Rebecca Goldstein’s Ontological Urge: the 36 Arguments

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rebecca Goldstein (36 minutes, 22 meg mp3)

Who knew that the God question is burning bright in our university neighborhood of brain scientists, mathematicians, computer geniuses, game theorists, physicists and literary folk, too? — that is, in the postmodern precincts around Boston that I call “the frontal lobe of the universe.”

Photo Credit: Steven Pinker

The philosopher-novelist Rebecca Goldstein, both playful and stone-serious, has caught the chatter and mapped the territory in and around Brandeis, Harvard and MIT in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God — A Work of Fiction. The arguments rage in the head of the novel’s protagonist, Cass Seltzer, a best-selling psychologist of religion, a latter-day William James. TIME magazine has dubbed him “the atheist with a soul.” Career-climbing from Brandeis to Harvard, Cass (like Goldstein) is trying to triangulate a position between the death of God and the ecstasy of belief — at a safe distance from neo-atheists like, say, Sam Harris, and neo-believers like, say, Cornel West:

RG: Both sides will often offend me, and I think that’s why I felt I had to write the novel. I agree with Sam Harris. I’m on his board, of the Reason Foundation. I agree with him: our metaphysics is the same. But I’m very uncomfortable with some of the belittling descriptions of religious people. Not saying that he does it. But sometimes I hear it: “this is the fallacy that they make, this is their mistake, if we can point out where their reasoning goes astray.”

Religion and religious emotion are so much more complicated than that. One of the things that Spinoza taught us, and it’s being validated finally in neuroscientific labs, is that emotions and intellect, cognitions and passion, are inextricably bound up with one another. Cognitive states are also emotional states, and emotional states make cognitive claims.

So even for those of us who believe in reason — and again this is pure Spinoza — this itself is an emotional experience. I break into tears at beautiful mathematical proofs. This kind of intertwining is something that we all share. And so the notion that we could, on the reason side, just go through the arguments and show what’s wrong and people would stop believing is very, very false. There are reasons other than just strict logical arguments for people to be believing.

CL: Why draw a hard line between your experience of a mathematic truth, or beauty that brings you to tears, and a Dostoyevskean epiphany of the Almighty?

RG: I do believe ultimately, in terms of establishing truth, in objective means… The history of our species is filled with people being enraptured and enthralled and having private revelations that are completely counter to each other, and slaughtering each other because of these things. The Enlightenment grew out of it. John Locke, for example, has an essay “On Enthusiasm,” on religious enthusiasm, saying: look, it’s not a source of truth. It is powerful and it is ecstatic. I’m very prone to it myself. I often say ‘I spend more time out of my mind than in my mind.’ I’m extremely prone to this sort of thing.

There are all sorts of intellectual gifts that give us this feeling. For me, it’s science, math, art, music, philosophy… And it’s a kind of religious experience, you know, but for me these are much safer than trying to answer the nature of the universe… That God-almighty important question can’t be entrusted to enthusiasm. 

Rebecca Goldstein in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 16, 2009

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  • Listening to this show was certainly an interesting way to start the day. I’m remembering so many questions, feelings, and thoughts that have been dormant in me.

    I am an atheist, but it terrifies me to think of what my life would be like had I not grown up Christian. The metaphysical questions Christianity allowed me to explore as a child are very much who I am.

    I remember that as a child, I had wondered about the nature of heaven. I knew as people aged, they changed. And to think that somebody could lose who they are in age, and then be sent to heaven that way was disturbing. Heaven seemed to be a personality archive, and to function properly, surely it must archive everybody at every state of their lives. This lead me to ask questions about when people could be said to change, what a moment was (because to say there was a version of us every year, every month, every day, every hour, every second, was unsatisfying), what change was, etc. I did come up with some strange notions too, I concluded that a functioning personality archive would be of most benefit to good people who lived the longest, and how there must be an infinite number of any one of us in heaven and hell, and that even as I was thinking about this, these thoughts were changing me and I had my ever replenishing souls being taken away (and probably having my questions answered by getting confirmation of my idea, which would lead to further change and more need to archive, which was problematic!). I can laugh now about how silly it is, how elaborate a system I ended up creating to preserve my notion of heaven being a personality archive. But some questions it lead me to ask have helped me develop my secular ideas.

    One doesn’t need religion to ask questions, thinking about science (and science fiction) certainly has aided my development in similar ways. But religious perspectives are often so developed and interesting. I kind of hate how difficult it is for me to relate to religious perspectives now, because of how easy I find it to just dismiss religion and think no further.

    (I’m kicking myself for not having read Betraying Spinoza, even though several years ago I had checked it out from the library.)

  • nother

    Wonderful and engrossing conversation. I look forward to reading the book! And I’m fascinated that Mrs. Goldstein completely contradicts herself here:

    “I do believe ultimately, in terms of establishing truth, in objective means, that is, if it’s based on a personal experience, if it’s nothing but this personal experience and you can’t offer grounds that everyone can evaluate, I don’t trust that…”

    When Chris asks her what if the FRMI (machine gauging the love in her brain) was flatlined, thus contradicting her feelings:

    Well, then “You trust the subject.” Mrs. Goldstein responds that trusting her subjective love of her husband is different than trusting a subjective view of “the nature of the universe.”

    That sounds like a pretty convenient argument to me. But why oh why must it be so cut and dry. Why can’t we start from the premise that it’s all subjective and only analyze the endgame.

    Yesterday in my first visit to the MET, I experienced for the first time, the works of El Greco. In his painting View of Toledo I found more truth about the nature of the universe than a scientific photograph of that city could give me. The gallery label read: “it seeks to portray the essence of the city rather than to document its actual appearance. In Aristotelean terms, it substitutes poetic for historic truth.”

    What’s the endgame of the truth you seek? What are your principles and do you strive to wear them or embody them? Mrs. Goldstein trusts her own rapture when it comes to Love because the endgame of her marriage has turned out well. Helen Keller was religious and her endgame was to change countless lives. Bill gates is an atheist and his endgame has been to change countless lives.

    It’s like the Beatles song says, “Whatever gets you through the night.” Whatever it takes to get you through that darkness, just be ready for the Rosy-fingered Dawn of Homer – and of the good.

    So that is the proposition I bring to the betting parlor of Pascal. I will strive to live up to dawn of my principles, and if it turns out – even though I passed on worshiping the big guy – there is a man upstairs, my wager is he will nice enough to let me duck under the velvet rope.

  • Mike

    Wonderful interview. FYI, it looks like there is an error in the quote: “But I’m not very uncomfortable with some of the belittling descriptions of religious people.” I think it’s meant to say the opposite…

  • Typo corrected. Thank you, Mike. CL

  • An unexpected 37th Argument:

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    What first appears a counter intuitive challenge to the religious status quo is worth closer examination; it carries within its pages ideas both subtle and sublime, what the theological history of religion either ignored, were unable to imagine or dismissed as impossible. An error of presumption which could now leave ‘tradition’ staring into the abyss and humble all secular, atheist speculation. This new teaching has nothing whatsoever to do with any existing religious conception known to history. It is unique in every respect. What science and religion have agreed was not possible, has now become all too inevitable.

    Using a synthesis of scriptural material from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the world’s great poetry, it describes and teaches a single moral LAW, a single moral principle, and offers the promise of its own proof; one in which the reality of God responds directly to an act of perfect faith with a individual intervention into the natural world; correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries. Intended to be understood metaphorically, where ‘death’ is ignorance and ‘Life’ is knowledge, this personal experience of transcendent power and moral purpose is the ‘Resurrection’, and justification for faith. Here is where true morality, called righteousness begins.

    Here then is the first ever viable religious conception capable of leading reason, by faith, to observable consequences which can be tested and judged. This new teaching delivers the first ever religious claim of insight into the human condition, that meets the Enlightenment criteria of verifiable and ‘extraordinary’ evidence based truth embodied in action. For the first time in history, however unexpected, the world must now measure for itself, the reality of a new claim to revealed truth, a moral tenet not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof, an objective basis for moral principle and a fully rational and justifiable belief!

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    Published [at the moment] only on the web, a typeset manuscript of this new teaching is available as a free [1.4meg] PDF download from a variety of sites including: