The Importance of What It’s Like

Austin Dacey

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (New York: Random House, 2010, ISBN 978-0-307-3-37890-x) 400 pp. Cloth $27.95.

There’s an old joke about two behaviorist psychologists in bed. After sex, one turns to the other and asks, “Was it as good for me as it was for you?” What makes the joke work, of course, is the commonsense understanding that—contra behaviorism—there are some things about people that cannot be discovered just by studying them from the “outside.” No matter how carefully and comprehensively one observes the physical activity involved in lovemaking—even down to a description of neurotransmitter levels and electrical brain activity in such exquisite detail that it would have made Alfred Kinsey weep—one would still miss the essence of the act; namely, what it is like.

Hence, we have what philosophers call the “hard problem” of consciousness, the problem of explaining how it could possibly be that any number of physico-chemical events could add up to ecstasy—or any other qualitative experience. After all, being a dopamine molecule is not like anything at all, let alone like hearing sweet nothings. This radical difference between the physical event and the mental, intentional, or qualitative event has led many people—not the least among them Plato and Rene Descartes—to conclude that the physical event and the mental event could not be the same event.

There is another line of thought, going back to the pre-Socratics in some form, which has been called “the dual aspect theory.” A dual aspect model of the mind is physicalist, since every mental event will turn out to be the same event as some physical event. It is not reductionist because each mental event will have two very different kinds of irreducible essential properties, the physical and the intentional. A description of the world solely in physical terms would be incomplete. It would miss the subjective.

There is nothing outlandish about the idea that the same entity might have different properties from the subjective point of view than it does from an objective point of view. Suppose one psychologist is enjoying a cigarette in bed as his partner abstains but looks on fondly. His partner has an experience of him smoking but does not have his experience of smoking. Nevertheless, it would be a philosophical error of the first order to conclude that the object of experiences is distinct. The correct description is that they each have a distinct experience of the same event—the psychologist’s smoking—but from different points of view.

This seemingly simple distinction between the subjective and objective points of view is implicated in many a philosophical conundrum and is therefore necessary to their resolution. That, anyway, is a theme in contemporary philosophy that has been advanced most influentially and powerfully by Thomas Nagel.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein knows what the hard problem is like. The philosopher and novelist wrote her doctoral dissertation on the relationship between the mental and the physical and began her career as a fiction writer (in 1983) with The Mind-Body Problem. Her marvelous new novel, the witty, wise, captivating, and sumptuous 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, is about many things—atheism, religion, mathematics, academia, the life of the mind, and the blessings and duties of genius. Throughout, it is about the subjective and the objective; about what it is like and what it is, and what it is like to live and believe somewhere in between.

The story unfolds over one momentous week in the life of Cass Seltzer, a professor of the psychology of religion who is having a hard time recognizing the life as his. Cass’s book, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, has become a surprise international best seller. Thanks to his careful attention to what the practice of religion is like from the inside, he has been dubbed “the atheist with a soul” by Time magazine. Despite his thesis that actual belief in God is not central to religious experience, Cass added an appendix—almost as an afterthought—which sets up and demolishes the thirty-six arguments for God, some from classical theology and some identified on his own. The appendix alone had been enough to start a bidding war among New York City trade publishers, resulting in an author’s advance that floored this modest academic from Frankfurter University in Weedham, Massachusetts. Suddenly rich and famous, Cass has also been graced by a romance with Lucinda Mandelbaum, the fiercely brilliant, ambitious, and gorgeous “Goddess of Game Theory” who discovered The Mandelbaum Equilibrium. On top of it all, he has just received a job offer from Harvard University. It is enough to make Cass feel like he is wearing someone else’s coat.

While Lucinda is out of town to deliver a paper at a conference, a blast from the past arrives at Cass’s door in the form of an ex-girlfriend named Roslyn Margolis, a vivacious, free-spirited anthropologist whom Cass loved deeply while they were both graduate students. Although Roz turned down his hand at the time, explaining that she needed “a life of maximal options,” she now makes clear that were it not for Cass’s current entanglement, she would be more than willing to pick up where they left off.

Using a clever device of thirty-six chapters named for arguments such as The Argument from the Improbable Self and The Argument from the Arrow of Time (Goldstein the philosopher has also included the seriously atheological appendix itself at the end of her novel—this alone is worth the cover price), the book flips back in Cass’s history to his student days. There we meet Cass’s former dissertation adviser, Jonas Elijah Klapper, Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature, and Values. (As part of a package to entice him away from his post at Columbia University, Frankfurter had to offer this “taxonomic penthouse constructed for his sole habitation”—just one of many wonderful phrases that Goldstein introduces by way of these characters.) Fleshed out as “a Jewish walrus in a shabby tweed jacket,” Klapper is the kind of canon-touting, Harold Bloom-like literary intellectual who in the course of his ponderous, extemporaneous discourses drops obscure Greek (peripeteia, epicerastics, and, his personal calling, psychopoiesis, or soul-making) alongside neologisms like preposterition (a preposterous proposition). When not reciting sprawling passages of Nietzsche or Matthew Arnold from memory, Klapper’s preferred mode of inquiry is the bibliographic equivalent of the sport of bouldering, in which one sees how fast and how far up one can go by grasping from one monument of the humanities to the next, defying one’s audience to follow lest they expose themselves as cognitive acrophobes (another Goldstein coinage). Here, Klapper links Moses Maimonides to Marcel Proust:

“We must believe that he will come but never believe that he is come. There is no Messiah but an uncome Messiah. Is it not extraordinary?”

Cass nodded.

“At the heart of the cold Aristotelian rabbi’s exegesis, the blood-red blossom of antinomian chiasmus. And can you not help but compare it with the observation of the poet who might have been giving voice to his Jewish ancestry when he proclaimed that the only paradise is paradise lost?”

Cass was pretty sure that Professor Klapper was talking about Proust here; but was Marcel Proust Jewish?

“But my concern here is not with Proust per se, and it is only the striking parallelism that
has brought me to Proust, raised a Roman Catholic, though born of a Jewess.” [p. 187]

And so on, until: “who would deny that Proust’s pronouncement is a temporal transposition of the Maimonidean position that the only Messiah is an uncome Messiah?” Certainly not Cass.

Although Klapper is the initial reason Cass comes to study at Frankfurter, it is no thanks to him that Cass has an intellectual awakening one night alone in the university library where he has gone in search of Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere. His seminar mate Gideon Rosen sent him this book recommendation scrawled inside a spitball flung at the end of a Klapper seminar. (Cass later discovers that the note was actually an invitation to meet up for post-seminar drinks at the local dive bar, which the graduate students have renamed The View from Nowhere.)

Cass comes to appreciate the basic idea of the book, which is that

we humans have the unique capacity to detach ourselves from our own particular point of view, achieving degrees of objectivity, all the way up to and including the view of how things are in themselves, from no particular point of view at all. This is what Nagel calls the View from Nowhere, and he analyzes all sorts of philosophical problems by showing how they arise out of the clash of the subjective point of view with the View from Nowhere. [p.76]

Much later, Cass Seltzer, the celebrity psychologist of religion, will draw on Nagel’s idea to vindicate secular morality in a debate on the existence of God at Harvard University against the Nobel laureate Felix Findley, an overflow-crowded event that serves as the climax of the book’s present-tense narrative:

When you view the fact that you happen to be the particular person that you are from the vantage point of the View from Nowhere that fact shrivels into insignificance. Of course, we don’t live our life from the perspective of the View from Nowhere. We live inside our lives, where it’s impossible not to feel one’s self to matter. But, still, that View from Nowhere is always available to us, reminding us that there’s nothing inherently special or uniquely deserving about any of us, that it’s just an accident that one happens to be who one happens to be. And the consequence of these reflections is this: if we can’t live coherently without believing ourselves to matter, then we can’t live coherently without extending that same mattering to everyone else. [p. 322]

36 Arguments is bursting with Goldstein’s talent for making a big idea—philosophical, scientific, mathematical—fit on a page of engaging fiction. At one level, the book is a delightful romp through what it would be like to be a major player in the milieux of the “new atheists” and “third culture” intellectuals who orbit and TED talks. Of course, Rebecca Goldstein has been there in her own professional life and as one half of a famous couple with the real-life Harvard celebrity psychologist—of religion, language, morality, you name it—Steven Pinker. Hues of Pinker can be seen in Seltzer, combined perhaps with elements of other new atheists, and no doubt the author herself. Readers of Free Inquiry magazine, who know these circles better than most, might enjoy trying to tease apart real figures from fictional counterparts (e.g., Lenny Shore, the overeager Agnostic Chaplain of Harvard; Sy Auerbach, the fedora-sporting literary agent to the pop-science stars and founder of No matter how sharp, the darts of Goldstein’s satire somehow come dipped in affection for their targets, affording the reader the lasting pleasure of a smile wholly uncynical.

What might be somewhat more unsettling for Free Inquiry fans is the possibility that there is at least one indispensable species of knowledge that cannot be imparted by any number of objective statements of philosophy or of science: the knowledge of what it is like to be some other person. For that, as Ian McEwan has observed, we have the novel. “I have come to believe, over the years,” Goldstein has written elsewhere, “that literary fiction is remarkably suited to grappling—as philosophy and science grapple—with the difficulties of reconciling objective truth with the inner points of view.”* In this case, Goldstein, like Seltzer, has set her sights on the interiors of religious experience, and in particular Orthodox Judaism, a view informed both by her own upbringing in an all-girl Orthodox high school and her explorations of Judaism and Jewish identities in previous writings.

Upon learning of Cass’s family background in an obscure Hasidic sect called the Valdeners, which still flourishes in an insular village in the Hudson River valley called New Walden, Professor Klapper takes a liking to Cass and starts calling him Reb Chaim (finding “Seltzer” too “effervescent”). Klapper, himself the devoted son of a Jewish mother who brought him up in New York’s Lower East Side, has been struck with a fascination for Qabalistic mysticism and Hasidism, and he insists on being escorted to New Walden by Cass to meet the Rebbe. (More than just a rabbi, and often considered more than an ordinary human being, a Rebbe is the leader of a Hasidic movement.)

By the time Klapper has decreed that Cass will write his dissertation on the hermeneutics of potato kugel, the student has become disillusioned with the multiple-chinned master—but not before he makes a remarkable discovery in New Walden that will prove to have a soul-making and soul-shaking effect on him. The revelation is Azarya Steiner, a mathematical child prodigy and son of the Rebbe who is destined to take over his father’s position as the spiritual head of the community. With no formal training, at the age of six Azarya “sees” numbers everywhere and calls them maloychim, angels. To the astonishment of Cass and Roz, in the midst of a charismatic communal ritual, Azarya declares that he hears the prime angels singing. He proceeds to explain their song, telling how there is no last prime maloych, carrying the congregation through a proof that there is no largest prime number!

The melody continued. The Valdeners were deep into their ecstasy. They loved their Rebbe’s son, the Dauphin of New Walden, heir to the most royal of all lineages, necessary to the continuity that made their lives worth living, this small laughing boy who was bounding on his dancing father’s back, with the Valdeners kissing their prayer shawls and reaching them out to touch him as they do when the Torah scroll is paraded among them. The wonderful child was to them a proof more conclusive than Euclid’s of all that they believed. They couldn’t know who it was they were loving. But Cass knew, and his face was as wet with tears as any in the room, his trance as deep and ecstatic as that of any Hasid leaping into dance. [pp. 121-122]

Cass and Roz realize that with his gift, Azarya could make major contributions to mathematics if he were to leave New Walden and begin a secular education. But how could he extricate himself from his destiny, his inherited duty to continue the community?

At this point, some of my atheist brothers and sisters will note how in depicting the Valdeners’ world Goldstein’s language turns lyrical and may feel that her inside look at orthodox religion is too charitable, too forgiving. They will instead sympathize with a question that Cass puts to a teenage Azarya ten years later, who is then being courted away from the shtetl by MIT: “Why should the Valdeners continue with their superstitions and their insularity and their stubborn refusal to learn anything from outside?&rdq
uo; To Azarya’s anguished concerns about his responsibility to his community, Cass counters, “Don’t you have a responsibility to human understanding?” Azarya is grappling with himself, struggling to integrate two clashing points of view. Does he see his options from the View from Nowhere, sub specie aeternitatis, or does he see them from the perspective of a contingent, particular, idiosyncratic identity linked to “this people, my people, my Valdeners”? Which has more authority, the identities we choose or the identities that choose us?

It is a great dilemma and a great debate, brilliantly laid out by Goldstein. I won’t give away the haunting resolution of this expertly paced story line, which laces 36 Arguments with a gripping intellectual suspense. I will simply urge atheists and believers alike to experience this wonderful book. C.S. Lewis once wrote that you can’t study people, you can only get to know them. We can add that you can’t get to know them all, so you read novels. I couldn’t read enough of Goldstein’s people.


* Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, “Why I’ve Learned to Love the Novel,” New Scientist (August 25, 2007), p. 47,, accessed November 13, 2009.

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey is an associate editor for Free Inquiry and a representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of the book A Secular Conscience (Prometheus Books, 2007).

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (New York: Random House, 2010, ISBN 978-0-307-3-37890-x) 400 pp. Cloth $27.95. There’s an old joke about two behaviorist psychologists in bed. After sex, one turns to the other and asks, “Was it as good for me as it was for …

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