I’ve just started a novel called “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. It will be released next week. Here’s what the author says on Amazon about her book:
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 novel’s protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is a psychologist and a rising academic superstar who has achieved notoriety for a popular book advocating atheism. His book purports to explain religion and religious experience as psychological phenomena. He has been called an “atheist with a soul” because he seems to understand so well the religious sensibility, even though he doesn’t share it. Or doesn’t he? I’m only 150 pages into the book, and it’s emerging that even though Cass, a secular Jew descended from a revered Hasidic family, has no formal religion, his religious sense seems to be inborn. “36 Arguments” is a philosophical novel, and I’m dying to see where it’s going to end up.
The title made me reflect on how I’ve never been able to take arguments for God’s existence seriously. As an undergraduate philosophy minor, I ought to have mastered at least the basic arguments enough to know why I didn’t believe in them. What happened to me was that I read Kierkegaard, who convinced me that trying to demonstrate God’s existence logically was pointless. Even if you could construct an airtight logical proof of His existence, if someone was determined not to believe, he could always find a way out of it. Besides which, if you prove at 3:00 in the afternoon that God exists, what do you do with yourself at 3:30?
As I see it, trying to prove that God exists is about like trying to prove that my wife loves me. It really can’t be done. Granted, I can point to all the various things she’s done for me that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that yes, she loves me. But one could always claim that what I call evidence of her love is not evidence of “love,” as I conceive of it, but rather what she does — perhaps unknowingly — out of selfish motives. Yet I know that my wife loves me because I have felt the presence of her love many times — so many times that I can’t doubt it. And her love for me has caused me to deepen my love for her, in a bond of mutual communion. There is no algorithm for this, no syllogism. But there it is. Perhaps we are mutually deluded, trapped in our subjectivity. Or perhaps scientistic sorts who believe love is an illusion are like explorers who, speaking only their native tongue, land in China and conclude that the people there are obvious clods because they only speak gibberish.
I think religion is like that too. If I hadn’t had numerous experiences of God — or rather, what I am certain are experiences of the divine presence — I don’t think I would be a believer. And yet, there are people who are far more eager to experience the numinous than I, who wait in vain. Why does this happen? I think of my sister, a regular churchgoer who, as far as I know, has never doubted God for one minute of her life, and who is as solid as a rock in her Methodism. I, raised in the same household, have had a volatile religious life, one marked by periods of passion, and profound mystical experiences that I haven’t sought, but which … just happened. I would not claim that one of us is more faithful than the other, but rather that we are very different in our orientations toward faith, especially in our spiritual and emotional templates. What’s interesting to me, and mysterious, is how some people seem to be born with a religious sense imprinted on their characters, and others simply don’t have that same openness. To what extent is the religious sense a matter of nature, or nurture? In “36 Arguments,” Rebecca Newburger Goldstein has created a protagonist who has been raised by parents that rejected religion, and who lives and thrives in an intellectual world that rejects religion. And yet, there is something about him that is so naturally religious.
Again, I’m eager to see where Cass goes. Early in the book, we learn that his work involves the exploration of the religious sense permeating most human endeavors. Yet the reader, at least nearing the halfway point of the novel, is given to understand that Cass’s skepticism amid his enduring interest in the religious sense has to do with his intense relationship to an academic guru who was either a true spiritual sage, or a bona fide egomanical nut. It’s not clear which.
What do you think? Are there any arguments for the existence of God that convince you? Is it pointless to construct such arguments? To what extent is the religious sense a matter of nature, or nurture?
<b>UPDATE:</b> Here is a link to an excerpt from the novel’s first chapter. It also includes the lengthy appendix, which lists 36 actual arguments for God’s existence, and what Goldstein identifies as flaws with them. Great reading. Thanks to reader MEH for the link.
<b>UPDATE.2:</b> Here’s a must-read interview with Goldstein and her partner, the Harvard scientist Steven Pinker. Both, by the way, are atheists, but Goldstein is notably more sympathetic to the religious sense than Pinker. Excerpt:
Virtually all religious believers think the mind cannot be reduced to the physical mechanics of the brain. Of course, many believe the mind is what communicates with God. Would you agree that the mind-brain question is one of the key issues in the “science and religion” debate?
PINKER: I think so. It’s a very deep intuition that people are more than their bodies and their brains, that when someone dies, their consciousness doesn’t go out of existence, that some part of us can be up and about in the world while our body stays in one place, that we can’t just be a bunch of molecules in motion. It’s one that naturally taps into religious beliefs. And the challenge to that deep-seated belief from neuroscience, evolutionary biology and cognitive science has put religion and science on the public stage. I think it’s one of the reasons you have a renewed assault on religious beliefs from people like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.
The neuroscientific worldview — the idea that the mind is what the brain does — has kicked away one of the intuitive supports of religion. So even if you accepted all of the previous scientific challenges to religion — the earth revolving around the sun, animals evolving and so on — the immaterial soul was always one last thing that you could keep as being in the province of religion. With the advance of neuroscience, that idea has been challenged.
Some prominent scholars of the mind have not adopted the strict materialist position. The atheist Sam Harris, who’s a neuroscientist by training, says he’s not at all sure that consciousness can be reduced to brain function. He told me he’s had various uncanny — what some would call telepathic — experiences. And there’s David Chalmers, the philosopher, who’s also critical of the materialist view of the mind. He has argued that the physical laws of science will never explain consciousness.
GOLDSTEIN: It’s interesting. Actually, my doctoral dissertation was on the irreducibility of the mind to the physical. We have not been able to derive what it’s like to be a mind from the physical description of the brain. So if you were to look at my brain right now, I would have to tell you what it is that I’m experiencing. You can’t simply get it out of the physical description. So where does that leave us? It might mean that we’re not our brain. It might mean that we have an incomplete description of the brain. Our science is not sufficient to explain how this extraordinary thing happens — that a lump of matter becomes an entire world. But the irreducibility doesn’t in itself show immaterialism. And you can turn it around and say, look, all the neurophysiology that we have so far shows there is a correlation between certain physical states and mental states. And even a dualist like Descartes said there’s a one-to-one correlation between the physical and the mental. So I’m not sure that we’ve settled this question once and for all.
PINKER: I’m also sympathetic to Chalmers’ view. It might not be the actual stuff of the brain that makes us conscious so much as it is the information processing. I don’t think Chalmers’ view would give much support to a traditional religious view about the existence of a soul. He says that consciousness resides in information. So a computer could be conscious and a thermostat could have a teensy bit of consciousness as well. Still, the information content requires some kind of physical medium to support the distinctions that make up the information. And the Cartesian idea that there are two kinds of stuff in the universe — mind and matter — doesn’t find a comfortable home in current views of consciousness, even those of Chalmers.
I know neither of you believes in paranormal experiences like telepathy or clairvoyant dreams or contact with the dead. But hypothetically, suppose even one of these experiences were proven beyond a doubt to be real. Would the materialist position on the mind-brain question collapse in a single stroke?
GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, if there was no other explanation. We’d need to have such clear evidence. I have to tell you, I’ve had some uncanny experiences. Once, in fact, I had a very strange experience where I seemed to be getting information from a dead person. I racked my brain trying to figure out how this could be happening. I did come up with an explanation for how I could reason this away. But it was a very powerful experience. If it could truly be demonstrated that there was more to a human being than the physical body, this would have tremendous implications.