Agnosticism–A Fragment
T. H. Huxley
[HP 47.148]

As I have taken some pains to point out in one of the following essays agnosticism has no creed–in the sense of a statement or conclusions either positive or negative, which the agnostic must hold. It is the method [into] the cause of belief, which[sic] marks the true agnostic, not the results of the intellectual operation conducted according to that method. Nevertheless, I think it probable that a large proportion of those who have adopted the method and have taken the trouble to apply it to the study of natural and civil history will agree with me that there are certain positive propositions of great importance, which may be regarded as so well founded that no serious objections can be brought against them.

For example, no one now questions that very modern result of mathematical and physical reasonings that the material universe exhibits no indication of a limit either in space or in duration–the distance from us to the nearest fixed star is demonstrably so vast that our minds cannot really conceive it–but every improvement of the means of observation brings more and more distant bodies of the same kind into view–each of them a world in course of development or retrogression hanging out its light signal in the ocean of infinity–as in a dark night a glancing spark far at sea tells us of a great ship with all its machinery and cargo going forth or returning to port.

Our sun is to the stellar people if such there be, just such a twinkling speck as theirs to us–But this earth on which we and our fortunes are embarked, is but a millionth part of that speck in volume–while the bulk of each man of us is a fraction of that of the earth–so small as to be hardly expressible–but let any one familiar with the alpine world–think of the small black specks creeping toilsomely among the snow, which his telescope has told him are men making a daring ascent which may end in their sudden ruin by a puff of loose snow–and then let him consider that a tenth of an inch elevation from the general surface of a two foot globe would represent on a true scale the relative height of the grandest elevation of an European peak and glacier world.

On the other hand, consider that there are independent living things not more than 1/1,000,000 of an inch in diameter–that is to say not more than 6 or 7 times larger in proportion to us than we are to the Earth and that there is reason to think the minutest separate particles of matter are at least a hundred times smaller–and it becomes obvious that as a material object man stands a speck–between two practical infinities–the infinitely great and the infinitely little. So as regards duration. The three score and ten years which ordinarily suffice to make us weary for rest–may now and then be lengthened out to beyond a century–but there is no shadow of trustworthy evidence that any son of man ever attained twice the allotted span–untold millions are born and die before they reach three years or three months–and not a second passes that some one does not enter the world and some one leave it–Souls leaving the Earth [unintelligible word] like drops of water from a twisted mop.

But a century bears no more proportion to the duration of the universe than the stature of Goliath to the magnitude of the earth. The records of Egyptian civilization go back at least five thousand years–and however vague the absolute determinata may be the relative duration marked by the records of life in the stratified rocks is enormously greater–And everything now tends to the conclusion that this vast period of terrestrial life duration, is but a fraction of that of the earth since it took shape as a definite satellite of the sun–and that this again is wholly insignificant in relation to the duration of the universe.

And on the other hand, there is every ground for assuming and none for denying, that the future is, to our faculties, as practically limitless as the past. Our life is a movement between an infinite past and an infinite future. Further there is a constantly increasing body of evidence that as far as we can penetrate the realm of space or divine the course of things in past time the phenomena of the universe have been related in a definite way and have constituted an orderly procession of events–in which chance has had as little place as any intervention from without.

And we can discern enough of the character of the process of constant orderly change–as to be justified in the belief that it is a process of evolution. Through preceeding endless past times and through the practically endless expanse of space–the substance of the Universe has had in innumerable localities undergone and is undergoing a process of building up into stellar and planetary systems which again disintegrate and return to the state of raw materials.

We see no indication of either beginning or end to matter and motion–For any thing that appears to the contrary they are eternal and indestructible. The stellar systems are passing local crystallization of the great magma.

Physical man therefore is mere dust in the cosmic machinery–a bubble on the surface of the ocean of things both in magnitude and duration–a bye product of cosmic chemistry–He fits more or less well into this machinery, or it would crush him.–But the machinery has no more special reference to him than to other living beings.


jottings - life arises from life - conditions under which transition took place - existence of phen. of consciousness - all groups of men have languages - order of universe cannot be altered by prayer



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden