36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Random House, 402 pages, $27.95
Rebecca Goldstein used to write novels about mad scientists—not the sort that Bela Lugosi used to portray in the old Universal Pictures films, but scientists who drove themselves mad in the hopeless attempt to divine the innermost secrets of nature. Theoretical physics spawns obsessions that rival the most extravagant forms of religious mysticism. Goldstein captured this in racy romans à clef that put thinly disguised avatars of celebrity scientists into sexually charged plots.
Her latest novel deals not with celebrity scientists but celebrity as such. The hero is a psychologist at a Boston-area university named Cass Seltzer, vaguely reminiscent of her new husband, Harvard professor Steven Pinker. Seltzer wins unexpected fame and fortune with a New Atheist tract that bears the same title as Goldstein’s novel. Cutouts for prominent academic personalities wander in and out. Seltzer’s mentor, for example, is the bloviating Jonas Elijah Klapper, possibly a conflation of Harold Bloom and Louis Menand. Klapper takes Seltzer to the Catskills to meet the rebbe of a small Hasidic sect whose young son turns out to be a mathematical genius. Seltzer brings the boy to Boston to study with a leading MIT mathematician, but the old rebbe dies suddenly, and the boy decides to sacrifice his mathematical vocation to assume his father’s pastoral role.
Seltzer’s sudden fame wins him a beautiful girlfriend, the “goddess of game theory,” but she leaves him in a fit of professional jealousy after he is offered an appointment at Harvard. He debates a “Nobel Prize–winning economist” on whether God exists, and wins. He gets back together with an old girlfriend. He looks out at a bridge at night and has spiritual thoughts about being rich and famous.
Religious faith is represented by a condescending portrait of an obscure Hasidic sect whose adherents literally ingest their rebbe’s charisma by grabbing food from his dinner plate and stuffing it in their mouths. Nostalgic accounts of expense-account meals at mediocre but pretentious restaurants gauge the modesty of the protagonists’ aspirations.
As a matter of literary construction, it is unclear what Goldstein has in mind. The story about the Hasidic prodigy, she has said, came from Aldous Huxley’s 1924 short story “The Young Archimedes,” an affecting tale of an Italian peasant boy who dies of meningitis after tourists discover his genius. Without the tragic ending, though, the subplot is just a bit of stuffing for an academic farce.
It is thin and disappointing stuff by contrast with her earlier work; in any event, it appears to be ballast for a New Atheist tract by way of an appendix offering capsule refutations of every argument for the existence of God that occurs to her. Goldstein has mentioned that she might expand the appendix into a stand-alone book. She would be well advised to save herself the trouble. What she presents is either very stale or very wrong.
Many of the thirty-six arguments that Goldstein attacks in her novel’s lengthy appendix are straw men, but there is one tar baby—the so-called Ontological Proof. It happens that the great Austrian logician Kurt Gödel offered a modern version of the Ontological Proof, which the philosophy profession continues to debate. Goldstein does not mention this. She published a popular biography of Gödel in 2005 that did not mention it either, except for a passing snicker that she and her fellow Princeton graduate students of the 1970s “found it hilarious” that Gödel “deluded himself into believing that God’s existence could be proved a priori.” That is not even wrong: It is only malicious. In fact, Gödel’s version of the Ontological Proof is integral to the great man’s work.
Why, indeed, would anyone try to prove that God exists? The religious don’t need to, and the atheists don’t want to. “Does the loving bride in the embrace of her beloved ask for proof that he is alive and well? Must the prayerful soul clinging in passionate love and ecstasy to her Beloved demonstrate that he exists?” asked Joseph Soloveitchik, quoting Søren Kierkegaard.
But even the most enraptured lovers pause between sighs to ask whether it is true love or infatuation, and whether the beloved will wax fat as her mother, and whether the lover’s domestic inclination and career prospects make him marriageable. Some things really must be decided by faith, Augustine said, such as, “Who is your father?” DNA testing has transferred that question to science, but we still must take as a matter of faith the answer to the most important question we are likely to ask: Do we really love the object of our affections, or do we love a projection of ourselves on an object of convenience?
Lovers never really will be sure whether they adore a particular human being or an idealized image, for all earthly love contains a bit of both. Every lover has a bit of Pygmalion as well as Paris. Anyone who has loved knows the dizzying alternation of “sky-high jubilation” and the “deathly gloom” of doubt, as Goethe’s Klärchen sang. That is why love does not suppress reason; on the contrary, with desperate appeal, it summons to its service all of reason’s instruments of torture, the better to test the beloved. Precisely because lovers do not trust their passion and resort to reason, lovers’ misunderstandings have been the stuff of comedy (and sometimes tragedy) since Menander.
Those who most love God turn to reason in similar fashion. Reason is a purifying fire. For those who have had a conversion experience, a sense of the divine presence, how can they be quite sure that what they felt was an intimation of God rather than a psychotic delusion? Not for nothing did the prophets inveigh against the ancient Hebrews’ whoring after foreign gods. As the Tanya states, sin is proof of idolatry, for if we actually believed the First Commandment—that the Lord is God—we never would sin. The risk in attempting to approach a God who is wholly other is that we may worship a projection of ourselves.
That is why people of faith emulate human lovers, subjecting their love to trial by reason—not because reason can replace faith but because reason demands to know, “faith in whom?” Interest has shrunk in Aristotle’s proofs of God’s existence and their successors, in part because Hume and Kant provided devastating rebuttals, and in part because the notion of an Unmoved Mover has so little to do with the biblical God who suffers along with his creatures. Of Aquinas’ Five Ways, only the so-called Watchmaker Argument has currency in the prephilosophical Intelligent Design subculture.
What would it avail us to prove the existence of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover? If God cannot be moved, the cry of the widow and fatherless must fade into an unhearing heaven. To the religious mind, the God of infinite love lies “beyond all the blessing and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world,” in the words of the Kaddish. How can this God be captured by logic? Is it a meaningful statement to say, “I believe in God,” if, by definition, God is past comprehension?
Karl Barth showed that St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument was more prayer than proof. We understand God by calling on him by his proper name, “that which is greater than anything that can be conceived.” “It does not say,” writes Barth, “that God is, nor what he is, but rather, in the form of a prohibition that man can understand, who he is.” In Barth’s presentation, the Ontological Argument is a dialogue between lovers. It does not “prove” the existence of God any more than human lovers “prove” their love.
Goldsteins characters look for love in all the wrong space–time coordinates. At her best, she poignantly relates the consequences of mistaking ambition or obsession for love. Her first sally into fiction, The Mind–Body Problem (1983), depicts a female graduate student in philosophy who marries a famous mathematician (presumably based on the Princeton logician Saul Kripke) in the hope of absorbing his genius by a sort of traducian transmission. But she finds herself cheated, as her husband’s creative powers have long since faded.
Obsessive love has a tragic outcome. The protagonist of Properties of Light (2000) is based, as Goldstein informs us, on the physicist David Bohm, a protégé of Albert Einstein. Einstein famously rejected quantum theory with the credo, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Einstein spent the last four decades of his life in a vain quest to restore order to physics. David Bohm believed that he had succeeded. He left America in 1951 to avoid a scandal over past communist associations and immersed himself in Eastern mysticism.
Not the sleep of reason, but the cult of reason produces monsters, and Goldstein’s fictional portrait in Properties of Light reveals a mystical erotomaniac under the patina of Spinozan rationality. Goldstein’s fictional Bohm, Samuel Mallach (Hebrew for angel), has been robbed of a Nobel Prize by an unscrupulous academic competitor and relegated to teaching undergraduate courses. A graduate student turns up with the mathematical skill to finish Mallach’s theory. Mallach sends his daughter into the young man’s bed, the better to charge him with the requisite erotic energy. The outcome is tragic, with a creepy supernatural edge. Some critics dismissed Properties of Light as a Gothic novel, but the juxtaposition of erotic horror with obsessive rationality brought metaphysics to the personal level.
Once having peeked under the veil of rationality, though, Goldstein appears to have disliked what she saw. Her characters no longer put their souls at risk in a mystical quest for nature’s secrets. They lunch with literary agents, score debating points, and hook up. They have no intellectual crises, lovers’ anguish, or existential fears; instead, they have clever ideas, warm and fuzzy moments, and spiritual frissons. Their lives and concerns are as trivial as the author’s round-robin refutation of arguments for the existence of God.
David P. Goldman is senior editor of First Things.