Thursday, February 04, 2010

36 Arguments for the Existence of God


That's my response to Rebecca Goldstein's new novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

Her book captures the emotional and intellectual depth of the tension between religion and science in the modern world better than any other book I have ever read. Her book helps me to think through many of the topics that have come up on this blog--particularly, questions about whether Darwinian science can fully account for, and satisfy, the moral, intellectual, and religious longings of human beings.

Having received her doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University, she has
written a series of philosophical novels. She received the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" prize for her ability to "dramatize the concerns of philosophy without sacrificing the demands of imaginative storytelling." She is the partner of Steve Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist at Harvard, and her main character in this new novel--Cass Seltzer--is based partialy on Pinker.

Seltzer is a psychologist who studies the psychology of religion. He writes a book entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion that shows how the psychology of religious experience expresses emotional attitudes that have almost nothing to do with arguments. His book has an Appendix that summarizes the "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" along with refutations, showing that the arguments against the existence of God are stronger than those for the existence of God. His point is that such logical argumentation is largely irrelevant, because it does not weaken the emotional experiences of human life that sustain the longings for transcendence that find their satisfaction in religious attitudes. Surprisingly, Seltzer's book becomes an international best-seller after the 9/11 attack as people want to understand why religious passions remain so strong in a world dominated by scientific reasoning that has apparently refuted religious belief.

Seltzer's Appendix appears as the Appendix to Goldstein's novel. Thus, the personal psychological struggle over the existence of God is conveyed in the drama of the novel, while the impersonal logical argumentation over the existence of God is presented in the Appendix. The novel has 36 chapters with titles to indicate that each chapter portrays through story-telling an argument for God's existence. So, like a Platonic dialogue, Goldstein's book combines poetic drama and philosophic argument.

Like Plato, Goldstein shows that the erotic longing for transcendent meaning and purpose can only be satisfied by religious myth and mysticism, even as she also shows that reason refutes all the rational arguments for religious belief.

I will say more about this book in some future posts. But for now, I'll just say that Goldstein has given us a wonderfully rich and disturbing depiction of how in the modern world we still have not resolved the mutual irrefutability of reason and revelation. The formal arguments for religious belief can be refuted by logical reasoning. But reason cannot dispel the fundamental mysteries surrounding the meaning of our existence in the universe. Reason gives us no solution to the human predicament in facing what Goldstein calls "the brutality of incomprehensibility that assaults us from all sides."

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