Vulgar, not to mention warmongering, Straussians have given a bad name to the very idea of esotericism by associating it with a nihilistic/atheistic interpretation of Nietzschean will to power. But, of course, one can use esoteric means to hide many kinds of messages. Below I explore the works of two very famous Victorians, Maxwell and Hertz, who practice a form of esotericism when presenting physics inspired arguments for the existence of god. In Maxwell's case it's pretty clear what he is up to, while in the Hertz case I am genuinely uncertain about how he wants us to read his text.
In 1870 Maxwell gave an invited address the Mathematical and Physical section of the British Association apparently on the subject of the relation between mathematics and physics. In compact form it has much instructive to say on the topic. But it would be misleading to say that this is the point of the piece, which offers two independent, physics based arguments for the existence of God--one is a sparkling argument for a cosmic designer, the other is an argument from principles of Thermodynamics to the existence of first mover at some finite point in the past. (At the end of Maxwell's paper there is also a more than a hint of a third argument attributed to the logician Boole that follows from the nature of the laws of thought.)
Maxwell's first argument relies on a remarkable scientific discovery (deploying spectroscopy) of an essential or intrinsic property of all molecules of a kind (say Hydrogen) , which all have the exact same vibration. (One might also say that relying on spectroscopic techniques 'science' had probably more reliable, detailed knowledge of the chemistry of the universe than the physics a century ago.) These vibrations provide the long-searched for foundations for uniform measures. As an aside, Maxwell also seems to think that molecules are in an important sense the long sought atoms in the traditional sense (the smallest, indestructible building blocks of the universe).
Maxwell's design argument relies on the claim that such extremely exact, universally replicated uniformity must be the product of artifice. For he thinks that many, if not most other natural phenomena do not exhibit such precise uniformity. In particular, for Maxwell to be a natural entity generally involves no such intrinsic property that is exactly the same universally. In fact, it's only societies with advanced institutional framework (of justice) that can hope to attain via industrial means anything like such replication in the of uniformity of design. So, while much of nature would reveal at best a sloppy designer, the newly discovered property reveals (by analogy) the presence of a designer with the highest, exacting industrial standards. It is as if God waited to reveal himself scientifically to the Victorians!
Now, Maxwell concludes his argument (or ascent) with an explicit appeal to the 'guidance of faith' and the quote "that which is seen was not made out of what was visible." Even the most atheist of Maxwell's Victorian peers in his audience would have been able to recognize the suppressed part of Hebrews 11:3, "By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that which is seen was not made out of what was visible." (Alas, my students did not recognize it!) So, without explicitly mentioning God and by relying on "natural knowledge" and a surprising version of analogical reasoning, Maxwell has offered an argument for God's existence in front of a learned audience of Britain's most distinguished scientists. As my -- more sober-minded -- PhD student, Marij van Strien, points out to me, Maxwell made the whole argument explicit here (a later talk to the same learned society), although in this version the argument would have been available to Ancient Egyptians and Greeks if they had had the relevant empirical science. (As an aside, Maxwell includes an interesting discussion on how statistical methods common among political economists migrate into physics.)
Maybe primed by this reading of Maxwell, I noticed a striking passage near the end of Hertz's (1894) "introduction" to The Principles of Mechanics:
"Our fundamental law, although it may suffice for representing the motion of inanimate matter, appears (at any rate that is one's first and natural impression) too simple and narrow to account for even the lowest processes of life. It seems to me that this is not a disadvantage, but rather an advantage of our law. For while it allows us to survey the whole domain of mechanics, it shows us what are the limits of this domain. By giving us only bare facts, without attributing to them any appearance of necessity, it enables us to recognise that everything might be quite different. Perhaps such considerations will be regarded as out of place here. It is not usual to treat of them in the elements of the customary representation of mechanics. But there the complete vagueness of the forces introduced leaves room for free play." (38, emphasis added).In context the main aim of Hertz's argument is to make room for a distinction between the laws of mechanics, which cover inanimate matter, and some other account suitable to the animate matter that allows for freedom of the will. I don't know much of Hertz's views in the philosophy mind, but he seems a Dualist of sorts. So far so good. But there is also a further argument tucked away here. For Hertz mechanics is a law-governed mathematical system that covers a specific domain and also helps us delimit this domain, that is, the workings of ordinary mechanical nature. (My brilliant colleague, Martin Van Dyck, has taught me the Galilean roots to this kind of insight.)
So far so good. But there is a further point lurking here: in the application of such axiomatic systems to physical reality two components ((i) mechanical principles codified in an axiomatic system and (ii) facts) are brought together. Now, it turns out that once certain facts are given the laws of mechanics determine future states necessarily, but on Hertz's view, why some particular facts (or initial conditions) are given is a unexplained by the laws of mechanics. According to Hertz some facts are not necessary; things really could have been otherwise. Now Hertz leaves entirely open what the cause of the initial conditions is: it could just be brute chance/luck (the Epicurean option), but it could equally well be some higher intelligence. Hertz doesn't say.
There is, in fact, another argument in Hertz's introduction that provides a further, suggestive hint.
"On the strength of this it may be said to be inconceivable that Hamilton's principle, or any similar proposition, should really play the part of a fundamental law of mechanics, and be a fundamental law of nature. For the first thing that is to be expected of a fundamental law is simplicity and plainness, whereas Hamilton's principle, when we come to look into it, proves to be an exceedingly complicated statement. Not only does it make the present motion dependent upon consequences which can only exhibit themselves in the future, thereby attributing intentions to inanimate nature ; but, what is much worse, it attributes to nature intentions which are void of meaning. For the integral, whose minimum is required by Hamilton's principle, has no simple physical meaning ; and for nature it is an unintelligible aim to make a mathematical expression a minimum, or to bring its variation to zero. The usual answer, which physics nowadays keeps ready for such attacks, is that these considerations are based upon metaphysical assumptions ; that physics has renounced these, and no longer recognises it as its duty to meet the demands of metaphysics. It no longer attaches weight to the reasons which used to be urged from the metaphysical side in favour of principles which indicate design in nature, and thus it cannot lend ear to objections of a metaphysical character against these same principles. If we had to decide upon such a matter we should not think it unfair to place ourselves rather on the side of the attack than of the defence. A doubt which makes an impression on our mind cannot be removed by calling it metaphysical ; every thoughtful mind as such has needs which scientific men are accustomed to denote as metaphysical." (emphasis added)
It is pretty clear that Hertz does not accept the usual -- boundary policing -- response by his fellow physicists. His sympathies are with the attack. But, of course, by placing himself on the side of the attack he has not endorsed its criticism, that by accepting Hamilton's Principle (something Hertz does embrace in his own system) one also attributes design to nature. As far as I can see, he leaves that "illegitimate question" entirely open. (Once the Hamilton is part of a fully axiomatic, closed system philosophy has done its therapeutic work.) To my impressionable eyes, Hertz's strategic ambiguity exhibits considerable skill at esoteric writing. Maybe somebody with more knowledge of Hertz's other writings and views can settle these matters?