valid according to the laws which govern all our knowing.


The Catholic conception of faith is a firm assent, on account of the authority of God to revealed truths. It presupposes the philosophical truth that a personal God exists who can neither deceive nor be deceived, and the historical truth of the fact of revelation. The two sources of knowledge--reason and revelation--complete each other. Faith begins where science ends. Revelation adds a new world of truth to the sum of human knowledge. This new world of truth is a world of mystery, but not of contradiction. The fact that none of the truths which we believe on God's authority contradicts the laws of human thought or the certainties of natural knowledge shows that the world of faith is a world of higher reason. Faith is consequently an intellectual assent; a kind of superadded knowledge distinct from, yet continuous with, the knowledge derived from experience.

In contrast with this conception of faith and reason as distinct is the widespread view which urges their absolute separation. The word knowledge is restricted to the results of the exact sciences; the word belief is extended to all that cannot be thus exactly ascertained. The passive attitude of the man of science, who suspends judgment until the evidence forces his assent, is assumed towards religious truth. The result is that the "will to believe" takes on enormous significance in contrast with the "power to know", and faith sinks to the level of blind belief cut off from all continuity with knowledge.

It is true that the will, the conscience, the heart, and divine grace co-operate in the production of the act of faith, but it is no less true that reason plays an essential part. Faith is an act of intellect and will; when duly analyzed, it discloses intellectual, moral, and sentimental elements. We are living beings, not pure reasoning machines, and our whole nature cooperates vitally in the acceptance of the divine word. "Man is a being who thinks all his experience and perforce must think his religious experience."--Sterrett, "The Freedom of Authority" (New York, 1905) p. 56.--Where reason does not enter at all, we have but caprice or enthusiasm. Faith is not a persuasion to be duly explained by reference to subconscious will-attitudes alone, nor is distrust of reason one of its marks.

It is also true that the attitude of the believer, as compared with that of the scientific observer, is strongly personal, and interested in the object of belief. But this contrast of personal with impersonal attitudes affords no justification for regarding belief as wholly blind. It is unfair to generalize these two attitudes into mutually exclusive philosophies. The moral ideal of conscience is different from the cold, impartial ideal of physical science. Truths which nourish the moral life of the soul, and shape conduct, cannot wait for acceptance, like purely scientific truths, until theoretical reason studies the problem thoroughly. They present distinct motives for the conscience to appreciate actively, not for the speculative reason to contemplate passively. Conscience appreciates the moral value of testimonies, commands their acceptance, and bids the intellect to "ponder them with assent".

It is wrong, therefore, to liken the function of conscience to that of speculative reason, to apply to the solution of moral and religious questions the methods of the exact sciences, to give to the latter the monopoly of all certitude, and to declare the region beyond scientific knowledge a region of nescience and blind belief. On the assumption that the knowledge and the definable are synonymous terms, the "first principles of thought" are transferred from the category of knowledge to that of belief, but the transfer is arbitrary. It is too much to suppose that we know only what we can explain. The mistake is in making a general philosophy out of a particular method of scientific explanation. This criticism applies to all systematic attempts to divide the mind into opposite hemispheres of intellect and will, to divorce faith completely from knowledge. Consciousness is one and continuous. Our distinctions should never amount to separations, nor should the "pragmatic" method now in vogue be raised to the dignity of a universal philosophy. "The soul with its powers does not form an integral whole divided, or divisible, into non-communicating compartments of intellect and will; it is a potential inter-penetrative whole". (Baillie, "Revue de Philos.", April, 1904, p. 468.) In the solidary interaction of all man's powers the contributions furnished by will and conscience increase and vivify the meagre knowledge of God We are able to acquire by reasoning.


The Agnostic denial of the ability of human reason to know God is directly opposed to Catholic Faith. The Council of the Vatican solemnly declares that "God, the beginning and end of all, can, by the natural light of human reason, be known with certainty from the works of creation" (Const. De Fide, II, De Rev.) The intention of the Council was to reassert the historic claim of Christianity to be reasonable, and to condemn Traditionalism together with all views which denied to reason the power to know God with certainty. Religion would be deprived of all foundation in reason, the motives of credibility would become worthless, conduct would be severed from creed, and faith be blind, if the power of knowing God with rational certainty were called in question. The declaration of the Council was based primarily on scripture, not on any of the historic systems of philosophy. The Council simply defined the possibility of man's knowing God with certainty by reason apart from revelation. The possibility of knowing God was not affirmed of any historical individual in particular; the statement was limited to the power of human reason, not extended to the exercise of that power in any given instance of time or person. The definition thus took on the feature of the objective statement: Man can certainly know God by the "physical" power of reason when the latter is rightly developed, even though revelation be "morally" necessary for mankind in the bulk, when the difficulties of reaching a prompt, certain, and correct knowledge of God are taken into account. What conditions were necessary for this right development of reason, how much positive education was required to equip the mind for this task of knowing God and some of His attributes with certainty, the Council did not profess to determine. Neither did it undertake to decide whether the function of reason in this case is to derive the idea of God wholly from reflection on the data furnished by sense, or merely to bring out into explicit form, by means of such data, an idea already instinctive and innate. The former view, that of Aristotle had the preference; but the latter view, that of Plato, was not condemned. God's indirect manifestations of Himself in the mirror of nature, in the created world of things and persons, were simply declared to be true sources of knowledge distinct from revelation.

Publication information Written by Edmund T. Shanahan. Transcribed by Rick McCarty. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I. Published 1907. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

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