41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
With a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton, Guggenheim and MacArthur (genius) awards, several novels, and non-fiction studies of Gödel and Spinoza under her belt, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is nobody's fool. But I can't decide whether her decision to populate her latest novel exclusively with people like herself is good or bad. Set in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, partly at Harvard but mainly at another elite university which might be a fictionalized Brandeis, the entire cast of characters seems to consist of academic philosophers, psychologists, mathematicians, or theologians, all determined to prove that they are smarter than anybody else. Readers who enjoyed the intellectual name-dropping of Muriel Barbery's THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG might well enjoy this, but it can be hard going. I soon began to wish for at least one character who did not know the Wittgenstein Paradox or Heideggerian Hermeneutics inside out. After about 80 pages, however, I found myself drawn into the strange world of the book, for three main reasons. I list them in increasing order of importance.
1. Goldstein can be very funny. There is splendid scene when the great professor Jonas Elijah Klapper (think Harold Bloom) makes a state visit to the Valdener Rebbe, head of a Hasidic sect headquartered in a building described as "A Costco that had found God." In the ensuing dialogue, the professor tries hard to impress with obscure references to early Jewish mystics, while the Rebbe merely wants to discuss how best to secure federal matching funds. Nevertheless Klapper treats this as deep rabbinical wisdom expressed in parables, silencing a doubter with the words: "You are the sort who, should she witness the Messiah walking on water, would be impressed that his socks had not shrunk."
2. The chief character, Cass Selzer, is the least pretentious of the lot and really very likeable. A psychologist, he has recently published VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS ILLUSION, vaulting him to the New York Times bestseller list and a Time Magazine feature as "The atheist with a soul." The 36 Arguments of the book's title form the appendix to Selzer's book, reprinted as a 50-page appendix to the novel. Each argument is laid out in clear syllogistic form only to be dismissed by equally clear analysis of its flaws. But for the most part, Cass leaves the logical legerdemain to the appendix. As a character in the story, he speaks normal conversational English, and is really quite sympathetic as he moves from hero-worship to rejection of the monstrous Klapper, and tries to find a life partner among a sequence of dauntingly brilliant women.
3. The book does indeed have a soul. The visit to the Valdener Rebbe (a distant relative of Cass) is more than a comic tour-de-force. Cass also meets the Rebbe's son, Azarya, clearly a mathematical genius and as lovable for his personality as amazing in his desire for knowledge. At the age of only six, he explains discoveries in number theory that he has made by himself, describing the various classes of primes as orders of angels as real to him as Cherubim and Seraphim. Uniquely, he unites religion and science, not as opposites, but in a single world view. There is a great set-piece (pages 214-222) which is an ecstatic description of a "shabbes tish" or ceremonial meal, which draws me further into the spirit of Hasidic life than anything I have read before, including Chaim Potok's THE CHOSEN. Towards the end of the book, Cass argues against the existence of God in a public debate at Harvard. But the last chapter is not left to the arguments of philosophers but to another celebration at the Valdener shul, a glowing scene that somehow makes the entire debate almost irrelevant.
110 of 125 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2010
Having taught a boy genius the fundamentals of musical composition, I found the descriptions of Azarya both accurate and inspiring. Goldstein's latest is one of the most enjoyable books I've read on the recent faith and reason discussions. It is also a splendid satire on academe, a fun novel with engaging characters (who are defined as much by the complexity of their ideas as by their personality traits), and a passionate defense of secular humanism, with excursions into such areas as Hasidic culture and the seductions of number theory (why 36? read the book!) The appendix alone is worth the price of the book: the clear deductive presentation of the 36 arguments allows theists, agnostics, and atheists many opportunities to clarify and organize their thought. (It should stimulate believers, especially, to seek "flaws in the flaws," assuming there are ones). These arguments are in splendid counterpoint to the more tumultuous "arguments" that constitute the main body of the novel.
Cass Seltzer's moving discussion of moral progress and the View from Nowhere almost persuades me. But in this pleasure-dome of the Golden Rule, I still hear "ancestral voices prophesying war." Beethoven wrote to someone: "I don't want to know anything about your system of ethics. Strength is the morality of the man who stands out from the rest, and it is mine." Could those terrifying words overwhelm Cass? Should he have debated Beethoven rather than the trendy neoconservative Findley?
Also, I am "almost persuaded" about the potential depth and vitality of a "third culture." As the humanities become increasingly absorbed into the necessary world of science, can they retain their traditional richness and vitality? This novel and other work of Goldstein encourage this hope.
145 of 170 people found the following review helpful
First the good news: The appendix, which includes the actual arguments for the existence of a god, is everything that the rest of the book is not: pithy, direct, accessible, amusing. I would love for that section of the book to stand alone. Alone and far away from the laborious, pretentious mess that comprises the body of the work.
As an atheist--a New Atheist, even--I went in to this work of fiction with the highest of hopes. After battering my head against pages of vapid, indulgent narrative, practically unbroken by anything like dialog, plot, or characterization, I gave up. How, you ask, can I judge a book that I did not finish? That is my judgment--it is unreadable (again, except for the excellent appendix).
I feel like a traitor writing this, but if you to want to read a book set in similar environs, centering on a similar topic, try John Updike's "Roger's Version." With its vivid characters, lush descriptions and lively dialog, it is a far more interesting and entertaining read (even though I profoundly disagree with Updike's theistic leanings).
And if you want to read great atheist writers, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan are among our finest contemporary novelists, and both are outspoken atheists. But their fiction does not often address atheist themes directly (nor should it--propaganda makes shoddy art).
What I await is a work of popular fiction with atheist themes that sparks and moves. So far the closest thing I know of to a contemporary example is Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy "His Dark Materials." Surely now that the best-seller lists have been conquered by atheist nonfiction writers, atheistic fiction page-turners cannot be far behind?
I give Ms. Newberger Goldstein a great deal of credit for the work she put into this novel, for the courage it took to write it, and for her obvious intelligence and ability. But what ultimately results, for an average reader like me, are sentences so pregnant with apparent meaning that each must be tediously midwived. Without attractive characters to invite me in, a compelling plot to push me ahead, or intriguing dialog to pull me along, I just can't be bothered.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on February 26, 2010
36 Arguments for the Existence of God is a high-powered, versatile, off road vehicle of a book, and author Rebecca Goldstein uses this literary SUV to take the reader on a mental safari down philosophical/theological pathways that bypass the traditional highways of human thought.
Propelled to both fame and fortune by the publication of his book The Varieties of Religious Illusion, the life story of protagonist Cass Seltzer powers this scintillating, if erratic, exploration of the human experience of transcendence.
The book makes some intellectual demands on its reader. If 36 Arguments was a college course instead of a book (and in many ways it more than equals a college course), the catalogue would read: "Student must either be, or aspire to be, a polymath. Student must either own an Oxford Dictionary, or have a vocabulary extensive enough such that the student thinks the use of the word `erudite' is mundane. Student must have the intellectual flexibility to embrace concepts such as `an atheist with a soul'."
The major theme: Goldstein never doubts that humans are widely capable of falling/rising into a state of ecstatic transcendence. What she explores is whether such transcendence is any proof of contact with the divine, rather than a mental state, a mental state that anything from drugs/alcohol, to hypoglycemia, to hypoxia, to marked mental excitation, can induce. In an eerie and powerful presentation of her argument Goldstein writes a scene in which a 6 year old Hasidic prodigy named Azarya delivers a sermon to the assembled Hasidim of his community. Azarya refers to numbers as "maloychim" (angels), and goes on to prove that the number of "prime angels" (prime numbers) is infinite. Azarya proclaims this proof to the Hasidim, who writhe in religious ecstasy as they revel in a sense of infinite numbers of "angels" coming down from heaven. Cass Seltzer, the non-believer guest who is also present during this event, reacts this way "The room is reeling for Cass with Azarya's angels, beating their furious wings of diaphanous flames" and in parallel with the religious ecstasy of the Hasidim, Cass finds "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". The Hasidim are convinced that the source of their ecstasy is the experience of the divine, while non-believer Cass would be more likely to describe his experience as being rooted in "the fraught silence of billions of agitated neurons soundlessly firing", firing in those parts of the brain that also light up when we hear beautiful music, watch a thundering waterfall, or hold a newborn child for the first time.
The vocabulary in 36 Arguments is rich, including words such as metonymous, cantillated, quadronymous, epicerastic, decanal, and pareidolia. Goldstein's use of word the pareidolia is not accidental, it is near the center of one of her themes: humans form patterns where they do not exist, be they in the clouds above us, the vagaries of the stock market, or the events of daily life. Goldstein, and I suspect her husband Stephen Pinker as well, would make a strong argument that we are hard-wired to do pattern recognition, an evolutionary trait strongly associated with the ability to adapt to the environment that we live in. It's an excellent trait, when it keeps us from going out into a blizzard or going down a dark alley. It might not be so useful when overuse of pattern recognition leads us to see the face of Jesus in water-stained wallpaper or the cheese patty on our burger, or digitus Dei in a tornado or tsunami.
Will this book change the minds of any believers? Maybe a few. But consider the line "They had tried to capture under the net of analytic reason those fleeting shadows cast by unseen winged things darting through the thick foliage of religious sensibility." My guess is that no hunter, no matter how powerful her/his intellectual weaponry, will bring down all those "winged things". What is a bit different here is Goldstein's use of Azyra to whisper to the heart, rather than simply use a cannonade of logic.
Goldstein herself is probably the "atheist with a soul" often referred to in the book. Though Goldstein appears to be firmly committed to the neuronal basis of the phenomenon of consciousness, she loses none of her appreciation for the beauty of music, words, or poetry, captured strikingly in a passage in which the protagonist sees his sleeping lover: "He saw the fragility within the fanger, the willed boldness and gumption of this brave and wonderful girl. He saw the dappledness of her. Glory be to God for dappled things, he silently quoted his second favorite poet."
Weaknesses? Jonas Klapper, a major character in young Cass's life, has a descent into intellectual incomprehensibility that is done in far more detail than needed, inducing the feeling that one has when wading through Umberto Ecco's book Foucoult's Pendulum. Characters are occasionally straw men/women, such as the man that Cass goes up against in a formal debate about the existence of God. The climactic debate itself is a bit stodgy, lacking the crackle and fire of much of the rest of the book.
What is the conclusion to this artful, patchy, engaging tale that throws off incandescent, if occasionally spluttering, showers of brilliant sparks? Goldstein invites the reader to acknowledge that the human brain is not evolved, not fit in its primate design, to understand everything, and we must accept "the brutality of the incomprehensibility that assaults us from all sides." What then, ought one do? Goldstein: "And so we try, as best we can, to do justice to the tremendousness of our improbable existence. And so we live, as best we can, for ourselves, or who will live for us? And we live, as best we can for others, otherwise, what are we?" Rabbi Hillel does receive proper attribution for this passage.
The book does indeed include an Appendix in which 36 arguments for the existence of God are presented, and then disputed. Great stuff to peruse, be you a believer or not, and a fitting place to park Goldstein's cerebral SUV at the end of its cross-country romp.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2010
In 1966, Berkley's Michael Scriven gave the world Primary Philosophy, with one chapter devoted to presenting, in a clear schematic form, about twenty traditional proofs for the existence of God and their refutations.
Now, in 2010, the fictional psychologist of religion Cass Seltzer has catalogued 36+ proofs and their refutations--the larger list attributable to the overtime efforts of creationists to flog their intelligently designed dead horse. Professor Seltzer's book catches the wave of the "neo-atheist" best-sellers and catapults him from the suburbs of Frankfurter (read Brandeis) University to the Valhalla of Harvard.
Rebecca Goldstein (on whom I've had a slight crush since reading the perfect Betraying Spinoza, even though there's no way I could win her away from rock star cognitivist Steve Pinker) has crafted a novel that explores a few days in Cass Seltzer's life, in which he exults over his academic good fortune and nearly forgets to prepare for the climactic debate with a glitzy theist. (Naturally, this being a contemporary novel, the contemporary narrative digresses into three or four long past narratives, converging on the present.) This "debate"--something like the big sport event at the end of so many movies, with a touch of the "Grand Inquisitor" thrown in--goes to Seltzer. He proves not only that there is no God but, more important, that atheists are just as capable, even more capable, of ethical sensibility and just action as theists.
The debate is not quite the very end, however. Ultimately, the novel resolves its longest subplot involving the intellectually gifted son of a Hassidic Rebbe who is lured away from the reservation to study at MIT. In this it is an odd echo of one of the best novels of recent years, Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union.
36 Arguments is a well-made novel by an engaging philosopher/novelist. She has done what many writers try unsuccessfully to do: embody philosophical stances into characters, without reducing the text to dull speechifying. Zoe Heller also does this well in her recent novel, The Believers. Although Goldstein's prose occasionally lapses into Dan Brown territory ("furrowed brow," "book-lined office"), the dialogue is always crisp and funny.
And the satire is hilarious. I expect that nearly every person, institution, and place with a fictitious name can be mapped onto a real entity. I love Persnippity New Jersey and the ridicule of Commentary and the neocons. (Too bad The Forward assigned a neocon to review this book.) Everyone can recognize the oversized burlesque of Harold Bloom (The Perversity of Persuasion, indeed!) I wish I were enough in the know to recognize the whole Waltham-Cambridge-New York ensemble. (Is Cass Seltzer Steve Pinker, writer of popular best sellers on arcane subjects?)
And then there's the Appendix, Cass's schematic for the 36 arguments. Although the charm of this book is to show that the non-existence of God (what Scriven called the presumption of atheism) is largely irrelevant to living a good life, the Appendix is nevertheless a superior bit of philosophical pedagogy, and should be required reading for every professor and undergraduate, in every department. And the Internet being what it is, the Appendix will inevitably become universally available. Some day it may even be denounced in religiously-oriented schools, by people who entirely misread her book, much as Spinoza was denounced in the Orthodox school Ms. Goldstein attended as a child. Wouldn't that be delicious!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2010
"36 Arguments for the Existence of God---A Work of Fiction" is a brilliant and entertaining novel. I stress that, above all, "36 Arguments" is a story and not a disguised tutorial on the existence vel non of God. It is populated by interesting characters who are involved in existential plots that are easily recognizable and ring true of quotidian experience. Seldom have I experienced such a stable of truly brilliant minds, the type of intellectuals that the author, a scholar and accomplished academic in her own right, and as the wife of Stephen Pinker, probably interact with on a daily basis. That these minds are truly smarter than a very few others, as opposed, say, to the titans of business who are polished apparatchiks and manipulators, do not guarantee them insulation from the foibles, missteps and emotions of us lesser beings, is amply demonstrated, in various degrees, by all of Goldstein's fascinating characters, the chief among them being Professor Klapper, who, in spite of his scholarship and acknowledged original thinking, is a purveyor of intellectual poppycock and obscurantism so prevalent in much of today's academic writing.
What is surprising in this so readable a novel, dealing, as it does, with as weighty a subject as God, is how funny it is. Goldstein could write lines for Woody Allen and no reader of "36 Arguments" will fail of laugh out loud at several places, and silently chuckle or smile at many more. My favorite hysterical chapter was Professor Klapper's dissertation on the religious and spiritual properties of potato kugel (pudding).
In order to enjoy this book, it is not necessary for the reader to think too much about atheism, agnosticism or belief, but if one wants to do so, there is plenty of material to assist the thinking process. Chief among them is the public debate about the existence of God, that two of the characters engage in at Harvard, which is both illuminating and dramatic. The appendix, which contains the 36 arguments for the existence of God and possible flaws in each argument, is nothing short of brilliant. As to where Goldstein comes down on this, one can only guess that, if anything, she sides with Spinoza (argument #35), and I note that she has written a well-received non-fiction book entitled "Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity," which I am now going to read.
Like many worthwhile books, "36 Arguments" can be read on many levels. Although it has prompted my thinking and desire to read further about the arguments both for and against the existence of God, this book was an entertaining ride through some very difficult minefields of thought.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2010
This is definitely the best book I've read this year. Laugh out loud funny, yet also quite moving. I'm not a "deep thinker" and have never been able to get through anything remotely "philosophical" (thank goodness I read this book on the Kindle, since I needed to look up a word on every other page), but this book is worth sticking with. I first downloaded a sample (on my Kindle) and I must admit after the first few pages I thought, "I'm not smart enough to read this book". But by the time I finished the sample, I was hooked and had to immediately download the entire book (price was no object--I had to have it)--and then I could not put it down. Don't let the whole "atheist" thing scare you. That's not what the book is about. It's about universal topics, such as love, family, freindship, hypocricy (especially in academia) and duty. A wonderful read that I plan to enjoy again and again--there's just too much going on in this book to read it only once.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2013
Rebecca Goldstein has given us a fascinating, multi-layered novel that is smart, funny, thought-provoking and a joy to read. A philosopher who knows how to write, she is able to use fictional characters to delve deeply into the issue of faith vs. reason. But it is part of her skill as a thinker and writer that the issue moves beyond the endless debate between believers and non-believers toward providing the reader with an appreciation for both. In accomplishing this, she approaches achieving the status of her protagonist, Cass Seltzer, whose book Varieties of Religious Illusion gets him named by Time Magazine as "an atheist with a soul."
And this book demonstrates, in its vivid characters, the varieties of religious illusion--those held by scientists and skeptics as well as by believers in God. There are a great many highlights to this novel--both intellectual and emotional. On an intellectual level, two events stand out for me. One is the formal debate about the existence of God between Seltzer (for the negative) and a Nobel-prize-winning economist (for the affirmative). In this high-level debate, Goldstein presents both sides well. The other is the appendix to the book, in which Goldstein offers "36 arguments for the existence of God" along with their logical refutation. On an emotional level, I was moved by her evocative description of the feelings of belonging as well as the palpable joy expressed by the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community. Her description succeeds in underscoring the notion that religion might provide something that is, well, soul satisfying--even if God does not exist.
Along the way, Goldstein gives us an array of interesting characters: A college president who tries to build the prestige of his institution by shopping for famous professors as if he were buying baubles at Tiffany's; a pompous humanities professor devoid of self-doubt who is worshipped by his 12 disciples (whoops, I mean graduate students), who hang on his every word; a narcissistic hyper-ambitious cognitive scientist for whom life is a zero-sum game--where she sees anyone's gain (including her lover's) as her loss. Although these are caricatures, anyone who has spent a few years hanging out at universities will have no difficulty attaching names to the models or recognizing the types of academics they represent.
Brilliant and witty, this book will appeal to believers and nonbelievers alike--and, who knows, might actually educate each side about how the other side sees the world.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2010
I think Rebecca Goldstein's is a triumphant achievement! Brava.
From Earlier and Later:
I was very surprised and pleased yesterday to see my former Philosophy of Psychology professor, who is also a very fine novelist(her first was The Mind-Body Problem (Contemporary American Fiction)), on the cover of the NY Times Sunday Book Review, as a reviewer! That led me to her January, 2010 release, 36 Arguments.
Although I don't share her agreement with the New New Atheist school of thought, nevertheless, this is a fantastic academic novel and I do think the world needed another one. But I will say that I think Atheists deserve more of a voice in politics and government because well, first of all it's free speech, but also that so many think clearly and logically on Cartesian(real-world) matters that not to hear from them on the world stage would be a great loss.
Rebecca writes like Aaron Sorkin, but for Psychologists/Philosophers in Academia. She had a genius grant, a MacArthur Fellowship and works today as Research Associate in Psychology at Harvard. Goldstein forces me to keep up in a more or less familiar world. Is it narcissistic, as some charge? Well, OK, maybe; but nobody's perfect.
A funny detail: Goldstein has all the chapters arranged according to type of argument, which mirrors the type of logic book that has collected Aristotle's Fallacies of Logic(I thought there were 27, although some people say he started with just 13).
Her 36 Arguments are more complete and nuanced than other New Atheists': Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, the erudite Christopher Hitchens(RIP) or Bill Maher(and who doesn't love Bill Maher? I kid with love, Bill). But Dawkins goes
on so much about atheism that I often forget he is a scientist.
Update(1-28-13): I just saw a pro-Atheist article in Psychology Today that was completely free of attacks on the world's religions. I think that is a promising new direction. Update(3-22-13): I'm getting off my high-horse with the teasing. I won't say why. But I want to lighten up, partly because they did in Pyschology Today.
Rebecca leaves the question of God's existence unanswered, as too murky. Spoiler Alert: You still get this whole logic book in the Appendix!
Rebecca's daughter Yael Goldstein also wrote an awesome novel, Overture(no link here), about mother-daughter composers who sleep with the same man. Rip-roaring story on being divided between composing and playing, problems of dating a genius, and mother-daughter issues.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2010
Puns, puzzles and philosophy -- a roman with many clefs (a major character's original name is Klepfish). Goldstein's novel combines a sober and reverential search for life's meaning with Jewish and Yiddish lore (it helps to know the difference), unbridled sex and the inevitable pathos and humor of Academia and its restless and covertly ambitious inhabitants. Its major character, Cass Seltzer, based on you-know-who, is an "atheist with a soul", i.e. someone who understands that the First Cause has thus far determined not to reveal him/her/itself, but who deeply feels for the human need to imagine one.
Goldstein's genius is her hilarious command of words, names, Yiddish puns and a Joyce-like ability to use them as a backdrop to a serious and moving text. Together with a stiletto sense of character, she keeps us laughing and thinking almost to the end. Her book has that quality of greatness that induces us to open it at random after we have finished it to rejoin her fevered search for meaning -- or just to laugh! So God isn't like a rainbow!