Tuesday, March 8, 2011

No Swans are Black: Reflections on Agnosticism

"No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong."

—Attributed to Albert Einstein


I have encountered several types of agnostics who range in opinion from claiming we can know nothing at all to those who deny we can know religious knowledge.  The agnostic differs from the atheist in the sense that atheists claim to know there is no God while the agnostic claims that nobody can know whether there is a God or not.  (Some atheists tend towards agnostic arguments, saying that one cannot know one way or another, but it is more reasonable to assume not).

However, while agnostics do differ in what they claim to be unknowable, they do have one thing in common.  Whatever they claim is unknowable, they effectively claim to know where this boundary line is.  It is a claim to know we can't know.  The problem is, once the claim is given "We know," one can ask the reasons "how does one know?"

Ipse Dixit

Now at the level of total agnosticism ("We can't know anything"). such a claim is a self-contradiction.  At lesser levels of denial, we have a right to ask what sort of "proof" is desired and whether such a demand is reasonable.  For example, to demand physical proof of something which is not made of matter is unreasonable.  For example: think of your eye color.  Now physically prove that thought exists in a way which does not involve ipse dixit.

I do not ask this question out of mere argument.  Just as unbelievers ask Christians for "proof" about our faith, we do have the right to ask for their justification to claim we can definitively know some things cannot be known.  Moreover, if one insists on limiting proof to certain areas, we can ask them to practice what they preach and limit themselves to the same areas.

There is a difference however between the one who says "I do not know" and the person who says "This cannot be known."  The former still searches for knowledge.  The latter has stopped searching, claiming to know further searching is futile.

Limitation of Individual Knowledge is not an Absolute Limit to Knowledge

Unfortunately, this kind of knowledge is not an acknowledgement of the limitation of the knowledge of all persons.  It is based on the limitation of knowledge by an individual with the claim that because one person has a limitation of knowledge, no person can ever know what this individual does not.  It does not consider the possibility of personal deficiency of knowledge for example.  It does not consider the possibility of misunderstanding what another claims to experience.


It is essentially the old claim of "No swans are black."  Prior to their discovery in the 17th century, Europeans thought they did not exist.  So the assumption was:

  1. Nothing in the Past demonstrates Black Swans exist.
  2. Therefore we cannot know black swans exist.

The problem is: our lack of knowledge does not mean that nobody can know they exist.  If we see a white swan, it is reasonable to say "This swan is not black."  It is not reasonable to say either "no black swans exist" or "we cannot know that black swans exist."  Such an assertion is limited by geography and experience.  In fact, once black swans were discovered, it was no longer reasonable to deny that black swans existed or to claim that knowledge of black swans could not be known

So to base the possibility to know based on what has been known in the past is to make an assertion which is necessary limited, and if it is too limited, cannot be considered reliable.

This is why just because one, two, ten, a hundred claims to knowledge does not satisfy a person as being adequate, it does not follow that no claims to know are true or can be known.


The difference between agnosticism and saying "I do not know" is a difference between making a declaration of knowledge in general and one who admits one's own deficiency.  The Agnostic says "I cannot know… and neither can you!"  The person who says "I do not know" but does not assume his lack of knowledge is shared by all.

Of course not all agnostics are arrogant.  Some are sincere, but become frustrated by their lack of progress and can end up saying "I tried, I can't get anywhere.  It can't be known."  (Former atheist Jennifer Fulwiler describes hitting this wall in her testimony).  To such a person, I would hope to encourage by saying that just because one hits a wall does not mean there is no way around it.  I won't claim it is easy to find the answers, and I know it can be frustrating not to have an answer one can understand.

However, the ultimate defeat comes not from not knowing but from giving up and stopping the search all together.

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