Big Think Interview With Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Philosopher and Writer
A conversation with the novelist and philosopher.
  • Transcript


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and I’m a writer and philosopher I suppose. 

Question: How did being raised in an Orthodox Jewish family affect your religious and philosophical beliefs?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and I wouldn’t say so much it’s informed my views, but it’s informed my interest, so I think as a child I was often very baffled by knowledge claims. Everybody seemed to know all sorts of things about the world and I wondered how they could know this and I suppose sometimes I would ask them and I never felt particularly satisfied with the questions and so sometime very early on I found myself to this book by… Oh God, it was called The Story of Philosophy by Durant and you know I remember I was… All we were allowed to do in the Sabbath was to read and you know I would go and we were quite impoverished, so we didn’t own books, but every Friday I would and get my reading material before the Sabbath so I could… before sundown so I could have my reading material and you know somehow I found my way to this book and I remember experiencing something like ecstasy when I read the section on Plato and it was you know this first introduction to rigorous thinking through argumentation and it felt… You know it just felt like water after you’re dying of thirst and so I think in that way my religious upbringing played into my passion for rigorous thinking.

Question: Is there a character in “36 Arguments For the Existence of God” whose struggles with faith particularly reflect your own?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. Well there is one I identify with very strongly and there is one that I love and they’re two different people. The one I identify very strongly with is the main character. It’s not… The book is written in the third person. It’s not always from the main character’s point of view. I sometimes leave it, but it’s mostly from his point of view and his name is Cass Seltzer and he is a psychologist of religion and because of what is happened recently in America he finds himself an intellectual celebrity. He has been fascinated with the psychology of religion for decades, but suddenly here it is. Things have shifted and there is a confluence between his own obsessions and the obsessions of our particular moment in time and he becomes a celebrity after he publishes a book called The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a kind of nod to William James whom he much admires as do I and Freud, you know the future of an illusion. So Cass Seltzer is… becomes this famous atheist, but he is rather different from the atheists, the professional atheists that I know and admire, friends of mine all. He understands religion from the inside and he himself is much given, as am I, I should perhaps, or not, confess, to a kind of spiritual experience, which is this kind of… I don’t know, a wonder, an ontological wonder, just the sheer wonder at this world that draws you out of yourself in a very dramatic way and often ends with your feeling very grateful to existence for simply existing. It’s a kind of religious experience. Now he as do I resists taking the next step. You know it’s like it’s just wonder at existence, gratitude for existence as it exists. It’s a very Spinoza shtick emotion. The spirit of Spinoza hovers over this book strongly. So that’s Cass Seltzer and yes, he is a man. He becomes… Time Magazine dubs him the atheist with a soul, and you know he finds that slightly absurd, as do I, but he is soulful and you know what I mean by soulful is capable of ontological wonder. So he is the character I most identify with.

Question: Why did you choose fiction as a mode of inquiry into arguments for God’s existence?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein:  Yes. I asked myself that, and you know it’s, I did write straight philosophical pieces, but in the last book I had written which was on Spinoza, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave us Modernity I had you know it’s was a straight more or less intellectual biography with a lot of philosophy in it.  That book introduced me to communities I hadn’t know about before, organized non religion.  It was shocking that non religion can be as organized as religion.  Well not quite as organized, but lots and lots of you know associations of pro science, pro reasons, some more or less anti religious and I had the sense that the more… And I got invited to these groups to talk and the more I spoke to people with whom I basically agreed the more dissatisfied I became when they discussed people with whom I don’t agree.  I know very well what it’s like to be religious.  I know very well what it’s like to experience the world that way and I know that it has to do with more than argumentation and it has in fact more to do than with the belief in God.  It’s got to do with community and loyalty and existential dilemmas and fear of death and just so many different emotions and that whether just people often just experience the world very differently than others and for me fiction, which I love, is made for that kind of thing, to show how these big issues are really embedded in lives, how they often are connected with a completely different experiences, that they go very deep down, so deep down that often people who don’t agree are just, they’re just not hearing each other.  They’re not grasping each other.  They don’t know what it feels like to inhabit the world in that other person’s way.  Fiction is made for that and that’s what drove me once again against my self-interest to write another novel.

Question: Why is the “faith vs. science” debate raging now, and why did you decide to jump into it?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. I mean it’s interesting, as a philosopher it surprised me how suddenly, you know, it all seemed very quiet. When I used to teach you know philosophy of religion or arguments for the existence of God, you know deconstructing them you know 20, 25 years ago it was you know really it was not… didn’t provoke a lot of discussion in the classroom and now it’s really escaped from the classroom. It’s in the public square and it’s interesting why now. Clearly 9/11 had a lot to do with it. The more dangerous aspects of you know absolute belief; undoubting belief is very, very… We’re all in terror of this right now, so this certainly had something to do with it. I think also the alliance, the political alliance that took place in the last administration between you know free market advocates and family values, evangelical Christians as a political, as a large and powerful political movement had something also to do with the pushback from the other side. Important decisions that affect us all like stem cell research or gay marriage being decided by people from a particular religious background with a particular religious agenda it was distressing to other people and so there was a pushback. I also think there is something about the progress in the brain sciences, in evolutionary psychology in particular so that religious belief is now something that scientists are looking at and trying to explain and it’s not a I don’t think an accident that the most prominent atheist writers come from that domain, Richard Dawkins from evolutionary biology. Sam Harris, Dan Dennett also much interested in evolution and evolutionary psychology, so I think that that also, a way to try to now explain religious belief as a way of toning it down. 

Question: Can religious yearnings and a scientific mindset be reconciled?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: You know I think that this kind of transcendent instinct or the ontological urge, you know, to understand what, where are we, and what are we, is common to religion and to science and you know this not only an ontological wonder, but an ontological, you know, ecstasy is common. I think almost every scientist at least originally has felt something like this, had some sort of experience like I experienced reading Plato on a quiet Sabbath afternoon and getting drawn out of myself into this just wow, this world is extraordinary. So in that sense there is something to be shared. I think to use fancy language, the ethics of the epistemology behind religion and science are very, very different, so what science has worked out laboriously and with many false steps and but constantly checking itself is a way of providing evidence of putting everything up to critical reasoning, of always letting the world tell us when we’re wrong and we’re… you know it’s amazing we know anything at all frankly and you know it’s extraordinary, but so that always you know being very, very aware of our tendencies towards fallacy and this methodology that’s been worked out, so that you don’t … you know you’re always open to refutation, reality. We’ve worked out ways to probe reality so that there is a pushback from reality when we get it wrong and no matter how ardent ones beliefs, if the evidence goes against it you will give it up. That is a very different ethics of epistemology than you find in religion. In religion, you know, it’s not usually open to falsification. There is arguments from personal experience for example. One of the very important things you get in science is my grounds have to… I have to make them reasonable to other people. If it’s just, I know it in my gut. This is the way I feel the world. God has spoken to me, or whatever, you know, something purely subjective that I can’t make reasonable to my colleagues, it’s just not open to discussion. This is all sort of you know or you know scripture, you know certain authoritative books, all of these means of grounding ones beliefs in… that you find in religion are just they’re not acceptable in science, so if you go to the sort of medi-question, the epistemology what counts as knowledge? When are we in a good position to claim I know? I think religion and science are really very different from one another.

Question: Should we privilege one mode of inquiry over the other, or are both vital?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: You know, I don’t think… I mean clearly you can see where my sympathies are, but as I see it you know these tendencies go so very deep down. I… You know ought we to be one way or another? Yes, perhaps. You know I’m a Spinozist. I believe in reason. I think all the progress that we’ve made making this a better world have been because of reason and not religion. I think religion has been pulled along by reason and that’s why we read The Bible now so differently, even believers, “Oh, no, no, no, we don’t really mean slavery is okay.” “We don’t really mean you should stone the homosexual or the adulteress.” Because you know even religion and even those who believe you know in the holy book, they’ve been pulled along. By whom? By thinkers outside of religion, so or enlightened religious thinkers, but you know it’s… Is that a good thing? I think it’s a wonderful thing. Should everybody be that way? Well, perhaps. You know as a philosopher I think so, as a novelist, not. I mean I like that there are so many different ways of looking at the world and I like all of the particular narratives. In any case we will never all see the same way on these issues. It’s the way liberals and conservatives will never see the same way on individuals whereas it’s different orientations and they go too deep down and when we’re dealing with questions that can’t be definitively answered by science that’s where you’re sort of… your orientation swells in to fill up the gaps and so we’re never always going to agree. It just would be a good thing if those of us on different sides could see the world as our… the other people are seeing it. Not all nonbelievers, in fact, none that I know are people who don’t believe in morality, who can’t distinguish between right and wrong, who are crazed hedonists. That’s you know, so it’s that’s such a… nor are they people who can’t experience the world in grand and spiritual ways. That’s a belittlement. Nor on the other side are all religious people, you know, dimwits. If we could just point out the fallacy in their logic the veil would fall away from them. That too is such a belittlement of religious sensibilities.

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.

Question: What relevance does Spinoza’s view of God and ethics still hold today? 

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: It is surprising how Spinoza has really popped up again. He has been resuscitated, and I keep getting more and more invitations to talk on Spinoza, to publish chapters and anthologies on Spinoza. When I was coming up through graduate school and was a young assistant professor, Spinoza was really out of fashion. You know, he is a metaphysician. He tries to deduce the nature of the world through pure reason. This is very out of fashion and, you know, for good reason actually. We need science. We need empirical evidence. We can’t just use mathematical reasoning to deduce the nature of the world. However, the man’s intuitions were astonishing in so many different fields, in cosmology, in neuroscience and certainly in philosophy. His intuitions, forget the crazy arguments he gives for everything, his intuitions are being vindicated time and time again. You know but of course Einstein is probably the most famous Spinozist. He loved the man. He wrote a terrible poem in German you know that begins, “How much do I love this holy man?” “Words cannot tell.” It’s so there is something about Spinoza that inspires in many and certainly in me a tremendous love. Actually Bertram Russell calls him in The History of Western Philosophy the most loveable of philosophers. What is it about him? I should… He was not loved in his own time. He was excommunicated by his own Jewish community. It consisted of Amsterdam. It consisted of refugees from the Iberian inquisition, the Spanish Portuguese inquisition that had made it a crime punishable by death to practice Judaism and so his people and his community had been those who were Marranos who had practiced Judaism in secret. He was banished by them and then it fell to greater Christian Europe to denounce him and you know in the most vituperative terms possible. I mean he was "emissary of Satan." Why was this guy who talks about God all the time, one poet said he was God-intoxicated, why, you know, was he so denounced? Is an atheist? You know, in some sense I think yes, he is. If you mean by God something outside of the universe, outside of nature who created the universe, who lays… whose purpose is threaded throughout human history, who has a purpose for us, who lays down the moral law, if you mean by God all of those things then Spinoza denied the existence of God. His proof for his sort of God is in fact a disproof of all of those gods whom reign in what he calls the superstitious religions including his own, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. So yeah, is he an atheist? Well you know he redefines God so that it means something like the final theory of everything, the final theory that we won’t be able to get to. There is a kind of incompleteness theorem in Spinoza that we won’t be able to get to, but know that explanations go all the way down. The world… If we understood what the world was we would see why these laws of nature have to prevail and why the world had to exist the way it does and why it had to exist and that’s his notion of God. It’s really and that’s why a few string theorists have told me after they read my book, “Oh yeah, I’m a Spinozist too.” You know I believe explanation goes all the… You know that story about how it’s turtles all the way down. Well it’s explanation all the way down even though we won’t get to it because the explanations are infinite and we’re finite and that’s Spinoza’s guide. 

I think what… the reason he was so denounced was that his magnum opus is called the ethics, so he tries not only to you know this vision of the world that removes the grounds for believing in a transcendent god, but this moral argument that I was just giving before saying you know that okay we may not need God to tell us where the world came from, but we need God to be able to live moral lives and for there to be morality in the first place. Spinoza tries to ground morality. He tries to drive it out of human nature itself and that is I think a very, very relevant. We have right now finally psychologists, in particular evolutionary psychologists catching up to that intuition and also trying to ground morality on the nature of human nature itself, so here is yet another place in which this seventeenth century thinker’s intuitions are only being vindicated now.

Question: What is love?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: What is love? When you love somebody then I mean we all want good things to happen to ourselves and keep the bad things at bay. You know when you love somebody you want that as much for them if not more than you do for yourself. I mean that is just the world has to go right for them or you won’t be able to bear it. I think that is you know we are all just naturally for good evolutionary reasons we feel that way about ourselves. We all want things… our lives to go well and to flourish and when you love somebody you feel that as keenly for them as for yourself and often more keenly and that’s what the feeling… I think the feeling of love is. My life, I won’t be able to survive, really. It will be very hard to recover if something does… if bad things happen to that person.

Question: What is it like when two prominent intellectuals attempt a marriage together?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: It’s very nice, actually, and we had known of each other through our works. When I read "How the Mind Works" I, like so many other people, just my way of thinking forever changed. The kinds of questions I could now ask forever changed. New sorts of questions opened up, new sorts of speculations and I just thought it was great and then Steve was arguing on the pages of The New York Review of Books with Steven J. Gould. It was a quite contentious argument, letters back and forth because Steven J. Gould hated evolutionary psychology. He really had… He had strong… You know somewhat political strong Marxist reasons to dislike the more deterministic aspects of evolutionary psychology, so there was this heated debate going on. In the midst of it Steven Pinker published a new book, "Words and Rules," and I ran out to my local bookstore and bought it and went immediately to the index to look up Gould. I wanted to see if this really interesting argument was going… he was going to get a few more swipes in and I didn’t find Gould. I found Goldstein. I found Rebecca Goldstein and I thought, okay, it’s a very common name. It’s another Rebecca Goldstein, clearly. I have nothing to do with this argument or indeed with the subject matter of the book, which was about irregular verbs. Steve Pinker has this great passion for irregular verbs. They’re his little friends. He is obsessed with them. And he quoted my use in one of my more obscure writings of an obscure past participle. I had said, “had stridden” rather than “had strided,” and he said you know some of our… He wrote this, “Some of our finest writes will always choose the more obscure form of a verb.” “You know, it’s more poetic, and they’re keeping it in play.” And you know, and I thought, oh my Lord, Steven Pinker knows who I am. He has read this obscure work and he thinks I’m one of our finest writers and I was just like, oh, you know, I was shocked. So it gave me the courage to ask him for a blurb for one of my books. It was "Properties of Light" and **** in quantum physics. He gave me a very nice blurb, and you know we just kept reading each other and it was Seed Magazine that arranged for a salon between a writer and a scientist. I think they went to him first and they said, “What novelist would you like to talk to?” And he said me and that’s how we actually met, so what I guess I’m saying is we fell in love with each other’s ideas and writings and way of looking at the world long before we met each other, and it has continued I would say, so it is you know it’s not just and intellectual love, but it’s… That’s a very strong part of it I would say and it is an extraordinary gift to me to now have this person to bounce ideas off of. It’s a… And we both I think strengthen each other in our own intuitions so that… and it’s made us I think yes. I think knowing that the other person agrees has in some sense given us more confidence in our intuitions.

Question: Does thinking about love too much ever get in the way of it?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. I don’t know. I think for me it’s always good to think that the experience of everything, romantic love and love for one’s children and just a love of science, love of whatever you know is somehow strengthened by thinking about it and understanding it, understanding what’s going on there. So I don’t find that it gets in the way. I mean you don’t always want to be thinking and you know I wouldn’t say that we’re guilty of that, but one of the things I have loved about Steve Pinker as a person is… and as a thinker is that the two are very wedded together. It’s not that thinking is his day job. Big ideas are his day job and it doesn’t feed into the rest of his life. His passion for clear thinking is… and his intellectual integrity and honesty and letting everything be up for argumentation you know this feeds into all of his life and it’s just I love that about people you know that we can do that and you know I love it about him. I mean he is one of the finest representatives in our day of this kind of intellectual… and also I ought to mention playfulness. He is such a playful thinker. It’s never somber and that is you know true of him and his books and it’s true with him in life, so it’s all knitted together.

Recorded on January 20, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen