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I have heard and used agnostic to denote "uncaring". I was recently corrected on my usage of the word which got me thinking. What word should I use? Uncaring seems incorrect.

Some examples:

  • This new applesauce recipe is truly apple agnostic.
    Meaning it tastes great with any apple cultivar.
  • My new computer backup tool is OS agnostic.
    Meaning the tool works on any computer regardless of which operating system is running/installed.
  • The study on american morality is God agnostic.
    Meaning the study draws its conclusions without making a statement about the existence of God.

The meaning seems to be that something continues to function with disregard to a particular attribute or detail.

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5  
I definitely would not say "uncaring" is a synonym for "agnostic." Uncaring usually implies a value judgment--emotionally detached or lacking fellow-feeling--and is not the same as "doesn't care" which is probably more what you mean when you use "agnostic." –  bikeboy389 Feb 16 '11 at 18:21
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“agnostic” means “[to] not know”. A computer tool is OS agnostic if it makes no assumptions (= it isn’t burdened with knowledge of) the OS. The first example makes use of the same transferred sense. The third usage is borderline incorrect (IHMO) because in the context of god, “agnostic” has a well-defined meaning (the philosophical position that we cannot or do not know whether there’s a god) which is in conflict with the usage here and may lead to misunderstandings. –  Konrad Rudolph Feb 16 '11 at 19:31
    
@Konrad, I agree. In practice I wouldn't use agnostic in that manner with religious subject matter. I purposely added that example at the end to provide maximum contrast with its conventional meaning and my intended meaning. –  deft_code Feb 16 '11 at 23:07
    
The word to use for 'uncaring' or 'not caring' is apathetic. As @RolandTumble points out in the answer below, 'agnostic' literally means 'without knowledge'. This is why agnostic is used in technical descriptions like 'platform agnostic'--it means the tool does not have (or necessarily need) knowledge about the platform. –  oosterwal Feb 17 '11 at 1:42
    
Language is about communication, if your intended meaning is understood and there is no agreed rule or term then I would consider it correct. @rolandtumble 's answer stated the Greek derivation gives me the impression it feels correct and I found myself using the word naturally just today in fact which I think can be a true test of whether language is 'correct'. –  CodeBlend Apr 9 '13 at 17:09

5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The word has roots in theological or spiritual matters, specifically that the existence of God is unknown or unknowable.

In technical and marketing literature, agnostic often has a meaning close to independent—for example, "platform agnostic" or "hardware agnostic."1 The implication is that the property specified does not affect the object in question.

Another alternative for the latter meaning could be uninfluenced or unaffected.

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Independent is very close to a single word replacement for agnostic. –  deft_code Feb 16 '11 at 23:16
    
@deft_code: +1 Independent is close. But if you say The backup tool is OS independent, to me it sounds like the backup tool will work even without an OS. –  Tragicomic Feb 17 '11 at 7:52
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@Tragicomic: One could make same argument about OS agnostic. e.g. To be truly agnostic the software would have to work without an OS. –  deft_code Feb 17 '11 at 19:26

The best I can come up with is indifferent or immaterial, although it would require changing the structure of your sentences a bit.

  • This new applesauce recipe is indifferent to apple variety used.
  • My new computer backup tool is indifferent to OS.
  • The study on american morality is indifferent to whether God exists.
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I would say "does not depend on".

These phrases

  • This new applesauce recipe is truly apple agnostic.
  • My new computer backup tool is OS agnostic.
  • The study on American morality is God agnostic.

would then mean:

  • The recipe does not depend on the type of apples.
  • The backup tool does not depend on the computer's OS
  • The study does not depend on (the existence of or type of) God

Often in a faith context, the meaning is slightly different. An agnostic person is undecided on the existence of God.

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Unfortunately, "does not depend on" doesn't roll off the tongue like agnostic. Further, agnostic allows for a more intuitive word flow. e.g. "This applesauce recipe is ...", delicious, easy, unique, cultivar agnostic, etc. –  deft_code Feb 16 '11 at 23:11

You've extended the phrase "platform agnostic" (a computing term) beyond its boundaries. In the case of platform-agnostic software, it's not so much that the software doesn't care about the host operating system or the underlying architecture, but that it can remain blissfully unaware of it. There is another system (for instance, the Java virtual machine) abstracting away all of the program's access to the hardware and so forth, so the program does not have to "believe in" any particular platform or know the true nature of it if one exists. The program, then, is analogous to an agnostic to whom the world would look just about the way it does right now whether or not there is a God.

The applesauce in your first example likely does need to "believe" in the existence of apples -- otherwise it's just a sauce.

Addendum:

(For some reason I can't add a comment today -- did the whole flushing of cache thing, but still no Ajaxy goodness.)

The question presupposes the existence of a single word that can be dropped into the place vacated by the deletion of "agnostic". There is no single English word in common usage that can fulfill that role, since this particular usage of the word "agnostic" was introduced into the language in a fully grammaticalized form at its coinage. Within the tiny world of computer programmers, it makes a degree of sense (even if it is wrong), but it takes the place of several entire phrases.

The word "indifferent" has been proposed, but denotation is not enough. A century or more back in time it might have made sense, but "indifferent" has since taken on a connotation of "apathy" rather than "universality" or "inclusive". There are other single words that have a similar meaning in limited technical realms, like "non-specific", but they don't fit into a more general context and are as likely to be misinterpreted as "indifferent".

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I think you've got it. Professionally, I'm a software engineer. I suspect our usage of agnostic is indeed an extension of platform-agnostic. –  deft_code Feb 16 '11 at 19:19
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Good points, but this doesn't answer the question of what word to use. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Feb 16 '11 at 23:07
    
"Blissfully unaware" is a beautiful way to put it. I was trying to justify the use of the phrase "scenario agnostic" to describe an approach or solution that is not only robust to the scenarios in question, but is effectual with no knowledge of which one it is operating in. –  Adam Wuerl Jan 9 '12 at 1:48

As indicated by Stan Rogers and computermacgyver, "agnostic" originally had a very specific meaning: "A person who is undecided, or refuses to take a position on, whether or not God exists". It comes from the prefix "a-" (without) and the Greek "gnosis" (knowledge, specifically of sacredness). Contrast "atheist", meaning, loosely, "one who is without God" (some wags even define an agnostic as "a chickens**t atheist").

It was then co-opted by computer engineers into "platform-agnostic", not knowing anything about the underlying system (thanks again, Stan). In the process it morphed from a noun to an adjective, but it at least retained the implication of lack of knowledge. From there it's been applied more broadly (and, in my view, incorrectly).

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+1 applied correctly given the derivation bar the sacred bit... Although I could my computer is more sacred to me than God since I am agnostic in that sense –  CodeBlend Apr 9 '13 at 17:07

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