Quadrants of Knowledge

Step 3 Featured

By Joe C.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in the most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the centre of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of the devoutly religious men. (Albert Einstein)

Nothing knocks me off my cerebral Knievel steel horse more than hearing one of the great scientific minds talking with awe about the supernatural. It humbles me and makes me think again about dismissing that which I cannot see or articulate. Step Three invites me to not only accept there is so much more than I know, but also to consider how my life is influenced by these powers.

Believer or atheist, Step Three is the time to get in the pool or put my clothes back on. I can talk and think about Steps One and Two without commitment. Admitting and believing can be a visceral or an intellectual process but neither of the first two Steps demanded action; Step One involves admission of addiction and Step Two opening my mind to new ideas, like the ideas above that Einstein talks about. These first two Steps take time and we should give them the time that is deserved. The words “Came to believe” are used in Step Two. Belief isn’t a choice – belief is a compulsion. We are compelled to believe what we believe. We come to believe in something new by opening our minds to arguments and evidence that come to us through the heart-felt experience of other alcoholics. Some of what we believe we haven’t seen with our own eyes, so belief requires trust. So it takes time to believe something new.

So much of AA is anecdotal. Clinical scientists or skeptical alcoholics can have a field day mocking AA tenets – the flimsiness of the disease model, the incurability of alcoholism or the impossibility of learned moderation. Then there is improvable “together we can do what alone we could not,” or the quaint idea that Twelve Steps offer a daily reprieve from this alleged illness. One might say, “What quackery!” Let’s not forget that science isn’t faring any better controlling the franchise on alcoholism. Since one amateur alcoholic started sharing AA with another amateur alcoholic, the medical world has done no better job of curing us, identifying at-risk drinkers or instilling the desire to stop.

Step Two and Three are not the same thing to me and I don’t lump them together. Step Two considers new alternatives or ways of looking at life. Step Three is decision-time. I would love to have answers first and then make a commitment. I would love to have all the lights green before I start my car, but it’s not going to happen.

The original archway written in the 1930s was, “Made a decision to turn our will and our life over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Agnostic versions of AA’s Steps replace God with “the AA program” or “the AA fellowship,” in the way some suggest using GOD as an acronym – Group of Drunks. Others state Step Three as “Made a decision to entrust our will and our lives to the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us.” The program, or wisdom of others as a higher power, is metaphorical. Hey, many of us see god as a metaphor. I just can’t explain my whole world with facts.

As an agnostic I often describe Step Three as “I let go and I don’t know.” What becomes of the self-will that I loosen my grip from is an academic point which remains hard to prove unequivocally.  So I make a decision to not need to control everything. Does God take my abandoned will? Does it magically transform into the power of the cosmos? Do I simply have an altered outlook or attitude?

I know, I know

  • What I know I know
  • What I know I don’t know
  • What I don’t know I don’t know
  • What I don’t know I do know

Philosophically, I subscribe to something I adopted somewhere along the road that I call the four quadrants of  knowledge: what I know I know, what I know I don’t know, what I don’t know I don’t know and what I don’t know I do know. There is more going on than I am aware of. There is more unknown to me than known to me. I have inner strengths and resources beyond my awareness. Defining what these powers are is not so important. I don’t call it god and I need not explain it to rely on it. But Step Three for me is to take the plunge and have faith that the water will hold me and not drown me. If Einstein can factor the unknown into his perception of life, I will too. Over time I have come to understand or at least believe in more of an inner power than a higher power, but that’s semantics really. The point is that this greater understanding came later. The leap of faith came without understanding or certainty. I wanted to gain the understanding first, then trust in the process that I already had proof of.

The sponsor’s allegory

My sponsor put out a challenge to me at a time when I felt obligated to have a “God as I understand Him.” Back then I felt that I had to believe in order to belong and I knew I wanted to belong in AA. I was reading philosophy and religion books.  He said, “Joe, it isn’t enough in Step Three to believe it works, you have to have faith that it does. Do you have faith?”

He intrigued me and I thought I found a rare opportunity to engage in debate. I said, “That sounds like the semantics game, John – faith or belief. I love that game. You made me read somewhere that we had to resign from the debating club but if you are inviting me back in, I am all in, let’s go.”

He didn’t bite. He continued with his reasoning, “Faith and belief aren’t the same things at all. If I told you that I could tie a rope between two forty storey buildings and roll a wheelbarrow across the rope, you might say, ‘Sure John, I believe you can do that.’ That’s no investment; you have no skin in the game. But if you had faith that I could do what I said I could do, then sight unseen, you would get in the wheelbarrow.” Then he lit a smoke like sponsors did back then and he continued, “So I ask you Joe, are you getting in the wheelbarrow? Do you have faith?”

That’s what I mean by Step Three as an action Step. Anytime I read Step Three, I picture getting in my sponsor John’s wheelbarrow.

Step Three in my day-to-day life

I have been preoccupied by what I know I know mostly and somewhat by what I know I don’t know. Now I pay more attention to “what I don’t know that I don’t know,” and I try to get in touch more with “what I don’t know I do know.” I embrace my smallness in a way. It has been a long process but I have found my values. I live by them. Mindfulness is a big part of my Step Three process.

Any time I am afraid, any time I am ruminating about how I have been wronged and what justice would look like, every time I want everyone else to save time and see it my way, I can practice Step Three. I can let go. That’s Step Three in my day-to-day life.

5 Responses

  1. Steve B. says:

    First of all, Einstein was not religious in any conventional sense: he didn’t believe in a personal god, and his “religion” was only his awe when contemplating the majesty and mystery of the universe. He never believed in the supernatural as Joe suggests–in fact, if you read the Einstein quote at the beginning of the article, you will see no mention or implication of anything supernatural.

    I personally am not going to get into any god-damned wheelbarrow on a tightrope because someone suggests that I have faith. For me faith is belief without evidence, and to me this isn’t a virtue but a profound negative which leads directly to religion and other assorted ills.

    Now, as for the 3rd step, to me all it means is that AA can help a recovering alcoholic. I don’t see it as any mysterious drawing on unknown, murky forces lurking in one’s unconscious mind or elsewhere–to me this is just so much crapola.

    I see AA as a fellowship where recovering alcoholics help one another to live sensibly without alcohol, and I believe that there’s little evidence that the steps are important to achieving sobriety. I do not think it useful to substitute a secular “higher power” for a religious one, and in my program of recovery I do not rely on one or worry about any mysteries. And even though we don’t yet know all the facts about why people become drunks and how they can recover, it is a safe bet to believe that that the answers will come from science, and not from faith.

  2. Kirk H says:

    Thanks to Steve B for writing my post for me so I did not need to! As the father of scientific medicine, Claude Bernard explains things, living organisms have response policies regarding their environments. The internals of all organisms, including domesticated primates Bernard called The Interior Milieu; on the outside was the Cosmic Environment. Cosmic in this sense AND in the sense Dr. Einstein wrote about was the Cosmos or the entirety of the universe outside of the interior milieu. I have a response to the natural but I most emphatically have no response to the supernatural. How could I? I have no experience ‘responding’ to burning bushes or choirs of angels. Labeling myself as an atheist simply reaffirms what I don’t have — I am not a three legged person but I don’t like to point that out repeatedly. It is boring. Einstein repeatedly pointed to Spinoza as his inspiration because Spinoza specifically laid out a cosmos without gods. Don’t expect anyone to respond to the supernatural because no one has ever needed to.

  3. John M. says:

    Perhaps we should cut Joe a little bit of slack here or, dare I say it, have a little faith in him.

    Seems to me his quadrilateral thinking tries to capture the same multi-dimensional perspective expressed by Einstein and quoted at the top of his blog. Since Joe provided us with the quotation, he is clearly aware of the limits Einstein sets when talking about the feeling for the religious: “In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of the devoutly religious men.”

    I’m not sure Joe’s blog implies any belief in the “supernatural” the way it is commonly used by the superstitious.

    Getting engaged in life, maintaining one’s curiosity and becoming more mindful of our surroundings are, as I see it, Joe’s definitions of the supernatural i.e., something above the level of mere subsistence and mundane reality.

    Here are a few more Einstein quotations that Joe could have used/And perhaps been less abused!

    It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.

    What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of “humility.” This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.

    But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

  4. Joe C. says:

    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Indigo Montoya (Princess Bride 1987)

    Supernatural: 1. of, pertaining to, or being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena; abnormal.

  5. Michael K says:


    The time has come” the walrus said “To talk of many things – of shoes and ships – and sealing wax – Of cabbages and kings – And why the sea is boiling hot – And whether pigs have wings.
    Lewis Carroll

    I think we may have lost our way.

    If I recall, the issue is that the GTA Intergroup does not want to list agnostic groups in its group meeting list. I have an idea that may be devious or even dishonest but think it will overcome the objection: If the agnostic, atheist and other groups that currently may be excluded would be willing to change the group name so that it sounds acceptable this would avoid the need to exclude them.

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