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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