Tuesday, March 22, 2011

36 Arguments For The Existence Of God: A Work Of Fiction

After Cass Seltzer's book becomes a surprise best seller, he's dubbed "the atheist with a soul" and becomes a celebrity. He wins over the stunning Lucinda Mandelbaum, "the goddess of game theory," and loses himself in a spiritually expansive infatuation. A former girlfriend appears: an anthropologist who invites him to join in her quest for immortality through biochemistry. And he is haunted by reminders of the two people who ignited his passion to understand religion: his mentor and professor--a renowned literary scholar with a suspicious obsession with messianism--and an angelic six-year old mathematical genius who is heir to the leadership of a Hasidic sect. Each encounter reinforces Cass's theory that the religious impulse spills over into life at large. 

I first heard about Rebecca Goldstein (author) from my Philosophy in Literature professor who recommended us The Mind-Body Problem. On a trip to Powells I looked for said book but instead found 36 Arguments..., and could not resist the title alone. I feel like it is safe to say that, that was one of the best decisions I've made when purchasing something.

The story's protagonist, Cass, is a great narrator and is nicely surrounded by a cast of characters with their own quirks and humour. Whether it is his new girlfriend and famous scientist, Lucinda; his ex-wife, a french poet who grew up playing with the future mathematicians of the world on a jungle gym; Roz, the exuberant anthropologist and ex-girlfriend; Azarya the young math genius and future Rebbe of all New Walden; Dr. Jonas Elijah Klapper, the odd genius and mentor to Cass; or Gideon, the grad student who followed Klapper for far more years than it should to earn a doctorate. Goldstein crafts these characters and gives insights into their point of views clearly without removing the narration from Cass. I will admit that after finishing the novel I missed them all very much.

One of the greatest aspects of the book, which also proves to be it's weakness at times, is that Cass does not censor the long drawn out ramblings of his mentor, because of this we are privileged to a lot of random information about many esoteric topics from different sects of orthodox judaism, to the dangers of scientism. Though at the core it still is focusing on the social philosophical aspect about if God really does exist.

Each chapter is titled "The Argument from...", mentioning the topic at hand that the chapter will focus on. Showing that the issue of God is a more personal one and experiential one than those of us who stick to straight forward, sequential, organized arguments. Cass's book that launches him into fame is called "The Varieties of Religious Illusion", which in it carries an appendix with the 36 most common arguments for God and the reasons why each don't work (something Goldstein added as an appendix to her book). Though this has been the more popular part of the book, Cass wanted to focus on how people experience God and spirituality, further showing that the actual belief in God is not necessary to have these experiences, while at the same time not down talking to anyone who carries said experiences. Thus being dubbed, "the atheist with a soul."

Early in Goldstein's book, Cass comes across a beautiful sight of ice that has been carved naturally into three perfect arches by a river that looks like a mighty cathedral. It is from this experience that he has while walking in the middle of the night that he comes up with the 37th argument for the existence of God. Though he struggles forming and bringing it into a type of premise-conclusion form, he finally does it, only to forget it.

This is what Goldstein tries to bring about in her novel, the personal arguments for the existence of God, and why it is that way. That since religion is better explained as an experiential existence than a belief, we must look at the arguments from that perspective. Even though I think I can create a near full proof argument for why no one should waste time believing in God or following religious practices, I still respect my friends who do because I understand that they aren't believing in God because of an argument (unlike C.S. Lewis I might add). But because there is something real about God that they experience, and any argument presented to them would not necessarily be reason for them to quit, only reason for them to carry animosity towards me.

Goldstein uses the life of her character, Cass, to show the life of an atheist with a soul. To show the "faith struggles" he has, and ultimately to make a personal argument for the existence of something more than us here on earth. This is brought out through the constant inner thinking that Cass does. He finds himself throughout the novel feeling like his life has brought him to a foreign place that he can't quite understand. Grappling with the question, where does an atheist turn to for meaning, purpose, and comfort? Goldstein knows that one can't explore this question, as well as the conflict between faith and reason, by argumentation alone. This novel is her way of exploring the personal aspects of this conflict, division, and all questions that follow from it. She does so in a charming and respectful way that is both entertainingly fulfilling for both believers and nonbelievers alike.

Through all the doubts he has about his skepticism, Cass, goes back and forth in his memories to try and piece together his life while dealing with the decision to become a professor at Harvard. The story climaxes when he has a debate with a neo-con economist over the existence of God. This materialization of a debate between the two sides shows only what has been talked about the entire novel. Is God real?

To find out the conclusion that Goldstein has come to, you must read the novel yourself.

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