I very much enjoyed Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. It is a novel of ideas — one that explores the intersection between intellectual and spiritual life. The protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is an academic, a psychologist of religion whose surprise best-seller, Varieties of Religious Illusion, has led to his acclaim as “America’s favorite atheist.” Moreover, Cass has just been offered a job by Harvard — the pinnacle of academic success. In contrast to this professional trajectory, however, Cass’s private life reveals a preoccupation with issues of meaning and transcendence. We notice in Cass those “obstinate questionings of sense and outward things” that are characteristic of the religious percipient. So if this is atheism, we wonder, how does it really differ from theism?
Goldstein describes her point of departure for the novel as follows:
Dinner party hostesses used to be warned to steer the conversation away from politics and religion. I used to wonder why, but I don’t anymore. There are some differences that reveal rifts so deep that dialogue breaks down. Among these are the current debates that have been raging between God-believers and the so-called new atheists. It often seems that people on one side can’t begin to grasp what the world is like, what it feels like, for those on the other side. When the person with whom one is conversing appears utterly opaque, then mistrust and contempt are easily aroused: How can he be saying that when the opposite seems so obvious to me? Is he stupid, dishonest, maybe just a touch evil? These are not the sort of suspicions that the gracious hostess wants intruding at her candle-lit dinner table.
But for me, as a novelist, it’s differences like these, indicating entirely different orientations toward the world, which are the most tantalizing to explore. Arguments alone can’t capture all that is at stake for people when they argue about issues of reason and faith. In the end, I place my faith in fiction, in its power to make vividly present how different the world feels to each of us and how these differences are sometimes what is really being expressed in the great debates of our day on the existence of God.
The 36 chapters of Goldstein’s novel have titles that refer to Cass Seltzer’s interior life: The Argument from the Improbable Self, The Argument from Lucinda, The Argument from Dappled Things, The Argument from the Irrepressible Past, The Argument from Reversal of Fortune, The Argument from Intimations of Immortality, The Argument from Soul-Gazing, The Argument from the Existence of the Poem, The Argument from the Eternity of Irony, etc. Her appendix provides 36 parallel philosophical arguments for the existence of God (and discusses their weaknesses). One historical argument that seems to be missing — although perhaps it is subsumed by others — is C. S. Peirce’s neglected argument. The number 36 is significant, being the number of the Lamed Vav, the just men who assume the weight of the world and its sorrows. According to Talmudic tradition, without these just men God would lose patience with humanity and the world itself would come to an end.
Something I have always liked in Goldstein’s writing is her deft satire of academic pretensions and foibles. The culminating debate between Cass Seltzer — who keeps forgetting about it — and the Nobel-prize winning theist Felix Fidley, for instance, is sponsored by the Harvard “Agnostic Chaplaincy”; and the portraits of Cass’s erstwhile academic mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, “Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature and Values”, and the beautiful Lucinda, “goddess of game theory”, skewer recognizable academic types. Nonetheless, there is a rare seriousness to Goldstein’s project, a recognition that meaning is not just constructed but encountered. This is particularly noticeable in her description of Azarya, the young Hassidic mathematical prodigy who must choose between his love for mathematics and his role in a religious community. It is also true of the relationship between Cass and Roz. To be human, Goldstein says, “is to inhabit our contradictions.”
Rebecca Goldstein earned her Ph.D in philosophy from Princeton University, and has taught philosophy at various schools on the east coast. Her first novel was The Mind-Body Problem, which I liked very much, and she has also written Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics and several other novels. Two (non-fiction) philosophical works that I admire are Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew who gave us Modernity, and Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. She was chosen a MacArthur Fellow in 1996.