Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Philosopher and Writer

A Plausible Argument for God?

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The philosopher explains the “moral argument” for the existence of God and why it still holds some appeal for contemporary philosophers.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a novelist and philosopher. Her novels include "The Mind-Body Problem," "The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind," "Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics," and her latest, "36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction" (Pantheon Books).

In 1996 Goldstein became a MacArthur Fellow. In 2005 she was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2006 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship. In 2008, she was designated a Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Emerson College, where she gave the commencement address. 

Goldstein has taught at Barnard College, in the Columbia MFA writing program, and in the department of philosophy at Rutgers; has been a visiting scholar at Brandeis University; and has taught for five years as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. In 2006-2007 she was a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and a Guggenheim Fellow. Currently she is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University.


Question: What is an argument for God’s existence that still carries weight in modern philosophy?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. I think actually one of the still most alive arguments is what I call in the appendix the moral argument, the belief that morality needs God’s will to ground it. Moral truths are somewhat mysterious. You know I keep talking about you know the pushback from the world as empirical evidence, but moral truths are… seem to be of a different nature from that, so that it’s not… it’s not when one’s saying look, slavery is wrong. We’re not saying we’ve decided that slavery is wrong or that, you know, that in my particular society we’ve outlawed slavery or we’re taking even a strong, you know, genocide is wrong. I think all of us believe this very strongly. I think everybody I’m talking to at least on Big Think believes this very, very strongly. How do we justify this belief? If you can do… Philosophers love thought experiments. You know if in fact, you know, Adolf Hitler had triumphed and had gone forth with his plan of exterminating all the undesirables. You know finished with the Jews and the Gypsies and the gays and gone onto the slogs and you know he had a whole agenda, a whole plan of who was going to be wiped out. Let’s say it had taken place and our world was that way. It was a world in which one believed this was a very good thing that all these undesirables had been wiped out, yet one could say that would be an immoral world. That is a moral monstrosity to consider. So these… There is something a little mysterious about these statements. They don’t seem to have an empirical grounding. They seem to be super empirical, transcendent and well if they’re transcendent don’t they need a transcendent force, a transcendent will that **** them? And so that I think has you know a certain cogency to it, the mysteriousness of moral truth, if you believe in them. You could say okay, they don’t really exist. I mean it really is a matter or sociology and psychology, but if you really do believe no, even had Hitler triumphed it is still true that genocide is wrong and that that would be a morally heinous world where does that come from? How do I know this if not because it comes from God? So I hope that I’ve now put even strong atheist into a state of, oh well, yes, tell us please, how do we get out of this, and you know, I do analyze that argument in the appendix. Do you want it quickly, yes?

I mean there are two parts to it, really. One is, and this is to me an extremely strong argument. There is one part is to say religion doesn’t help at all. There is a mystery here, but theology, theism, religion doesn’t answer it at all. And then the second part, which is the harder part, is to say, well then, how do we answer it and I don’t know if I can… I mean that’s moral philosophy. I can give you a very quick rundown of how I think you ground it, but more importantly I think is the destructive argument that religion doesn’t help at all and the argument really is so ancient. The core of the argument is so ancient. It goes all the way back to Plato, my first love and his dialogue the Euthyphro and where he considers you know could it be the case that what makes something good is that the gods or you know in our case God loves it and God wants us to do it because God loves it. So is to put it more in terms not of an ought not, but an ought. I mean ought we to give charity because God wants us to or is there some independent reason? Well let’s say it’s only you know because God wants you to. And then the next question is why does God want us to? Does God have a reason for wanting us to be charitable, to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves? Either God does or God doesn’t, it’s just logic. If God has a reason then there is a reason independent of God and whatever God’s reason is we should figure it out for ourselves. There is a reason and God doesn’t really ground morality at all. God wants us to give charity because it’s the right thing to do. There is a reason why it’s the right thing to do and that’s what makes it the right thing to do. God is just going along for the ride. God is not offering anything here or God has no reason at all. He might have flipped it. He might have, you know, said thou shalt commit genocide and thou shalt never give charity. It’s completely arbitrary and there no grounds independent of God’s will. I mean he might have said thou shall wear your pants backwards on Friday afternoon. Is that…? Does that help us at all answer our moral quandaries? What is it about moral truth that makes them true? This arbitrary whim of a god that you can’t even say is moral because there is no morality independent him, so God is either redundant or you know or we don’t get morality, so it’s either one or the other. God doesn’t help. I think that’s a knockdown argument. I think that it’s… it really shows that whatever moral knowledge we have and whatever moral progress we make in our knowledge or whatever knowledge we make in our… whatever progress we make in our moral knowledge is not coming really from religion. It’s coming from the very hard work really of moral philosophy, of trying to ground our moral reasonings and thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and Kant and in our own day, my own dissertation advisor, Tom Nagel, was at Princeton when I worked with him, is now at NYU and his wonderful book, The Possibility of Altruism have helped us to see that we… certain attitudes that we already have, attitudes about our own lives moral… logically compel us to broaden our sense of the interest we take in others as long as we experience any such emotions as moral outrage when people step on our own interest. As soon as we do that we’re on the road. If we look at our attitudes consistently and work out the logical implications we’re on the road to moral progress, moral understanding, so those are the two halves of that argument.

Recorded on January 20, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen