“36 Arguments for the Existence of God – a work of fiction”
“36 Arguments for the Existence of God – a work of fiction” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Pantheon Books, New York, 399 pages including the Appendix, ©2010 by Rebecca Goldstein
Yes, I have to say, my previous reading of a “novel that is very philosophical” (http://www.elainezimbel.com/?p=359) left me more than a little disappointed. Returning it to the library two days past due, I wandered over to “New Books” and found one I instantly recognized to be better qualified for that description. I had read some of Rebecca Goldstein’s previous novels and found them intelligent AND readable. She in fact has a PhD in philosophy – AND, more important to me than that, she has won awards for her writing. So I picked it up, checked it out, and brought it home with me.
The title is perfect. Not awesome, not scary, not argumentative really, because it is, as it so declares itself, “a work of fiction”. It takes place on familiar ground, whether or not you have ever been to Harvard University in Cambridge, Ma. or “Frankfurter University” twelve miles up river from there, you will recognize academia, its people and the games they play. You may not like some of them, but that’s true of everything you read, isn’t it? Even people you meet in real life.
But chances are, you will not dislike them all. I have read, or started to, other books that dealt with this crowd, one in this very same famous corner, and I found the author’s portraits so stark and unforgiving, so snarky/nasty, I had no patience for her – Zadie Smith, I mean, or her flawed cast of characters, not one of them. I could not waste my time with them. Goldstein’s story and the people in it are - some of them, somehow warmer; and those who are not, the ones who are ruthlessly ambitious, egotistical, and conniving, they are somehow funny, laughable. You don’t mind when they come on stage – they have a role to play.
The main character is Cass Seltzer, an unassuming guy who “For close to two decades..has all but owned the psychology of religion, but only because nobody else wanted it…The sexy psychological research was all in neural-network modeling and cognitive neuroscience. The mind is a neural computer and the folks with the algorithms ruled.” His girl friend, Lucinda Mandelbaum, is also a psychologist but “her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life.” She is into game theory and is the creator of the Mandelbaum Equilibrium. To put it plainly (as Goldstein can do so expertly even with her high powered vocabulary) “Cass 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.” And you gotta love him for being there. Anyway, I do. The “swampy humanities”, yeah, me too!
Cass has just published a book which has met with unexpected attention. Dealing with what Cass has cleverly called “the varieties of religious illusion”,Time magazine has praised it and has hailed its author as the only one of the “new atheists” who seems to have any idea of what it feels like to be a believer, and they have dubbed him “the atheist with a soul”.
Cass himself is not sure he deserves that description or, on the other hand, whether he actually likes it. It depends. He is a man who has floated throughout his life from one attachment to another, never seeming to notice when that attachment has lost its hold, never really ready to give up on it, until something else, another person perhaps, another idea, has come along to capture his loyalty.
Thrust now into “celebrity”, known more politely as “success” in academic circles, Cass is awed, stunned, elated to be taken seriously. As the story begins, Harvard has just made him an offer, hoping to woo him away from Frankfurter. He is so excited about the prospect of sharing this wonderful news with Lucinda, he can’t sleep – because Lucinda, known in her world as “the Goddess of Game Theory”, is in California at a conference on “Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games”. Phone her? E-mail? No, he does not want to distract her with his news while she is so focused on delivering her own paper at the very end of the week.
During the entire week this “work of fiction” takes place we are with Cass in the present, sometimes joined by ghosts from the past, and sometimes actually in the past. If the transitions are made “seamlessly”, sometimes we might wish for a marker here and there, for we are not always sure where we are or when, and possibly not sure with whom. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating trip, a good ride and a very good read.
Cass and his younger brother grew up in Brooklyn. Both parents had been raised as very religious Jews, his father’s family was “fairly observant”, but his mother was raised in a Hasidic cult that lived in a self-contained village up river from New York City. Cass used to visit his grandmother there when he was little but both his parents had by then given up their own “religiosity”. Modern Jews – “non-kosher” and “non-sabbath observing”, they allowed their membership in the synagogue to lapse after the younger of the two boy’s Bar Mitzvah.
So there you have it, not the whole story but the field on which it is played. You will be enriched by knowing people in a Hasidic community, especially a wonderful little boy who knows more about math than I ever will; you will certainly feel smarter for having a simple explanation of what is a zero-sum game, if you don’t already know (I didn’t); you will be annoyed, amused, and/or touched by the arguments for the existence of God; you will be annoyed, amused, but not touched, I think, by Cass’s mentor, the professor about whom I have said nothing. Like me, you quite probably will find yourself thinking how smart you are, and sometimes how ignorant. I didn’t mind a bit, and perhaps you won’t either.
©Elaine A. Zimbel 2011
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