Why absolute agnosticism about a theistic god is incoherent
Below, I formulate a - possibly traditional - analytical argument
against absolute or 'strong' agnosticism about the existence or
non-existence of a theistic creator-god.
Let me explain what I mean by
By absolute or strong agnosticism, I mean an agnosticism
which claims that it is in principle absolutely impossible to know
whether there is a theistic god.
By a theistic god I understand a
divine creator of the order in the physical world, of life and of mankind.
It is not necessary for the purpose of this definition that such a god has
created everything out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), but the
natural laws by which the physical world, life or people function and
interact must have been divinely created.
Here is my
- 1. A theistic god is a god who makes 'all the
difference in the world' for reality. Without such a god, according to
(strong) theism, the order and nature of this world would not exist. (In
this sense, a deistic god is identical to a theistic god.) Theism in the
strong sense of an assertion that there is a creator, is not just about
parts of the world that would be beyond the reach of human knowledge, but
it is first and foremost a theory about the origins of manifest, everyday
reality knowable to man.
- 2. A world that is not created by a
theistic god must be very different - in a knowable, manifest way - from a
world that is created by a theistic god. The difference between a created
and a non-created world cannot be reduced to the mere fact that the first
world is created and the second one is not. There must be differences in
manifest and knowable characteristics between a divinely created and a
non-created world. It is out of the question that there is only one
difference, consisting of the fact that a world is or is not created,
without any consequences for any other knowable characteristics of a
world. Thus, the differences between both hypothetical types of worlds
must have consequences for the empirical (intersubjective or
introspective) data about knowable reality, ranging from physical,
chemical and biological data to psychological and parapsychological data.
- 3. It might be (very) difficult to know whether this
world was created by a theistic god or not, because of a lack of insight
into what would count as manifest characteristics which show that this
world was created by a god. However, it is certain that there are
such characteristics, as a world that was created by a theistic god must
by definition (see axiom 1) be fundamentally different in a knowable
manner from a world that was not created by a theistic god (see axiom 2).
It is a priori (through the definition of a theistic god) unthinkable that
a world created by a theistic god would in all respects (except for the
mere fact of having been created) (see axiom 2) be completely identical to
a world that would not have been created by such a god.
Absolute or strong agnosticism claims that it is in principle impossible
to know whether there is a theistic god or not, i.e. that man cannot ever
discover any solid evidence that this world was created or not by a
- 5. Thus, absolute agnosticism is incoherent,
because it claims that it is in principle impossible to know whether the
natural order was created by a theistic god or not. A natural order
created by a theistic god is by definition fundamentally different from a
non-created world (axiom 2). Therefore, theistic creation implies a
knowable order that can in principle be clearly distinguished from
a non-created order. Absolute agnosticism therefore claims that it is in
principle impossible to know whether there is a theistic god, whereas a
theistic god is a god whose existence is by definition knowable in
principle through knowable aspects of his creation. More formally,
absolute agnosticism boils down to the following implicit propositions:
I. We cannot in principle know of the existence of a theistic
II. A theistic god is a being whose existence can in principle be
Which may be translated as:
I. A theistic
god is a being whose existence cannot in principle be known.
theistic god is a being whose existence can in principle be
Either there is a theistic divinity, and then we can in
principle know its existence, or there is not. But there cannot be a god
whose existence can and at the same time cannot in principle
be known by us. Agnosticism in the strong sense is logically incompatible
with the notion of a theistic god. It is no use replacing the original
notion of a knowable theistic god by that of a theistic god whose
existence could not be known through the creation attributable to this
god. This amounts to putting up a straw man. Agnosticism in its absolute,
strong version may only claim any meaning if it is a position about the
knowability of the existence of a theistic creator as defined by theism.
- 6. In principle, theism can certainly be shown to be right or
wrong because of the definition of a theistic god (axiom 1). It is
untenable to claim that we have no choice but to remain absolute agnostics
about a theistic god.
It is acceptable to claim that one does not
know yet who is right (weak agnosticism), but absolute, strong
agnosticism simply overlooks the fact that a theistic god would - by
definition - create something very different from what would arise all by
itself, without divine creation. More relevantly, that such a god would
create something knowably (recognizably) different.
Also see: What if we find no
evidence for a theistic creation?
wish to thank Chris Canter for his useful comments.