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Saturday, July 9th 2016


The Dogmatic Agnostic


T. H. Huxley

"Agnosticism" was a word invented by T. H. Huxley (1825-95) to describe his attitude that he did not know whether there is a God. He took the label of the ancient movement called Gnosticism, whose members prided themselves on their esoteric knowledge, and put an a in front of it, taking pride in what he claimed he didn't know. It was also Albert Einstein's favorite label for his religious outlook, as much as I can make out.

I'm going to repeat a few thoughts here that I brought up in No Doubt About It, 88-89. There are two (or more) ways of construing the term "agnostic": constructive and destructive.

An atheist who reviewed the book a number of years ago really took offense at my using the terms "benign" and "malignant." I hope that by now he has gotten over it, though the words are not inappropriate. Bottom line: the constructive form of agnosticism can lead to a growth in faith; the destructive one is irrational and can lead to a person's spiritual death.

Constructive agnosticism can be summarized with the statement, "I don't know if God exists." Well, if you don't, then you don't. For many people coming to this realization is the best thing that ever happened to them. Someone may recognize that this issue is a whole lot more important than, say, whether Pluto is a planet, and start to search for an answer. That's a good thing. For some young people who have grown up within a Christian environment, it can even be a necessary step to make the faith with which they have grown up their own.

However, frequently people use the language of "I don't know" when they really mean "you can't know" or "nobody can know." At that point the agnosticism has become destructive and does not really differ from atheism for all practical purposes. Someone claiming this view must assume that all possible ways of knowing about God have been tried and failed, and, furthermore, that he or she has personal knowledge of all of these tests and their outcomes. This is, of course, not possible. That's why I said that destructive agnosticism is irrational. It presumes an omniscience, which has not been granted to any human being.

Here's the third YouTube video, this one is about Albert Einstein's religion.

There also is a separate Wikipedia article on the religious views of Albert Einstein. It does, indeed, take a lengthy article to compile all the relevant information, and I'm just going to give you a few highlights. The video, some internet sites, and biographical accounts in books are my main sources. I'm just using Einstein as an example and not pretending to put forward a full biography.

1. Einstein called himself an agnostic. I appears to me that many times his use of the term was a genuine expression of humility. He never failed to acknowledge his limits and the limits on knowledge that all human beings share--even when he was simultaneously trespassing them.

2. This humility is one reason why Einstein eschewed atheism and did not have kind words for those who promoted that position. He saw atheism as a destructive world view that robbed people of the transcendence that human beings need.

3. Einstein definitely did not believe in a personal God, including what he thought was the God of the Bible. There was no shortage of people who held that fact against him, as though he had a greater obligation to believe in God than other people. Incredibly, there were prominent Christians who exhorted him that, since he was Jewish, he was giving Judaism a bad name by not accepting the God of the Old Testament. But Einstein, much like Kaku now, was not open to a "God of Intervention." He considered the idea of a personal God, as found in Judaism and Christianity, a childish fantasy used to instill fear in people so as to make them behave. Einstein had some Christian teachings as a part of his early education, and, for all that I know, his teachers at that time may have been using God as a bogey man figure to frighten children into being good. Needless to say (I hope), we're once again looking at a caricature of the biblical God, and--as far as I can tell with my very limited research--he never pursued educating himself further on a more mature understanding of God. Once he was done with it, all that was left was a patronizing smile from his allegedly more rational point of view.

4. Apparently there were several occasions when some media outlet declared that Einstein believed in a personal God, and these reports made him furious.

5. As mentioned in the last entry, Einstein frequently averred a particular preference for the pantheistic God, as described by Spinoza. Let me just reiterate that his admiration of Spinoza's view requires the romantic glasses through which Spinoza was being read starting in the early 19th century. The things that intrigued Einstein about the universe and the possibility of some kind of a deity are the very things that Spinoza reduced to a flat, undifferentiated monism. To be sure, Spinoza's God was rational and orderly, but the beauty and elegance that mesmerized Einstein are not found in Spinoza's Ethics.

6. Just as we saw with Kaku, it is a whole lot easier to compile what Einstein did not believe than what he did believe. As soon as we try to look more closely at the positive side, we see expectations, beginnings, and inconsistencies without resolution. Here are two quotes that I took out of the Wikipedia article. This is the first one:

"God is a mystery. But a comprehensible mystery. I have nothing but awe when I observe the laws of nature. There are not laws without a lawgiver, but how does this lawgiver look? Certainly not like a man magnified."

Einstein is in awe of the laws of nature, an attitude we should applaud. He goes one step further and asserts that these are laws that must have been legislated by a lawgiver. Once again, we're running up against a highly unusual understanding of the laws of nature, at least as it shows up in the phrasing. The laws of nature are not commandments given by God in the way a government makes laws for its citizens. To repeat something I said earlier, the laws of nature are descriptions and perhaps statistical generalizations. Some of them appear to us to be ironclad and unrevisable. They are discovered by people working in the sciences. So, the idea of a prescriptive divine Lawmaker is somewhat odd for the laws of nature, and it was probably not what Einstein was really saying. I think we can agree that what Einstein meant was that the law of nature are such that one is driven to see an intentionality underneath them.  But please note also that Einstein overstepped his professed agnosticism in this statement. He ruled out any anthropomorphic understanding of God, but then he must know something about the one who is beyond our knowledge. If he is truly in the dark about God, then he is not in a position to set up rules as to God's true nature.

This point is important because the descriptions of God that Einstein called "anthropomorphisms" are the attributes of God that lead us to understand him as a personal being. From time to time Einstein used anthropomorphic language about God as well.

Der liebe Gott würfelt nicht.
"God does not play with dice."

Does that assertion mean that Einstein pictured God as a person with hands who performs various actions, but refuses to roll a pair of dice. Of course not. Einstein was using an anthropomorphic image to make a greater point about a being that does not literally have hands or could be tempted to entertain himself with dice. And that is the proper method for understanding the Christian notion of a personal God as well. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Our language is limited by our earthly environment, and we cannot express what God has revealed to us about himself without using terms from a finite context and applying them to the infinite. (Some of the best philosophers of religion place the language of religion under the technical label of "analogy.") No, God is not a magnified human being, as the atheist Ludwig Feuerbach proclaimed in his Essence of Christianity. But the only way in which we can talk about God is with human language. The alternatives are either to say nothing at all or to utter something meaningless. Einstein did not choose the former option, and his dictates about the nature of God seem short on meaning. One simply cannot declare the ineffable, let alone make up rules for it.

7. We see the same confusion in the second quotation:

A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms — it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

I am reminded of the controversy of thirty or so years ago with regard to the work of art produced by Andres Serrano. I'm not going to describe it here because the details don't matter. Suffice it to say, it was rightly considered blasphemous and offensive by Christians, particularly Roman Catholics. However, I ran across one review [Art News 89 (April 1990):163], in which the author defended Serrano. Specifically he said that critics were misunderstanding him; he was not an opponent of religion. In fact, he was a deeply spiritual man who was devoted to a religion focused on bodily fluids. That case certainly is crassly different from Einstein and his beliefs, but the same logic appears to be at work. Whatever Einstein declares to be a religion, regardless of whether it violates any reasonable understanding of religion, is a religion.

religion ≡ whatever Einstein declares to be a religion (def)

Einstein confesses to the existence of something that is almost entirely inconceivable and ineffable. That recognition makes him a deeply religious man, he claims. Once more we are allowed only a scanty look, and the picture can't be filled in because there isn't even a sufficient outline. All we have is a vague apperception that overwhelms us as we study the cosmos. If that's sufficient to be called a religion, then Einstein was, indeed, a deeply religious person. I must admit, however, that I think we're looking at something extremely thin here.

So what? someone may respond. If Einstein was content with that description as his "religion," why is that my concern? Why am I picking on Einstein (and on Michio Kaku earlier)?

If you are asking that question, please read that quotation again and take cognizance of the claim that he is describing the "truly religious attitude." Albert Einstein is not just asserting that this recognition of something beyond is a religion in its own right; he is making an exclusive claim for its truth and superiority. Consequently, that quote does challenge us to interact with it. I cannot help but see Einstein asking the world to emulate his own highly underdeveloped notion of spirituality, inspired by reason but beyond rationality.

I'm going to add one more statement that is going to come across as pretty harsh, I'm afraid. One could say that, even taking all of the above into account, we should pay greater attention to what Einstein is saying in the realm of religion and philosophy because he was, after all, such a wise person. At least some of my present readers will remember that in many ways I am a great fan of Einstein, and I'm enamored with his theories--even though he was wrong at times. It's easy to second-guess his contributions to the Manhattan Project, which for a time broke his life-long pacifism, and I can't judge him on that in either direction. But whatever else Albert Einstein was, he was not a man of wisdom. He was very intelligent and well-spoken, and it would be absurd for me or anyone else to diminish the contributions he has made. Unfortunately, those attributes alone do not make for wisdom. Wisdom includes the application of knowledge in one's life. An extremely smart person may make some terribly unwise decisions, and a biography of Einstein will disclose to you pretty quickly that he was a man with some serious faults.

Yes, yes, we all have serious faults, but we're not asking to be given an exemption in order to be considered prophets of an irrational mysticism. One other item that Einstein stressed frequently was that the God who legislated the laws of nature did not legislate morality and that morality was a purely human creation. Sadly, his life confirmed  that his pseudo-religion did not impact his personal conduct.

Oh, how I wish he had seen the Creator's hand within creation!

Next time: Back to the Golden Ratio!

2 Comment(s).

Posted by Winfried Corduan:

Thanks, Steve! Good quote. If anyone should know Einstein, it would be Gödel, considering that they walked home together most every evening in Princeton.
Saturday, July 9th 2016 @ 14:07

Posted by steve hays:

According to Hao Wang, "There is a sense in which both men could be seen as religious, but Einstein spoke of accepting Spinoza's pantheism, while Gödel called himself a theist, following Leibniz. (In 1951 Gödel said of Einstein, "He is undoubtedly in some sense religious, but certainly not in the sense of the church.")" H. Wang, A Logical Journey: From Gödel to Philosophy (MIT Press; a Bradford Book, 1997), 58.
Saturday, July 9th 2016 @ 1:48