Podcast • January 20, 2010

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, ...

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

Podcast • October 27, 2009

How God Came Back: Gordon, Cox and West

This is a book-fair exchange that caught fire around a current version of the old graffiti duel: “God is dead,” signed Nietzsche. Then, “Nietzsche is dead,” signed God. How’s to read the evidence that God ...
This is a book-fair exchange that caught fire around a current version of the old graffiti duel: “God is dead,” signed Nietzsche. Then, “Nietzsche is dead,” signed God. How’s to read the evidence that God is back in an almighty way — in the bookstores, in popular culture, in world affairs? Neo-atheists including Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have given The Big Guy best-selling burials all over again in recent years. But now come Karen Armstrong, Robert Wright, and at the Boston Book Festival last weekend: novelist Mary Gordon, a “progressive Catholic” who leaves plenty of room for doubt; the post-modern Baptist theologian Harvey Cox; and Cornel West, the lay preacher and “blues man in the life of the mind,” as he calls himself – each of them writing and talking up a storm about an insatiable hunger out there for a personal god, or gods, and also for “blessed communities” in His or Her name. In a jammed hall of the Boston Public Library last weekend, I asked the writers not to summarize or sell their books but to imagine we were in a train compartment between, say, Istanbul and Vienna, just talking. Harvey Cox led off for Mary Gordon and Cornel West, who brought it home, as we say in church.

Lets go back to three of the great historical sociologists who gave us an analysis of what religion would look like – some were more wrong than right.  Weber said there would be secularization that would become ubiquitous.  There would be a disenchantment of the world that would lead toward an iron cage, where people would be, in fact, yearning for god-talk but giving it up, because science and technology would become so hegemonic, would become so influential, that people would no longer opt for narratives that invoke God or grace.  Now Weber was wrong about secularization, but he was right about the iron cage.  Durkheim said that there’s an eternal in religious sensibilities to a degree that human beings are gonna worship something.  They’re gonna treasure something – the question is, what will it be?  Conrad in Heart of Darkness said: what? It’s idolatry, it’s Kurtz and it’s ivory.  But they’re gonna treasure something.  The question is: will it be something outside of their ego, their tribe, their clan, their nation?  Will it be transcendental, will it be universal, will it be cosmopolitan?  And then here comes Karl Marx, who says all of this religious talk is just a sigh of the oppressed.  Of course people want to live in a world where they have some sense of wholeness.  But like George Santayana who defined religion as what?  Religion as the love of life and the conciousness of impotence.  That’s Santatyana.  He’s a naturalist.  Religious, but in no way Christian or anything else.  He agrees with Marx.  Religion is fundamentally about coming to terms with your limits.  You’re gonna die.  Your bodies will be the culinary delight of terrestial worms one day – can’t get around it.  Can’t get out of space and time… alive!

… One of the reasons why I pride myself in being a bluesman in the life of the mind, is because a bluesman or blueswoman has the Keatsian sensibility.  That negative capability… So for example you look at the Christian texts, look at the blues note of Jesus himself – my god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me, on the cross?  That’s a blues moment, that’s a Keatsian moment.  Here God, God’s self, is calling into question the benevolent power of the supposedly ultimate power of the universe.  Now I like that moment, because its humanizing… What do you do in the face of that?  Well the blues say oohhh, wait a minute.  The blues ain’t nothing but an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically anyway.  Nobody loves me but my mama, and she might be jiving too.  That’s B.B. King, that’s the King of the Blues.  That’s Antigone.  Everything’s against you in the darkness, including your blessed mama.  And he does that on the B-side of The Thrill is Gone!  And it comes from a blues people who have dealt with catastrophe in America, American terrorism in the form of slavery, for 244 years.  American terrorism in the form of Jim Crow, Jane Crow, lynching… In the face of that kind of terrorism, you don’t create a black Al Queda, and just counter-terrorize.  You say: no, in the face of slavery, we want freedom for everybody!  In the face of Jim Crow, we want rights and liberties for everybody.  It’s the Love Supreme that John Coltrane talked about.  In the face of that kind of catastrophe, you hold onto some sense of what appears to be impotent – namely love and justice.  Why?  Because even when you’re gangsterized, you don’t wanna get in the gutter with a ganster.  Even if you’re defeated momentarily, you’d rather be defeated with integrity than win with the thugs.  That’s the lesson of the best of Black history in America…

Cornel West in conversation with Mary Gordon, Harvey Cox and Chris Lydon at the Boston Book Festival, October 24, 2009.