36 Arguments for the Existence of God is a high-powered, versatile, off road vehicle of a book, and author Rebecca Goldstein uses this literary SUV to take the reader on a mental safari down philosophical/theological pathways that bypass the traditional highways of human thought.
Propelled to both fame and fortune by the publication of his book The Varieties of Religious Illusion, the life story of protagonist Cass Seltzer powers this scintillating, if erratic, exploration of the human experience of transcendence.
The book makes some intellectual demands on its reader. If 36 Arguments was a college course instead of a book (and in many ways it more than equals a college course), the catalogue would read: "Student must either be, or aspire to be, a polymath. Student must either own an Oxford Dictionary, or have a vocabulary extensive enough such that the student thinks the use of the word `erudite' is mundane. Student must have the intellectual flexibility to embrace concepts such as `an atheist with a soul'."
The major theme: Goldstein never doubts that humans are widely capable of falling/rising into a state of ecstatic transcendence. What she explores is whether such transcendence is any proof of contact with the divine, rather than a mental state, a mental state that anything from drugs/alcohol, to hypoglycemia, to hypoxia, to marked mental excitation, can induce. In an eerie and powerful presentation of her argument Goldstein writes a scene in which a 6 year old Hasidic prodigy named Azarya delivers a sermon to the assembled Hasidim of his community. Azarya refers to numbers as "maloychim" (angels), and goes on to prove that the number of "prime angels" (prime numbers) is infinite. Azarya proclaims this proof to the Hasidim, who writhe in religious ecstasy as they revel in a sense of infinite numbers of "angels" coming down from heaven. Cass Seltzer, the non-believer guest who is also present during this event, reacts this way "The room is reeling for Cass with Azarya's angels, beating their furious wings of diaphanous flames" and in parallel with the religious ecstasy of the Hasidim, Cass finds "his face was as wet with tears as any in the room, his trance as deep and ecstatic as that of any Hasid leaping into dance". The Hasidim are convinced that the source of their ecstasy is the experience of the divine, while non-believer Cass would be more likely to describe his experience as being rooted in "the fraught silence of billions of agitated neurons soundlessly firing", firing in those parts of the brain that also light up when we hear beautiful music, watch a thundering waterfall, or hold a newborn child for the first time.
The vocabulary in 36 Arguments is rich, including words such as metonymous, cantillated, quadronymous, epicerastic, decanal, and pareidolia. Goldstein's use of word the pareidolia is not accidental, it is near the center of one of her themes: humans form patterns where they do not exist, be they in the clouds above us, the vagaries of the stock market, or the events of daily life. Goldstein, and I suspect her husband Stephen Pinker as well, would make a strong argument that we are hard-wired to do pattern recognition, an evolutionary trait strongly associated with the ability to adapt to the environment that we live in. It's an excellent trait, when it keeps us from going out into a blizzard or going down a dark alley. It might not be so useful when overuse of pattern recognition leads us to see the face of Jesus in water-stained wallpaper or the cheese patty on our burger, or digitus Dei in a tornado or tsunami.
Will this book change the minds of any believers? Maybe a few. But consider the line "They had tried to capture under the net of analytic reason those fleeting shadows cast by unseen winged things darting through the thick foliage of religious sensibility." My guess is that no hunter, no matter how powerful her/his intellectual weaponry, will bring down all those "winged things". What is a bit different here is Goldstein's use of Azyra to whisper to the heart, rather than simply use a cannonade of logic.
Goldstein herself is probably the "atheist with a soul" often referred to in the book. Though Goldstein appears to be firmly committed to the neuronal basis of the phenomenon of consciousness, she loses none of her appreciation for the beauty of music, words, or poetry, captured strikingly in a passage in which the protagonist sees his sleeping lover: "He saw the fragility within the fanger, the willed boldness and gumption of this brave and wonderful girl. He saw the dappledness of her. Glory be to God for dappled things, he silently quoted his second favorite poet."
Weaknesses? Jonas Klapper, a major character in young Cass's life, has a descent into intellectual incomprehensibility that is done in far more detail than needed, inducing the feeling that one has when wading through Umberto Ecco's book Foucoult's Pendulum. Characters are occasionally straw men/women, such as the man that Cass goes up against in a formal debate about the existence of God. The climactic debate itself is a bit stodgy, lacking the crackle and fire of much of the rest of the book.
What is the conclusion to this artful, patchy, engaging tale that throws off incandescent, if occasionally spluttering, showers of brilliant sparks? Goldstein invites the reader to acknowledge that the human brain is not evolved, not fit in its primate design, to understand everything, and we must accept "the brutality of the incomprehensibility that assaults us from all sides." What then, ought one do? Goldstein: "And so we try, as best we can, to do justice to the tremendousness of our improbable existence. And so we live, as best we can, for ourselves, or who will live for us? And we live, as best we can for others, otherwise, what are we?" Rabbi Hillel does receive proper attribution for this passage.
The book does indeed include an Appendix in which 36 arguments for the existence of God are presented, and then disputed. Great stuff to peruse, be you a believer or not, and a fitting place to park Goldstein's cerebral SUV at the end of its cross-country romp.