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Questions and Answers

Rebecca Goldstein discusses Spinoza, the ‘New Atheists,’ and the biggest question of all

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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (Stephen Pinker)

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new 36 Arguments for the Existence of God notes prominently on its cover that it is “a work of fiction.” But you can’t always judge a book by its cover. 36 Arguments is indeed a novel, if a pretty heady one: it tells the story of Professor Cass Seltzer, whose studies in the psychology of religion launch him to sudden prominence when books by the “New Atheists” are discovered to be publishing gold. Seltzer is a non-believer of a gentler and perhaps wiser sort, “the atheist with a soul,” and Goldstein tells the story of how he got that way.

But the book’s real highlight is its “appendix,” in which Goldstein has meticulously collected 36 common arguments for God’s existence, credited to everyone from Descartes to intelligent-design proponents; worked them into formal proofs; and just as formally rebutted them. In creating this catalog, Goldstein, who is both a product of Orthodox day schools and a professor trained in analytic philosophy, has made both a real contribution to intellectual history and written a strange, affecting tale of logic in the tradition of Borges.

Goldstein has written five previous novels, but her most recent book was a study of Baruch Spinoza—whose ideas about God, consciousness, and morality have influenced her profoundly— published by Nextbook Press. Tablet Magazine spoke with Goldstein about 36 Arguments and how the shadow of Spinoza hovers over it.

This is the first novel you’ve written since Betraying Spinoza. Did working on that book affect how you thought about this novel?

By publishing that book I encountered a lot of pro-science, secular humanist, freethinking groups—organized non-religion. I was on the circuit, on both circuits actually: the Jewish circuit and the freethinking circuit. And it became apparent to me that a lot of the people I was speaking with had no idea what it felt like to be religious and to belong to a religious community. I think maybe that’s more apparent to a person who’s Jewish. It’s not a dogma religion, it’s something else—something else we’re all struggling to figure out, of course.

Beyond that, I am a Spinozist; he’s always with me. Spinoza demonstrated that there is a way of having a strong spiritually transcendent experience that is not a conventional religious experience at all—whether or not he’s an atheist is a matter of great debate—and I wanted very much to demonstrate this. So, in 36 Arguments, my atheist-with-a-soul is very much a version of this, the way he keeps stepping out of himself and getting swept away by the exhilaration of existence.

It seemed like some of the arguments in the appendix were familiar from the Spinoza book, too. Were any of them taken from your day school experience?

When I was making that list, I kept trying to think of arguments I had heard over the years but that had never been made formally, the way the classic philosophical ones are, and I turned them into formal proofs. The argument for moral truth gets the biggest rise out of me, because it’s the one that makes people think atheists have no values. It perniciously causes people to think that other citizens are not good people. I certainly heard that argument very much growing up—not so much in yeshiva, because, you know, that’s one of the differences between Judaism and Christianity, it’s not so concerned with proofs for God’s existence, the way it is with the Jesuits, you just take Hashem’s existence for granted and move on from there—but there is that presumption that if you are a believing Jew, you don’t have to struggle to give a foundation to morality. God gave us the Torah and that’s how you have to behave, so you’re relieved of this question of the philosophical foundations of morality. What was there was more the sense that God’s will is synonymous with morality. And also the argument from purpose—that because there’s a God, there’s purpose to our lives.

Would you describe yourself as an atheist?

I would. Well, I have an inclination toward the idea that the world explains itself, that the world is thoroughly self-contained, that if we had a complete vision of the world we could understand why it had to exist. If you describe that as a religious point of view, as Spinoza does, then you could say I had a religious point of view. Do I actually believe that? I’d like to believe that. The idea of explanatory gaps in the universe is ugly to me. But, if you understand belief as the idea that there is a transcendent god who created the universe, then, yes, I reject that. I don’t see evidence of that, and I do see a lot of evidence that it isn’t the case.

How do you feel about the New Atheists? It seems that maybe you’re suggesting that the self-identified freethinkers are a pretty goyish bunch. Do you think Jews have a more nuanced view of religion?

I should say I’m friends with all of them—except Christopher Hitchens, whom I’ve never met. But Richard Dawkins is a friend and Sam Harris is a friend, and Dan Dennett. But in terms of their ideas, the emphasis on belief in God, that that’s the be all and end all of religion, is very Christian.

One of my nephews—he wears a black hat, and he is a professor, but to look at him you would think you knew everything about his metaphysics. He’s my go-to guy when I need any technical knowledge about Talmud. I asked him a very technical question about two years ago about something I was writing, and he said, “Why do you want to know this?” And I said, “You don’t want to know why I want to know this,” because obviously I wanted to use it for some satiric person. And he wrote back, “Aunt Rebecca, I thought you would know me better than this, I’m sure there’s no heretical thought you’ve had that I have not also entertained.” That strikes me as quintessentially Jewish. And it just causes utter amazement: if someone thinks like that, why would they dress like that and send their children to Jewish schools? It’s incomprehensible to them, and it’s not incomprehensible to me.

There’s a lot of conflict in the book between Seltzer and the mathematician women in his life over their different approaches to epistemology—Cass, as a psychologist, is always accused of being too “soft” in his ideas. Are these relationships drawn from your own experience being married to Steven Pinker? And if so, which of you is which?

I think not. But you’re right that both he and I are a strange mixture of soft and hard and it would be hard to say which of us is the hardnosed and which is the softy. I have much more tendency to have these kinds of transcendent spiritual experiences. This is something that I’m given to, probably a lot of artists are; it’s part of what motivates one toward art. I think Steve might roll his eyes a little bit when I talk about these things, but when he finished reading the first chapter he said he had a better understanding of what it’s like to have one of those experiences that aren’t so familiar to him. Also, both of us are very aware of the limits of science. Neither of us think it can answer all questions, at least at this moment—and never will be able to, regardless of how far science progresses.

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Shalom Freedman says:

There is an argument for the existence of God, which I call the ‘argument from need’. We need God to exist in order to have the hope that those who we most care about will not one day be only ‘vanity of vanities’. This is in some sense not a proof and it is possible to argue it is the opposite of a proof, since it shows the strong impulse of human beings to ‘make up’ the existence of such a God.
It seems to me however that the need is an expression of human will and hope. It is not a proof in the existence of God in a two plus two equals four sense. But rather something like a decision to believe in and trust in God, an act of will on our part.
The proof for God’s existence is in our wagering on the existence of God.
And the paradox is that out of this wager and out of this belief can come a relationship which gives ‘proof of God’s existence’ in other ways. i.e. as for instance in prayer when we somehow ‘know God is listening’when we are truly praying.
So what ‘belief’ means is not simple intellectual assent it means ‘life- decision’.

Seth Kupferberg says:

“… if someone thinks like that, why would they dress like that and send their children to Jewish schools? It’s incomprehensible to them, and it’s not incomprehensible to me.” I too find this readily emotionally comprehensible (and find it hard to imagine a Christian counterpart). I wonder, though, if there is a way to articulate a defense, in other words, to make it intellectually comprehensible. I’ve admired Rebecca Goldstein’s work since her first novel, and would be greatly interested in any comment from her on that question.

Earl Ganz says:

When I think about God He exists. When I don’t, He doesn’t. What is that? An ontological argument?

I loved your book on Spinoza. In fact it inspired me
to write a novel about a philosophy professor who teaches Spinoza at the University of Montana. The professor gets into an argument with an Israeli doctor over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, is challenged to a duel by the doctor, accepts the challenge, goes to a particular pass in Glacier park where the duel was supposed to take place, and is badly mauled by a grizzly.

What would Spinoza make of that? He had friends who kept him from the mauling mob by tying him to his bed.

elixelx says:

One more G-d besotted “atheist”, a la Malcolm Muggeridge!
let me tell you all something: If You have a lot of time for Him, He has plenty of time for you
One would have thought that you would spend LESS, NOT MORE, TIME thinking considering reading and writing about what you say cannot be!
As I said, Besotted! Like all addicts, you hate most what you most desire!

1. At a time, 50,000 years ago, when all humans were in Africa and some were about to embark on a journey to Asia and Australia, did the notion of Jews exist?

2. If Jews did not ontologically exist back then, did they ever exist?

3. If Judaism exists as a culture, as a way of life, as a set of practices and rituals, but only ontologically as make-believe, is the Jewish identity justified, especially when we consider the amount of wars fought over such identities and when the Jewish identity itself is not even monolithic, promoting conflict between so-called Jews with different sets of practices and rituals, ways of life, and cultures?

Let’s hope she asks questions like these.

NewEnglandBob says:

This book is next on my list. I wont comment on the book until I read it.

These comments here though are a huge pile of horseshit.

Aaberg says:

I fully agree NewEnglandBob.

“Well, I have an inclination toward the idea that the world explains itself, that the world is thoroughly self-contained, that if we had a complete vision of the world we could understand why it had to exist. If you describe that as a religious point of view, as Spinoza does, then you could say I had a religious point of view. Do I actually believe that? I’d like to believe that. The idea of explanatory gaps in the universe is ugly to me.”

This paragraph is funny

babrock says:

I have never found any aurgments from need or ontalogical aurguments persuasive.

At some point in my life as a young adualt I made a leap of faith that I would be happyer. Surprisingly this worked rather well actualy. It became a self fulfilling prophecy.

This is what it sounds to me that people are doing w these arguments, trying to manufacture a god thru act of faith alone. While this worked reasonably well w me being a bit happyer, I donot see that this works in creating any actual god tho, any more than faith in a refrigerator sized diamond buried in my back yard makes that a reality.

Unless one is willing to define god as mearly a state of mind, then isnot this more like an imaginary huge diamond?

This is a question for Rebecca. What is the difference between the Hasidic rabbi who says that “All is God” and Spinoza?

Shalom Freedman Says:
8:46 AM Jan 15, 2010

There is an argument for the existence of God, which I call the ‘argument from need’. We need God to exist in order to have the hope that those who we most care about will not one day be only ‘vanity of vanities’. This is in some sense not a proof and it is possible to argue it is the opposite of a proof, since it shows the strong impulse of human beings to ‘make up’ the existence of such a God.
It seems to me however that the need is an expression of human will and hope. It is not a proof in the existence of God in a two plus two equals four sense. But rather something like a decision to believe in and trust in God, an act of will on our part.
The proof for God’s existence is in our wagering on the existence of God.
And the paradox is that out of this wager and out of this belief can come a relationship which gives ‘proof of God’s existence’ in other ways. i.e. as for instance in prayer when we somehow ‘know God is listening’when we are truly praying.
So what ‘belief’ means is not simple intellectual assent it means ‘life- decision’.

Freedman you in-effect refuted your own argument you said : “There is an argument for the existence of God, which I call the ‘argument from need’”…”This is in some sense not a proof and it is possible to argue it is the opposite of a proof”.

Are you proposing an argument for God (Which in this case fails as it is a fallacy to assume need therefore equals existence) or not?

Shalom Freedman; I think you might be saying:

Humans are theogenic, God ethicogenic.

shelley says:

many years ago when i was interviewing a palestinian activist, i made a snide comment about the 70 odd virgins waiting for islamic martyrs in heaven, to which she replied “that’s no more incredible than u Jews believing God gave u the Land of Israel”…..as a secular Jew and Israeli that hit a home run …..eventually I reasoned that even if we take God out of the equation it is a historical fact that the hebrews were and are a tribe and I am a descendant

Shalom Freedman says:

If it were possible to ‘prove’ the existence of God, then where would be human freedom, decision and faith?
God does not give us proof of
God’s Existence so that we can choose for God, or not.
The disproving of the proofs for the existence of God is thus for Jews an irrelevant exercise.

carnivore says:

Where does the need for God come- before or after the needs for food, clothing, and shelter? The need for God came when people had no explanations for the sun rising in the morning or the cycle of seasons. People invented gods as the omnipotent providers of unfathomable miracles. When those miracles failed to provide food or safety, sacrifices were made to the gods to appease their wrath. Science showed that these gods had no validity. Does the God of Abraham need to be validated by science or philosophy? Will He validate my parking ticket? Does it really matter? Discussing these questions is a masturbatory exercise of excessive self-satisfaction. Yawn.

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There are some interesting points in time in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well

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Questions and Answers

Rebecca Goldstein discusses Spinoza, the ‘New Atheists,’ and the biggest question of all

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