Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, 2010)

Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.
Call it the world.
The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues that they had thought had settled forever beneath the earth’s crust. The more sophisticated they are, the more annotated their mental life, the more taken aback they’re likely to feel, seeing what the world’s lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires they had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.
What is this stuff, they ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archaeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and all but forgotten.
Now it’s all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on their watch….
None of this is particularly good for the world, but it has been good for Cass Seltzer. That’s what he’s thinking at this moment, gazing down at the frozen Charles and regarding the improbable swerve his life has lately taken. He’s thinking his life has gotten better because the world has gone bonkers.

Back in the 90’s, I fell in love with Sophie’s World, a Norwegian novel about the history of philosophy written primarily for teenagers. It featured long speeches about philosophers from Thales to Sartre sprinkled within a mystery featuring a fifteen-year-old. 36 Arguments… is that book’s grown-up cousin. I adored it.

It’s not a book for everyone. Both critics and readers are divided on whether it’s a pretentious mess lacking plot or characters, or a tour de force stirring in everything from religion and philosophy to math and science in a slickly snarky romance and/or academic roman à clef. It probably depends on what you like to read. Just because I loved it doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the very good reasons it might not appeal to some. There are long, sometimes arcane (deliberately so; these are academics, reveling in arcanity) splitting of hairs, the timeline is hard to follow, many of the characters are cardboard cutouts. Even the main character is pretty bland. The climax is an academic debate that didn’t seem all that brilliant to me. But in spite of all that, I loved it.

The overall present of the story covers one week in the life of Cass Seltzer, psychology professor and recent “intellectual celebrity” for his book Varieties of Religious Illusion which includes an appendix titled “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” and counterarguments to each one.

Cass is still trying to assimilate the fact that his book has become an international sensation, translated into twenty-seven languages, including Latvian. He understands that it’s not just a matter of what he’s written – as much as he’d like to believe it is – but also a matter of the rare intersection of the preoccupation of his lifetime with the turmoil of the age. When Cass, in all the safety of his obscurity, set about writing a book that would explain how irrelevant the belief in God can be to religious experience – so irrelevant that the emotional structure of religious experiences can be transplanted to completely godless contexts with little of the impact lost – and when he had also, almost as an afterthought, included as an appendix thirty-six arguments for the existence of God, with rebuttals, his claim being that the most thorough demolition of these arguments would make little difference to the felt qualities of religious experience, he had no idea of the massive response his efforts would provoke.
He never would have dubbed himself an atheist in the first place, not because he believes – he certainly doesn’t – but because he believes that belief is beside the point. It’s the appendix that’s pushed him into the role of atheism’s spokesperson, a literary afterthought that has remade his life.

The book is structured in thirty-six chapters, each purporting to be an argument for the existence of religious experience without God. The usual philosophical arguments are included in an appendix (you can see why some reviewers thought this book was too clever for its own good). It’s a handy reference, since much of the discussion uses points from those arguments.

While the present-story is only a week, most of the book deals with the past, following Cass’ academic training from the time he switched from pre-med to follow iconic-but-kinda-crazy Professor Jonas Elijah Klapper (because every academia novel must have a Mad Professor) into grad school in psychology. We also go through Cass’ romantic history, which is pretty tragic. Anyone who doesn’t realize his current girlfriend, the exceptionally ambitious and self-focused Lucinda, is bad news, isn’t paying attention.

Lucinda’s away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that’s presently crystallizing into ice. She’s in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on “Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games”….
Technically, Lucinda’s a psychologist, like Cass, only not like Cass at all. Her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life. Cass, on the other hand, is about as far away on the continuum as you can get and still be in the same field. He’s so far away that he is knee-deep in the swampy humanities. Until recently, Cass had felt almost apologetic explaining that his interest is in the whole wide range of religious experience — a bloated category on anyone’s account, but especially on Cass’s, who sees religious frames of mind lurking everywhere, masking themselves in the most secular of settings, in politics and scholarship and art and even in personal relationships.

Still, she’s a step up from his former wife, a poet who rejected probability theory in all its guises because something either happens or it doesn’t. An anthropologist girlfriend, now a friend, is sandwiched in there. She seems like more of a keeper, but that didn’t work out for vague reasons and now she’s looking for financing for her longevity project, so maybe she’s a little crazy too.

Those are all amusing and entertaining, if often shallow and/or annoying, characters, but the real plot of the book is a subplot that doesn’t even start until about halfway through when Cass meets a six-year-old boy who’s pretty much inventing number theory while nobody watches. Over the course of the backstory, the boy grows to be sixteen, at which point he is faced with a decision between the necessary but impossible, and the impossible but necessary. The resolution to this closes the book, and it crushed me; yet I see how essential it was, both to the character, and to the book, and the more I thought about it, the less crushed I felt: it’s a perfect counterpoint to the final act of the Mad Professor, and shows that even Messiahood may not require a God.

Because this is a novel of academia, reviewers in the know have some opinions about the real-life inspirations for the characters. Klapper, the Mad Professor, is nearly universally assumed to be Harold Bloom. There’s a fascinating interview on Youtube: Steven Pinker asks Goldstein, “Who is Cass Selzer?” She goes through a brief character sketch, and he asks, “Who is Cass Seltzer really?” she answers: “It’s a misconception that characters in a novel are based on real people,” and claims many people, including herself, contributed bits and pieces of him. This strikes me as fascinating because, first, some reviewers have speculated that Pinker is the basis for the character as he did a highly publicized debate on the existence of God some years before. And second, because Pinker happens to be Goldstein’s husband.

In that same interview, Goldstein does a lovely summary of the book:

It’s one of the points of Cass’ book – and it’s one of the points of my book – that religion is about much more than belief in God. It’s about loyalties to community, it’s about spiritual experiences, it’s about existential dilemmas.

Along the way we’re introduced to a great deal of philosophy and religion, particularly Hasidic Judaism and Kabbalah, some game theory, number theory, and brief visits to neuroscience and music. And probably some other things I’ve forgotten about because it’s just too much to keep in my head after one reading.

I was tempted to make an appendix for this post titled “36 moocs to help with reading this book” because, honestly, when I read “Thomas Nagel” I mentally jumped up and yelled. “What’s it like to be a bat!” and when we got to the “What” region of the brain, I went nuts trying to find which neuroscience mooc showed me exactly where that is (I haven’t found it yet, the down side of taking so many different neuroscience moocs, but it’s in there somewhere/addendum: found it, the ventral visual pathway is the “what” and the dorsal visual pathway is the “where”, Harvard’s MCB80 part 3. That’s 2 hours of my life I spent finding that, but I had to do it) and I wanted to thank all the math teachers who’ve taught me about the infinitude of primes and successive differences. I’ve often said I love a book that teaches me something; I did learn some things here (and I have a couple of new entries on my reading list, including everything Goldstein has ever written) but in this case, it was more about confirming that I’d actually learned something in those 120+ moocs.

And that is why I loved this book. That, and Azarya. And come on, how can you not love a book that includes the line, “There’s no way I’m writing a dissertation on the hermeneutics of potato kugel.”