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: 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.
Recorded on January 20, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen