The Case Against Karen Armstrong: In What Sense is God “Inexpressible”?

Case for GodIn my recent posts I’ve addressed many of the problems I find in Karen Armstrong’s analysis of ‘the modern God’ which I believe is really just a cherry picked interpretation at odds with fact.

One idea I have not addressed is her idea that God is ‘inexpressible’ or ‘ineffable.’

Now I don’t really know any religionists that would argue this point at an abstract level. Certainly God – even the supposed ‘modern God’ — is generally thought of as ‘inexpressible’ or ‘ineffable’ in some way. Even the literally minded Mormons would tend to agree.

What I want to explore is if Armstrong is being precise enough when she presents this idea. Is there only one sense in which God is ‘inexpressible’? What does ‘inexpressible’ even mean?

God as “Being Itself”

One of Armstrong’s favorite points is that God is not “a being” but “Being Itself.” I confess, I have no idea what she means by this. I am not sure she knows what she means by this either.

That being said, there is no real mystery about how to express “Being Itself” in a scientific sense. You use math and physics. Presumably this isn’t what she meant. But then what did she mean? But can we really say that “being itself” is “inexpressible” or “ineffable” when it’s probably the single most successful science we have (i.e. physics is the science of being itself)? Surely some sort of great explanation was warranted here on her part.

I would venture a guess that actually “Being Itself” is intended in some sort of mystic sense that helps us get into a spiritual mood. Outside of that, I doubt she intended it to have any specific meaning or purpose.

Quantum Physics as “Inexpressible”

Perhaps Armstrong anticipated my comment above, because she goes on to claim that physics is itself ‘inexpressible’ or ‘ineffable.’ To prove this she points out that:

Even physicists did not believe that the equations of quantum theory described what was actually there; these mathematical abstractions could not be put into words, and our knowledge was confined to symbols that were mere shadows of an indescribable reality. Unknowing seemed built into the human condition. (p. 265)

Given examples like this, Armstrong concludes that Percy Bridgeman is correct: We have reached the limit of the great pioneers of science, the vision, namely, that we live in a sympathetic world in that it was comprehensible to our minds.” (p. 266) Armstrong thus concludes that “Scientists were beginning to sound like apophatic theologians.” (p. 266)

Is Quantum Physics “Inexpressible”?

I suspect that many M* readers will actually agree with Armstrong on this point. But I do not agree with Armstrong here. First, it seems to me that there are different senses of the word ‘inexpressible’ being bantered about here and she is easily equivocating between them.

For example, the Catholic idea of God being ‘inexpressible’ (which I assume is at least somewhat similar to Armstrong’s views here) is not the same as the sense in which Quantum Physics is ‘inexpressible.’ There are several reasons why this is true.

First, we can and do express Quantum Physics via mathematics. In fact, we can express it with such a high level of precision (over an average anyhow) and accuracy that it’s scary. There is a sense in which we might rightly say that Quantum Physics is the best expressed thing in existence right now. Also, being able to express something in mathematics is a much deeper sort of expression than the much more abstract way we speak in natural languages like English.

Second, the fact that we have a hard time explaining Quantum Physics in ‘plain English’ isn’t because it’s a mystery in the sense that Armstrong wishes for her apophatic method. As a Physicist professor friend of mine put it to me, “Why would you expect things at the micro level to follow your macro-level intuitions? You have to first form new intuitions by working with quantum particles in the lab.”

Third, Armstrong’s assumptions that the math in Quantum Physics is a mere “mathematical abstraction” that can’t “be put into words” and is therefore “mere shadows of an indescribable reality” is really just that: an assumption. There is nothing even nearing 100% agreement on that point. In fact, having made a real attempt to study this issue, I’d have to say that the evidence that “…We have reached the limit of” what is “comprehensible to our minds” is not likely to turn out to be true. (Thank goodness!)

In fact, I just read a book a few weeks ago called The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch where in a single chapter he expresses Quantum Physics in plain English and without analogies. I dropped the book and shouted “Oh My Gosh! I think I finally comprehend Quantum Physics!”

The reason Deutsch’s plain English explanation of Quantum Theory hasn’t caught on is because it’s built on the many worlds interpretation of Quantum Physics. The idea that we live in a constantly branching set of universes built out of fungible particles is not easy for us to accept. Personally, I hope it’s not true. But it would seem that – if we can accept that view of reality – that it is, in fact, possible to express Quantum Physics in ‘plain English’ after all. We just don’t want to. But ‘inexpressible’ it is not.

Which brings me to my real beef with this part of Armstrong’s presentation. I do not believe in an inexpressible reality unless by ‘inexpressible’ you mean ‘I don’t know enough yet to express it.’ I believe God is very much ‘inexpressible’ in this later sense. But if we are to take Deification seriously, we must accept that the ‘inexpressibility’ of God isn’t a fundamental characteristic of God or else there really would be a fundamental gulf between us and God, just as the Catholics and Protestants believe. While I do believe that perhaps the only way to ‘express God’ is to ‘be God’ that doesn’t mean I feel God is ‘inexpressible’ in any ultimate sense.

In any case, Armstrong’s view here is bad science, plain and simple. It’s a steering towards the very Positivism that elsewhere she skewers. The proper response to this Positivistic outlook of science is actually Scientific Realism. And, by analogy, Theological Realism is the proper response to Armstrong’s views of religion.

4 thoughts on “The Case Against Karen Armstrong: In What Sense is God “Inexpressible”?

  1. Too often, when I see these kinds of arguments, they really boil down to “I don’t understand modern physics. I don’t understand God. Ergo, God is like modern physics.”

  2. “these mathematical abstractions could not be put into words, and our knowledge was confined to symbols that were mere shadows of an indescribable reality”

    I take it she hasn’t read much science fiction, or at the least Star Trek in all its variations. I like what you said and agree, “that it is, in fact, possible to express Quantum Physics in ‘plain English’ after all. We just don’t want to.” Yet, what I really think that she means if you connect it to her agreement of Percy Bridgeman is that we have reached the limit of our material scientific advancements. We are in the theoretical, and therefore to her abstractions with no substance. She is arguing for/from the traditional Platonists view of God as an ideal, and therefore God is as abstract in reality as He is in expressibility. In some ways she agrees with Mormons that the orthodox view of God is non-existence, but she salvages that by making the divine a symbolism of being itself.

  3. “In some ways she agrees with Mormons that the orthodox view of God is non-existence, but she salvages that by making the divine a symbolism of being itself.”

    Interesting point, Jettboy. I guess you are right. In that sense she sees the same problem (as we do) with classical theism, but takes essentially the opposite approach as us to try to find a solution.

    “we have reached the limit of our material scientific advancements.”

    This sounds like a testable prediction. One I fully expect to get trounced.

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