Tuesday, March 07, 2006

"Not a creed, but a method" -- Part 2

Thomas Henry Huxley, to whom I made a nod yesterday, described how it was that he came to originate the term "agnosticism":
When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain "gnosis" -- had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble....So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic". It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant.
Agnosticism, Huxley insisted, is not a creed, but a method. "Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable." This might seem a thin foundation upon which to stand a life, and indeed it takes a certain courage to make one's way in the world without the buttress of true belief. Huxley himself was sorely pressed by circumstance, but he found the courage to endure and to prevail. He said that if a person stays true to the agnostic principle, with humility, as best he can, "he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him."