You are on page 1of 3

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein


NEW YORK: PANTHEON BOOKS, 2010, 416 PP., US$27.95, ISBN: 978-0-307-37818-7 REVIEWED BY ULF PERSSON

he Enlightenment meant, if anything, a rejection of religious authority and a championing of human reason. So thorough was its triumph that it put religion permanently on the defensive, and nowadays any literal belief in its tenets is likely to be met by scorn, especially by its enlightened defenders. Modern Western Society is indeed highly secular, which means that religion is not allowed to interfere in the affairs of society, having its role reduced to the private sphere. In particular a doctor who eschews modern clinical practice for religious ones is bound to nd himself facing criminal charges for quackery. Yet there is a need for vigilance. Religion has indeed easily accommodated itself to the advances of physics, even nding some kind of conrmation in modern theories of cosmology. In fact what better illustration of the opening lines of Genesis than a Big Bang! Evolutionary theory, especially in its Darwinian version, has struck much deeper chords in the imagination of the public, and thus presented a much more serious affront to human dignity. The controversies of the late Victorian era, pitting scientists against clergymen, and their eventual resolution, are too well-known to need to be recalled. Yet, the victory was not complete - what victory is? To seasoned European observers, the very vocal role played by fundamentalist Christians in American society is a disturbing one, especially as its rhetoric is often echoed by established politicians espousing similar agendas. One upshot of this religious revival is the pseudo-science of socalled Intelligent Design and the demand, based on spurious references to freedom of expression, that it be given equal time with Darwinism in schools. Thus it is after all hardly surprising that someone like Richard Dawkins, taking his position as Professor of the Public Understanding of Science seriously, not to say literally, wages a full-scale war at the spectacle of Intelligent Design. Not only that, he declares war on Religion in general, trying to eradicate it on all its turfs. Religion, he claims, is the root of all evil. Dawkinss ire is directed not only at the so-called fundamentalists, be they Christian or Islamic, but also against their apologists with their wishywashy ideas, who should know better and not act as enablers. Such a mission, undertaken with the fury of an Old Testament Prophet, may be cause for ironic comments. But it also elicits admiration for a consistent and uncompromising stand set to complete once and for all the project instigated by the Enlightenment, making reason nally triumph, and rid mankind of the last vestiges of sentimental superstition. This campaign has produced a series of books

by Dawkins himself (The God Delusion) as well as by Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and the philosopher Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell). In their wake, Rebecca Goldsteins new novel makes a timely appearance. The title of the novel and the enthusiastic endorsement by Hitchens on the back cover suggest that Goldstein has provided a ctional complement to the general attack led by Dawkins. The appendix contains a blow-by-blow refutation of all possible proofs of the existence of God! However, a closer reading of the novel reveals a more nuanced and complicated relationship to religion. In an interview with Robert Wright on bloggingheads.tv (available through her ofcial web-site, http://www.rebeccagoldstein.com) she explains that a large part of the motivation for writing the book was her sense that militant atheists, with whom she philosophically agreed, lacked an understanding of what made religious people tick and so tended to diminish them. This sensitivity is hardly surprising given her Orthodox Jewish background. Goldstein understands the deep sense of shared community that a religious faith can engender. That experience was not nullied by the usual shedding of belief during adolescence and a career as an academic philosopher. For thirty-odd years Goldstein has pursued a dual career as philosopher and novelist. She is not the woolly Continental kind of philosopher, nor of the strident French deconstructionist variety; she adheres to a hard-nosed, no-nonsense analytic version, where there is a real premium on hard thinking. As a novelist, Goldstein has explored the imaginative ramications of her pursuit. Her rst novel, The MindBody Problem, is obviously, as most rst novels tend to be, somewhat autobiographical. Like her ctional narrator (also raised in an orthodox Jewish family), Goldstein was bright and pretty, a combined blessing and curse. Encountering philosophy in her adolescence, a totally new, much wider world opened to her. She was propelled to academic stardom in her undergraduate years, but graduate studies at an elite institution led her to doubt her inherent ability and thus ultimately her reasons for being. This experience is, I believe, common among ambitious burgeoning mathematicians, who thus can easily identify themselves with the agonies of Goldsteins alter ego. Indeed, through her academic philosophical studies, Goldstein came into contact with mathematicians and theoretical physicists and was intrigued by these supposedly most cerebral of beings. The older husband in her rst novel is a brilliant mathematician; at that time Goldstein was married to a mathematical physicist. Her fascination with mathematicians makes her, or should make her, a particular interesting novelist for mathematicians, who are not used to being portrayed in ction. And in fact, as she points out in the interview mentioned previously, mathematicians, unlike philosophers, were thrilled to be portrayed. Goldsteins new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, weaves together a number of themes, mathematics being just one of them, pertaining to the phenomenon of religion. Central to her book is the story of a young math genius resembling the protagonist of Aldous Huxleys short novel Young Archimedes. Like the young boy in Huxleys story, her hero is born into a community that neither understands nor appreciates his gift. This naturally leads to a dilemma as the child grows into adulthood and has to make
2011 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, Volume 33, Number 2, 2011

75

DOI 10.1007/s00283-011-9209-4

momentous decisions. Should he follow his individual gift and pursue mathematics, or should he accept his other destiny as the rabbi and head of the community that has nurtured and revered him? To grasp this dilemma fully, the reader must understand the truly dominant role of a rabbi in such a community. The decision takes on urgency when his father suddenly dies of a heart attack. I will not disclose his, or rather the authors, way of resolving the dilemma. This story, a central subplot of her novel, is somewhat reminiscent of Philip Roth, although not quite as obsessive as he tends to be. She evokes with great conviction a Pennsylvania-Dutch-like community situated on the Hudson River. From a novelistic point of view it is one of the most successful features of her novel, drawing as she obviously does from her own experience. Her point is clearly that such a community has an intrinsic value. And what denes and holds a community together is a religious faith, which thus should not be looked at literally for what it says, or seems to say, but for what it actually makes people do. The story of the young genius is embedded in a wider academic context, and here her treatment makes one think of David Lodge, although she is not quite as hilarious as he at times manages to be. The main protagonist of the novel is a certain Cass Seltzer, a self-described failed professor at an obscure institution cowering below the august one around Harvard Square. Seltzer is a student of Jonas Elijah Klapper, the Extremely Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature and Value, and an academic egomaniac, with an overowing body to match. (Klapper, evidently modeled on the legendary Harold Bloom, Professor of English at Yale, is another of Goldsteins feats of imagination.) Seltzer is currently involved with Lucinda Mandelbaum, a very successful game-theorist who, like Nash, has an equilibrium named after herself, and whose aim is to reduce psychology to game theory. Mandelbaum is frustrated by irrationality, causing our protagonist to wonder plaintively how one can be a psychologist and not deal with irrationality. He has previously been married to a French poet with a mathematical connection, and also has an old girlfriend hovering around in the background. For being a loser he does not suffer a shortage of women. Seltzer approaches religion from a psychological angle. This has of course been done before, unsympathetically by Sigmund Freud (The Future of an Illusion) and far more sympathetically by William James (Varieties of Religious Experience). Seltzer acknowledges his debt by calling his book Varieties of Religious Illusion. In mathematical jargon, Seltzers book is a kind of bre product of the two preceding works. Freud, very much in vogue in the rst half of the previous century, proposed a theory of mind that promised not only to unlock human neuroses, but also to explain the human condition, in particular the phenomenon of religion as wish fulllment. James explored religious experiences as examples of inescapable psychological realities. As a philosopher, William James is known for his pragmatic, no-nonsense approach with a concomitant disdain of metaphysical cant, especially of the Hegelian variety. But James carried his pragmatism almost to the point of silliness, and his professed materialism did not quite mesh with his temperament. Moreover, like many skeptics, he often
76
THE MATHEMATICAL INTELLIGENCER

displayed a touching credulity, in particular in his long-term study of various mediums. Thus one suspects that James was not a wholly disinterested reporter on religion. In fact one of the arguments for the existence of God that Goldstein presents in order to demolish it is inspired by the pragmatism of Jamess The Will to Believe. No such criticism can be levied against the ctitious Seltzer. He attacks the position that without religion there is no morality nor any spirituality, and hence that a secular society is brutish and empty. On the contrary, only by jettisoning religious illusions can we develop a truly disinterested morality, he says. One suspects this position is close to the authors. Varieties of Religious Illusion propels Seltzer to stardom. Dubbed an atheist with a soul, he appears on the cover of (Time) magazine. He also gets a very attractive academic job offer. Far from delighting his partner, this sends her packing, whether out of irrational resentful envy or because life is a zero-sum game. At the climax of the novel, Selzer is pitted against a hot-shot economist, Felix Fidley, in a public debate. Hard-hitting Fidley is posturing (in a true sophistic spirit?) as a believer, but is forced to acknowledge defeat after Seltzer makes an impassioned plea for the intrinsic superiority of an atheists morality. The title of the novel refers both directly to the appendix printed at the back and to the 36 chapters of the novel itself. (If there is a deeper connection than cardinality between those chapters and the purported proofs presented of Gods existence, it evades me completely.) Each argument for the existence of God is commented on and rejected, a rather easy exercise for a philosopher in the analytic tradition. The only argument that really generates any sympathy in Goldstein is that proposed by Spinoza, the subject of her latest nonction book. Yet the emphasis on arguments is in the old scholastic tradition of trying to use reason to divine what really should only be accessible by blind faith. And here, somewhat surprisingly, mathematics may enter. Mathematics is usually considered the most rational of human pursuits. Not (says the philosopher C. S. Peirce) as the science of necessary thought, but proceeding by necessary thought. But even in mathematics we come up against the limits of thought and thereby touch faith. (As a child, Bertrand Russell was horried when told that axioms are not to be proved.) We may evade this theological aspect by treating mathematics as a game, in which we can freely choose our assumptions as long as they are not inconsistent. But consistency cannot be proved on rst principles, and without consistency the games themselves collapse. Are mathematicians in pursuit of God, in the guise of Ultimate Truth? Theirs would be an esoteric inhuman God, if any. Most mathematicians are not concerned with such questions, at least not professionally; but Goldsteins conception of mathematics is very much connected to foundations and logic and the gure of Kurt Godel, about whom she has also written a biography. The mathematical references in the novel go beyond the tenuous connections I have just sketched. In her initial description of the young Azaraya, Goldstein has him discover prime numbers and nd patterns of successive differences of the various integral powers. Later she has him rediscover Euclids proof of the innitude of primes

and, in a didactic aside, spells it out in detail for the uneducated reader. Allusions to Russells paradox are sprinkled throughout the text, hidden references that nally come to the fore when the poor kid at the age of 16 has to decide whether to follow the family tradition and the expectations of his community, or pursue his own mathematical calling. At that time the author sees to it that he gets a subscription to Annals of Mathematics, and meets with his future tutor, a more mature and established genius at MIT. A mathematician may wistfully wonder who among his colleagues would read the Annals from cover to cover, but our young genius is at the beginning of his potential career and is still blessed with truly omnivorous tastes. All in all, the mathematical references in the novel are more in the nature of garnish than in any way related to the plot or the question of Gods existence.

For all her appreciation of mathematics and mathematicians, I am disappointed that Goldstein has nothing more original to say about them than to perpetuate romantic and hackneyed notions of mathematicians as strangers in this world and endowed particularly with musical talents. On the other hand, the fault may not be hers. Maybe, seen from the outside, mathematicians are indeed rather otherworldly creatures. The external view tends to emphasize similarities, whereas the view from inside exaggerates differences.
Department of Mathematical Sciences Chalmers University of Technology SE-412 96 Goteborg Sweden e-mail: ulfp@chalmers.se

2011 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, Volume 33, Number 2, 2011

77