Albert Einstein the Agnostic

Albert Einstein was one of the most intelligent people to ever exist on this planet and he described himself as an agnostic. Here are his own words on the subject of God, atheism, and agnosticism:

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and our own being.

 

Sincerely Yours,

Albert Einstein

 

Albert Einstein Agnostic Letter
Albert Einstein Agnostic Letter

Agnostic in the Middle?

Agnosticism isn’t a middle ground between theism and atheism. Theism is the umbrella term for faith-based belief systems such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, deism, and pantheism. Atheism is lacking belief in those belief systems. Agnosticism is concerned with our lack of knowledge about gods and supernatural causes for this universe.

agnosticatheist

comic from stanleycolors.com

I often feel like I’m stuck in the middle of belief and disbelief even though I’m on the side of disbelief as a de facto atheist. I’m criticized by both sides since I primarily define myself by our collective knowledge instead of what I believe today. I just don’t think anyone’s belief position is as important as our views of knowledge.

Sure, agnosticism means holding the creation question open to a certain extent. I have no problem doing that while rejecting the current set of theisms. We should continuously judge available information for anything that rises to the standards of knowledge as verifiable truths. In practical terms, an agnostic should come to an atheist conclusion on a daily basis even though we may not view atheism as the final answer.

Theism isn’t a final set of described beliefs so how can atheism be a final answer? One day we may finally understand some grand truth not currently dreamt of in our philosophies. Applying ignosticism to a scientifically researched variation of pantheism might give us a universal truth about some sort of universal intelligence. I don’t think it’s very likely, but the truth for me in agnosticism tells me it’s still a possibility.

If the universe itself is our creator then it could have used an intellect flowing through energy in a way we may never understand. I’m just a simple human but it’s the kind of idea where I say “sure, maybe there’s something to The Force in Star Wars and George Lucas might be a true prophet.” I’m mostly joking about The Force, but there’s something about the idea that just feels right even though it’s probably an illusion of my simple human senses. I know I don’t have faith enough to become a Jedi.

I don’t have the intellect or senses to know how all of existence simply came to be if it didn’t always exist. There’s new evidence that points to existence without a beginning. See No Big Bang? Quantum equation predicts universe has no beginning at phys.org. If this can be proven then hopefully the whole theism/atheism scale disappears in a puff of logic. Atheism isn’t needed without theism. We could still have agnosticism as long as humanity isn’t omniscient.

Back on topic, I still feel stuck in the middle because other people try to tell me I’m not believing or disbelieving correctly. People criticize agnosticism despite the evidence that we’re all just making it all up in the absence of verifiable truths. I can understand theist criticisms since they rarely deal in verifiable truths but atheist criticisms are confusing since there isn’t atheist dogma for me to violate.

Some theists argue with me that they know things about god or an intelligent creator through their faith and I should accept this unproven knowledge they’ve gained. They think I’m more open-minded than self-identified atheists even though I don’t share in their theism either. I’m still an unbeliever, infidel, and heretic but they sometimes get surprised and upset when I won’t see their truth.

On the other side, some atheists try to argue agnosticism is useless so I should fully embrace atheism. They push atheism as an obvious final answer since the current major theism of their focus is unproven. They insist we should define ourselves based on our rejection of other people’s specific beliefs. They say nobody can justifiably call themselves agnostic and sometimes get upset when I won’t see their truth. Would this be an atheist attempt at dogma?

Anyway here’s some examples of “Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you” starting with one of the most polite exchanges I’ve had on Twitter with a believer:

‏@lcorbo13  Being in a pitch black room does not mean it is empty. It means U simply can’t see anything. #Catholic #Christian #atheist #agnostic

‏@AgnosticU  “Being in a pitch black room does not mean it is empty. It means U simply can’t see anything” or know it’s empty or not #agnostic

@lcorbo13  Thats why you walk around and search the room rather sit in a corner and keep asking yourself if it is empty or not..

@AgnosticU  Very true, but what if simple us lack the right senses to experience what could be? We may not be equipped to ever understand…

@lcorbo13  U are trying to come up with any solution that eliminates the OPTION of God.

@AgnosticU  God is a specific concept requiring great leaps of imagination and faith. Universe as creator is possible but intellect unknowable

@lcorbo13  U R making assumptions…. If U say God is imagination and that is a fact U share a burden of proof too.

@AgnosticU  I didn’t invent human definitions of “God” so I don’t share in a burden of proof for the unlikely beings described by others

@lcorbo13  I deflect…have a good day..Peace to you

@AgnosticU  have a good life and peace to you as well 🙂

Here’s a recent exchange with an atheist claiming people shouldn’t call themselves agnostic. It wasn’t directed specifically at me but I answered the general criticism:

‏@Zohso  Stop calling yourself agnostic. Everyone’s #agnostic. The question becomes, “What do you believe?” #atheism #Christianity

‏@AgnosticU  Everyone isn’t #agnostic. Believers make knowledge claims of gods & say their faith is proof. #agnosticism says knowledge > belief

‏@Zohso  the guy in the asylum also talks to elves. Just because someone CLAIMS something doesn’t make it so. Default: Christian=agnostic

@AgnosticU  We know they don’t know, but they seldom identify as agnostic which is often a first step for switching to knowledge to find truth.

@Zohso  but see, agnosticism is NOT a middle ground somewhere between belief and disbelief. It’s a position of knowledge. #epistemology

‏@AgnosticU  Agree agnosticism isn’t middle ground. Truth about knowledge is much more important than beliefs/disbeliefs so I emphasize agnostic

@Zohso Let’s first establish we’re both using the same definition of “agnostic.” Is this definition the same? http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/agnostic

‏@AgnosticU  Our definition of agnostic (noun) is same. Most religious people don’t claim to be agnostic and believe ancient books are knowledge.

@AgnosticU  atheism helps very few people see truth about knowledge, #agnosticism helps show the folly of blind faith beliefs

@Zohso  again, everyone is agnostic. Someone’s belief can either be theistic or atheistic. There is no middle ground. It’s binary.

‏@AgnosticU  Not everyone describes themselves as agnostic. Religious don’t care about knowledge. Atheistic agnostic with emphasis on agnosticism.

‏@Zohso  I think @pennjillette gives one of the best descriptions in the first couple of minutes in this interview. http://youtu.be/4_WKlttKRDw

@AgnosticU  non-theists are both we don’t know/we don’t believe. Both are fine if using one to be short, why deny agnostics can be?

‏@Zohso  That’s completely fine… Just answer the question, “As an agnostic, what do you believe?”

‏@AgnosticU  I don’t believe in any religions, but what we know is the better question. atheistic agnostic

This is a recent conversation so it may continue but I doubt anything more meaningful will be said. Penn Jillette is right that we’re both agnostic and atheist depending on the question but we differ in which question we think is more important. @Zohso says we shouldn’t call ourselves agnostic because he thinks we’re better defined in terms of what other people believe. For me, that gives more legitimacy to those human defined beliefs to only define ourselves as a rejection of them.

The same logic that we shouldn’t call ourselves agnostic could be used against humanists. Humanists put their own focus and emphasis on humanism even though they’re also de facto atheists. I’m a bit of a humanist so maybe I’m an agnostic atheist humanist. It’s too many terms so I pick the one that means the most to me.

You could go even further and say human defined theisms are unproven and false so everyone is atheist. Saying there are no true theists means they should just admit the truth and call themselves atheist. See how silly it can get when you try to force definitions on other people?

This is what happens when you concern yourself a bit too much with what other people believe and call themselves. I could see an issue if I tried to redefine the terms but I used the commonly agreed upon definitions. I just try to focus on agnosticism as my core viewpoint, but for some reason there are people that just won’t let agnostics self-identify as such based on historical agnosticism. Please just let agnostics exist if that’s what we feel like using as our label. It doesn’t impact your viewpoint.

Both religious and disbelief viewpoints are capable of being stupid and unreasonable in the areas where we lack specific knowledge to support our views. It’s yet another thing that makes me see agnosticism as the right fit for me. We just don’t KNOW and what’s so bad about proclaiming that viewpoint?

The Last Question

It’s interesting how ideas flow around and echo off each other. I had read Scott Adam’s God’s Debris in the past decade and wrote about it here before. I completely forgot about a somewhat similar short story from Isaac Asimov called The Last Question. I must have read it as a Christian teenager since I read most everything from him at that point of my life. I saw this story referenced today on Reddit and now I’ve read it again after losing my Christianity. I think I need to reread Asimov with fresh agnostic eyes because it gave some new meaning to the story for me.

Both stories describe the collective intellect of the universe as the intellectual spark for it’s own existence. Both are beautiful examples of plausible reasons for the universe existing if there is a reason. The universe doesn’t require a reason to exist but it is interesting to contemplate some possible reasons. I find these sorts of stories more compelling and believable than the primitive religions and mythologies of our ancestors. No story should be believed just because it’s somewhat plausible. All of the various fictions from science and religion are excellent food for thought for open-minded agnostics searching for reason in chaos.

On this same day I happened to watch a documentary about Stephen Hawking including his theory of the Big Bang from a singularity. I can imagine the singularity being placed more directly into the end of Asimov’s story after having just read it again. Entropy had to reach it’s chaotic end for it to be reversed by the universe’s collective consciousness surviving in hyperspace in the story. The collective intellect of everything figured out how to recreate itself in an endlessly pulsating existence of entropy and chaos. Sure, it’s just science fiction but I think it’s an interesting fable better than any of the popular religions I see around me. I guess I’m just weird like that.

This story is currently living on the Internet at Multivax.com. I can imagine an artificial intelligence taking in these stories in the future and working through the logic to see if they could become a reality. I asked God many questions when I was a believer and God never answered. Google answers all kinds of questions for me now so I trust the wisdom of the Internet over the wisdom of ancient text. You can ask Multivax how to reverse entropy and it currently answers just like in the story:

There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer

Is it a sign that one day it will say “let there be light” like Asimov’s prophecy predicts? 🙂 I jest, but there’s bits of truth in fiction and humor. If religious people can selectively pick out their bits of truth in religious texts then why can’t I pick out truth as revealed to us in science fiction?

There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer. IInsufficient data for meaningful answert’s an appropriate answer for many questions that religions claim to answer. Why do we exist? How did it come to be? What is outside of or before this universe? What is my purpose for living? We don’t have the simple answers so we should keep collecting data.

There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer. Perhaps this should be an agnostic’s mantra.

Hawkings and many other brilliant minds are collecting the right kind of impartial data to answer the grand questions. Asimov and other imaginative minds contribute additional considerations to spark our curiosities and expand our thinking. Hawkings and Asimov are more inspirational teachers of possible truths than any religious teachers I’ve ever encountered.

Eventually we may know enough and think big enough to some day understand existence. Perhaps, through a universal awareness and understanding, we could in the end create our own existence in the beginning. It’s not really that strange of a notion to consider infinite time and space folding back on itself so the end is the beginning is the end. It’s an interesting thought and one of the many reasons I’m happy to simply call myself agnostic to describe the limits of our human knowledge.

 

What Came Before The Big Bang?

There’s an interesting article about What Came Before The Big Bang? written by physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies. I believe as an agnostic that we don’t have the final answer to this question. This article tackles the question of a first origin and if the concept of a first origin is valid. Science works to prove an answer and honestly weighs in as undecided where religion claims a supernatural answer. This is what Paul Davies opens with:

Can science explain how the universe began? Even suggestions to that effect have provoked an angry and passionate response from many quarters. Religious people tend to see the claim as a move to finally abolish God the Creator. Atheists are equally alarmed, because the notion of the universe coming into being from nothing looks suspiciously like the creation, ex nihilo, of Christianity.

Personally, it makes the most sense for me to believe that matter and energy is eternal. This possibility is touched on later but here’s Paul Davies’ explanation for why an eternal universe is problematic based on what we know of inside this universe.

The first point to address is why anyone believes the universe began at a finite moment in time. How do we know that it hasn’t simply been around for ever? Most cosmologists reject this alternative because of the severe problem of the second law of thermodynamics. Applied to the universe as a whole, this law states that the cosmos is on a one-way slide toward a state of maximum disorder, or entropy. Irreversible changes, such as the gradual consumption of fuel by the sun and stars, ensure that the universe must eventually “run down” and exhaust its supplies of useful energy. It follows that the universe cannot have been drawing on this finite stock of useful energy for all eternity.

It goes on to explain the Big Bang to reach this main point:

The key feature of the theory of relativity is that space and time are part of the physical universe, and not merely an unexplained background arena in which the universe happens. Hence the origin of the physical universe must involve the origin of space and time too…
Once this idea is accepted, it is immediately obvious that the question “What happened before the big bang?” is meaningless. There was no such epoch as “before the big bang,” because time began with the big bang. Unfortunately, the question is often answered with the bald statement “There was nothing before the big bang,” and this has caused yet more misunderstandings. Many people interpret “nothing” in this context to mean empty space, but as I have been at pains to point out, space simply did not exist prior to the big bang… …It is not merely physically, but also logically, non-existent. So too with the epoch before the big bang.

The article hits the real meat of the matter for the lack of a first cause with the big bang. It does make some sense but is ultimately dissatisfying compared to the mystery of existence and the ability for anything to exist at all coming from a nothing void.

In my experience, people get very upset when told this. They think they have been tricked, verbally or logically. They suspect that scientists can’t explain the ultimate origin of the universe and are resorting to obscure and dubious concepts like the origin of time merely to befuddle their detractors. The mindset behind such outraged objection is understandable: our brains are hardwired for us to think in terms of cause and effect. Because normal physical causation takes place within time, with effect following cause, there is a natural tendency to envisage a chain of causation stretching back in time, either without any beginning, or else terminating in a metaphysical First Cause, or Uncaused Cause, or Prime Mover. But cosmologists now invite us to contemplate the origin of the universe as having no prior cause in the normal sense, not because it has an abnormal or supernatural prior cause, but because there is simply no prior epoch in which a preceding causative agency — natural or supernatural — can operate.

Nevertheless, cosmologists have not explained the origin of the universe by the simple expedient of abolishing any preceding epoch. After all, why should time and space have suddenly “switched on”? One line of reasoning is that this spontaneous origination of time and space is a natural consequence of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that applies to atoms and subatomic particles, and it is characterized by Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, according to which sudden and unpredictable fluctuations occur in all observable quantities. Quantum fluctuations are not caused by anything — they are genuinely spontaneous and intrinsic to nature at its deepest level…

…one may say quite generally that once space and time are made subject to quantum principles, the possibility immediately arises of space and time “switching on,” or popping into existence, without the need for prior causation, entirely in accordance with the laws of quantum physics.

My instinct and my belief in agnosticism tells me that humans are most likely wrong when they develop a final answer regarding the true nature and origin of existence. I just don’t believe we’re advanced enough to truly understand such things and relate to whatever ultimate truth may exist. Here’s where the article hits on a possibility that resonates with me:

If a big bang is permitted by the laws of physics to happen once, such an event should be able to happen more than once. In recent years a growing posse of cosmologists has proposed models of the universe involving many big bangs, perhaps even an infinite number of them. In the model known as eternal inflation there is no ultimate origin of the entire system, although individual “pocket universes” within the total assemblage still have a distinct origin. The region we have been calling “the universe” is viewed as but one “bubble” of space within an infinite system of bubbles…

Life itself could rise out of an infinite system of bubbles as it fights against the tide of entropy. I believe we exist as a happy accident despite the universe. Everything about our hostile and fragile environment screams to me a truth that we are an accident in the infinite explosions of pocket universes. Paul Davies doesn’t dwell on this and goes on to discuss a singular big bang and the various problems surrounding it including the origin for the laws of physics.

In my view it is the job of physics to explain the world based on lawlike principles. Scientists adopt differing attitudes to the metaphysical problem of how to explain the principles themselves. Some simply shrug and say we must just accept the laws as a brute fact. Others suggest that the laws must be what they are from logical necessity. Yet others propose that there exist many worlds, each with differing laws, and that only a small subset of these universes possess the rather special laws needed if life and reflective beings like ourselves are to emerge. Some skeptics rubbish the entire discussion by claiming that the laws of physics have no real existence anyway — they are merely human inventions designed to help us make sense of the physical world. It is hard to see how the origin of the universe could ever be explained with a view like this.

In my experience, almost all physicists who work on fundamental problems accept that the laws of physics have some kind of independent reality. With that view, it is possible to argue that the laws of physics are logically prior to the universe they describe. That is, the laws of physics stand at the base of a rational explanatory chain, in the same way that the axioms of Euclid stand at the base of the logical scheme we call geometry. Of course, one cannot prove that the laws of physics have to be the starting point of an explanatory scheme, but any attempt to explain the world rationally has to have some starting point, and for most scientists the laws of physics seem a very satisfactory one. In the same way, one need not accept Euclid’s axioms as the starting point of geometry; a set of theorems like Pythagoras’s would do equally well. But the purpose of science (and mathematics) is to explain the world in as simple and economic a fashion as possible, and Euclid’s axioms and the laws of physics are attempts to do just that…

…Although as a consequence of Kurt Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorem of logic, one cannot prove a given set of laws, or mathematical axioms, to be the most compact set possible, one can investigate mathematically whether other logically self-consistent sets of laws exist. One can also determine whether there is anything unusual or special about the set that characterizes the observed universe as opposed to other possible universes. Perhaps the observed laws are in some sense an optimal set, producing maximal richness and diversity of physical forms. It may even be that the existence of life or mind relates in some way to this specialness. These are open questions, but I believe they form a more fruitful meeting ground for science and theology than dwelling on the discredited notion of what happened before the big bang.

The article doesn’t end with any answers other than to say we shouldn’t dwell on what happened before the big bang. Religions say this is the only question that matters and they have the answer. Atheists say religious answers are rubbish. As an agnostic, I agree religious answers aren’t the answer and scientifically speaking the jury’s still out.

Given the choice between an uncaused eternal creator and an uncaused eternal existence for matter and energy, I definitely choose the later. A singular big bang that brought forth matter, energy, time, and space with laws to govern them out of nothing makes no sense to me. Claiming an eternal uncaused being or any other uncaused event caused the big bang doesn’t solve anything. An infinite system of bubbles popping out pocket universes explains how we could rise out of infinity without a specific intelligent cause.

I would suggest we keep looking as long as religions and science both say “poof, we exist” is the cause of it all. I do have this feeling there is more to it… more out there to understand… but I’m fairly certain Christian/Muslim/Hindu/etc. gods didn’t do it. They still make much less sense than the big bang if existence did spring from nothing. All I really know is that we don’t know.

Something from Nothing

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. In order to make progress, one must leave the door for the unknown ajar.” -Richard Feynman, an American physicist known for his work in quantum mechanics and particle physics

I had an interesting conversation with Jamie Tighe (@rankine911) on Twitter. He asserted the ONLY logical answer for the creation of the universe is for it to come from an eternal self-existent being since something can’t come from nothing or itself. The universe requires a creator as a singular intellect based on a human understanding of intelligence since that’s the only logical answer according to him. He dismissed every counterpoint or view I suggested because apparently his logic is perfect and without question. I’m guessing the creator he made in his own image is too.

Regardless, I do agree something can’t come from nothing using the rules of logic within this universe. Something also can’t exist inside nothing if we speak in spatial terms without the time dimension. Logically, the eternal self-existent being violates these rules of “something from or in nothing” since the being is something. This little logic problem is easily overcome by simply calling it supernatural and exempting it from our rules of space, time, and logic. You also have to avoid any discussion about that being actually existing as something. Apparently space or time can’t exist forever but an eternal self-existent being can create those laws along with all matter and energy without a beginning or end to its own intellect and existence. It doesn’t make sense.

On the other hand we have a scientific non-theist view that a Big Bang went poof all by itself and the universe spontaneously came to be from… well, perhaps nothing and without a cause. I don’t buy that one as a final answer either for the same reasons. Namely, what the heck caused it to happen in the first place and what was the spark that ignited the universe into existence? I can’t wrap my simple human mind around nothing suddenly turning into something for no apparent reason, which is why I emphasize my agnosticism over my de facto atheism.

I suggested the only logical thing to me would be that the universe itself is an eternal self-existent thing. The laws of physics and logic would then be eternal laws governing the nature of the eternal everything. I also found some interesting cyclic models that conceptualize an eternal universe with big bangs marking off the aeons in a conformal cyclic cosmology. We don’t fully understand the true nature of everything. These cyclic models just hint at some possible answers and that’s another reason to proclaim my agnosticism. If the universe is an eternal cauldron of “everything” then eventually throughout infinity and the sparks of the big bangs there will rise some finite time periods of order out of the chaos on small scales. Small scale order can evolve into complex order as it fights against the headwind of entropy that exists in everything.

I was told I don’t see the logical errors I’m making so I can’t possibly know what I don’t know nor what others can possibly know. It’s just really hard to get concepts across through Twitter. All of the problems for the universe existing are the same problems for an eternal being existing.

Go ahead and exempt an eternal being from laws of space, time, and logic in this universe. Wouldn’t there be other laws we can’t possibly understand governing how and where that supernatural being operates? If not, then the supernatural being is “all things” and couldn’t just exist as a singular intelligent being (A is not not-A). “Intelligence” and “being” are specific constraints requiring some form of laws governing the ability to possess these traits. The act of creation logically requires governance of the processes used for the universe to be designed and created.

If there’s a supernatural realm outside this natural universe then it’s part of a larger everything including this universe and it’s laws. There wouldn’t be any logic for a singular self-existent thing in the supernatural realm to create this one bit of natural something with space, time, and logic only applying to this universe. It’s still creating something from nothing even if you pass it off as a supernatural act within the confines of a supernatural larger set of laws.

Our concepts of intelligence, logic, and being are all defined and relative to this natural universe or they’re eternal concepts in an eternal existence. It wouldn’t be applicable to use our logic to prove or disprove a supernatural anything outside space, time, and logic if they weren’t eternal concepts. How could the ONLY “logical” answer for this universe be based on a singular supernatural being conforming at all to our concepts of intelligence or being? It’s the same problem I have with the Big Bang. How can anyone say we can see back to the beginning of the universe and time when we’re looking at the problem from within this universe after time supposedly began?

Really, the only “logical” thing I can suggest after all of this mind bending is that everything would have to be eternal to completely overcome the “something from nothing” problem. An eternal self-existent supernatural being (poof!) doesn’t solve it since it would also be something from nothing. That actually makes the problem more complicated. The simplest and most logical answer is that matter and energy is everything there is and they’re eternal. There’s nothing supernatural. There’s nothing outside the universe or existence. The laws for space, time, logic, and anything else in existence that contributed to the rise of us stupid humans are the true eternal self-existent creators of this planet and our lives.

What I really know is we don’t know how or why existence exists. An eternal self-existent BEING with the power and intellect to create this universe as something from itself (or nothing) doesn’t make any logical sense.

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” -Albert Einstein